To Think Outside the Box and Its True Meaning

Creative Thinking

by Jayaram V

Banning or suppressing free thinking means we are willing to shut down some windows in the journey of our lives and agreeing to make friendship with the darkness that descends when the windows are shut. Jayaram V


What it is to think outside the box?

You might have heard about thinking outside the box. In a general sense to think outside the box means to think creatively. It is a catchphrase for creativity. Some people think it is not a right metaphor for creativity. There is a lot of speculation how the phrase came into existence. In this discussion we will approach the idea from a different angle, equating the box to the heuristic mind. The box represents your habitual mind and thinking outside it means thinking in newer ways or thinking outside the boundaries of the conventional mind.

When you are searching for contents in a box, you tend to look for the contents inside the box since you expect that it is what the box is meant for. Looking for contents inside the box is the conventional and rational approach. To look outside it is a rather absurd idea that defies logic, but in problem solving situation it often proves effective. It is as if you are finding what you are looking for at an unusual and unexpected place, beyond your imagination. You might have done puzzles or tests, like the nine dots puzzle, to know how creative you are. Many problems in life are solved when you move out of the rutted pathways of your mind and think creatively and innovatively. When you do it, sometimes the solution comes as a sudden illumination, when you are least expecting it, as if you have jumped into another dimension and had a déjà vu experience.

In a metaphorical sense the box is your habitual mind, or the world you create in your mind, which represents the conventional you. It is a world made up of your beliefs, assumptions, irrational thoughts, mental habits, perceptions, desires, expectations, emotions, attachments, and memories. It is the Meta Program (your personality) which guides your thinking and actions. The box is really a cage in which you hold yourself as an occupant because you find in it comfort and security. It serves you the same purpose as a dog-crate serves a dog. When you are afraid or uncomfortable, you jump into it and sit there. It also serves as your filtering mechanism by which you perceive the world according to your needs, desires, expectations and conditioning. You rarely notice it because you are inside it most of the time, and like a fish that does not know that it is inside the water you do not know that you are inside the cage.

Techniques that help to think outside the box

Thinking outside the box is also described more technically as paradigm shift or paradigm change. In psychology it is termed as creative illumination, and in spirituality as total freedom or liberation. Out of the box thinking unleashes your creative and innovative thinking and helps you to generate new ideas and thoughts, or see the world differently from different perspectives. To make it possible, you have to do the following.

  • Change your perspective.
  • Step out of your comfort zone.
  • Embrace the opposites that you dislike.
  • Think in different ways.
  • Jump out of your routine thinking.
  • Refuse to accept the surface thoughts and solutions.
  • Stop acting as if you alone are right.
  • Stop arguing with people that they are wrong.
  • Believe in the possibility that we cannot know the truths of life but only shades of truth.
  • Acknowledge the theory of perspectives known in Jainism, according to which truth is relative to the perspective from which it is seen.

Why it is important to think outside the box

Although you may think that you are entitled to some freedoms, rights, and safe zones, and you are a free individual in society, you are not truly free. You are bound to your own habitual thoughts and responses. You prefer to lead a routine and predictable life, since uncertainty is very stressful. Therefore, you prefer to stay in your comfort zone and avoid trouble. You lead your life in known and tested ways, choosing friends from among those who are more like you rather than unlike you. The freedom that comes with such choices is rather limited.

Your mind avoids trouble and wastage of energy by following known paths to process information. It uses several filtering mechanisms to protect you from information overload, conflicting information, and information that may potentially hurt you, disturb you, or challenge your current knowledge and beliefs. When your mind resorts to such protective measures, your ability to see the world clearly and know it correctly also becomes limited. If the filtering mechanism is too opaque, you may not see the truth at all or see it only through a narrow window. When it happens to you, you take a partial truth for complete truth and base your decisions accordingly.

Fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and authoritarian attitude are a few extreme examples of the inside box thinking. People who entertain these attitudes not only live as prisoners inside the box, but have a limited view of the outside world, as if they are shut inside a dungeon.

What you think the world is may not be the world in the real sense because it is what you have allowed yourself to believe or see, or what your feelings and beliefs have allowed you to know. For example, you may see a beautiful sunset on the beach and feel totally uplifted by it. Another person sitting by your side may think that the dust and the sand flying in the air are annoying and it is time to go home and relax. That person may not have even paid attention to the setting sun, but may have kept thinking about an argument she had with someone few hours before.

What happened in that situation was that your perceptions were colored by your emotions and attitude. It does not mean that you were right and the other person was wrong. It only means that you both were experiencing the world differently even though you were at the same spot and time, because your mind was relatively free, while your friend's mind was overwhelmed with negative emotions.

It also proves that what you both felt about the sunset has nothing to do with the sunset. The same sun at the same time must have made a million other people to think differently and react differently. Some people may carry that sun for years, if they had gone through a very bad experience at that time. That sun had nothing to do with any of these experiences, yet people would carry that sun along with the pain, as if there is a connection between the two. Some may even develop an aversion to it.

Experiences and observations such as these prove clearly that what we think real or believe to be real need not be real because we put ourselves between the truth and our perceptions. It shows that we should not rely totally upon our feelings beliefs and assumptions and consider the truths we know are the only truths. It also means that you are not really free because you see the world through the opaque walls of the box you create mentally.

How can you come out of the thinking box?

You can cultivate a free mind and liberate yourself from your inner conditioning by developing an all inclusive vision. This is what we call being a free spirit, who is not bound to a particular worldview, belief system, preference, or prejudice. Even if he is, he allows himself enough room to accommodate new facts and opinions. He understands the importance of perspective and context in which truths hold themselves. He knows that there are no absolute truths, but only standpoints. Therefore, he listens to opposite views before he arrives at a conclusion. You can cultivate such an attitude with the following.

  1. Do not excessively rely upon your learning and convictions as if they are the sole truths.
  2. Pay more attention to your motives, assumptions and beliefs when you make judgments, draw conclusions, or make decisions.
  3. Keep  an open mind and do not become attached to things.
  4. Learn to see the world without the usual standards, values and opinions which you habitually use to measure it.
  5. Think how you create your own illusions, and your great dramas to deny yourself the truth or to perpetuate the myths of your life.
  6. Always listen to opposite views and learn to tolerate them.
  7. Control your emotions and be objective when you deal with people and situations that you dislike.
  8. Consider a problem from different solutions before you arrive at a solution.
  9. Allow your mind to absorb a problem and give it time to find solutions on its own.
  10. Polish your intuition by being true to yourself, and to your deepest thoughts and feelings.

Share This


Suggestions for Further Reading