From where I live now I have three realistic modes of transport to and from work: cycling, driving and a combination of bus and, in Stirling, one of the hire bikes. Last week I decided to take the third option, as I am a member of the hiring scheme and the first half-hour of rental is free. I could combine trying out the bikes with testing this route and, perhaps, enjoy a more relaxed commute at the end of the week.
Both journeys went smoothly, the hire bikes were free of serious faults and the buses on time. Stirling Council has put in place some pretty good cycling routes in the city that are useful for my journey and I could allow my mind to play a little, with the cares and demands of driving in the hands of our shared chauffeur.
I noticed in my stream of mental chatter the usual turbulence of ideas, observations, shifting awareness of bodily sensations, memories and plans, emotions and so on, all arising and fading like glittering fishes and assorted treasures and detritus emerging briefly from the muddy eddies before sinking back out of view into the depths.
Occasionally there were longer-lasting impressions and insights. This time it came as I noticed familiar patterns and prejudices appear almost as childlike crayon graphic overlays between my general awareness and the appearance of people around me on the bus.
It was a striking moment of clarity that was neither shocking nor surprising – I have become aware of this before – but it felt fresher and more vivid this time. A background chatter of judgement and opinions, of sorting and categorisation, like a suspicious and short-tempered receptionist trying to decide who gets in and whom to turn away, unaware that the boss is wise to his old employee’s tricks and is spending more time sitting in reception himself.
The terms “stereotype ” and “prejudice ” are heavy with negative associations these days, used as they are in mostly negative context; to admit to their presence in one’s mind is seen as an admission of a shameful guilt, of heretical thought-crime.
Yet this feature of our minds serves a purpose, not least to enable us to navigate the complex world of our experience quickly enough to keep up with events and, most of the time, avoid serious trouble. If everything appeared completely fresh and new in our minds, we would have long ago been eaten by lions or bears who simply saw us as “lunch”. We need to learn quickly to compare our perceptions with pre-formed models, stereotypes, simply in order to move around and sit down; “dog” not= “chair”.
It’s a matter of awareness, keeping an eye on the mental processes that filter the flow of phenomena and noticing when they are useful, keeping us out of trouble and assisting rapid decision making, and when they are unhelpful or even harmful, triggering defensive and ill-considered reactions that, in the end, harm us all. This isn’t easy, especially in a culture that is itself ambiguous about self-awareness and restraint and that circulates prejudice and simplistic, stereotypical thinking at many levels; it does make life feel simpler, after all.
All I can do, for myself, is to keep observing, practice noticing when my mind is distracted and judgement clouded by the cartoon vision of that metaphorical old receptionist, the moments when the boss has retreated to the office and shut the door, leaving control to the subordinates. It takes an effort, repetition, acceptance of failures too; self-punishment is unhelpful and doesn’t foster the compassion needed to share with others.
The bus journey was uneventful, the other passengers chatted with each other, listening to the fragments of conversation helped me remind myself that every one was another story, another centre of the universe, a constellation of myriad untold tales.
Perhaps it’s this that draws me to sit in cafés, airports, buses, trains, listening, sketching, writing; human stargazing through the scudding clouds and distorting lenses of my own mental activities. Looking for a clearer view.
It’s time to go. The coffee and cake were good, time now to go home and plan for a few days of holiday. Happy travelling!