The Vagueness of the Mind
The most striking feature of our minds is how little we understand them. Though we inhabit ourselves, we seldom manage to make sense of more than a fraction of who we are. It can be easier to master the dynamics of another planet than it can be to grasp what is at play in the folds of our own brains.
Instances of self-ignorance surprise and perturb us at regular intervals:
- On certain days, we are sad, and yet may be unable to identify the cause of an upset that lingers powerfully somewhere in our minds, just out of reach of consciousness. Listless and distracted, we may say, in some despair, that we don’t know quite what has got into us.
- Or we may feel randomly irritable; we snap at people around us and yet know our titanic rage cannot seriously be caused by the socks on the floor or the crumbs on the table. Nevertheless, we can’t seem to trace the root of our pain and soon, our companions may simply dismiss as unfathomable and mean.
- Or we know for certain that there is a kind of job that would properly excite and fulfill us, and are anxiously aware of how little time we have to find it, but we can’t say exactly what it might be. Powerful aspirations throb somewhere within us, without for that matter giving us the necessary guidance as to their nature. They don’t leave us alone, but nor do they say what they want. We may be unable to do more than say we wish to ‘do something creative’ or ‘help make the world a better place’ – plans so vague that they leave us perilously vulnerable to the more robust plans of others.
- Sometimes the extent of our self-ignorance shows up around sex. We have a dream about wanting someone we had registered even properly noticing. We wake up – next to our partner – feeling guilty and ashamed, hoping that nothing has leaked out of our brain. We suspect, quietly, that we’re really quite odd.
- More innocently, we may try – in a diary or with a friend – to describe a recent holiday or a sensation we registered one evening, but find that our ideas crumble. We were definitely the ones to have had a given experience but we can’t hold it securely enough in consciousness to convey it to ourselves, let alone anyone else.
It appears that on a daily basis, a mass of mass material – sorrows, upsets, desires, ideas – flows through us to which we have only partial access. To get a sense of these unthought thoughts and unfocused feelings, we need only imagine a slightly sadistic exercise in which we set ourselves questions to which, in theory, we must have the answers – which we cannot in fact readily bring to consciousness. We might, for example, ask ourselves: ‘What were the key things that occurred to us between our fourth and sixth birthdays?’ The mind goes blank. More worryingly, it isn’t just a question of that particular age; a similar amnesia will apply to pretty much every year of our lives. We seem fated to be only partially in conscious command of what happens to us across our sojourn on the earth. Or we might ask ourselves: ‘Why do we like a certain song so much?’ We know it moves us, but quite why melts away the closer we bring consciousness to bear upon the feeling. Or we could ask ourselves: ‘How are we difficult to live with?’ – and while we know so much about the faults of others, our own deficiencies suddenly seem very hard to bring to mind. We might, weakly and (even to ourselves) implausibly, protest that we are perhaps quite easy after all.
It has been the achievement of psychology to instill in us a strong sense of a basic division between two parts of the mind – the conscious and the unconscious; between what is immediately accessible to us and what lies in shadow, and will surprise us in symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue and diffuse anxieties, longings and fears. It has also been the work of psychology to insist that maturity and health must involve a constant drive to bring unconscious material to the surface. Consciousness can be imagined as a narrow beam of light within a set of bewildering, perhaps eerie and dark caves. While it points in a given direction, things become momentarily clear, but there is always far more darkness than light. We should – for a moment at least – feel a little sorry for ourselves for the task we’ve been allotted: navigating a profusion of gloomy, confusing recesses of the mind with, at best, a very weak and intermittent torch to hand.
Why our Minds are Vague
We needn’t blame ourselves unduly for our poor grasp of our own minds. The problem is in large part inherent in the brain’s very architecture. This organ evolved over millennia for the sake of rapid, instinctive decision-making – not the patient, introspective sifting of ideas and emotions at stake here. For most of humanity’s history, it has evidently been more important to act upon, rather than question and analyse, our passing instincts and plans.
However, our failure to look inside isn’t just a technical challenge, it is aggravated by a distinct emotional squeamishness. A lot of what is only semi-conscious is uncomfortable material we long not to have to look at too closely. We feel troublingly angry towards people we thought we loved. We’re more ruthless and envious than nice people are ever meant to be. We have to make enormous changes to our lives, but prefer the ease of the status quo. Across childhood, we have instilled in us, so subtly we don’t even notice, strong notions about what are and are not normal things to experience. Traditionally, boys were not allowed to acknowledge that they felt like crying and girls weren’t allowed to entertain certain kinds of ambitions for fear of being un-lady-like. We might not have such obviously naive prohibitions today but other equally powerful ones have taken their place. We may have picked up covert but forceful indications that no decent person (no-one loved by their parents at least) could be enthusiastic about making money or unable to cope at work, tempted by an affair or still upset over a break-up three years ago. What is more, despite the apparently liberated spirit of the times, many of our sexual desires still have no place in our standard understanding of respectability.
When difficult feelings do threaten to emerge, the beam of consciousness can be counted upon to take fright and shine its light onto something else (the news is always a willing recipient of attention). The truth of our emotional lives gets distorted. ‘I’m furious with you,’ is turned into ‘I’m feeling tired and am going to bed…’, ‘I’m annoyed with X’ becomes ‘I’m depressed with existence,’ ‘I’m strangely turned on’ morphs into ‘that’s absolutely disgusting.’
By failing to investigate the grottoes of the mind, we carefully protect our self-image and can continue to think rather well of ourselves. But we don’t escape from the job of introspection lightly. There is – almost always – a very high price to pay for our reluctance to look inside.
The Cost of Vagueness
Feelings and desires that haven’t been examined tend not to leave us alone. They linger and spread their energy randomly to neighbouring issues. Ambition that doesn’t know itself comes out as anxiety. Envy comes out as bitterness; anger turns into rage; sadness into depression. Disavowed material buckles and strains the system. We develop pernicious ticks; a facial twitch, impotence, an incapacity to work, alcoholism, a porn compulsion. Most so called addictions are at heart symptoms of insistent difficult feelings that we haven’t found a way to address. Insomnia is in large part revenge for thoughts we have refused to have in the day.
There are some clues as to the importance of self-knowledge in an old story about a lion with a sore paw, a traditional folk tale known as Androcles and the lion. The earliest version of the story comes from the ancient Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius – and has been adapted and retold ever since. One version goes like this: once, long ago, there was a Barbary Lion – nine feet long with a splendid dark mane – who lived in the forested foothills of the Atlas mountains (in what is today Algeria). Usually he kept far from human settlements. But one year, in spring, he started approaching the villages at night, roaring and snarling menacingly in the dark. The villagers were terrified. They put extra guards on the gates and sent out heavily armed hunting parties to try to kill him. It happened around this time that a shepherd boy named Androcles followed his sheep far into the high mountain pastures. One cold evening, he sought shelter in a cave. He had just lit a candle and was setting his blanket on the ground when to his horror he saw the ferocious beast staring at him. At first he was terrified. The lion looked as if it might be about to pounce on him and rip him to pieces. But Androcles noticed something: there was a thorn deeply embedded in one of the lion’s front paws and a huge tear was running down his noble face. The creature wasn’t murderous, he was in agony. So instead of trying to flee or defend himself with his dagger, the boy’s fear changed to pity. Androcles approached the lion, stroked his mane, and then gently and reassuringly extracted the thorn from the paw and wrapped it in a strip of cloth torn from his own blanket. The lion licked the boy’s hand and became his friend. Many years later, Androcles got into trouble with the authorities; he was shipped to Rome, taken to the Colosseum and thrown before a lion, to be devoured in public for the pleasure of the people and the emperor. But when the lion saw Androcles he became quiet and went forward and lowered his head in a bow. It was the same Barbary lion Androcles had taken pity on as a boy. The Emperor pardoned Androcles and he and his lion lived together in Rome, and they used to go for walks together through the streets – with the lion peaceable and contented, led only on a slender leash. The fable can usefully be read as an allegory about self-knowledge. The lion is in terrible pain, but has no capacity to understand what is hurting him exactly and how he might put it right. In his blind distress, he acts in horrifically aggressive and threatening ways, he makes blood-curdling noises and frightens everyone. The lion is all of us when we lack insight into our own distress. The thorn is a troubling, maddening element of our inner lives – a fear, a biting worry, a regret, a sense of guilt, a feeling of humiliation, a strained hope or agonised disappointment that rumbles away powerfully but just out of range of our standard view of ourselves. It’s there, but we can’t give it the care and understanding it needs. But there’s potentially another Androcles-like side of us able calmly to see past the fury to what the problem really is, and then calm our untargeted fury and help us find constructive solutions. The art of living is to a large measure dependent on an ability to locate our thorns accurately and in good time – so that we will not be forever condemned to suffer our symptoms and terrify strangers with our roars.
But none of this is easy. We can get a clearer idea of what a difficult and unusual achievement introspection is when we consider how unable children are to practice it. Looking inside oneself is not something most of us are born knowing how to do. The issue is at its most apparent when we read children’s diaries. Let’s think about George, who is eight years old. During his summer holiday he kept a diary – as suggested by a teacher at school as a useful writing exercise. Typical entries run like this:
‘Yesterday I went to granny’s funeral. Then I ate an ice cream. Then mummy got cross with the dog and Jane cried. Jane is stupid. Later I was tired. I slept for 13 hours.’
‘Today it was sunny. Jack came to my house. We played Minecraft. Some people moved in across the road. There was a big van with lots of boxes. They have special blankets to wrap chairs in when they move them. Mummy was cross with Jane. Jack has got a snorkel and flippers.’
Children of eight are, in a sense, representative of natural humanity. Their brains work the way people’s brains have worked for thousands of generations and reveal the normal tendencies of the mind before education and training have begun. And from this we learn that introspection is not an early or spontaneous priority for us. Sustained, searching glances into oneself are a relatively recent phenomenon (historically speaking) and may have hardly occurred at all during the three millions years of the Stone Age.
What’s missing from the diaries of children is any psychological dimension. George is alert to what is happening externally, but pays very little attention to what is going on in his own or other people’s minds. He records what people do but there is very little speculation about how they might be feeling or what is motivating them. Mummy being cross is just a fact, not something to be understood. Nor is there much search to connect up emotions with their origins, no attempt to link up a mood with a particular catalyst.
With children’s diaries, we’re making ourselves more aware of what a surprising and dramatic achievement it actually is when we do turn our attention inwards and start to get very curious about why we (and others) think and feel the way we do. In a decade or so George might tell himself and others a lot of very different things about that summer. He’ll wonder if that was the point when the rift in his parent’s marriage started to open, he’ll speculate a lot about what the death of his grandmother occurring at that time meant to him and what impact it had on his view of life; he’ll wonder about what friendship has been in his life and have long conversations with his sister about family dynamics. But this will be many years after the facts. We start off in darkness.
George’s record of his days stands at the opposite end of the introspective spectrum from the diary of the English novelist Virginia Woolf. On the 20th May 1926 – at which point she was 42 years old – she describes how:
‘Eddy came in to tea. I like him—his flattery? his nobility? I don’t know—I find him easy & eager. And Vita comes to lunch tomorrow which will be a great amusement & pleasure. I am amused at my relations with her: left so ardent in January—& now what? Also I like her presence & her beauty. Am I in love with her? But what is love? Her being ‘in love’ with me, excites & flatters; & interests. What is this ‘love’? Oh & then she gratifies my eternal curiosity: who’s she seen, what’s she done—for I have no enormous opinion of her poetry.’
The focus of attention is now squarely on exploring thoughts and feelings. She doesn’t just state that she likes someone; she tries to work out what it is about them that appeals to her. She asks herself questions: ‘am I in love with her? What is love?’ The following day (26th May, 1926) Virginia took a bus across central London. She describes the change in her feeling during the journey:
‘The heat has come, bringing with it the inexplicably disagreeable memories of parties, & George Duckworth; a fear haunts me even now, as I drive past Park Lane on top of a bus, & think of Lady Arthur Russell & so on. I become out of love with everything; but fall into love as the bus reaches Holborn.’
Needless to say, in George’s version this would have been: ‘Today it is hot. I went on a bus.’
Although, in general, we tend to have a high opinion of introspection, most of us are far more likely to be like George than Virginia. The difference has nothing to do with intensity of feeling. Virginia doesn’t have more powerful emotions than George or anyone else. The contrast lies in how she engages with them. Her stream of consciousness is as muddled and rapidly shifting as that of anyone else. But she is committed to performing a particular act on it. She wants to isolate images and feelings, work out their origins, define their identities and pin them down in words.
Introspection often gets associated with literature, because that’s where we tend to meet its clearest and most ambitious examples. But it’s in reality a skill that should be widely applied and has nothing inherently to do with wanting to publish books. At its simplest, introspection simply means giving careful, extensive and probing attention to the initially obscure transient and complicated thoughts and feelings that swirl around in our minds. And mastery of this skill belongs not to literature but to maturity more generally.
Strangers to ourselves, we end up making bad choices: we exit a relationship that might have been at heart quite workable. We don’t explore our own professional talents in time. We alienate friends through erratic off-putting behaviour. We lack insight in how we come across to others and appall or shock. We buy the wrong things and go on holiday to places that have little to do with what we really enjoy. It is no coincidence that Socrates should have boiled down the entire wisdom of philosophy down to one simple command: Know Yourself.
It’s a distinctly odd sounding ambition. Society has no shortage of people and organisations offering to guide us around the crannies of distant continents; but very few that will help us in the arguably far more important task of travelling around the byways of our own minds.
Fortunately, there are a number of tools that can help us to reach inside our minds and move us from dangerous vagueness to challenging but redeeming clarity.
Clarity not Emptiness
Insofar as society encourages us to spend time in our minds, it allots particular prestige to a set of practices collectively referred to under the term ‘meditation’. Adherents of meditation typically recommend that we sit in a particular position and strive to empty consciousness of its normal medley of feelings and ideas. We should still the agitations of what the Buddhists have evocatively termed our ‘monkey minds’ in a bid for serenity and liberation. With the normal internal static stilled, we can develop a heightened awareness of what is usually peripheral to our perception; we may notice as if for the first time the rustling of the leaves outside, the weight of our hands upon our lap, a shadow on the wall opposite and the movement of our air through our own body.
Behind this approach lies an implicit belief that our anxieties and excitements are not trying to tell us anything especially valuable. We largely fret – so the thought goes – without good purpose, about this or that vain concern, with a manic and fruitless energy. The task of meditation is to overcome, rather than engage with, our insistent egoistic emotions.
But there is another approach to consider, this one based not on Eastern thought, but on ideas that have come down to use from the Western philosophical tradition. We term it Philosophical Meditation, a practice whose premise is that a decisive share of the trouble in our minds comes from thoughts and feelings that haven’t been untangled, examined or confronted with sufficient attention. Ordinary life goes by far too fast for us to process events properly in real time – and we suffer, accumulating unthought thoughts and unfelt feelings which make for anxiety, anger, depression, addiction and misaligned goals. So we need, according to the theory, regularly to return to the contents of our minds and listen to their garbled signals, picking this or that object of consciousness and submitting it to the beam of reason. Our confused feelings and ideas are not to be pushed aside, for they are – in an appallingly muddled and enervating ways – trying to tell us something important about the course of our lives.
Philosophical Meditation needs a time of the day where nothing much will be expected of us, perhaps the early morning or late evening when, with others elsewhere, we are free to devote ourselves to our deeper, more fragmented and mysterious selves. It can be hard to find the mental freedom to look deeply into our more confused and unedited caverns when onlookers are waiting for something sensible or simply normal to emerge from our mouths. We might be lying in bed or sitting by a window. We’d ideally have half an hour without interruption, with paper and pen to hand to seize ideas and feelings as they emerge from the mental undergrowth. With the patience of ornithologists, we would be out to catch the mind in its most fleeting, tentative, furtive moments.
Key to all this are well-angled questions that we must put to ourselves. In many areas of life, we recognise the utility of a raft of questions. In law courts, cross-examination is founded on recognition of the fact that if someone were simply told to explain ‘what happened’, a huge number of important details would never emerge; only precise questions can extract the full picture. The same holds true in medicine, where doctors know to wield a series of enquiries to take their diagnoses beyond a patient’s first vague assertions of discomfort. When it comes to our inner lives, we too need to face the right sort of questions. At the heart of a Philosophical Meditation, there are three:
- What am I presently anxious about?
- What am I presently upset about?
- What am I presently excited about?
These are the clues for directing the minds to search its recesses with acuity.
We start the Philosophical Meditation by asking: What am I presently anxious about?
Life is generally a far more alarming process than we allow ourselves to accept. We are constantly having to maintain our integrity and forward momentum in a world that is uncertain, filled with traps and vagaries and subject to the forces of entropy. We are permanent hostages to the whims of fortune. No wonder if we were to accumulate anxieties, large and small. Every minute of the waking day, a skittish radar in one part of our minds is scanning the vast, partly misty horizon and noting new sources of uncertainty and risk: what will the meeting be like? When do we need to leave? What happened with the letters? Where are we going to be five years from now? Where is the nearest bathroom in case we need it? The future is always existentially uncertain and we are never more than a piece of luck away from a stroke, disgrace or ruin. The fears we haven’t examined cluster in caverns of the mind.
So we need – during our Meditative session – to give all our anxieties a chance to understand themselves, for three quarters of our agitation is not that there are things to worry about, but that we haven’t given our worries the time they require to be understood and therefore defused. Only by being listened to can anxieties be drained of some of their intensity. If we were to record our own stream of consciousness in moods of agitation, the result would tumble out in a chaotic confusion: ‘… the biscuits thing all over again why why why idiot God the Seoul deal they can’t do it I have to do it the bathroom now I can’t do it a 10.30 tomorrow with Luke why get myself into this the stupid invoice why me my fault the trees branches couldn’t sleep …’ But this fast-moving stream can be gradually tamed, drained, driven into rivulets and evaporated into something far less frightening. Our overall nervosity declines when anxieties are systematically laid out and examined. It helps to grip our anxieties head on and force ourselves to imagine what might happen if their vague catastrophic forebodings truly came to pass: what would happen to us if everything we’re dimly worried about really came to pass? What are the real dangers? How might we still be OK, even if it all fell apart? Entertaining the most extreme consequence of a worry can be the best way to finally neuter its otherwise nagging presence. One by one, we should confront the worst – and see that it is, for the most part, very survivable.
At first, when asked to answer what we are anxious about, the mind tends to inarticulacy. It can’t give a full account of itself. But what it can do is throw up hints which our observer self can’t understand wholly and yet should grab with its mental tweezers and set down on a piece of paper. It might be a word or a mental image, a place or a person’s name. It would make no sense to anyone else. Philosophical meditation is a process akin to cleaning out a large clogged-up cupboard: we need to take everything out, without quite knowing what it is, and pile it up on the bed first, as a prelude to sorting it out. On a piece of paper we might have written: ‘Kathryn home, 12-30, why? Albert again. Seoul Mina’. It would be nonsense to anyone else, but we can gradually pass these fragments through a sieve of further questions: We can spend time with each worry, sit it down and let it talk to us, in almost all tedious detail – and gradually feel our alarm subside.
EXERCISE: Interpreting Anxiety
Write down what you are anxious about – find at least 8 things.
Each entry should only be a single word (or just a few words) at this point.
Don’t worry if some of the anxieties look either incredibly trivial or dauntingly existentially large. The mind tends to be an almost comedic blend of the two.
If you’re having trouble, search for things that may be anxiety-inducing under the following categories:
- Things I have to do
Feel the curious release that can come from just making a list of these items. Share the list with a neighbour. Together, take it in turn to discuss each other’s lists.
Huge relief can now come from what we call ‘unpacking’ an anxiety. There are two kinds of unpacking we might do around any given anxiety.
There’s practical unpacking: talk yourself through the practical challenge. Ask the following questions:
What steps do you need to take?
What do others need to do?
What needs to happen when?
It’s very useful to have a calm and sympathetic part of yourself (or a friend) listening in on the detailed description of what needs to be done to address an issue. It’s no longer merely an anxiety. It’s a set of steps. They might not all be easy – but at least you are clearer about what they are.
There’s also emotional unpacking: Talk yourself through an emotional challenge or set of doubts.
Describe the feeling in more detail. What do you feel it points to? Imagine trying to piece it together for a very considerate friend.
The aim here isn’t to solve all anxieties, it’s to start to get to know them and to experience the relief that comes from this.
The more time we spend looking around our minds and trying to make sense of their contents, the more we become aware of complexity, of the second-by-second flow of images, words, feelings and sounds of consciousness. All day, this consciousness is filled with a tangle of material that flashes by an observing ‘I’ so fast and in so dense a way, we can generally only arrest and focus on a minuscule part of what is before us. There are waves of sensations, fog banks of moods, collisions of ideas, and swirls of associations and impressions. Consciousness doesn’t just unfold on a single ‘cinema screen’ of the mind either: we can think of it as more like a multi-multiplex, where a dozen or more moods and emotions are projected at once in a fractured collection of images reminiscent of a puzzling collage of avant-garde videos. Most of what we have felt and been will disappear before it can ever be held and examined.
So little of the richness of consciousness ever makes it out into public discussion. When we open our mouths and tell other people ‘what we think’ or ‘how we’re feeling’, we have no option but to radically simplify the nature of experience: like a journalist filing a 100-word piece on a battle or political revolution to an indifferent domestic audience a continent away. We might say we’ve had a quiet day so far and are fairly cheerful at the moment – and a generous social code means we don’t remind one another of what an inaccurate portrait this must necessarily be.
Part of the reason why we’re not quite aware of the true nature of consciousness is the fault of literature. In most of the novels we read, characters are attributed an utterly implausible – yet superficially beguiling – clarity of mental functioning. For example, the influential nineteenth-century English novelist Anthony Trollope liked to offer his readers a snapshot of what was supposed to be going on in his characters’ heads. In his novel Phineas Finn, a man is elected to parliament and Trollope describes him travelling by train to the capital to take up his post, and musing moodily on his political prospects:
‘He had many serious, almost solemn thoughts on his journey to London. He wondered if he would make a failure of the great matter he had taken in hand. He could not but tell himself that the chances were twenty to one against. Now that he looked at it, the difficulties loomed larger than ever. He told himself he would go to his work honestly and conscientiously, determined to do his duty as best he might, let the results be what they would. He remembered a smile of derision that had come over his friend’s face when he had declared his intention of doing his duty to his country, rather than simply voting on party lines.’
Trollope gives the sincere impression that this really is how human beings think when they sit down on trains and consider their futures. The sort of novels that Trollope wrote have even been described as extremely ‘realistic’. And yet the problem is that – of course – no human who has ever existed actually thinks or feels remotely like this.
It took until the early 20th century for writers to focus on and respond to this foreshortening. In 1918, in his great novel Ulysses, the Irish writer James Joyce for the first time made the move of putting a kind of microphone inside his characters’ minds – to pick up on what became known as ‘the stream of consciousness.’ It sounded radically different from anything Trollope or past novelists had described. At one point in Ulysses the central character, a middle aged man called Leopold Bloom, is standing in a Dublin street musing on birth and death and watching some tramcars and people going past.
‘Trams passed one another, ingoing, outgoing, clanging, clanging. Useless words. Things go on the same day after day: squads of police marching out, back: trams in, out. Those two loonies mooching about. Dignam carted off. Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.’
It’s a strange muddle of high and low concerns, clear and obscure thoughts. Bloom is thinking about the random shortness of life and the idea of religion but also remembering at the same time that he fed some birds; he’s reflecting that words are pretty strange; he’s listening to the sound of the trams and making a snap judgement about two people he sees. And all this is going on in the space of about two seconds.
At the end of the novel, Joyce takes us into the stream of consciousness of Bloom’s wife Molly as she lies in bed beside Bloom in the middle of the night:
‘… is he dreaming am I in it he smells of some kind of drink not whisky perhaps the sweety kind of paste they put posters up with I’d like to sip green and yellow expensive drinks stage door johnnies drink I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel he must have eaten oysters I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up what’s the idea of making us like that with a big hole in the middle I hate people who come at all hours answer the door and you all undressed …’
We may come to know more about our own consciousness via Joyce’s portrait of Molly’s. Like ours, Molly’s mind moves extremely fast from one topic to another: at one moment she’s thinking about liqueurs, then about an American she met at the theatre, then a second later she’s wondering if her husband has been eating oysters, then she thinks about his penis, then she wonders about her own body, then gets irked by the idea of people coming round to the house when she’s not ready to open the door. There’s no dominant central theme that gets carefully explored; a tiny detail (the American has a squirrel) gets just as much attention as the deep puzzlement about human biology.
Despite the monstrous complexity, Ulysses arguably still amounts to a radical simplification of the true nature of experience. After all, it exists only as words, whereas our real stream of consciousness includes a disjointed and random streaming of films and pictures. Images constantly flit across consciousness. Sometimes we’ll see something extraordinarily specific: a door handle from 27 years ago or an image of a boat on a canal in western France. Or we’ll remember looking out of a train on a journey through Germany, but there’ll be no further details or real sense of why this has come into our heads now.
Nevertheless, Joyce’s work is hugely significant for it helps us to start to see what we are up against when we try to understand our own minds. It is not a case of opening up a hatch and finding a welter of well-formulated thoughts. When we turn our attention to ourselves, we won’t be able to locate crystalline attitudes and precise ideas: we will discover only chaos and elusive ideas.
More significantly, it’s from this primeval mulch that we will have to assemble the solid and serious plans we need to navigate through existence: we have to decide what we care about, how we should direct our lives, who we should try to be. At least Joyce’s novel does us the incidental benefit of reassuring us about our fundamental normality, given that we usually have access to other’s minds only through their utterances, which they do their utmost to render fairly sensible – while we are shamefully aware from close up of the mess inside our own heads. The contrast may be depressing, but Joyce reassures us that the problem is generic. The human mind simply is extremely chaotic for everyone.
Knowing more about the stream of consciousness prepares us for the work we will have to do to pull out from the stream the decent and accurate thoughts we need. The mind won’t automatically yield clear answers when we ask ourselves what we think or where we might direct our energies, what we might be doing in five years time or why we are angry. We need to be ready to sieve and find logic in the contents of a consciousness that defies impatient or hurried survey.
Knowing a little more about the stream of consciousness shows us that our brains are a more delicate, messier organ than we are normally allowed to imagine. Many of the introspective tasks we set ourselves turn out to be more fiddly and are going to need more resources, than we typically allow for. Yet the rewards for mastering introspection correctly are immense, for it’s by becoming experts in our own streams of consciousness that we have the chance truly to understand who we are – and thereby to align our lives with the way we really feel and the goals that can truly satisfy us when we reach them.
We are ready to turn to the second guiding enquiry behind the Philosophical Meditation: What am I presently upset about?
It could sound odd, because most of the time, we have no particular sense of being upset about anything. But the claim here is that we are almost always likely to be upset about something, for the simple reason that we are far more vulnerable than we think and that life is constantly placing us in the line of fire of little arrows fired by people around us. Without meaning to, our partners may constantly be shooting small darts at us: they didn’t ask how the day went, they have forgotten that we would be in a meeting, they left the towels in a heap… It sounds absurd, but it is from such small humiliations and slights that large blocks of resentment eventually form and render us, for example, unable to love or to bear to be touched. Too much of social existence requires an excessive degree of stoicism from us. There are heavy incentives for us not to feel or notice our pains. Eventually, this unacknowledged distress may sink our entire selves into depression.
So we need a chance to remember how sensitive we all are. Every day brings us into contact with smaller and lesser incidents of humiliation and regret. Perhaps it was a face we briefly saw in the line at the airport, that seemed kindly and understanding and evoked some tender, vital things missing from our current relationship. Perhaps it was a subtly ungenerous message we received from a friend, in which we sensed a bitter and wounding rivalry. Or maybe it was a regret, on seeing a sunny landscape from a window, at how constrained and routine our lives have become. During our introspective sessions, we can throw off our customary and dangerous bravery – and let our sadness take its natural, due shape. We can dwell at length on the wounding email. We can give space to our nostalgia. There may not be an immediate solution to many of our sorrows, but it helps immeasurably to know their contours and give them (and us) a chance to square up to them. We might, as we turn over our sadnesses, large and small, imagine we were discussing them with an extremely kind and patient figure, who would give us the chance to evoke the hurt in great detail, someone with whom there would be no pressure to rush, be grown-up or brave and who would allow us to admit without fear to the smallness of many of the things that cause us enormous upset. We should, in introspecting upon our sadness, be maximally indulgent with ourselves, as a corrective to our normal tendency to be a bit brutal and to insist we’re getting worked up about nothing – when all along, our pain requires a hearing. In the early 19th century, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote a poem entitled Lorelei which opens with a candid admission:
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
I don’t know what it means
That I’m so sad at heart.
The premise here is that there are always some very good reasons why we are sad, it’s just we haven’t allowed ourselves to feel them – because we are labouring under unfair assumptions about what it is right and normal to feel sad about.
EXERCISE: Interpreting Upset
As quickly as you can – and without bothering how petty, unreasonable or pretentious it might sound – write a list of current upsets. The more the better. How have others hurt you? What are you sad, distressed, nostalgic, wounded about?
Allow yourself in the present safety of this exercise to be, for instance, furious about the way your partner brushes their teeth (too lackadaisical or too smug); the agents of global politics; your boss saying ‘yeah, right’ n a slightly sarcastic manner; the hotel receptionist who implied you might not be very well off or your mother commenting on your taste in shoes. These are just starting points and every starting point is valid.
Look at the your list. Select two ways people have hurt you that regularly preoccupy you – again without considering the objective merits of your irritation. What is it about these things that bothers you? Go into as much detail as possible. Imagine you are pouring your heart out to an extremely sympathetic and patient friend.
Now ask yourself: If this had happened to a friend, how would you advise them? What might you say?
We can go round the room and each person reads out a few lines about one of their hurts.
It’s striking how consoling it is to hear other people’s pains – and how generously we tend to respond to them.
Again, we’re not attempting as yet to resolve these issues. The primary, crucial issue is to get clear about what is actually distressing us. We’re moving from vagueness to clarity.
There is a third question we should consider within the Philosophical Meditation: What do we currently aspire to?
Our minds are also prone to get clogged up by unexamined sources of excitement that can, once they are decoded, point the way to important changes we might be making in our lives. An excitement is a curious kind of signpost to new directions we might take, usually in our working or personal lives. We might experience it when we read an article in the newspaper about a new kind of business or hear of a colleague’s plans to relocate to another city – but often we don’t pause to analyse the excitement any further and thereby miss out on opportunities for development. In a poem written in 1908, the German poet Rilke describes looking at an ancient statue of the Greek god Apollo. The statue had been bashed about over the centuries (the arms had been knocked off at the shoulders) but one could still sense the intelligence and dignity of the culture that had produced it – and Rilke was entranced. And as he introspected and investigated his response, he felt that the statue was sending him a message, which is announced in the final dramatic line of the short poem:
Du musst dein Leben ändern
you must change your life
Rilke knew that he had allowed himself to fall under the sway of German Romanticism and an overly confused dense way of thinking and expressing himself. The Greek statue pointed in another direction, closer to the intellectual values of Ancient Greece. By decoding his excitement, he was catching sight of an alternative way of being an artist.
All of us have impulses towards growth and development and, when we are alert, can perceive slightly better versions of ourselves thanks to the messages we are receiving in garbled forms via our pulses of excitement and interest. The job of introspection is to help us ask ourselves: if this attractive experience (it might be a view, a book, a place, a biography) could talk, what might it want to tell me? Who is it inviting me to be? If other parts of my life were more like this, how might things go? Anything that excites us, arouses our curiosity or yields a certain pleasure is providing data – in a slightly illegible form – about something important missing or in short supply in our lives. We should pause to acknowledge the direction we are being inarticulately but wisely pointed towards.
EXERCISE: Interpreting Excitement
Rapidly list several things that have caught your attention and excited your interest since the last Meditation. A word of a brief phrase is sufficient for now.
Your list might (but doesn’t need to) include:
- Moments of envy – when you thought that someone else had something you might quite like to have a version of yourself.
- Day dreams: ideas about how life might ideally be, that you’d maybe feel awkward about telling others, because they might seem far-fetched or greedy or a bit odd.
- How nice someone or something was
- How envious and yet thrilled someone makes you feel
These are only a few hints. It’s your list.
Select two items that have especially been on your mind. And pass them through a sieve of further questions:
- Describe your excitement as if to a sympathetic, interested friend.
- If you could realistically change your life in certain ways: what would it be to change your life in the light of this?
- This exciting thing holds a clue to what is missing in your life; what might be missing?
- If this thing could talk, what might it tell me?
- If this thing could try to change my life, what changes might it advise?
- If other parts of my life were more like this, what might they be like?
Pick the set of answers to one thing that now especially intrigues you.
We go round the room and each person summarises their analysis of one area of excitement. Note how many new plans and ideas all of us are constantly entertaining, just below the radar. Feel sympathy for our desires to move against the normal inertia of existence.
Philosophical Meditation doesn’t magically solve problems, but it hugely helps us by creating an occasion when we can identify our thoughts and get them in some kind of order. Fears, resentments and hopes become easier to name – we get less scared of the contents of our own minds, we grow calmer, less resentful and clearer about our direction in life. We start, at last, to know ourselves a little better. It would help if we could do this at least every few days.