There is a subtle distancing effect which our numerous online devices and other technologies foist upon our minds regarding the world of everyday objects. Left unchecked, we develop a disregard and disinterest in things and their nature, reflected in the disposable stance many ‘movers and shakers’ adopt towards articles of utility. But imagine if the surrounding world of objects could be reunited with their rightful depths of significance, qualities, and history! Suppose you had to think ONLY about a piece of chalk, to take a mundane example, for 10 full minutes. How difficult would it be, and what could be recovered?
A piece of chalk is a writing/drawing implement which is between 3 and 4 inches long and about 1/3 of an inch wide. It is a very smooth bright white cylinder. The curved long surface is hard and precisely formed while the circular ends appear softer and may contain little dents and nicks. It is very light and easy to grip with the hand. Chalk is normally available as a box of 12 sticks and quite affordable, one being able to purchase a box online from Amazon, for example, for less than one dollar.
Chalk, a type of limestone, consists mostly of the mineral calcium carbonate, (CaCO3), which occurs in nature as a sedimentary, soft, bright white, mineral deposit. The origins of these deposits are closely connected with ancient sea beds, and the minerals themselves arise from the desicated remains of billions of extremely small sea creatures, called plankton. A very well-known and exposed chalk deposit form the sea-cliffs of part of the southeastern edge of Great Britain, known as the white cliffs of Dover. Another famous deposit lies in the Negev desert in Israel. There are also extensive underground chalk deposits throughout the European mainland, and elsewhere in the world. These subterranean chalk deposits give evidence for the previous existence of an ocean floor in what is now central Europe, long since buried by geological activity. In any case, the raw chalk deposits are plentiful and easily accessed, whether directly or by employing explosion mining. The soft rock is extracted with comparatively minimal labor.
How It’s Constructed
The manufacturing process for chalk is large-scale, highly automated, and efficient, although cottage industry variants exist in 3rd-world locales such as rural Africa and India, employing roughly the same techniques with cheaper tools and a small scale approach. The modern process is as follows: first, large blocks of the mineral deposits are broken off and either transported to the manufacturing facility or processed on site. The large chunks are sized roughly the same so they can be placed into an enormous metallic crushing chamber, the interior of which contains variously shaped protrusions and metal balls. The crushing chamber is rotated for several hours until the result is a fairly uniform collection of much smaller blocks of chalk. This process is then repeated with a series of several smaller and faster tumbling chambers, the result being smaller and smaller pieces of chalk. The final chamber accepts pebble-sized pieces of chalk and converts them into a coarse powder. This result is then filtered and sieved to remove unwanted harder minerals and things like bits of seashell. The next step is to make a warm slurry. The chalk powder is placed into a large bath with water, liquified clay as a binding agent, and optionally, powdered dye. Chalk is most commonly white, but other colors also occur: yellow, orange, blues and greens, and a bright pink.
If the chalk is destined for educational use, these ingredients suffice. But a second type of chalk is used more for artistic and recreational purposes, normally outdoors. This type of chalk is softer, has a higher water content, is thicker (about one inch in diameter), and perhaps one inch longer. Plus it comes in a wider variety of colors, hence dyes. A calcium sulfate powder, (CaSO4), is added to the slurry for this kind of chalk. The slurry is stirred and blended for several hours while gradually thickening. At the right point it is then extruded out through precision cast dyes into the shape of long cylindrical rods, about one meter in length. These rods are arranged in a series of parallel trays and placed into ovens for cooking and solidifying, another hours-long process. The school chalk sticks are cooked longer than the artistic chalk, and hence are drier. When done, the rods are cut into usable lengths. Each rod will make 10 or so pieces of chalk, about enough for one typical box. The boxes are distributed through online shopping or in bulk to educational supply houses or to stationery office supply shops and art supply shops. The recreational chalk is often packaged in transparent pails containing 24, 36, or 48 pieces of chalk in varied colors.
How It’s Used
Chalk works by virtue of being dragged along a harder, ideally smooth, surface. An actual trail of the chalk’s own substance is left behind as a result of this action, forming visible line segments and curves. One can control and vary the displayed markings by altering the pressure and angle which the chalk makes with the writing surface, causing thicker or thinner and brighter or dimmer marks. One can also hold the entire piece of chalk flush or perpendicular to the writing surface and by rubbing form a colored area. The usual surface, a chalkboard, is itself composed of a sedimentary rock: slate, adhered onto a glass core, forming a large uniformly flat drawing surface. Chalkboards are often a dull black color, but also a dark green or tan, in order to maximally display the contrast between the marked and unmarked parts of the chalkboard, affording visibility from any point in a school classroom.
Chalk is instinctively easy to use. A piece of it operates like an extension of the fingers or the arm. Young children use it in the earliest school grades to learn how to write the alphabet. The chalk is responsive and natural to control. It can also be used to draw with; colored areas and shapes can be formed. Because the chalk markings are merely deposits of the chalk’s own soft substance, it is quite easy to modify what has been written or drawn. A finger or side of the hand may be used to remove sections of lines or alter thicknesses of curves, with the removed markings collecting onto the skin from where they can easily be rubbed off. One can also use erasers, strips of thick dark grey felt sewn together in parallel and fastened to a block of wood which fits into the palm of the hand. An eraser can be used for fine adjustments, using the corners to rub away small portions of what has been drawn by the chalk; or it can be used for bulk removals of large swaths of marked chalkboard by pressing it flush to the board and wiping with large arm motions.
Erasing is not a completely effective process. It leaves a dim cloudy area of mostly removed chalk. With repeated fillings of the chalkboard and erasures to reclaim space, the cloudy residue becomes thicker and more visible, reducing the contrast between the dusty chalkboard and fresh markings. The erasers themselves also become less efficient because their felt collects more and more chalk substance. This situation demands that the chalkboards be cleaned with a sponge and warm water, and also that the erasers be cleaned, normally by clapping two of them firmly together or against the wall of a building. This is best done outdoors because a dust cloud of powdered chalk will be released. Decades ago chalk dust used to be more intrusive and could affect breathing in sensitive people, but modern chalk is advertised as “non-toxic” and will not make very significant dust clouds (due to more extensive heating during manufacturing which eliminates moisture). After the chalkboard has been washed it needs to dry for about 15 minutes before new chalk markings will adhere to it well enough to be legible. Water is the enemy of all sedimentary minerals like chalk deposits, as attested by it’s erosive and shaping qualities geologically. This is also why outdoor chalk drawings are temporary; rain will soon erase them.
Conception and Invention
Chalk in it’s present form was developed in the late 1700s, in several places more or less simultaneously. Known since antiquity as an effective marking implement, it’s presence has been confirmed by archaeologists within famous cave paintings in France. By the 1600s, artists were drawing with rough-hewn sticks of colored chalk. James Pillans, a Scottish geography teacher, first came up with the innovation of hanging an enormous black slate in front of his classroom. George Baron, an instructor at West Point Military Academy, is considered the first American to adopt the use of a large black chalk board for presenting his math lessons in 1801. Before chalksticks and classroom boards were popularized, it was common for students to carry about their own personal school slates for lessons and irregularly shaped chunks of chalk. The slates were heavy, unwieldy, and often quite irregular, while the chalk was unrefined, and sleeves often served as erasers. Writing lessons and cleaning the slates was quite a different undertaking then. Further, teachers often had to visit each child and draw lessons upon their slates.
Evolution of Utilisation
Chalk enjoys extremely widespread use within an educational context nowadays. Its usage has spread to every country in the world and most schools utilize chalkboards for lessons and teaching at all grade levels, including universities. Considering how many of the earth’s residents are of student age and estimating that each student might use one box of 12 chalk sticks per academic year, plus adding in the amount used by teachers, you can easily imagine that world chalk consumption, just for schools, might approach 100 billion pieces per year. In addition, there is the recreational and artistic chalk used by children on their driveways and sidewalks or playgrounds, or artists on public plazas. Responsive and flexible artistic chalk, the sulphur-based kinds, are used by skillful artists to achieve large and wonderful effects. Many of these works are trompe de l’oeil style drawings with great realism. Tailors traditionally use a thin triangular type of chalk while marking and measuring their fabrics. Types of chalk are also used in construction work for buildings and roads, as well as in sports activities to mark boundaries.
The outlook for chalk as an article of utility is good. It is cheap and widely in use. There is no shortage of the raw materials worldwide and the manufacturing and distribution processes are well understood, highly developed, and relatively inexpensive. It is difficult to improve upon chalk while still retaining the quality, ease of use, effectiveness, environmental safety, social availability, and affordability. The fact that the manufacturing process has expanded into third world cottage industries supports this as well. Some classrooms and many corporations have converted to whiteboards and colored felt markers, or electronic digital viewers, but there are downsides which prevent wholesale conversion away from chalk and chalkboards. These include greater difficulties in keeping whiteboards clean, the presence of less safe and smelly chemicals in the markers, the more invasive nature of colored marker dust, the inability to determine when a marker will dry out, the need to remember to cap the markers to avoid their drying out, and the added expense barrier.
Chalk can be seen as a culturally successful instance of a more generalized and ancient discovery, namely using a softer sedimentary rock or mineral to make markings upon a harder surface or rock. Typical childhood play experiences bear this out, as many of us have picked up various stones of differing colors and made marks with them upon harder surfaces, like sides of buildings, sidewalks, and other rocks. The principle is always that the softer drawing stone leaves behind a portion of it’s own substance as a colored trail on the harder substance. Stones with iron deposits often produce brown or reddish marks. Some stones produce bright silvery marks. Chips of brick or charcoal are other examples which children often discover and doodle with.
Notes: This piece attempts to exemplify the thought content of a meditative exercise, ideally repeated daily, called “Control of Thinking”. The idea of this exercise is to deliberately control and sequence one’s thoughts about a chosen simple object, a piece of chalk in this case, for a period of 5 or 10 minutes, while allowing no concentration lapses or mental wandering. What matters is that only thoughts specifically chosen and logically ordered are allowed to exist in one’s mind for the duration of the exercise. Factual accuracy is desirable, but not the focus, although the exercise does create a deeper than usual interest in the nature of everyday objects and how they become so — which leads to research. Try it sometime — definitely not as easy as first imagined. To learn more about this meditative technique, read here, or watch here.
A final point: the illustrations included here are mainly for the purposes of emphasizing the variety and details of directions that a thought sequence about chalk could take, while still remaining closely focused upon the theme and not wandering. If one takes on the exercise oneself, such images should not be relied upon as a guide. The exercise very much is about organizing the concepts deliberately in your own way. An entirely different simple object could be chosen, for example paper clips or chopsticks.
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Interesting intro and essay that has me wanting to create chalk art on the sidewalk. I used a chalkboard when I first began teaching. Hard to imagine now! That evolved to a whiteboard, then a Smartboard.
yeah those sidewalk drawings are amazing, convincingly 3-dimensional.
Absolutely! Mine would be more elementary.😁
Stolzy, you’ve taken me back to my college days. This is honestly helpful information, things I thought I knew that have now hardened, like chalk.
Thanks for sharing! 😊
oh, you are welcome, Katherine. Yes, college life is a good thing. 🙂
One of the things this reminds me of is the interconnectedness of all things, nothing stands alone. A stick of chalk connects us with ancient seabeds and creatures that lived long ago as well as to the people who process and package and distribute and shelf and sell it to us. Another good meditative practice when we drink tea or eat bread or pick up a spoon, to consider the way it connects us to a thousand other things.
Yes, I fully agree. One thing that can eventually be realized is that there is no such thing as an ‘object’. Object-brained thinking is a kind of delusion we have all convinced ourselves is normalcy. All things are process, no matter how slow or fast, and like you say, all things are inter-connected and lose meaning and become absurd when isolated or thought of alone. 🙂
Yes, no object and no matter really, everything we see exists of more empty space than substance if consider all is made of atoms, which can be reduced to quarks and further reduced as science finally reveals that all is mind, consciousness and the ideas that dwell therein. Thou art That, oneness of being in all its wondrous diversity.
I have developed ADD and don’t think I can ponder patiently for 5 minutes. But, I am impressed with this piece. Amazing!
I do not know alot about ADD, clinically. But just in terms of everyday English language usage, I think it is safe to say that 90% of modern people have problems with attention durations and intensities. It is evident if you examine art from 150 years ago… literature, anything. Sustained focus is increasingly a rarity. You must possess at least some potential for it, on the basis of some of your more poignant and carefully thought out writings. I certainly believe that.
5 minutes is hard! 3 is hard! That is the first point of the exercise: to have the subject experience themselves how weak and interruptible their discipline is. I could not do it at first. It is only a secondary goal of the exercise to gradually deepen one’s ability to concentrate. One thing I do not believe: that such mental states are incorrectible. 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughts!
aw, sweet, that you are optimistic about my ability to correct my attention span. On some days, it does correct itself; that is, i am sharper than usual. Most days i live in a fog but fortunately I am still able to read. My ability to creatively write is gone. Those thoughtful pieces were written long ago. Neurons die as we age. By 35 we start losing them. I dont mind that the old brain has atrophied; so has the rest of me. — but thank you for your kind words….and it is amazing to see how well you are able to explore these deep subjects and write lengthy pieces on them. Sorry, but i do lose focus reading them though…lol…see!
Oh well, please understand that I can’t help it if my eyes glaze over… and I know its best to to read them in phases. — p.s. JK is not about being cute but about condensing my text into acronyms so i can hurry up and get it said before i lose what I wish to say. — please continue impressing us with your abilities with your discipline. I am too far gone into the sunset.
Focus is certainly something learned, which is probably the most important benefit of meditation. But I think meditations can be anything that fully occupies attention to the point where ego stops intruding for an extended period of time – running, mathematics, painting, music, pondering something deeply…
Chalk… The first thing I saw was the white powder on a rock climber’s hands. But I do remember banging the erasers together outside of the classroom door when I was kid.
What you say about meditation I can readily agree with, but it is used as a very generic term here, and in the title too. The actual design behind this kind of ‘meditation’ is control of thinking, applying conscious will to the scope and sequence of thoughts we survey. With intensity. And importantly, with deliberate choice, not random receptivity. That is very different from the artistic creative receptivity one can dwell within, or the relative emptiness of something like long-distance running. Those states are neat and interesting, but they are not control of thought. You mentioned math… yes, it is akin to this, if you mean doing math by thinking it through as opposed to merely manipulating symbols. (I know both well from youth.)
I love the experience and spiritual value of ‘fading’ into various experiences or perceptions or activities, and appreciate the diminishing of egoity during such episodes. Especially when I write poetry, this can happen, almost tangibly. But the thinking control exercise is different, opposite in a way. There, one increases ego activity, activating one’s will and applying it to policing the content of what is ‘thought’. It is not easy.
Thanks for your observations! 🙂
Thank you for your response. I see what you’re describing as the application of a skill, in the case of “chalk”, that of very consciously recalling and organizing knowledge into a coherent structure. With applied mathematics, it’s the discernment of a pattern from the medium of recording.
Focused intellectual creation as a form of “meditation”… I like the idea.
Something to think about.
Yes, you could say skill, though I think a more apt term is something like capacity. The organizing knowledge description is also steering it in an errant direction, I think. The idea is to experience oneself within the selecting, policing, and sequencing of thoughts. True, most of these thoughts will have been previously ‘had’, especially if you do the exercise repeatedly. But falling into reiterating them to yourself by rote is definitely not the exercise. One must strive to feel one’s willing within one’s thinking. That is the ‘meditative’ aspect.
Your medium of recording remark arouses my suspicions, but I might not get you. The thoughts must be fresh and living or vivid, not items fleeting past within the execution of an algorithm.
This is an explicitly western form of meditation, or I would say, pre-meditation, preparation for it. The eastern forms, when transposed to the West in various kinds of Neo-Buddhism, all have a kind of “emptying the mind” flavor. You mentioned ego in this connection. There was an interesting quote from Gurdjieff I came across years ago. He noted to his students that everyone of you are ardently striving to give away your ego. But none of you actually possess one yet!
By “ego”, I mean with conscious intent as opposed to “flow” (per Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).
Expertise merely allows a process to proceed efficiently.
“Eastern”… When I think of say, running up a difficult hill, the amount of internal focus can demand all of one’s attention. Reaching the summit, the intensity of focus isn’t required anymore, and (for a moment, anyway), you get a returning view of the outside world unfiltered by any thoughts, definitions, attached feelings…. It’s a moment of pure “qualia”, like the experience-of-redness as opposed to “the color red”. No purpose; just a clear experience of awareness.
“Western”… Well-defined and goal oriented. It’s the application of a skill to purposeful, convergent thinking… engineering, writing, art. There is a continuous application of conscious intent, and the result can be shared. “Meditation” (in an Eastern or Stoic sense) is generally approached as a means to see without the narratives. But this suggest that one could meditate of just that; “What exactly is this piece of chalk?”
I’ll take these three concepts in sequence, because I speak about each differently than you, at least within the preset context.
Flow – it’s been awhile since I’ve looked at M.C.’s work on this. So we might be thinking similarly. My take on ‘flow’ related more to activity within a creative context. It could be creating live during a nasketball game, wherein all your muscle memory tricks are at full ready and arsenal, or I could experience it when writing or playing music. Yes, the conscious will has been supplanted, or I could say promoted in these cases to a different state. By ego, what I mean, is our ineffable true core. It gets subtly pointed to in the exertion of will, which is why in the exercise ‘Control of Thinking’ it is important to begin to become aware of this exerting while doing the exercise. This is a prelim to experiencing one’s I or ego. All of this is prelude to deeper spiritual exercises during which ‘conscious intent’ is crucial to prevent losing oneself in a sea of FLOW-like impressions. So there is a complicated relation between FLOW and intent, between practice and application of will or ego.
Eastern & Western – I was trying to restrict the sense of these two terms strictly within the context of meditation styles or aims, and avoiding becoming too general. “Control of Thought” is pre-meditative, in the Western sense. If I am running uphill I can definitely suddenly enter into a state of existing beyond effort, like the long-distance runner’s cruise mentality. The effortful inner focus periodically vanishes and yet we feel we are cruising goalward. The qualia saturation moment you speak of is close to a kind of meditative condition, but I would not describe it as particularly Eastern. There is a subtle maintaining of presence (will, ego) that can operate within the qualia saturation experience, and then this more closely approximates meditation at one cognitive boundary, the external ‘macrocosmic’ one. There are two limits in normal consciousness. One inner and one outer. The outer one is confronted at first by the senses. A way past the limit involves ‘fading’ into the perceptions (deliberately minus the concepts) while retaining a strengthened sense of ‘I’. The inner limit involves trying to get past the mirrored wall of our own thinking, noticing what the thinking process actually consists of, again while maintaining ‘I’. The ‘I’ sense needs strengthening for both. The ‘Control of Thinking’ is a prelimiary towards the inner limit or boundary. I believe eastern meditation has become corrupted, at least in how it transposes to the West. It tries to empty the mind’s theater of thought, gently observing them and so on, but does not strengthen the ‘I’. It is less appropriate for the present human crisis.
I enjoyed this. I actually have a chalkboard in my studio/office that I haven’t used in years. This post makes me want to doodle on it again!
Cool! If you come up with anything good, send it along.