Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Taming the Mind

Recently, a mobile, one-ton nuclear powered science lab safely landed on the surface of Mars. This miracle of modern science has started sending data to receiving stations earth which is over 150 million miles away. This surely is one of the great achievements of the human mind. Mars is thought to have been a planet with plentiful water billions of years ago, today it is a dry, dusty and desolate world making human inhabitation practically impossible. If humans were to go to Mars, they would need a very robust space suit to protect against lethal radiation, lack of oxygen and extremes of temperature.

We don’t however have to land on Mars to consider ourselves space travellers. We inhabit a spherical globe we call Earth, that is hurtling through space at a speed that would cover the distance between the Earth and its moon in about 4 hours. Our awareness of the concept of life is limited to the time between the metaphorical curtain raising up heralding our birth and the curtain falling down signalling our death. Behind this curtain is a mysterious darkness that the conscious mind cannot perceive, hence no living proof of what lies beyond. When mankind finally makes the trip to Mars, the pioneering astronauts would have to carry specialized spacesuits for survival. The hard shell of a space suit protects a living being inside. Unlike manufactured spacesuits that can be replaced at a cost, this specialized spacesuit called the human body is irreplaceable.  The human body has a hard bony skeleton that supports living cells. Although life in the cells evaporates rather quickly in the matter of years, the bony skeleton can be preserved for millions of years. Going to a natural history museum and seeing skeletal remains of now extinct dinosaurs is a fascinating experience. It brings the massive scale of time into perspective. 

When we ask ourselves the question, who are we, conventional wisdom would point to the living body. The living body has soft flesh and hard bones. If we tell ourselves we are the body, then are we referring to the soft part that ebbs away in the matter of years? Or the bony skeleton, like the dinosaur remains, that can withstand the test of time?

Going back to the question, who are we, can we say we are the mind? This is a very difficult question to answer. Each one’s opinion about this that may differ from other viewpoints. Despite there being no physical proof of the mind’s existence, we all know it exists. Just as mission control on earth controls the movements and activities of the robotic rover currently exploring the Martian landscape, our minds ultimately control our actions through the brain and nervous system. Every part of the human body has been mapped out including the genetic code. It takes one small rover on the surface of Mars to enlighten entire mankind on what lies beneath the red dust of Mars. However, one human being understanding what his or her mind is all about cannot truly transfer that experience to other human minds. It can be written and spoken about. To fully grasp what the mind is all about, one needs to directly perceive and understand it.

Mental potential is like gold buried underground. Although gold does not change, its value is greatly enhanced if it is turned into a rare, much sought after piece of jewellery. Realizing one’s mental potential is more valuable than owning the largest bank account in the world. One cannot freely disseminate information about one’s bank accounts, but one can easily spread knowledge realized through the faculty of the mind without fear of losing this knowledge. No amount of money can buy the joy that comes out of watching someone use and benefit from creations that come about from utilizing one’s mental potential. Every man made object, whether it is an object of comfort or necessity has its roots in the soil of a creative mind.

Just as we are all endowed with this body, every individual has the gift of the mind. Why are some minds capable of great achievements, while others reach the finish line of life with the mind absorbed in little more than the mundane aspects of day to day existence? Some minds are capable of tremendous acts of compassion, other minds are capable of terrifying acts of cruelty. Does the fault lie with the mind? The fault lies in how we use our minds. Every human mind has creative and destructive forces freely roaming inside in the form of positive and negative thoughts. The skill and determination with which we foster positive thoughts and rid ourselves of negative impulses determines what eventually happens with our mental potential.

Just as water exists in three states namely solid, liquid and gaseous forms, the mind can be thought of having three states. These three states of mind are the dependent mind, the independent mind and the liberated mind. For water to exist in the solid state as ice, certain conditions have to be met. The temperature needs to be in a certain range and the water molecules are trapped and cannot freely move about unlike in the gaseous state of water.

The dependent mind can be compared to the solid state of water. Most of our lives are spent with the mind in this state. This state of mind is dependent largely on impulses derived from the bodily senses. These impulses may be directly perceived or indirectly seen through stored thoughts, memories and experiences. When we experience something new, the effect this experience has on us is colored by the lens of what we already know. This leads to feelings of happiness and unhappiness.

Water molecules trapped in a solid state such as glacial ice melts and is able to move freely down mountain streams. As the mind is gradually freed from the grip of the senses, it becomes more independent. Its existence is not conditioned by what we are or have experienced. Just as water molecules in a flowing river have to follow a certain path and are limited by the banks of the river, an independent mind still has some limitations. We get a glimpse of the mind’s independence from the senses when we are asleep. An independent mind that is free from the grip of the sense is usually a mind that is full of joy and happiness.

Freely moving water constrained by the course of the river reaches the sea and evaporates as water vapor. Water vapor is lighter than air and can freely disperse anywhere in the atmosphere. A liberated mind happens to be associated with a physical body, but is not conditioned or limited by what goes on in the body. This is a more natural state of mind that manifests itself as unending joy. Water molecules don’t change when water vapor condenses to liquid form and and further to solid ice. The liberated mind looks at all minds as the same, the differing mental propensities of people are looked upon as phase changes of the mind from its pure state.

Here is a simple example of how a dependent, independent and a liberated mind would operate. Let’s say you are served a plate of food that is otherwise delicious except that someone inadvertently added a little too much salt. How would a dependent, an independent and a liberated mind look at this? A dependent mind may taste the excess salt in the food, draw on stored memories of prior salty meals, add in the fear of developing hypertension and mentally shout at the person that ruined the meal. Depending on the thoughts that run through the mind, the taste of the food is interpreted and the resulting experience may be a negative one. An independent mind may take note of the excess salt but still enjoy the overall flavor of the food without generating negative feelings. A liberated mind does not look at the food as salty, whatever flavor is presented is enjoyed equally. While eating the meal, at each instant in time, perhaps there is a different flavor experienced. Each flavor brings an equal amount of enjoyment.

The transformation of the mind through the different states from the dependent, independent and the liberated mind needs to happen in a slow smooth manner just as ice melts gradually. It is easy to say that one can deny the senses, but in reality it is very difficult to master the senses. One can get injured easily while putting reins on a wild horse. Whereas, it is a lot easier to put the same reins on a tame, trained horse. If the mind and the senses are running amok, it is better to leave them in that state till fatigue sets in. At that time of weakness induced by fatigue, is the right time to approach the mind and senses and tame it. A ninja warrior hides in plain site and strikes when it least expected. Similarly, when the mind and senses are wandering around, practice telling yourself that you are not the mind or the senses and go along with the mind for the ride. Remain alert as a ninja would, and when the mind feels tired, pull the mind in the direction you want it to go.

It is hard to come up with an antidote to each undesirable thought that may go through the mind. Rather than going after individual thoughts, the overall thought pattern needs to evolve and change. If something troubles you today, you may be able to get rid of the source of that misery and feel a sense of happiness and relief. However, having experienced that sorrow, a mental pattern is set up. Subconsciously, this latent pattern spreads out like a spider web waiting to trap a suitable thought in the future that recreates a similar sense of despondency. This web like thought pattern gets recycled over and over again in different situations ultimately limiting and trapping the mind. Although thought patterns that create a sense of happiness are much better than those that make one unhappy, it ultimately is also limiting. The mind is dependent on these thought patterns to create a sense of happiness.

How does one change these thought patterns? The first step is observing the mind in its present natural state without disturbing it. When a wildlife photographer wants to take a picture of a certain kind of bird in its natural habitat, he needs to first travel to the bird’s habitat, set up camp a sufficient distance away from the bird without disturbing it. Once the bird comes into view, the picture would be worthless unless it is taken with a lens and filters that are appropriate for the time of the day, lighting etc. If the bird were brought to the photographer’s studio and photographed with an artificial background, one can easily spot the difference between a natural and artificial setting. Moreover the bird would probably behave differently in the two settings.

The best setting to observe the mind is in the course of daily interactions with people and situations. This is like observing a bird in its natural habitat. When you are sitting quietly in one place, you don’t necessarily see the true picture. This is like seeing the same bird against an artificial backdrop of a studio.

However, observing the mind in a quiet setting away from the world is also very important. This is the best place to practice watching the mind. The photographer we have talked about would probably try on various lenses and pack the right kinds of lenses prior to going out in the wilderness. Similarly, silent observation of the mind will help us identify mental patterns that get repeated in course of daily interactions with the world around us. These mental patterns can be thought of as filters. Broadly speaking there are seven filters through which all experiences are filtered into the mind. They are the following.

1. Security.
2. Pleasure.
3. Power and ambition.
4. Acceptance and love for other beings.
5. Harmony and understanding.
6. Intuitive wisdom.
7. Total awareness.

It becomes easier to explore one’s mind and thought patterns in the context of these filters. Currently, we are exploring Mars for signs of life in the context life as we know it. Let’s suppose we find life on Mars. Would that not be the greatest achievement of mankind’s space endeavor to date? Imagine the resources that would go into understanding and protecting those hints of life on Mars. Sadly, on our own planet, hundreds of innocent lives are lost everyday in conflict zones across the globe while we look for that microscopic signs of life on an alien planet millions of miles away.

To be continued...