train of thought

Lava cutting a trail in Hawaii

Lava cutting a trail in Hawaii

Many times the train of thought starts off and it all becomes a blur.

Do you know this expression, “train of thought”? It means that it’s not just one idea, it’s a series of ideas. Sometimes it starts with a word, or three words in this case, “train of thought”. But that “train of thought” is much faster than the “train of words”.

Let’s compare speeds:

  1. “train of thought” (established in English, so it’s whizzing away)
  2. “train of words” (I’ve just made it up, so it’s not even moving)

If you know this expression I guess you’re a native speaker of English, or nearly native, or in your language you have an expression about “trains of thought”. Now if trains didn’t really come into the picture then obviously its meaning is not available, although there are other possibilities.

In Romanian “train of thought” would be translated as “line of thought”, “thread of thought” (firul gandirii).

So what is the “train”? From our experience of trains, it looks like it’s one long thing with many parts. What are the parts? The parts of thought.

An example of “train of thought” in English would be

“I could follow his train of thought: I could follow all of his ideas, the way they connected with each other, and it was a train”

In a certain sense, a train of thought is simply a direction which one’s mind can follow using these parts as a pointer.

Now, an expression such as “train of thought” suggests that the spoken part (which is only three-words long) is just a part of what I’m thinking, the part that gets put into words. If the remaining parts don’t make sense, if the other parts don’t seem to follow one direction consistently, then we’re left just with the “train of words”, which nobody wants to ride in.

When you have a thought, when you’ve had a dialogue with yourself for some time and you come up with an idea you would like to share,

it’s like explaining a concept from another language to a foreigner.

How would you explain to a Japanese person (the English expression) “train of thought”? Obviously it’s going to take a lot of words to draw out the network of meanings (in English) that led to this particular three-word expression. Of course, there are expressions in Japanese for which, in an identical way but in the opposite direction, I would have to use a lot of words to explain them in English.

The “train of thought” that has led to a particular combination of words in Japanese or in English has resulted in a highly compressed meaning, which I might be able to spell out for you, but it will take time.

What if none of us speak the same language?

Most of the time we manage to communicate some meanings, but at certain times we end up thinking “Oh, I couldn’t properly explain myself”. That’s the feeling in many situations:

“I should have said that”

“I could have said that”

“I had a slip of the tongue”

“I made a mistake”…

There’d always be an acknowledgement of some sort of failure against a standard of 100% performance. As if 100% performance is perfectly normal. No, it’s not normal.

You cannot speak out all your thoughts, and it’s a normal feeling, don’t worry about it, don’t lose sleep over this.

Another expression, “lose sleep over something”.

How do you lose sleep? The way you lose your wallet? And why “over this”?

Can you say “Don’t lose sleep on this?” I wouldn’t lose any sleep on this.

ON and OVER, both sound like they’re covering from above. Like you’re sleeping on it: I’m sleeping on the sofa.

Don’t lose any sleep over this issue. Don’t leave your sleep here, over this issue.

Another expression that is very difficult to explain, but the understanding is there the whole time, in your brain, you’re just thinking: Yeah, it just means, ‘don’t worry’, right?

You already have a ready-made, usually more basic paraphrase.

It feels more basic, but is it more basic? It’s not. “Basically.”

One way we could reach a better understanding of each other is if we had a common set of words that would be the most basic in terms of the meanings they express.

A set of words which are not packed with stuff, a set of words which don’t carry a train of baggage.

A “train” is quite difficult to explain; THINK, on the other hand, THINK is something which happens in a part of my body. It could be inside my head, or it could be happening elsewhere in my body. In the context of martial arts and in yoga, we say

Let the centre of your awareness, the thinking part, drop down below your navel. Let yourself relax.

Is it the case that THINK and “be aware” are the same? You’d have to explain what you mean by “being aware” because it’s too complicated; THINK, on the other hand, is something that everybody can understand: Something happens in a part of my body. I can say this in English, I can say this in Japanese, I can say this in Romanian, and it would be equally true. Some people would think it’s true. Of course, this is too general, it is too ambiguous and we would like to know more about this meaning.

Something happens in a part of my body: I could also have a stroke, right? And that’s not “thinking”.

We have THINK, we have SOMETHING, we have HAPPEN and we have BODY.

Can we break down THINK like this (= Something happens in my body)? No, not really, because that tiny preposition (“in”) might not be universally shared.

Moreover, this one sentence does not explain THINK; I would have to keep refining it and then I would still end up having to use THINK. I can say something about THINK such as

Something happens in my body OR

Something happens to my body OR

Something happens with my body OR…

but I will always have to come back to THINK. There is no simpler concept than THINK. Or SOMETHING. How do you have something more basic than SOMETHING?

How do you explain anything without something, right?

Without using the most basic building block, the most basic meaning?

How would we explain “train of thought”?

I say train of thought:

I think about something

this something has many parts

I think about this something like this

I feel something good when all these parts are near

I feel something good when all these parts are like one something.

Understanding. It feels like they fit together. Another expression. Well, it’s a beginning.

The above approach is using something called the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). NSM is made up of natural “primes” (a.k.a. “primitives”) which are used to explain meanings starting from the most basic building blocks.

Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard, these are the two names you want to look up if you’d like to get a better idea about NSM than the muddled version presented here. I think they’re currently teaching at the Australian National University and Griffith University, respectively. If you want to read more about this, I strongly advise looking up Natural Semantic Metalanguage.

What they did is they broke up meanings into primes, following Leibniz and others. It’s a monist perspective based on the assumption that

there have to be some basic meanings that allow communication to happen,

that make communication possible,

that allow us to understand each other.

When I started this blog, I decided to put down what was spoken (as opposed to written), because I thought that the “written train of words” would be even slower than the “spoken train of words” and I would not be able to capture what I’d been thinking.

In the meantime (as of January 2015) I’ve realized that both “trains of words” fail miserably at pointing in the direction (i.e., “train of thought”) I had in my mind when I recorded my thoughts, so now and again you will see edited versions of past posts.

Now, this might prove irritating to you whenever I go into a field where you (feel that you) are more knowledgeable than me. Maybe I’m not getting the accent or the pitch right.If you’re a native English speaker, you might point out some issues with my pronunciation of certain words and that would lead you to think

I’m not going to listen to this guy if he can’t pronounce the words properly.

However, if you’re just concentrating on the “train of thought”, I think I have a better chance of capturing a bit of what I’m thinking about if I’m following it with the faster “train of words” that are spoken, as opposed to “train of words” which are written. And I’m lazy to write, right? Of course, of course.

At this point it sounds like a good idea: Let’s call this an audio blog.

A diary that’s not diary, since I’m not writing about what I’m doing.

I’m writing about what I’m thinking.

A thought journal.

Nowadays thought feels very much like a crime whenever this thought is directed in a dialogue form with a self, a self that’s immutable, a self that’s querying, a self that’s questioning:

“Why am I here? What am I doing?”

As opposed to a self that’s in dialogue with somebody else, a concrete somebody else, like

The me of two hours from now: I’m going to vacuum clean this room, then I have to put away the iron, and probably, if I have a little bit more time, I should make myself another cup of tea, then go shopping, get some bread…

This is I that is in dialogue with an I-in-the-future, the planned future. What about the dialogue with the I-in-the-past? It’s the I-in-the-past that says

I did that, I did that, I don’t need to do this.

The one in the future and the one in the past are having a dialogue. Then of course, we have the dialogues with those we know. With my wife.

What did I tell my wife? What did I discuss with my wife yesterday?

Did we arrange for everything about the paperwork regarding that?

What will I buy for Christmas?

I guess it depends on the time of the year.

These days we there are many dialogues with somebody who throws an idea on social networking sites, which everybody is now (ab)using:

“I have a new baby” or “I got married” or “I’m in a new relationship” or “I ate spaghetti”.

I don’t know, everybody has some idea that they put out there, and now you can even put a picture to go with it, right?

But it’s not as universal, let’s say, as a dialogue with yourself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t recommend total seclusion, going from the world and shutting yourself in an Ivory Tower.


There is a dialogue with a higher entity, the entity that in some places has been called God, that in some places you could call the Universe, the entity that you could call the Ki, the Earth and the Sky.

A dialogue with you, placed on this planet as a live conscious being.

What’s the meaning of all this?

Why am I doing all that I’m doing, in the grand scheme of things?

And we come to another word, another metaphor, the “grand scheme of things”. This is (also) something big; this something is (also) connected; but many more things go into it; it’s not just one, as you have in a “train of thought” where it feels that it’s just one direction; a “grand scheme” includes more; it seems to be wider, not longer; it’s big on all sides, not big on one side only, in one direction only.

In the grand scheme of things, I am somebody talking to myself, but also talking to a lot of people that might just be considering some of the same questions.

Because, for kaizen to be possible, we need a set of shared meanings.

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