Footsteps Of Thought

I MUST now remind the student that the mind is dynamic and that it walks as though on two feet. This I have already explained. Sometimes thinking is called a flow of thought. Very good, but I prefer the simile of walking, as that reminds me of the static elements—the ideas or mental images on which the feet of the mind may be thought to step.

This is an important point. Therefore, even at the risk of repetition let me give another example, from my own experience. I start by thinking about a cat. A few moments later I find myself thinking about a very strikingly designed iron bridge that spans the river Indus between the towns of Sukkur and Rohri. I might imagine, if I did not know the laws governing the process of thought, that my mind had leaped from the idea of the cat to the idea of the bridge, that it had merely casually forgotten the first thing and merely casually thought of the other. But if I take the trouble to recall what has happened and to study the matter I shall find that there was an unbroken chain of images leading from the first to the last, that it was on a definite series of stepping stones that I crossed between the two.

I thought of a cat, then of a cat lying upon a hearth-rug before a fire (a very common thing in Europe), then of the hearth-rug without the cat, then of the hearth-rug being made in a factory, then of a particular factory that I knew very well, which was near the river Indus, and then of the scene further up the river where the great bridge already mentioned rises into the air.

As I have said before, the process is just like walking; one mental foot comes down on the idea of the cat, the other moves forward and rests on the idea of the hearth-rug; the first foot is lifted from the cat and moves forward to the factory. When it is settled there the second foot is lifted from the idea of the hearth-rug and brought down upon the river Indus. Next the first foot is removed from the idea of the factory and settled upon the Sukkur bridge and so on.

The process is also like the beating of the heart. There is first a thought, then it is enlarged by the addition of another; then it is contracted by the elimination of the first. Expansion and contraption of thought thus alternate as regularly as in the beating of the heart. When the expansion takes place consciousness becomes vaguer, for the light of attention is more diffused, because it covers a larger field; but when the contraction takes place the object is vividly illumined and consciousness is at its best in point of quality. The contraction is concentration; the expansion is meditation. The movement is thought.

Now, two things may happen in this process of thought. The attention may simply drift from one image to another with no settled purpose or direction, taking at each step the easiest path, following old habits of thought, keeping to the beaten track, or going the easiest way, like a stream of water finding its way down hill. Or it may be set to the work of exploration and discovery in a certain definite direction decided upon before the process begins.

The first of these alternatives is mind-wandering; the second is thinking. Some minds scarcely do anything but wander; others are capable of thought.

Knowing this, we are in a position to practise thinking, just as definitely as we can undertake muscular development with or without physical apparatus. We may convert our thought-activities from streams of mud and sand into chains of gold.

Let us define some of our words and see where we stand. (1) The attention is what is commonly called the will, which is ourself awake, expanding and contracting like a heart.

spanning portions of what we may call the mental world, as with two feet. (2) The mental world is a subjective region full of ideas. As the attention poises itself on one of these, whether simple or complex (a larger or smaller portion of that world) it can look around and see some of the mental scenery, the ideas connected with that upon which it rests. (3) Thought is the process of moving from one foot to the other. Ideas are mental objects; thought is mental travel; the will is the traveller. Let us examine these more fully.

There is a sense in which we are all very much aloof from the world. Our life is really in our minds; there we see the reflections of the objects around us; there we feel our pleasures and pains. Sitting in this mind I am at the moment somewhat aloof from my surroundings, and intent only on my writing.

Suppose I stop writing for a moment and look round. In front of me are the table and chairs, on and against the walls are book-shelves, cabinets, a clock, a calendar, pictures, and numerous other things. I look through the windows and there are the tops of the palm and mango trees, the white March clouds of Madras, and beyond them the ethereal blue.

I attend to my ears instead of my eyes—a crow squawks over on the left; the clock ticks on the wall; footsteps shuffle along the corridor; there is a murmur of distant voices; a squirrel chirrups near at hand; some pandits are droning in the Sanskrit library near by; a typewriter rattles somewhere else; and behind all these is the roar of the breakers of the Bay of Bengal on the beach half a mile away. I attend more closely, and hear the blood rumbling in my ears and the long-drawn whistle of some obscure physiological process.,,

I turn my attention to my skin, and now I feel the pen upon which my fingers gently press, the clothes upon my back, the chair on which I sit (I might say "in which" if it were more comfortable), the floor upon which my feet are placed; the warm soft wind pressing upon and wafting my hands and face.

I wish to emphasize this point: at any moment I am aware of only a tiny fragment of the world. I have travelled about in this body for a number of years, seen, heard and felt many things in different parts of the world, but how little of that experience of mine can exist in my consciousness at any moment, and how inexpressibly small even the whole of it has been in comparison with all that exists which I have not seen or known!

I must accept my natural limitations, but fortunately I am not a mere mirror in which the objects of the world reflect themselves. I have the power of attention. I can ignore some things, and pay attention to others. This applies to both sense-objects and ideas.

This being so, let us understand the value of control of the mind, so that what we do we do intentionally. Let us train the mind (1) to move in the direction we have chosen, and (2) to extend and improve its range of vision, its ability to see clearly and rightly the events which it meets on the road of life.

Before we consider (1) let us look again at (2), which is concerned with the static elements, or stepping-stones, in the process of thought.

When the foot of thought comes down upon an idea it does so like that of an elephant, which spreads when it settles, and covers a certain amount of space. Therefore when you turn your attention to an idea you do not find a solitary, clear-cut thing, but one thing associated with many others.

Materially that is the case also; you cannot find anything by itself—books without eyes to read them, pens without paper to write on, shoes without feet to be covered, cups without mouths to be poured into, houses without people to live in them, are unthinkable things.

But every idea has a centre where the vision is clear, from which it gradually shades away. Just as when I fix my eyes upon the ink-bottle before me I see also vaguely other things on the table, the articles of furniture to left and right, the trees in the garden outside, a multitude of details; so also when I fix my attention on a particular thought I find a mass of thoughts around it, gradually shading off, becoming more indefinite as more remote, and finally losing themselves at no definite limit. So our stepping-stones may be large or small, on account of various factors, especially our familiarity with the subject and our degree of concentration at the moment.

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