I’ve noticed there is a phase of consciousness between sleep and waking up, a kind of half-asleep/not-quite-awake phase. It’s different from being asleep and it’s different from being awake. Maybe it’s a time of surfacing which sways between those two distinct states. Whatever it is the other morning, in that phase, I became aware of a number of different things “coming to my mind”….an image, a memory, an idea, a bit of a conversation, some things on a list to remember to do….it was really quite a mixture. At about the same moment I became aware of the feeling that I wasn’t in control of any of this. Whatever images, words, thoughts, ideas, memories there were, it was if they just appeared, or as if they were flowing by and I was just noticing them.
It got me to wondering where the contents of the mind come from, how many there are, and how, probably, the ones we notice are just the tips of an iceberg.
I remembered a number of occasions when I’ve stood on a bridge (like the one in the photo above) and looked down at the water as it flows towards, beneath or away from me.
This experience of noticing the contents of the mind flowing past reminded me of those times.
Sometimes what would catch my attention from the bridge would be movement. Like the flow of the water over the rocks, or leaves on the trees in the banks of the river blowing in the wind, or birds darting down to catch an insect or even a fish, or even a fish swimming in the water. Movement catches our attention. Change catches our attention. Something appears….like a branch or some leaves tumbling over the rocks to be carried away by the river. We notice that.
Sometimes my attention would be broad rather than narrow. I wouldn’t zoom in on any particular element but just gaze upstream and take in the whole scene. Seeing the general colours, the shapes of the rocks and the falling water, the patches of turbulent white and the still, dark pools…all at once.
Meditation is a bit like that. You sit and watch to see what turns up, then, after just noticing it, you choose not to interact with it, or hold on to it, but just notice it floating on by. Images pop up and then disappear, a thought half forms and then unravels, a memory emerges and then fades……
And it’s not always rushing and tumbling either. Sometimes what comes to the fore does so quite slowly and gently….
I thought of a number of bridges I’d stood on. The ones over the waterfalls, the ones of the gently flowing rivers, the ones over the big city rivers, the ones over little ponds in Japanese gardens. Each one was a vantage point. Each one allowed me to take a few minutes to stand and gaze and notice and to turn my attention towards something, then let my focus drift over to something else. Never getting stuck, never staying the same, always bringing something different, something new…….
It’s a nice metaphor for the interaction between the conscious and unconscious regions of our minds.
But, wait. I’ve got more big questions now.
Where is the bridge?
Who is the me, the observer, who is standing there watching the flow of mental content?
Where is the mental content coming from and where is it going to?
Strange how hard it is to pin down this idea of the “self”. Two things pop into my mind right now…….Mary Midgley, the philosopher, who tackles the idea that the self doesn’t exist at all…it’s an illusion….in her book, “Are you an illusion?”, where she asks the question – if the self is an illusion, who is it who is having this illusion? And Dan Seigel, who in “Mindsight” and other books, defines the mind as “an embodied, inter-relational, process of regulation of energy and information flow”.
And something else pops up now…my training in TM. Sitting, repeating the mantra, noticing words, thoughts, ideas, images and memories bubbling up and just gently returning to the mantra, letting them all flow on by.
Well, one thing at least is pretty clear to me. The origins of all this mental content are multiple. Sometimes they are a response to an external stimulus, a sound, a light, noticing something. Sometimes they emerge from memory, from imagination, or from whatever area of the mind we use for gnawing away at things….problems, worries, things to do, things we want to say. But wherever they come from, I really don’t think we have much control over that flow. What we can do is to notice, to become aware. Then we can begin to choose where to direct our attention and decide how which ones we want to follow and which we want to let go off.