Game of Thoughts: Why I'm Giving Up Thinking for Lent

I’m giving up thinking for Lent.

In the Christian tradition there is a practice of giving up something for the Season of Lent. Lent, which means “spring”, is a 40 day span (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. During that time Christians reflect, self-examine and focus on relationship with the Divine, often by “giving up something” as a means of sharpening that focus.

Common “give ups” center around food and drink: alcohol, chocolate, meat, etc. Other more modern examples might include giving up TV or Facebook for a season as a way to create more interior space and freedom.

Since the intention is to intensify spiritual awareness and cultivate a deeper intimacy with the Sacred, this year I’m doing something different. I’m giving up thinking for Lent.

Now, of course, I can’t stop all thinking. The type of thinking I’m referring to is the compulsive, problem-solving mechanism that always looks for something wrong to fix. It’s the apparatus that plays life as a chess game in which the mind plots three moves ahead of the present moment. This is the thinking mode that wakes me up in the middle of the night with a non-specific, agitated energy in my body.

What’s the origin of this thinking? Who or what is generating it?

For me, the source is largely about people-pleasing: trying to over-accommodate, be overly responsible, and remain above reproach in the eyes of all. In this game, life’s chess board becomes a complex, anxious gambit in which the pieces of life are maneuvered to avoid blame and guilt.

In this pattern, which I call “Game of Thoughts”, shifting worries compete for the iron throne of attention. What’s your version of “Game of Thoughts”?

While these feelings and patterns are often subtle, the effects are not. I realized this the other day when playing with my cat Cougar. Cougar is an orb of limitless love oozing out of a feline body.

After a couple of minutes of petting and playing with him, I realized my attention was elsewhere. I had neither given nor received affection from the heart as my thoughts calculated ways to meet deadlines, make challenging people happy, and somehow find time for self-care midst increasing commitments.

I looked at Cougar, paused, and released everything but the current moment. He rolled onto his back, and I rubbed his belly. I let his love into my heart and stroked his fur with affection. I was finally present.

This sent me on a journey. I shifted my morning quiet time to include journaling, similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages, in which I deposit the previous day’s vomitorium of angsty cognition onto the page. Then in my meditation, I release not only the content but also the place from which the content is generated.

Throughout the day, I’m slowly becoming more aware of habitual thinking patterns. Often it starts with body awareness. Tightness between shoulder blades. Shallow breathing. Mild yet widespread heaviness in my chest.

The body is the soul’s early warning system. And the warning is that a largely unconscious habit is running life and making choices. Time to wake up, notice, and release.

A Lenten practice can also be a prelude to Easter. It can be an intentional surrender of what deadens so that new life can arise. Like the pupated caterpillar emerging from its chrysalis, the old confines are gradually yet deliberately sloughed off, once and for all. And should they recur, they are more readily recognized for the detritus they are.

As habitual, people-pleasing thinking is released, new life emerges. Space is made for blessed surprise. The Divine, the Universe is spontaneous. When control is no longer in control, joy and freedom and beauty and warmth erupt more and more, typically in the same places that had gone unrecognized before, like a purring cat, or the warm water of a shower, or melted butter on a slice of toast.

Thinking and problem-solving have their welcome place in my life. Their place is to serve not enslave. The way to freedom is to keep surrendering habitual thinking that pulls me from the here and now. To recognize the “Game of Thoughts” and let it go.

In the chess game approach to life, I’m happy to concede checkmate. As Hafiz wrote:

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move.

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,

I am afraid you still think 

You have a thousand serious moves.