Quicker than the Mind

Some time ago I made a curious discovery about the way I write.  Often I begin the day sitting in my study with a notebook in my lap.  I may start with a word or phrase or scrap of song that came to me in the night.  These are like seeds planted in the mind, and if I am lucky they will blossom into something interesting on the page.  When things go well, I simply let my fingers do the talking.  The pen dances across the page, and words appear.  Now, here's the curious thing.  I used to think the words would form in my mind first, and then I would write them down.  But when I closely observed what was actually happening, I realized I had it backwards.  The words would form on the page first, and I would dutifully sound out each one of them in my mind as they appeared on the page.  How did I get those reversed?

Oliver Sacks has written about research on brain signals in highly trained athletes.   Back in the 1960s, the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet found that sprinters would be out of the blocks before their conscious awareness had even registered that the starting pistol had fired.  Even so, the runners would report they had heard the gun fire before starting to run.  Libby observed that the mind "antedates" the sound of the pistol by a good half second.

"The hand is quicker than the eye," a college friend once quipped, "and they are both quicker than the mind."  When Eugene Herrigel writes of an awakened state in which everything is done before one knows it, he's getting at the same idea.  The mind likes to think it's in charge and will even "antedate" reality in order to preserve the illusion that a conscious decision is involved.

My pen dances across the page, and my mind races nimbly after the words, hoping to claim authorship.  The mind is a clever thief -- and brazen to boot.  It will break in to steal and then make itself right at home.  In precisely this way, the kingdom of God is transformed into the kingdom of self.

Oliver Sacks, "Speed"  in The New Yorker, August 23, 2004.
Eugene Herrigel, Zen and the Art of Archery.

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