Are we the stream of consciousness? Or the one trying to navigate it?
By Richard Carey
A question that philosophy professors love to toss at their 101-level students goes something like this: “When I reflect upon my inner life, who is the ‘I’ doing the reflecting?” Is that quiet watcher in, of, or beyond the ego-burdened self? The question evokes a wonderfully paradoxical proposition and points compellingly to a metaphysical dimension, for from “my” aloof and lofty perch, is not my self-awareness the self-awareness of the universe itself? And shouldn’t that little satori be enough to calm the chronically uneasy and unchartable “stream of consciousness” that animates my inner life?
Notable writers, such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, were known for co-opting the concept of stream of consciousness to express the inner human narrative through literature. The “stream” metaphor is apt because the inner life (mine, at least) moves forward in space and time at varying speeds and depths, fraught with the fragments and flotsam of sensory experience and memory. In the space of any given day or hour, the stream may be calm for a spell, but then in the next moment churned by whirlpools and rapids, and like it or not, the “I” entity must navigate all these circumstances within the self-imposed structures of its projected identity. (I use “must” advisedly; how we navigate and the structures imposed are actually choices we make, but as one becomes more set in one’s ways and sense of self, it doesn’t really feel like we have much in the way of choice — we stick to the script we know.)
The truth, of course, is that both the stream and the navigator are components of the same inner life, co-existing, symbiotic aspects of the whole self. But even this realization does not resolve the full mystery of the observing “I.” At one and the same time, I am the stream and I am the navigator, and conversely, at one and the same time, I am other than the stream and I am other than the navigator. How do I know this? Because from a quieter, more tranquil space above the stream, I can impart a stillness at will, both to the elemental energy of the stream and to the navigator. But this power comes only through meditation, which requires regular practice, which I do sometimes forget until things become so crazy that I must find the quiet place.
I believe that this quiet place, apart but present, is available to us all. How we reach it may vary, depending on the agency or trigger we use to change the channel, so to speak. There isn’t any one “right” or perfect mechanism. For much of my life, poetry has been just such an agency. In that spirit, I offer this:
Stream of Consciousness
How murky at first, a primal pool
Muddied by the stir and surge of the deep spring —
The source — always felt, always unreachable,
Always so immediate, always there at the waking hour.
The first images —
Luminous, malleable creatures,
Delicate, small —
Swirling up from the soft fluvial bed,
Caught briefly by the bent gleams of new light,
They settle again, left behind, half forgotten.
The first pain — the inner and external collisions,
The waiting, immovable intruders, the boundaries,
The bombardments from the other universes;
Yet still flowing on, getting stronger against the pain.
For a long way, full grown, full of itself and its force,
Tolerating a sameness, imagining a safeness,
Until one day, upon the blinded surface,
A dark ship, adrift under the moon,
Beckons toward the unknown sea
And its unknown streams.
Richard Carey lives in Ashland and, when not facilitating the Inner Peace column, spends most of his time studying the Zen of idleness and scribbling out the occasional poem.
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