The ideas and daily events in this journal took place during fifty days in summer, 2004. Each day I carried a small tape recorder with me and recorded thoughts when they seemed relevant to what had become my overall quest: to think about thinking, to watch the stream of consciousness.
This stands in contrast to a more narrow, focused introspection, of the kind, say, practiced in versions of Buddhist meditation. In my free-form variety, mind-watching is linked to a state of mind-wandering; in other words, recording the mind while thinking what you want to think.
The issue of “want” is a bit problematic, however, because as all beginning meditators quickly note, but also often are shocked to discover, much of thinking is done for us by deeper unconscious mechanisms that continuously roll out a cornucopia of thoughts into consciousness.
What I wanted was the time to follow my thoughts and then pick up on themes and reinforce them in memory. I’d record them for revisiting. It was akin to freely wandering in a state of discovery across an intricate landscape. Each daily entry —only a few sentences here— was recorded in the field. It’s followed by my reflections on it later.
My physical landscape was a wondrous one in which to wander. I had for many years spent summers in the mountains of Southwestern New Mexico. But I usually had writing projects in science and philosophy to start or complete, and I had craved mental breathing space for more personal explorations.
Home was a ten- by forty-foot trailer with a covered porch of the same size. And there I lived for fifty days, without companionship, without television or radio. It was easy to limit human contact—neighborly or electronic—to the bare minimum. The result: I took ownership of a rare block of time for personal experiment.
I discovered practices that deeply merged the patterns of nature and mind like intertwined lovers.
What follows are my entries for the first three days.
Day 1 The Stream
I sit on a rock, surrounded by the riffles of a stream. Each foot rests upon a small rock of its own. My eyes are transfixed upon the clear upstream water flowing toward me. As I listen to the gurgles, the eddies hypnotize. A phrase floats into my mind: “the stream of consciousness.”
I didn’t make up the term. It has been in use for more than a hundred years, since William James proclaimed the stream of consciousness to be the primal fact that the science of mind must admit and study.
The metaphor feels true. Our inner being does seem to flow. Thoughts and feelings glide along smoothly, at other times with roars.
How is consciousness like the intricate patterns of flow that swirled around me? If we are streams, we are surely paradoxical ones. On one hand, the moment-to-moment mind is like a parcel of water in the real stream, shifting yet always bounded to its own unique present. But also, on the other hand, via memory, the mind is aware of its own experienced past and, via anticipation, the impending future. Thus unlike the moving parcel of water, the mind lives broadly, both upstream and downstream. We are more like the entire stream.
In saying, “Mind is a stream,” of course we observe in ourselves James’ primal psychological fact. But then we can realize that the very noting of the stream of consciousness, whether experienced as an inwardly heard sentence or purely as imagery—itself takes place as a unique present moment. In other words, the act of noting is a parcel within the very flow to which it refers. Thus from a point within the flow, you can say, “I am the flow.” How can a particular slice of mental time within the ongoing flow know that there is ongoing flow?
A part seems to sense the larger whole. We might answer, “by using memory and anticipation.” But these processes are mysterious when we use them to define the self, the “I.” It is one thing to recall this morning’s breakfast. It is altogether another level of abstraction to be able to say, “I am the flow,” all the while limited to the viewpoint from a mere parcel in the flow. We’re clearly an oddball kind of stream. We appear to be a flow that can observe itself.
Day 2 The Mesh
In solitude, my mind is not a flow with clear direction. Beneath a towering ponderosa pine, I gaze down at a bed of dried pine needles. The inner voice proclaims, “That’s me!”
Unlike water, needles exhibit no steady flow. They could be individual lines of thought, perhaps mini-streams. But upon reaching the end of one, in a short amount of time you start along another needle. It is all quite entangled, akin to loopy nets of neurons in the brain. From one short path of consciousness angles of other possibilities splay off in segments that can lead to new regions and eventually back. At that point the mini-you crawls along the same needle again, to re-run the same thought again, to feel the same anxiety or thrill again.
Here, as in the case of the stream, the shape of consciousness can be sensed as a pattern, created by memory. Some needles are the previous day’s experiences, scattered on the ground, set in place. Some are dug in deep from years past. Some are anticipated scenes yet to come. All are parts of the networks of self. Some, detached from any explicitly retrieved memories, are thoughts in the moment, which can include the following: “The mind is a mesh of pine needles.”
We usually know only a limited range of a few needles at any point in our self-monitoring. Most of the mesh is unconscious. We lurch in and out of moods, of scenes, songs, memories, and projected hopes, of replays of the past and fantastic imaginings. We can get stuck, caught on a sharp needle tip, unable to move either ahead or back.
The outstanding enigma in all this prickly meandering is, surprise surprise, the act of observation. The observation of the mind’s patterns is itself a mental pattern, perhaps on a higher level. We are in the mesh and above it. We cannot be exclusively “above,” because, paradoxically, when we observe our self in time, that takes place in the present moment, just like anything else that comes to attention—white cloud, singing bird, or hearty breakfast. Still, this self-observation hovers in a lofty, abstract “above,” by virtue of memory and anticipation. These two cognitive processes somehow weave our moments together to provide a vision of the whole mesh at the same instant in which we are confined to a needle within the mesh. Therefore, we can be global within the local. That seems paradoxical. There’s a saying that if the mind were simple enough to be easily figured out, it wouldn’t be a mind.
Day 3 Shoes and Paths
I am spending the warm middle of this day hiking upstream along the West Fork of the Gila River. Wearing sandals, I ford rocky river crossings back and forth for several miles. The valley sides become sheer cliffs that embrace me.
Were my feet bare I would be stuck at home, staring at pine needles. Were there no trail I would be hacking my way through brambles of willows at each crossing. Shoes and paths: these are appropriate metaphors for how our society provides us with the means to smooth the courses we travel in life.
We need “shoes,” which are mental skills. To become a surgeon, welder, teacher, or parent requires concerted and directed effort to fortify one’s capacities for each next stage. And as real footwear shields us from painful rocks, socially-gained footwear often feels good. We gain rewards, such as money and community. It’s important to choose shoes that fit.
We might want to be wary of the seduction of these aids of “shoes and paths.” The ways they offer to escape inner entanglement of meshes are so easy and soothing that it is difficult to say “no” to them. We become addicted—financially, of course, but we’re speaking psychologically—to having footwear and paths. From the trivial time spent hooked to a quickly forgotten video to what are sometimes decades of devotion to an institution’s goals of selling, the trouble with many social shoes and paths is that the sacred self, the inner core of the individual, gets buried.
Tyler Volk is Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at New York University. His latest book is Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be (2017). The book boldly proposes a rhythm to a “grand sequence,” with levels of fundamental things and relations that have built from elementary quanta to globalized human civilization.