I like to take notes on my meditations. It helps me clarify my experience, track my path, and fold some of that experience back into my non-sitting time, which is most of my time. Below is a synthases of notes on what I observed in thought space, or “hear in”, from a series of sits this March, only now getting around to posting…
These are the “talkiest” thoughts in talk space. They have a distinct voice quality, and sound like actual verbalization that could be spoken or written down. It is the noticeable “flow” of one thought to another that’s going on in talk space.
The “I” self: An often observational voice that speaks for the self from the first person perspective. It says things like “I feel angry.” “I am hungry.” “This tastes good” (implied: I like the way this tastes).
The “You” self: Also a self-aware voice, from the self, to the self, but with a distinctly different language/perspective orientation, of “other” in that it uses a “you” based construct. Strongly associated with negative self talk, it says things like “You are never going to get better.” “What is wrong with you? How come you are doing this?” “What does so and so think about you?” This voice can/does dialog with the “I” self voice. These two voices can sort of swap back and forth, e.g. I might think what is basically the same question in either of these voices: “what do I want / what do you want”.
The “Me” self: This is the current, and imagined future me. The voice that participates in imagined conversations with others, as I imagine I would. It sounds the most like what would come out of my mouth if were to start talking right now. It’s very similar to (maybe the same as) the voice I’m listening to right now as I type these words. It’s the voice of the integrated, present self.
Thought Processes / Secondary Voices:
These are more like types of thinking processes. They have a little bit of a voice sense, in that they seem to have a role/function/output – a sort of functional identity – and a sense of flow, but not any strong association of self.
The analyst: A active voice that’s an observer and synthesizer of thoughts. Replays / examines thoughts and experiences to “make sense” of them, to try to orient them in my mental model of the world. It’s like a clearinghouse voice, that deals with the stuff that gets flagged and doesn’t just pass through low-level processing. Very similar to Piaget’s cognitive development concept of Adaptation. This thought process is the conscious (and observable) process of assimilation and accommodation of cognitive schema. This is the primary process for reaching conclusions about my experience.
The planner / problem solver: An active voice. Does things like makes lists, plans routes for errands, very oriented around maximizing efficiency. Will lay out a plan, consider additional information and readjust the plan. I use this type of thought in my job all the time, to develop a product strategy or design, for example. Also pops up constantly based on visual (or other stimuli) to prompt behavior: e.g. I’ll see a package of diaper wipes on the stairs and think: pick those up and put them away upstairs.
The creator: The voice that comes up with new ideas. Works closely with the analyst and the planner, but is different in that offers a solution. The analyst is about internal synthesis, the planner about external synthesis, and the creator presents thoughts that are external solutions. E.g. I’ll be thinking about my personal practice of mindfulness, how the rest of the world views mindfulness, how I might improve my own ability to become more mindful, churning all of this around and the creator will pop in and say: “you know what would be cool? a little app that randomly texts you notes to stop and take a minute to be mindful, or little affirmations, or meditations to interrupt your non-mindful flow, and remind you to be mindful. that might be cool and helpful.” Except, it’s not so “talky” like that, all of that just sort arrives at once in a big chunk (I think). It works so closely and quickly with the analyst and planner, I can’t say for sure how they break out, except I have a sense of them all being different. They all feel different, and the creator thoughts have a distinct “ah-ha!” quality to them, and are pleasant, exciting thoughts.
Listening synthesizer: Similar to, maybe a sub-type of, the analyst thoughts, but less introspective. It’s a passive thought process that accompanies listening to another person, or my own flow, and analyzes the stream, ponders, and draws conclusions. It’s a secondary thread that seems to start on it’s own and I can become aware of if I’m paying attention. For example, the main thought in my flow was a replay of a conversation I had at breakfast, and the listening synthesizer was doing an analysis of what happened and how that might relate to other things in the world, totally separate from the experience itself. This process might also be responsible for thoughts that seem to come out of no where, if it reaches a conclusion and interrupts the flow.
Commentary: E.g. I’m listening to a lecture – actively taking in the words, applying some mental effort to listening and processing – but at the same time thinking things like, “I agree; I disagree; yes, I’ve heard of that before; oh that’s really interesting, this thing she’s talking about is like this other thing I heard on a podcast….” More overt and less sophisticated than the listening synthesizer. This is one of the most recognizable types of thought that pulls me out of experiencing reality as it occurs.
Cementing replay: a process I go through of a deliberate and focused replaying of thoughts to solidify them (distinct form recall/replay that emerges in the flow). I do this intentionally to help create permanence around new and evolving thoughts, things I want to remember or share, come back to in order to work on them more. I also do this around imagined scenarios, like conversations I wish I had, or how I would like future scenarios to unfold. This latter use is a fantasy of an alternative reality, and pretty distracting from actual reality. The process of cementing feels very similar in both cases (thought development and thought fantasy), which is creepy, since it allows the non-reality to seem (feel) a lot like reality.
Other types of thoughts:
These are thoughts that seem discernible as their own thing, but don’t have so much flow around them. They’re the smaller objects that make up the flow.
Stored thoughts: Things I recall from memory. They are recognizable as pre-existing objects, as opposed to talk flow that seems like it is being created in real time, and new ideas that emerge out of the flow (and then become stored thoughts).
Feeder thoughts: These are barely recognizable, almost more of a sense than thought. I noticed these once while mediating – they’re like a pre-thought to the dominant flow. It’s sort of like when you’re listening to someone talk, and they pause to search for a word, and you begin to anticipate what word they’ll use, and then they do use the same word you were thinking, and you think, “yes, that’s just what I was thinking you would say”. That’s as close as I can describe the experience, but much less conscious than that. Same kind of process, but just this really subtle sense of recognition of the pre-existing fulfillment of conscious thought.
Behavior association: Thoughts strongly associated with implemented (as opposed to planned) functional behavior – take a shower, call the doctor, stop at this red light, etc. Also, can be very low-level, almost instantaneous, reactive thoughts to stimuli. E.g. I see my toddler is winding up to hit me and I consciously think: “I’m about to get hit” and I put my hand up to protect myself without consciously thinking about the action. These are the thoughts that prompt me to participate in the world in some way.
Sensory thoughts: thoughts about external stimuli: sights, sounds, and sensations.
Meta-thoughts: thoughts about thoughts: visual and talk.
Properties of thought:
These a qualities that thoughts can have, in addition to their native type or form. Thoughts have multiple properties.
Feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.
Voice type: active – a dominant, constructed thought flow; passive – also a flow, but more random-seeming filler, like the stuff that’s going on in the background that you sort of tune in and out of – it’s not intentional, it’s just happening; interruptive – thoughts that become suddenly dominant over the flow – either by interrupting the active flow, or shouting from the passive flow to grab attention.
Positional dimension: Thoughts have a quality of position, like strata, in relation to my level of consciousness about them. Very conscious thoughts like the self voices are “high up”. Process thoughts are layered below conscious thoughts, and assumed thoughts and objects come last, at the bottom, or sub-conscious. When I am aware of them as objects in the space of my mind they actually have a feeling of (relative) physical position. Active thoughts hold a higher position than passive thoughts.
Threading: I can have multiple thought streams at once. Sometimes they’re interacting, like a meta-commentary on the dominant flow, or a spin-off thread that continues in parallel, and sometimes they’re just about different stuff, like I’ll be thinking about, or focused on my breathing, but also listening to the talk flow. Threads can occur for active and passive thought streams and around different object dimensions, e.g. sight, sensation, talk. I can only actively pay attention to three at once, if I’m really focused, but it degrades the quality of the experience of each. One or two is more common, and rapid switching is most common. I think there are lots of threads all the time, and always influencing, but it’s hard for me to hold them in active, parallel attention.
Emotion association: Tightly coupled association with an emotion. I might have the thought, “I feel really angry”, and while I can at one level identify that as a feeling, I can not detach from the current feeling of anger. The observation is heavily weighted in the experience, compared to a latter-state recall of being angry. Both, observational thoughts about an emotion state, but one co-occurs with the emotion state and the other doesn’t.
Permanence: a sense of how secure a thought is within my mental schema. Some thoughts I’m very clear on, others are more slippery. For example, the color blue is a really permanent thought – very well established and secure. Something like what I’m writing right now, is much less secure. A number of factors influence security, like level of exposure (I’ve identified “blue” probably millions of times) and theoretical vs. experiential (experiencing a kasina, creates a stronger permanence around kasina thoughts, than if I just knew about kasinas in an academic sense). Weakly-permanent thoughts take up a lot more mental energy than strongly permanent thoughts – thinking about the color blue almost doesn’t register, thinking about thoughts, much hard and more time consuming. There is an interesting inversion of this with image objects. When I focus on them, they get less identifiable, like looking at starlight. This mostly seems to be temporary, they come back, but in general, as I become more aware of distinct objects, they tend to loose some of their presence, some of their power. This is true for emotions and physical sensations too (I can make an itch subside when I’m meditating by focusing on it – did not work for sneezing), and even the visual breakdown that happens with still eyes. But with thoughts, focus and replay seems to strengthen them.
These are objects (or maybe forces? processes?) that I have not directly observed, but based on my experience, it seems like they might exist.
Thought control: It’s possible that flow thoughts are random, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It seems like there is a background function that is directing, or maybe just nudging thoughts. It receives input from senses and conscious thought. I can temporarily create the appearance of control over my thoughts, but it doesn’t last, and I’m not sure it’s actual control. The control I think must exist is more like karma, or unresolved attachments. Not entirely out of my sphere of influence but probably much further away than I’m even capable of fully understanding at this point.
Choice: This is hard to articulate. But the notion that we have choice around our thoughts – separate from control. I.e. we might not control the thought that comes to us, but we have a choice about what to do with it, or how to react to it. It’s really close to, or maybe an amalgamation of, a lot of the other processes, behaviors and emotions. Somehow it seems like it’s own thing. Sometimes I can think my way into choice, I can “flip” an experience by looking at it objectively and selecting (choosing) to focus on the more pleasant part of it. But choice also has a less controlled (but related) aspect that just comes with broader perception and more awareness. Basically, when you’re actually in touch with the world around you, it suddenly becomes easier to perceive it’s beauty, and everything gets nicer. This is the force behind “choice” that’s just sort of happening automatically. I don’t know, maybe this is just free will.
Recall mechanism: the thing that “knows” about the all the thoughts I have stored. Data access and processing. It seems likes it’s influenced by the flow, and senses. It’s the thing that’s inserting stored thoughts to the flow, and re-storing thoughts from the flow, either existing ones that have passed or new ones that got created. I guess that raises an interesting question about if stored thoughts get “put back” or simply dissipate once they leave the flow. They must be some tiny form of energy, what happens to that energy? Putting them back resonates with the notion of imprinting, patterning, and reinforcement, like the mental muscle development that occurs from constantly taking a thought on and off the shelf. But on the other hand we talk all the time about the impermanence of thought, which is the opposite. Huh.
Sub-conscious processing: Really low-level processing like language and visual recognition.