The term “free thought” is somewhat laughable, in its common usage. It’s like “non-denominational” when speaking of Christianity in the USA in that it aspires to transcend limitations and definitions, but in practice it ends up being remarkably consistent. That seems like the opposite of what you’d expect. Once free of restrictions, the things people think (or believe) would seem likely to be as diverse as they are. Some people would think about God, some about humanity, some science, mathematics, engineering, gaming, cultural issues, television, sudoku, the Kardashians, and so on. There are many, many kinds of people, after all. It seems, however, that when free to think however they want, people always end up by some strange means thinking about Libertarianism or Progressivism (but never something outside of or more centrist on that axis), Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, atheism/agnosticism, secular humanism, logic, and the scientific process.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sitting in a chemistry lab right now, doing science. I’ve devoted my life to it. I like it a great deal. I think its laughable to call science “free thought,” however. Similarly, it is laughable to call something a “free” thought if in order to hold that thought it has to have already survived logical inquiry, debate and argumentative analysis. That is, in fact, the opposite of free thought. It is thought within very tight, narrow terms, designed to winnow out all thoughts deemed by those terms to be inappropriate. Those terms may even be things you find agreeable – logic, debate, rationality, the scientific method, etc – but they are terms, and they do limit your thoughts rather sharply.
As a result, I’ve given up on the traditional idea of “free thought.” I consider it a failed method to achieve its stated aim of liberating the mind, because you simply can’t use shackles, even very logical ones, to create freedom. There is another method that I much prefer, called “mindfulness.” It is a meditative practice from the Buddhist religious tradition, but there is nothing intrinsically religious about it, and it is practiced by people from all faiths and many walks of life. It can be summarized as “Be Here Now.” It means to be present in your mind, observing without judging, and trying to fully experience the things you are experiencing on their own terms. That seems self-evident, almost automatic, but it is surprisingly difficult. The essence of the practice is just sitting. When you sit (legs crossed, lotus, in a chair, whatever), you try and sit back inside your own mind as well, observing what is happening without trying to affect it. It isn’t “try[ing] to stop thinking,” because that results in a feedback loop of thoughts-about-not-thinking and fighting with your own mind. Instead, just observe and appreciate, without judging or analyzing. If there is a feeling, let yourself feel it. If there is a thought, let it be thought. Then, let it go. Don’t ask why, or what, or where it comes from, don’t wonder about what you’ll do next time you think it or how someone made you feel that way. Just experience it, and when it is done let it be done. If the experiences are positive, you’ll doubtless enjoy them. If they are negative, you may find in a weird way that you almost enjoy those too. After a great deal of practice, you’ll find it easier to find that state of mind even when you are up and moving around. During the day, there is inevitably a great deal of free time, or at least time when you have to hurry up and wait. During that time, the moments in between when your mind often wanders, I find that mindfulness practice tends to creep in. Then, afterward, instead of having thought myself into knots of worry or anger or confusion, I’ve simply appreciated the moment. It’s a much better use of time, I find.
It is fair to ask how this frees the mind. Well, in my experience, it’s not religion or politics that ensnares the mind, but desire, fear and deprivation. The desire for affection makes you see a bad relationship as good enough to stick around for. The desire for money makes you stay at a job you hate. The fear of rejection keeps you from asking out the man or woman that you like. The fear that you’ll be robbed or stabbed or shot makes you leery of black men. The pains of hunger make you steal or stab or shoot. The pain of betrayal makes you hurt those you once claimed to love. The fear of a faceless government makes you leery of any man in a suit that shows up at your door, or in your life. You know these things are bad for you, but you do them anyway because the desire, the fear, the deprivation, the pain are so powerful that they overwhelm your reason. By experiencing them, by facing those feelings down, by allowing yourself to observe and experience them, you help to decrease their influence on your mind. Perhaps, after consideration, you decide you do need to stay at that job you hate in order to have the money to eat, but you can take a little of your spare time and look for better jobs rather than sleep and ruminate on how your life has gone off-course. Perhaps s/he did betray you, but then maybe your fear of being alone makes you see betrayal even when it is not there? By allowing your mind some distance, by considering experiences without getting caught up in them, you help to set aside the shackles that, deep down, bind us all.