There’s a scene in the BBC’s snarky, engaging Sherlock in which Holmes lays out his aversion to knowing any facts that aren’t immediately applicable to his daily life or the work at hand. His theory is that any unnecessary information is simply brain-clutter, occupying neurons that could otherwise be put to more useful employ–and anyone familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon knows that he does indeed put his grey matter to impressive use. One might do well to heed advice from such a fellow.
It’s a idea that’s not wholly without merit, particularly on those days when I can remember pop songs I’d just as soon forget, but can’t for the life of me recall where I put my keys. But, in all seriousness, I think he’s got it wrong.
While our brains are not at all good at multitasking (seriously, people: fiddle with your phone after you get out of the car), they are capable of retaining prodigious amounts of information. Contrary to what Sherlock says, remembering stuff isn’t our problem. Accessing what we’ve remembered, however, is another thing entirely.
Think of your brain as a stream. Its bed–its foundation, what gives it structure and direction–is composed of data points large and small. Some memories are boulders: enduring, immoveable, solid. Others are pebbles, tumbled in the current, or smooth rocks scooped up by the handful for skipping. The rest are fine particles of silt, still there, but small enough that their very order and placement can be changed by a wader’s footprints or the sweep of a trout’s tail. There’s a lot down there. And over it all runs a continuous flow of activity–the chattering stream of grocery lists, commercial jingles, obligations, worries, regrets, private celebrations, trivia, funny jokes, half-digested stories, and unresolved conflicts that swim, constantly, just this side of our conscious awareness.
The Sherlocks of the world would excavate the stream bed and filter the water, seeking to discard anything unessential, creating more elbow room for the important stuff. Let’s forget, for a moment, that we probably aren’t always the best judges of what’s important and what’s not. One never knows (as Mr. Holmes himself learns) when a seemingly inconsequential piece of information may come in handy. But, more importantly, there’s a simpler way.
If the rocks and sand of our memories–the very substance of what we know–are what we reliably need to be able to reach and make sense of, and if, as we know, our stream bed has near-infinite capacity to hold knowledge-stones, then it doesn’t matter how many of them are down there. What matters is whether or not we can see what’s there to reach in and touch the right one.
Crowding the creek shouldn’t concern us; turbulence should.
The more churned up that water gets, the harder it is to see through it, and the more it monkeys around, pushing pebbles downstream, stirring up silt, disturbing even the boulders. Suddenly, it’s noisy, you can’t see, things aren’t where you thought they were, and it even gets a little dangerous to wade out into your own mind.
Stillness is becoming, for me, a kind of synonym for clarity–or, more specifically, for that state which most likely contains the potential for clarity. It’s what draws me to the yoga mat and the meditation cushion; it’s also what I get from writing, or a long hike, or fully immersing myself in a task. Because stillness isn’t necessarily about achieving a blank state, an empty mind–it’s about that calm that comes with focusing one’s energy and will in one direction, rather than the usual scattershot, thousand-thoughts-a-second energy most of us carry around most of the time. Bliss, I’m thinking, isn’t a wordless, thought-less, state of vague good vibes: rather, it’s the High Def version of reality, a sharp-focus, crystal-clear stream you can dive right into.