Right Thinking and the Problem of Cow Paths


“That is why I don’t believe much in what Mr. Descartes said: ‘I think, therefore I am.’

I think, therefore I’m lost in my thinking. I’m not there.”

Thich Nhat Hanh



I am an over thinker. I once had a friend say to me that it must be really tiring to be you after I explained my process for making a simple decision. He was right.

I also found myself saying, “Shut up!” when all alone for days at Cayo Costa, a coastal camping site. I was tired of my brain’s constant chatter.

With all that thinking, I tend to get lost in thought. I once missed a flip turn when swimming because I was thinking about David Hume. Yes, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher was on my mind instead of that wall I was about to swim into.

If Descartes is right, and I think, therefore I am, then I really AM!

Fortunately, these incidents were a few years back, and thanks to cultivating mindfulness, I’m a little more present these days.

Present is the key term. Often enough, like me in the pool, our minds and bodies are not really in the same space. It’s why we can’t find our keys. We didn’t pay attention to where we put them in the first place.

So Right Thinking starts with being present and not only thinking. When you swim, be there in the pool, not thinking about the honors class you’re going to teach later that day.

Right Thinking also means not responding from habit energy. We all have habits, good and bad, and habits are useful, like brushing our teeth. We need to do that at least twice a day, and since we have been our whole lives, we do it automatically. However, we don’t want to do it too automatically. We actually want to pay attention when we brush our teeth. We can practice being present.

Being present and not completely caught by our thoughts is important because our brains get wired for habitual thinking.

I learned the term cow paths when attending the University of Florida. It’s a big campus with a lot of green space and sidewalks, but there would be areas in the grass that were worn down, not official paths but places that had been traversed so frequently they had become path-like. Apparently, cows trace their steps over and over forming cow paths just like Gator students, hence cow paths.

Our brains work like that too. We develop neural connections from having the same reactions and thoughts over and over. This is clearly bad when the thoughts themselves are damaging such as those we experience due to trauma. But even innocuous habitual thoughts can be a problem. The cow-paths in our brains often mean that we respond automatically rather than to what is actually happening in the here and now right in front of us.

When we’re not present and responding to the present, we get things wrong, and we also are not responsive within our relationships.

Social psychologist Ellen Langer suggests that when we are with a loved one that we consciously notice something different about that person and then share what we’ve noticed. This makes a person feel truly seen and improves our relationships.

Right Thinking means we can recognize habit energy, not respond to it automatically, be fully present in the moment, and connect better with others.

When we recognize the way our minds are constantly narrating our lives, we can pause and decide to live our lives. Do it with compassion, though. Say, “hey habit energy, let’s get back to it,” unlike my frustrated “shut up” to myself.

In this way, we awaken bodhichitta, or the mind of love, and we can produce happiness for ourselves and others.


Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

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