Part Two: Taming Wild Thoughts
Lots of inexplicable things happen all the time. The ones that disturb our dreams, we call trauma. But, if you allow yourself to look, the inexplicable is all over the place. We try to stuff it in mental boxes, so we don’t have to live in that mess, but not everything fits, and the inexplicable keeps escaping the boxes.
In part one of this series, I described the method of putting whatever you can of the incomprehensible into boxes, a necessary step to preserve what’s left of your sanity. Whether your question is big or small; raging from why your wife loads the dishwasher the wrong way, to why your husband cheats; from your teenager’s door slamming, to your chronic anxiety; from why people vote the way they do, to what is the meaning of life; these questions have answers. If you don’t know the answers, you can find someone who will give you some. They may be satisfactory, they may be true; but they are never, never complete.
The psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion can help you with this, if you can understand him. Not everyone can because he’s difficult to read. I’ve worked hard to put what he says in boxes of my own, so let me share them with you. You’ll still have questions, but that’s what I’ve been trying to say.
Bion had a name for everything that doesn’t fit in the cognitive boxes we try to stuff them in. He called it O. That’s right, O; the first letter in the word, Oy. It’s his term for the unknowable or ultimate Truth.
You might have come up with a reason your daughter said she hates you. She’s a teenager and it’s her hormones. That’s a pretty good explanation and you could let it go at that, but if you did, there should still be some questions. Why her, why you, why now, why those words? There are so many other things she could have done with her hormones, why did she pick that one? Will it happen again? Does she really mean it? Will anything be the same? What should you do now? Is she right? Are you really hateful? What will everyone say if they knew?
The hormone explanation, if you leave it at that, is a cover story. Cover stories are stories that cover up the truth. Good cover stories have a lot of truth in them. People accept them as the whole truth, but their purpose isn’t to answer all the questions, it’s to keep them from asking them. Cover stories are the boxes we put experiences in. The part that doesn’t fit in the box, or escapes, is O.
O can make you crazy. I’ve known people who can’t stop ruminating on things they can’t explain. We call them obsessed. Then there are the people, sometimes the same ones, who keep re-enacting some awful thing that happened to them. We call it PTSD. Often nightmares are these wild thoughts, a kind of mental indigestion of thoughts that don’t stay in their boxes. But I don’t want to make it sound like only the most disturbed are made crazy by O. O makes us all mad. Our minds aren’t happy until everything is in a box. It’s the mind’s job to box things up. When it can’t, it’s hard to make it stop.
You probably heard of people who are so driven mad by uncertainty that they do all kinds of crazy things, if you have not been one, yourself. They keep looking for closure they believe they’ll receive when they finally put a lid on their doubts. People have killed themselves for less, and they’ve killed other people. People have killed other people and then killed themselves in the search for closure.
I should be more precise. It’s not O that drives you crazy. You go crazy looking for boxes. Most of your thinking, especially if you have one of those active brains that never shuts up, is you trying to contain O by putting it in whatever boxes you have. You actually don’t need to be afraid of O, but you are. You’re afraid of O because it’s the Truth. There are many things about your daughter you will never know. You need to know that’s the Truth, but you can’t handle the Truth.
One of Bion’s other names for O is thoughts without a thinker, or wild thoughts. Here’s an example. Before Isaac Newton came along and thought of gravity, gravity was a thought without a thinker, it was a wild thought. Gravity was a fact in the world; it’s just, no one ever thought of it before. You could say it was God’s thought, if you believe in God, but it was no human’s thought, so far as we know. Thoughts don’t need a thinker. Gravity happily made apples fall from trees forever before Isaac Newton thought of it, and it makes no difference to Gravity if he thought about it or not. Truth doesn’t need us, but we need Truth. Truth is the foundation of sanity.
The fact is, your teenage daughter, who said she hates you, must free herself from you when she grows up. That’s an inexorable truth. There’s another truth that says she needs you. If you can hold both contradictory truths at the same time, then you have a great capacity for O. Your daughter needs to hold them both, too. She’s apparently unable to do so, now; so, she opts for the cover story, that she hates you.
In Bion’s view, thinking is what you do to cope with thoughts without a thinker, not the other way around. He says a lot of thinking consists of trying to think up and keep track of lies; the cover stories you tell so you don’t have to have any wild thoughts. Thinking is the act of trying to stuff O into boxes. Like I said, it’s a necessary step, but ultimately futile. Thinking is the way you try to run away from thoughts without a thinker. Thinking makes you crazy. Rather, thinking starts off as a way to preserve your sanity, but it ends up being the thing that makes you crazy.
What then, is a long term solution for staying sane? You can fill up your boxes like you usually do, but when it starts to make you crazy, stop, relax, and cease thinking. Putting it the way Bion does, go to a place in your mind without memory, desire, or understanding. I wrote about this in part one, but it’s worth briefly repeating here. No memory means set aside everything you knew about what you are thinking. No desire means forget any outcome. No understanding means get rid of the usual way you understand it. Invite a thought without a thinker.
Bion called this reverie, which is a misleading term that usually means lost in thought or daydreaming. Bion takes reverie to mean opening yourself up to intuition. Your brain has been tied to trying to solve a problem, putting an inexplicable thing into boxes. Untie it, give it a break for recess, and let it play. It’s often helpful to go do something else: take a walk, shower, snooze. An idea will come out of nowhere. Sometimes it appears in dreams. That’s a thought without a thinker. It’s come to pay you a visit. People who do creative work will say this is what they do when they’re stuck. I do it all the time when I’m writing. I only do part of my writing at a keyboard, the rest I do walking the dog.
I also engage in reverie when I’m with a client. It sounds like I’m saying I daydream, but reverie is a form of intently listening. I’m keeping all my memory, desire, and understanding out of my mind in favor of what the client is trying to say. Then I wait for some stray thought to saunter by. It’s a wild thought, not expecting to be captured. Sort of like how birds will come to the feeder when my dog is not out there, barking at them. I grab it and see if it will be a container for some of my client’s problem. Something like it just happened as I wrote this paragraph. I thought I needed a metaphor and was staring out the window, watching the birds, when it came to me.
Here’s another example of capturing a wild thought. I often forget people’s names. As long as I’m trying to think of a name, I’ll never think of it. It’ll be on the tip of my tongue. If I thought of the name, I’ll be able to put the person’s identity in a box, but that piece of information has escaped. It’s gone wild and lives in O, where all the wild thoughts go. If I stop beating the bushes, looking for it, it’ll come out of hiding and I can catch it again.
You could catch a wild thought if you go talk to your daughter after she’s had a chance to calm down. Start a conversation without memory, desire, or understanding and see what she has to say. Don’t try to force it, so her own thoughts can come out of hiding. You might hear something that makes everything click. Maybe you’ll find out what she was trying to say when she said she hates you.
Once a thought without a thinker pays you a visit, how do you know if it’s the right thought? In other words, is this the idea that can gather up all the wayward bits of O and put it in boxes? Does it introduce order where the appearance of disorder reigned? If it’s a wild thought, can you domesticate it?
Try it and see. Sometimes it has the ring of truth, and you say, ah hah! Eureka, I’ve got it! Of course, what you have is a thought that’s now in a box. Not everything fits in a box or stays in a box. There’s always plenty of O, but you can move on for now. You’ve domesticated a wild thought just like when Isaac Newton discovered gravity. Now that you have it, you can use it.
Learning from Experience by Wilfred Bion (1962)
The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion by Joan and Neville Symington (1992)
Bion and Being: Passion and the Creative Mind by Anne Reiner (2012)
Explorations in Bion’s “O”: Everything We Know Nothing About Edited by Afsaneh K. Alisobhani and Glenda J. Corstorphine (2019)
WR Bion’s Theories of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by Anne Reiner (2023)