Sunday, September 23, 2012

Taming the Mind - Part II

On August 25th 2012, one of the greatest American heroes, the astronaut Neil Armstrong died. He left behind a legacy of pioneering space exploration that may one day lead to a manned mission to Mars. He is immortalized in the words he uttered on stepping onto the lunar surface, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." These simple words hold a great meaning. Having achieved what no human had done before, he dedicated this to all of mankind, not one individual or a group of people. Herein lies his greatness. When the thought of putting man on the moon was first conceived, it may have seemed far fetched. Similarly, all great discoveries or inventions started as a simple thought in the mind of man.

Several hundred years after we understood the force of gravity, we were finally able to come up with a rocket having sufficient thrust to overcome this fundamental force in nature. Just as the physical body is subjected to gravitational forces that keep us from flying off the surface of the Earth, the mind has strong instinctual thoughts that keep us from going deeper within. If life on Earth suddenly became very difficult and uncomfortable, mankind will have no choice but to make the most of it. Currently, we have only rudimentary capabilities of extraterrestrial survival.  On a mental plane, life alternates between periods when things seem very comfortable and other times when life is very uncomfortable. Although the mind does not have physical limitations, we create a finite world within our minds and remain rooted to the oscillating feelings of happiness and unhappiness. 

The boundaries that we create within our minds are mainly driven by the need for the sense of security. This sense of feeling secure is bolstered by close association with family, friends, money and objects. Losing anything that makes us feel secure creates a great deal of anxiety and unhappiness. Although we hear about the dead and dying everyday, we find it hard to truly convince ourselves that we are impermanent. One of the most valuable things to a human body is life giving oxygen that we inhale with every breath. Despite oxygen being critical to whether we live or die, the body does not hoard oxygen. As air enters the body, it “touches” cells through its constituent oxygen molecules and leaves the body taking waste in the form of carbon dioxide. Every breath has to make way for subsequent breaths, just as we have to one day make way for future generations of human beings. When this association between a living cell and oxygen is not permanent, what else can be permanent?

Once our basic needs are taken care off, everything else becomes subjective in terms of what makes us feel secure. Just as we are driven by the need for security, we are also driven by the need to enjoy pleasurable sensations through the senses of sight, smell, touch and sound. In general, what gives us a feeling of security also provides us with a sense of pleasure. A great deal of worldly ambition is spent on attaining security in the form of money and worldly objects. Greater the power and money we acquire, greater is the sense of insecurity of losing these possessions.

What is the way out of the the mental unhappiness that comes out of attachment to the impermanent nature of the world? The key is balance. Balance is our way out of a limited and finite mind that is dependent on a sense of security, pleasure, power and ambition. Before a rocket launches into space, it is placed vertically pointing straight up to the sky, balanced by a supporting scaffold. Once the engines fire and the rocket lifts off, the thrust of the engines continues to keep the rocket balanced in a vertical orientation. The mind can be pointed in whatever direction we choose to point it. To launch it in a positive direction and break it from the shackles of conditioned thinking, we have to first balance the mind on the four basic pillars of existence. These four pillars are the desire for money and worldly comforts, performing virtuous deeds and a yearning for unconditioned happiness.

Each one of these four attributes individually cannot steady the mind and release it from its conditioned state. All four have to be fulfilled together in equal measure. Early in life, when one enjoys good health and can remain active, seeds for the desire for money, worldly comfort, righteous living and a yearning for unconditioned happiness need to be planted. On a balance scale, one weighs one object relative to another. When one is busy making money and acquiring worldly comforts, it is important not to neglect watering the seeds of righteous living. Money may buy worldly comforts but it cannot provide unconditioned happiness or the desire for performing virtuous deeds. Worldly comforts provide only limited happiness. The type of seed determines the height of a fully grown tree. Without a sense of contentment the desire for money and worldly comforts grows like a tree that never stops growing and may quickly dwarf the slow growing seedlings of virtuous deeds and the yearning for unconditioned happiness. Contentment checks the rapidly growing desire for money and worldly comforts while promoting the slowly growing desire for righteousness. Whether one lives in a palace or a hut, the stomach can only accommodate a limited amount of food at a time without causing discomfort. Even if one sleeps on bed the size of a king’s palace, the body can only occupy a small portion of it. In contrast, even a small act of kindness and generosity done at the right time can provide a lot of happiness to whoever is in need of it at that moment in time.