“Hold that thought,” said the office administrator with outstretched hand, signalling a friendly “stop.” I was in the middle of making a routine request for her assistance.
Hold that thought, an idiomatic was of saying, often by way of interruption, “Wait a second, I’ve got to do something else,” or maybe, “Good idea…for later.”
Let’s try another, more literal, meaning: Hold that thought.
Go ahead, whatever you are thinking now, hold it in mind. Don’t shift thoughts. Keep it! Hold it. That’s right. No other thought. Hold it now…
The brain does not work that way. A conscious thought, while correlating, most likely, with an enormously complex electrochemical web of neuronal firing, is not a “thing” that can be held. Certainly not literally, and not even figuratively.
Thought is fleeting, evanescent, impermanent. It’s phenomenology arises, crests, and dissipates in milliseconds like so many neurotransmitters in a synaptic dance.
Now, hold *that* thought!
At best, with focused attention and awareness, you might observe a thought’s path–it’s arising, cresting, and dissipating–but you will not be able to hold it.
Remarkably, the inability to hold a thought is natural. Understanding and exploiting this reality is beneficial and, when applied, potentially powerful.
Understanding the nature of thought–and no more evidence is required than our recent hold-that-thought experiment, although the body of neuroscientific evidence is large and growing rapidly–we can free ourselves from attributing to it characteristics such as permanence, reality, certainty, and truth.
Setting aside these attributes does not diminish thought, but does tend to create greater mental “space,” to expand our ability to hold differing points of view simultaneously, and to soften our often vice-like grip on personal beliefs, points of view, and opinions.
Moreover, when, in nearly instantaneous response to stimuli our brain offers up a thought (and, often, a feeling), we can learn to recognize that the brain is just doing the best that it can, what it is designed to do, but we are not obligated to accept or to act on the first thing that the brain serves up.
There is space between thought and action, which we can first begin to realize then learn to lengthen. And in that lengthened space, we can observe the thought (or feeling), recognize its insubstantial nature, and choose not to act or react thoughtlessly or from habit alone.
If we cannot hold that thought, perhaps we can learn to hold the space between them. Acting from this still and quiet space can help us speak and act with mindful intention and greater authenticity.
The beginning, perhaps, of wisdom.
Hold that thought.