John Sell Cotman - Doorway


Once there's been a chance to observe clearly the flow of thoughts (one of the benefits of meditation), it's natural to begin noticing the space between thoughts, and so find more lines of thinking lodged there and unfolding at different "angles" and paces. I'm drawn to look into these intervals because:

  • intervals are a native feature of mind and its thought-streams
  • there's a desire to find the track of the creative process itself
  • the attraction of new space and open possibilities
  • the surprising "that's not me" quality of the intervals
  • the hope of seeing how the condensation of information works
  • the curiosity about "how much is there?"
  • one constantly scans for potential sources of guidance on the nature of things

There's only so far one is able to see into this space during "light" forms of meditation, at least in my case, but in other meditative states, ones over which I have less control, I recall seeing/hearing large-scale streams of thought-traffic in progress "ply over ply" within the spaces between "top-level" thoughts. At times I've considered whether it's the "looking" which creates the streams observed; in some sense this feels true, and the looking does inflect the progress and content of some of the streams, but there's also an independence in these streams—their origin and intention seems to belong to someone other than the watching self. This too may be an artifact of the process of observation. It's worth noting that there seems to be a considerable conceptual content or volume of subject matter within these apparently tiny intervals. I realize that reference to “tiny”-ness here is all relative to the level one is starting from. Once one passes into the interval, as it were, this original scale reference is lost, and another indescribably huge range of intervals presents itself to view.

Another aspect of the material within these intervals is that sometimes they seem fully acquainted or conversant with other streams and layers, as if there are cross-inquiries being conducted of which I have no part, and for purposes I do not grasp. Not all the streams appear this purposeful. Some seem like nonsense, and some are like scat-singing upon a theme carried by some other stream. It's certainly possible that this entire effect or display is just a view into the mind's back alley, maybe a form of waste disposal, or even an extended bit of brain-machine chicanery for the meditating rube.

The quality of the "display" of these thought layers and intervals is one of the distinguishing features of different states of meditation. Conducting mental inquiries is not the typical purpose of traditional meditation, and while all these observations are based on recollections of the mental field presented during meditation, other matters than philosophic reflection are in play. It must first be noted that in meditation, the primary chunk of intentional phenomenological work occurs as if within a separate inner world, whole and unified, operating under its own laws, alive and vital.

But on the question of what thinking is like during meditation, some of the thought streams, especially those found within "intervals" between thoughts, appear more like a "found" object or process than a directed inquiry conducted by the self. This apparent otherness projects an altogether much larger scope of the "personal self" than that provided to normal street awareness, and often leads to an increased acuity of attention that lasts for a while after the meditation is ended, during which one can more easily spot the multitude of commentators crowding around the microphone of daytime conscious awareness. This can at first be disconcerting, and may in some sense be related to the "multiple selves" problem reported in popular psychology. It would be easy to pay more attention to these thread-selves than they deserve, and get caught up in generating an emotion-filled story to account for them. In sum, the suggestion is that the waking me is condensed out of, or riding upon many, many, many selves (this is one of the standard notions of the post-structuralist philosophers, although their constructions of the "multiple self" theme are generally founded on other kinds of evidence). Sometimes after meditation I have felt gratitude for the gift of simple consciousness, and the gating of the multiple streams of cerebral chatter.

All these reflections on thoughts during meditation are the result of a lazy man's meditative practice—infrequent and undeveloped, a beginner's testimony based on weekend-style tinkering. I'm sure that accomplished practitioners of meditation would have more useful things to say, and much to criticize, in this material. One of the valuable outcomes of this trainee work is the growing ability to make these observations outside of the meditative state (perhaps some aspects of meditation are now going on in ordinary awareness?) [Refine the exposition, fix any mischaracterization of the phenomena, etc.]

Refectory Doorway – John Sell Cotman

John Sell Cotman (May 16, 1782 – July 28, 1842), was an artist of the Norwich school and an associate of John Crome. He was born in Norwich, England and worked mainly in watercolour, but also produced architectural etchings. He spent virtually all his life in England, apart from three trips to Normandy financed by rich patrons. He moved to London at the age of sixteen, and was based there for the rest of his life. (Wikipedia entry)