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The 4 parts of clear thinking

Thinking clearly is difficult. But these four things help you get better at it.

Cory Zanoni
Cory Zanoni
6 min read
A print of someone walking through a picturesque England garden on a clear day.
The gardens of England by Edward Adveno Brooke (1859), dithered.

Table of Contents

One thing from school made me roll my eyes like nothing else: a math teacher saying “show your work”. If the answer’s obvious, why bother?

Turns out, it’s good practice. No-one grades my math anymore but I am a creative working in a corporate. One of my managers spent a solid month reminding me to not just jump to solutions: articulate the strategy, explain the thinking. Show your work.

It wasn’t just busywork. If you go step by step, you find your blind spots. It leads to better work. It clears your thinking. And, as a bonus, it’s easier to get other people to go along with you.

The 4 things to work on

Like self-confidence, clear thinking is something you can build bit by bit.

Joseph Goldstein was one of the first American teachers of the Buddhist vipassana practice (which is dedicated seeing reality clearly). In his book Mindfulness: a practical guide to awakening, he defines the four qualities of mind you need to know yourself and others:

  1. Ardency (effort and enthusiasm)
  2. Self-awareness (and clearly knowing)
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Concentration

He draws these from the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, an “important discourse” about “the four ways of establishing mindfulness”.

Taken together, Goldstein argues, the ardency, self-awareness, mindfulness and concentration are the “the mental qualities necessary for walking the path” to liberation.

They’re also just plain useful ways of figuring out why you think and act the way you do. Let’s dig in.

Ardency: effort and enthusiasm

Ardency here refers to two things:

  1. Balanced, sustained effort.
  2. Warm, passionate enthusiasm.

This quality helps keep you going. The goal is to make this part of your day to day – not something that only pops up for the things you love.

Ardency, says Goldstein, “is what sustains and nourishes us” through all our ups and downs. It’s the “wellspring of a courageous heart.”

The American social critic and activist bell hooks applies this mindset to work in her book All about love:

Doing work we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. But we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do… Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.

The “warm, passionate enthusiasm” side of things has long been something I struggled with. I once jokingly said to my partner that “systematically denying myself pleasure” was a hobby of mine; I used to struggle to enjoy things.

It’s not that I was particularly dour or anything (although, in high school, someone said I reminded them of the famously bleak Bernard Black from the Black Books TV show). I just wasn’t the most enthusiastic person around.

Now, colleagues say I’m “bubbly” without irony. That’s an energy I put out for work, sure, but it’s also the result of antidepressants and a deliberate effort to do things like “meditate on gratitude” – you know, general “practice what I preach” stuff.

It’s all part of the second quality of mind we’re looking at.

Self-awareness and clearly knowing

The goal here is to build an honest understanding of what you’re doing and why. Not just when you’re looking back at something – but in the moment too.

The “honest” and “in the moment” parts are tricky. It’s easy to justify yourself after the fact and even easier to lambast yourself. Neither will help you. You’re looking for a kind-hearted honesty.

Here’s a low stakes example I’ve spoken a bit about before.

I have a contentious history with video games. I’d often default to playing them whenever I had free time. Afterwards, I’d castigate myself for “wasting my time” or “not being more productive”.

It didn’t matter that I, you know, enjoyed it. Or that rest is a worthwhile thing. Nope. Self hatred.

Here are two things that helped:

  1. Accepting that I like playing video games.
  2. Self-reflection in the moment.

As I walk over to the couch, I ask myself “Is this really what I want to do?”

If the answer is “yup”, roll on. If it’s a game I can fall into for hours, I set myself a timer so I’m prompted to make a conscious choice to keep playing. That way, I can make sure I’m still having fun (and not just stuck in an engagement loop).

You can apply this to anything. As you’re about to do something, consider if it’s:

  • What you want to do (and why).
  • Just or kind.
  • Helpful to yourself or others.

You’re not looking to grill yourself. And the goal isn’t to be “productive” every moment of the day.

Self-reflection is about building a greater awareness of your actions and motivations. You’re working towards being more deliberate.

This extends beyond just our own actions. “The more we understand our own minds,” says Goldstein, “the more we understand everyone else. We increasingly feel the commonality of our human condition, what creates suffering and how we can be free.”

Mindfulness (in a few different ways)

The word “mindfulness” has a few different meanings, according to Goldstein.

At its highest level, mindfulness reveres to our awareness of the present moment. Right here, right now, reading this word. In that sense, mindfulness is opposite of absent mindedness.

Mindfulness can also refer to remembering two things:

  1. The things that motivate and energise us.
  2. Our commitment to acting in an ethical way (without self-flagulating ourselves).

Both meanings of mindfulness – awareness and remembering – stem from the Pali word sati. Just a fun fact for you if you’re ever at a really woo pub trivia night.

The 2 types of mindfulness

According to Goldstein, there are two broad types of mindfulness:

  1. Fabricated, which we make deliberately.
  2. Unfabricated, which is innate.

If you spend enough time fabricating mindfulness, you’ll find it easier to slip into the unfabricated flavour.

You don’t need to go chasing mindfulness for its own sake, though. You practice just enough to develop:

  • Bare knowing: observing things simply and directly, without defaulting to reactions or associations.
  • Continuous mindfulness: bare knowing from moment to moment.

No magical insight. No ahhhhh moment where the heavens part. Just observing things are they are. (The “just” there is doing a lot of work.)

Continuous mindfulness can sound like a lot. Goldstein argues we can get there in two ways:

  1. Momentum from moments of fabricated awareness. Practicing again and again can build to moments of effortless mindfulness.
  2. Strong perception. Focused attention isn’t mindfulness itself but it is a “proximate cause”. You hone your perception on singular things and, over time, expand that out.

That brings us to our fourth quality of mind.

Concentration with a dose of composure

Concentration, when combined with composure and single-mindedness, helps on focus on the things that matter. Goldstein describes “deepening concentration” as being “like building a fence to keep our unwanted intruders.”

It helps us live without desire and discontent. As we strengthen our concentration, we’ll become easier to find happiness. “Over time,” says Goldstein, “we see the default level on concentration increase in our minds, which changes how we feel and how we are in the world. We create an inner environment of peace.”

Here are two ways to strengthen your concentration:

  1. Cultivate your direct awareness of a single thing.
  2. Developing a “choiceless awareness” on different, changing things.

In the first, you’re working on your ability to focus your attention on one thing.

In the second, you’re looking at your ability to zoom out a bit. It’s about concentrating on a dynamic, evolving situation without latching onto any one thing. That’s “choiceless awareness”.

It’s simple but not easy

We have four discrete things to work on:

  1. Ardency
  2. Self-reflection
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Concentration

Taken together, you’ll be an enthusiastic and consistent person who’s aware of their motivations, lives in the moment and focus on the task at hand.

That sounds incredible, right? Living the dream.

And that’s the kicker. Each individual thing is simple enough. Combining them all together, on the regular, takes work.

That’s the beauty of it too, though: you can work at it. Bit by bit, you can become more enthusiastic and warm. Bit by bit, you can reflect on the “why” behind the things you do. Bit by bit, you can practice your mindfulness and concentration skills.

Bit by bit. And that’s the point, really. Steady improvement. All without getting stuck into yourself.

Because, hey, just say you notice yourself slipping one day. You noticed. That’s self-reflection and mindfulness right there.

You’re on the road.


Cory Zanoni Twitter

Writer, teacher, tired.


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