What is the Stream of Consciousness?
This video is part of the Mindfulness Incubator video series. (5/16)
One of the hardest things to describe or to be properly aware of is what it feels like to be inside our own minds. The second-by-second flow of images, words, feelings, and sounds inside our heads that philosophers call: our Consciousness. All day, this consciousness is filled with a tangle of material that flashes by an observing eye so fast and in such a multi-layered and dense array; we can generally only rest 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 more like a multi, multi-plex 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 have been will disappear before it can ever be held and examined. Furthermore, little of the richness of consciousness ever makes it out into public discussion.
When we open our mouths and tell other people, for example, 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” or 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 19th 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 traveling 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!
Trollope gives us 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 ever described.
At one point in Ulysses, we hear the stream of consciousness of a heroine Molly as she lies in bed beside her husband Bloom in the middle of the night. Is he dreaming? Am I in it? He smells of some kind of drink not whiskey perhaps the sweet kind of paste they put posters up with. I’d like to sip green and yellow expensive drinks staged or Johnny’s 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 fuller. 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’re all undressed.
We come to know more about our own consciousness via Joyce’s unusual 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 theater, then a second later she’s wondering if her husband’s 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 around to the house when she’s not ready to open the door.
There’s no dominant central theme that gets carefully explored. Despite the monstrous complexity, Ulysses, arguably, still amounts to a radical simplification of the true nature of experience. After all, the novel 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 remember looking out of a train on a journey through Germany, but there’ll be no further details or real sense as to why this has come into our heads right now.
Nevertheless, Joyce’s work is hugely significant because it helps us to start to see what we’re up against when we try to understand our own minds. It is not a case of just 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 illusive thoughts.
More significantly, it’s from this prime-evil 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? Knowing more about the stream of consciousness prepares us for the work that we 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. There can naturally be a temptation to avoid the hard work, and there are some alternatives to proper introspection. Some of the content we hold in our minds is coherent and very easy to grasp, but it suffers from a marked drawback: it isn’t really ours. It’s second-hand, stale, and a derivative bank of ideas and plans. We have certain notions in our heads that come not from our deeper resources of feeling and intuition but from what we have sucked in uncritically from outside, from what we’ve read in the newspaper or heard about from parents or friends.
These are our received ideas. We don’t need to think hard at all to regurgitate them. They’re just waiting in prepackaged form in the reception room of our minds. And yet, it’s only the thoughts and feelings that are originally unprocessed that come from the caverns in ourselves that are the ones richest in information. Even if they’re also, painfully, the hardest to make sense of.
Knowing a little more about the stream of consciousness shows us that our brains are a more delicate, messier organ than we’re 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 with the goals that can truly satisfy us when we reach them.
In the hustle and bustle of life, we often overlook one of the most fascinating realms of human existence – the mysterious landscape of our own minds. It’s a place where thoughts, emotions, and sensations swirl together in a ceaseless dance, yet it’s a terrain we seldom explore in depth.
This intricate terrain, which philosophers aptly term ‘Consciousness,’ is like a bustling multiplex theater where a multitude of emotions and moods are projected simultaneously onto the screen of our awareness. It’s a place where sensations ebb and flow, moods come and go, ideas collide, and associations form in a tapestry of complexity.
But here’s the catch: We can only focus on a minuscule part of this mental cacophony at any given moment. Our consciousness is like a rapid-fire slideshow of experiences, each moment fleeting and quickly replaced by the next. We’re akin to an audience member in this cinema of the mind, struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings.
When we attempt to share this internal world with others, we’re faced with a daunting challenge. How can we possibly convey the richness of our consciousness to someone else? We resort to simplifications, offering brief summaries of our thoughts and emotions, like a journalist condensing a complex story into a 100-word article for a distant audience.
In the realm of literature, we encounter a similar dilemma. Novels often depict characters with a level of mental clarity that seems almost otherworldly. Take, for example, the works of Anthony Trollope, a 19th-century English novelist. He presented his characters’ inner worlds with a clarity that, though beguiling, felt implausible when compared to the intricacies of real human thought.
Trollope’s characters pondered their life choices with a solemnity and coherence that few of us could ever claim to possess. Their inner musings were presented as if they were dissecting every facet of their existence during a train journey or a moment of reflection. But in reality, human thought is far more nuanced and fragmented than Trollope’s portrayal suggests.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that literature began to address this shortfall in depicting the complexity of human consciousness. James Joyce, an Irish writer, took a bold step in his novel ‘Ulysses’ by delving into what he termed ‘The Stream of Consciousness.’ For the first time, readers were offered a glimpse into the unfiltered, rapid-fire thoughts of characters.
In ‘Ulysses,’ we encounter the stream of consciousness of Molly, a heroine lying in bed beside her husband. Her thoughts dart from one topic to another with breathtaking speed, much like our own inner monologues. She contemplates everything from drinks to oysters, from body image to the annoyance of unexpected visitors. There’s no central theme, no orderly progression of thought – just a whirlwind of ideas and sensations.
Joyce’s groundbreaking work reminds us that our consciousness is a chaotic, ever-shifting landscape. It’s a place where random images and fleeting memories constantly flicker across our mental screen. These thoughts are often vivid but disconnected, like fragments of a puzzle with no apparent solution.
Understanding the true nature of our consciousness can be challenging. It’s not a simple matter of opening a hatch to reveal neatly organized thoughts and feelings. Instead, we must navigate through a sea of chaos to uncover the insights we seek.
When we turn our introspective gaze inward, we may find that answers aren’t readily available. The mind doesn’t yield clear, crystalline ideas upon request. Instead, it offers a labyrinth of elusive thoughts and emotions.
Yet, this is the primeval soil from which we must cultivate our most profound insights and thoughtful plans. It’s within this chaos that we must discern what truly matters, how to steer our lives, and who we aspire to become.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to sidestep this intricate work of introspection. We may resort to regurgitating received ideas, thoughts we’ve absorbed from external sources without critical examination. These thoughts are easy to access, readily available for discussion, but often lack the depth and authenticity of our innermost convictions.
The true treasures lie in the unprocessed thoughts and feelings that originate from the depths of our being. They may be harder to decipher, but they offer the richest insights into who we are.
Exploring the stream of consciousness reveals the intricate, messy nature of our brains. It’s a reminder that self-discovery and introspection are not straightforward endeavors. They require patience and a willingness to navigate the convoluted paths of our inner worlds.
However, the rewards for mastering this art of introspection are immeasurable. By becoming experts in our own streams of consciousness, we gain a profound understanding of ourselves. We align our lives with our genuine feelings and aspirations, ultimately finding fulfillment and purpose in our journey.
So, as we navigate the complexities of our own minds, let us remember that beneath the chaos lies the potential for profound self-discovery and personal growth. It’s a journey worth embarking on, one that can lead us to a deeper understanding of who we are and the paths we choose to follow.