Saturday, March 23, 2013

Taming the mind - Part VI

A butterfly begins its life on a leaf that is vibrant and green
The leafy home is heaven till wings give it flight
A human is a tiny speck in the endless void of space unseen
The earth is home so long as the mind dreams into the night

A newborn baby is graced by the mother’s touch
Hands that are soft as silk cradle life
The newborn clings on as a caterpillar on a leafy crutch
Moving on all fours a human enters the jungle of life

The body is free as long as the legs have their might
Worldly lights appear to strengthen the mind for the voyage ahead
At the journeys end the cold earth is a steady witness to the body’s plight
The secret to the treasures of the mind remain unsaid

The caterpillar wisely stays on the leaf despite having many legs
Wings of freedom set the butterfly free from its nest
The human mind flaps its wings chasing fantasies
Wisdom dawns when the wings of the mind are laid to rest

Wings of a butterfly take it from the bondage of a cocoon to freedom
Wings of fantasy take the human mind from freedom to bondage


The human mind can be compared to the roots of a tree. A tree root is generally hidden underground. The human mind is also not visible to the naked eye. The root is the basis of a tree. The mind is the basis for the body. The root supplies water and nutrients to the tree, provides stability and also stores nutrients for later use. The mind draws in nourishment in the form of sensory inputs, it provides a sense of direction and purpose to our lives. Memories and experiences are like stored mental nutrients that we can draw upon whenever we chose to do so.

Although trees lack the freedom of movement, their seeds may be dispersed far and wide carried by the wind, ocean current and birds. As seeds sprout, the roots grow underground while the plant grows above the ground. If the root is unhealthy, the tree becomes diseased. If the mind is under constant stress, the body may suffer various ailments related to lower immunity, higher blood pressure etc. Humans have an unlimited freedom of movement in one sense, but are severely restricted in another sense. Overcoming natural and manmade barriers, we can travel to any corner of the world, but cannot easily escape from the surface of the earth. A giant tree is usually supported by a correspondingly large root system. A small blade of grass has very small roots. One can easily pluck a blade of grass but it takes great effort to fell a fully grown tree.

A deep positive thought that gets ingrained in our mind and grows over time is not easily uprooted. Fleeting thoughts, even if they are beneficial, may make a brief appearance but it is difficult to hold onto to them. As seasons change and winter approaches, large trees may lose their abundant foliage and may appear lifeless in the dead of winter. As spring approaches, these trees burst back to life and the greenery returns. As we try to foster strong positive thoughts, outside influences may create a “wintery blast of cold air” that may uproot these beneficial thoughts, which in course of time may branch out into other good thoughts. If these positive thoughts are allowed to develop sufficiently deep roots within our minds, they are more likely to survive and outlast outside influences that may be negative and detrimental to our well being. Good thoughts that are not sufficiently cultivated may quickly disappear in times of adversity due to associated mental stress that creates negativity. The benefits of maintaining a storehouse of good thoughts will be apparent when a bright blue sky returns after difficult times. It is better to have one large tree that provides delicious fruits year after year than a large garden of colorful annual plants that survive just one season. One cannot eat these ornamental plants and satisfy one's hunger. In contrast, the fleshy part of a fruit may satisfies one’s hunger, and the hard seed within is another potential tree waiting to sprout into life. As is the seed, so is the tree. Good actions follow good thoughts and bad actions follow bad thoughts.


Things in nature tend to move in circles. This pattern is apparent even in a whorl of hair on one’s head which can have the appearance of being frozen in a circular motion. Movement of clouds around the eye of a hurricane, earth’s revolution around the sun and the swirling motion of the giant Milky Way galaxy around its massive black hole are other examples of circular motions that we witness in nature. The proverbial circle of life is evident in every family where the youth represent the present, the newborns represent the future and the elderly bear witness to the past. The young and old have their parts to play from the beginning to the end just as newly formed and senescent red blood cells continue to carry out their life giving functions as they circulate in a clockwise direction around the human body. When we are young, it is easier to assimilate new information and our memory power is usually very good. We may however, lack the wisdom and experience to put this newly acquired knowledge to good use right away. As we age, there is a gradual decline in our memory power, but wisdom increases as we get older. The fund of knowledge gained when we are young, bolstered by the experiences we accumulate as adults leads to wisdom as we get older. This collective human wisdom is added to mankind’s knowledge base. This knowledge grows manifold with each passing generation bettering the prospects for humans who are yet to be born.


The building blocks of life such as the DNA have probably been around as long as life has existed on earth. The first flying birds predate the existence of man by over 100 million years. Genetic material in the form of DNA has been passed down over millions of generations. Only in the last century has man been able to identify its existence and structure. In the relatively short period of time since the discovery of the human genome, the knowledge of genomic sequencing has not only been used to identify diseases, but also to offer highly targeted treatments. Evidence from fossils shows the existence of the ancestors of modern humans about 150,000 years ago. From those ancient times to as recent as the 1900s, humans have only been able to watch the freedom in flight that birds exhibited. The thought of man in flight has ceased to be a fantasy ever since the Wright brothers built the first ever airplane. The home built plane flew just over one hundred feet at about 6 miles an hour on its inaugural flight. In little over a hundred since that first in flight experience, we are now able to fly at supersonic speeds. Like the origins of DNA, the question of when mind came into existence is a very difficult one to ponder. Not understanding the genetic code did not hinder the process of procreation of living beings. Likewise, not understanding the structural origins of the mind should not limit us from delving deeper into our minds.


The process of Introspection can be thought of as knocking on the doors of the mind. Imagine these mental doors opening and revealing three passageways. The passage on the left leads to thoughts about the past, the passage in the center to thoughts about the present and the passage to the right to thoughts about the future. These passageways take us deeper and deeper as time goes on. Time can be considered to be a static or a dynamic phenomenon in relation to our thoughts and it separates thoughts about the past, present and the future. When we think of past and future events, time is a dynamic concept. Time travels in one direction from events that have happened to events to come in the future. When we think of the present and remain in the present, time appears static. When the mind pulls away into the past or the future, the body cannot follow. The further the mind goes, the greater is the invisible “pull” on the body to go along with the mind. Think of the body as the gross manifestation of the subtle mind. As the mind travels to memories from the past or imaginary events in the future, the body remains in the present. Which one do you stay with, the body or the mind? One tends to keep the awareness on whatever on what we identify more strongly with. For example, when there is pain in the body on account of an illness, we tend to identify strongly with the body and the pain and less with a mind that may be trying draw our attention away from the suffering in the present. If we lose a valuable object that carried a lot of sentimental value, the attention of the mind will be on that object. In this situation, we identify more with the mind and that missing object. Instead of identifying with the mind or the body, observing what goes on in the body and the mind will help us adjust to the world. Thoughts of the past and the future occur due to our perceived separation from these mental events. Observing and not identifying with the ever changing present will help prevent the accumulation of these thoughts.


The mind is like an endless circle of thoughts revolving around a central core. Visualize this central core as a vast stretch emptiness where there are no thoughts.  Every morning, we re enter this endless loop of conscious thought and exit it at nighttime when we fall asleep. Our life is stitched together one day at a time by picking up this thought stream where we left off the previous day. Each day, we add more thoughts than what we take away from our mind. While in the midst of this thought stream, individual thoughts may appear to travel in random fashion. These random thoughts may throw up a pattern when we start to step away from the mind as we do when we are in the process of falling asleep.

There is a useful exercise that may help us observe the mind from a distance. The physiological processes that occur in the body as we enter sleep can be measured, but the process of the mind slipping away from consciousness can only be observed by the individual. Picking out the exact time we lose conscious thought as we fall asleep is difficult. Observing the mind at this point gives us honest and confidential feedback whether the general trend in the mind is a negative or a positive one.  

The mind cannot rest when it is under the influence of negativity and tension. Through force of habit, the attention span of the mind on negative thoughts is far greater than that on positive thoughts. A restless mind leads to sleeplessness. Fatigue that is brought on by sleeplessness helps the break the mind’s focus on negative thoughts. As the mind passively drifts from these thoughts, it relaxes and we drift into sleep. When the mind is calm, sleep comes easily. Just as we are on our best behaviour when we are closely watched, the mind also responds in this way. By simply observe what goes on in our mind, negative thoughts gradually subside and disappear without us trying to suppress them. This mental introspection if not done dispassionately without reacting to what surfaces within, may add fuel to an already raging fire within the mind. Positive thoughts actively relax the mind and it becomes easier to fall asleep. Observing the mind prior to falling asleep making the mind dwell on more positive things just before falling asleep makes it easier to keep our positive mental attitude during waking hours.


For the sake of simplicity, think of positive and negative thoughts as traveling in opposite directions in our minds. Imagine positive and constructive thoughts thoughts traveling in a clockwise direction and negative and destructive thoughts traveling in a counterclockwise direction. Clockwise motion represents addition and counterclockwise motion represents deletion. Everyday, as we enter this thought stream we have a choice of following it in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Moving clockwise, we follow constructive thoughts that add to our happiness. Moving counterclockwise, we follow destructive thoughts that take away our happiness. Everyday we add to or take away from our future happiness. It is hard to assess the impact of this daily process on our long-term on our future, unless one steps away a little to gain a perspective on which direction these thoughts are taking us day to day.

As we continue to visualize this thought stream’s circular motion, imagine yourself traveling clockwise or counterclockwise around this circle. The point on the circle where one starts moving in clockwise or counter clockwise direction is the present and the point where they meet somewhere on the opposite side of the circle is the future. Traveling in either direction along this thought stream will take us to the same point in the future where we arrive in either a happy or an unhappy state of mind. Just as we encounter happy and unhappy people today, we will likely encounter happy and unhappy people in the future as well. Our future happiness is influenced by the events of the present just as our present state of happiness is influenced by the past.

When one has poor eyesight and everything looks fuzzy, eyeglasses may correct this visual defect. Once clarity of vision is restored, we quickly adjust to the presence of the eyeglasses resting on the bridge of the nose, however heavy it may have seemed when we first tried them on. Even the lightest and more comfortable eyeglass frame will be extremely uncomfortable if the lenses are of the wrong prescription. Similarly when we are inherently happy, we look at the word through the lens of happiness and this helps us quickly adjust to the world despite the difficulties it may present. When we are unhappy, we tend to expect the world to adjust to us. The shape and the thickness of the lenses is given consideration only after determining the degree of correction needed to provide clarity of vision. Think of the weight of the eyeglasses resting on the face as representing the past. One has to accept the past however light or burdensome it is. The clarity of vision provided by the lenses represents the present. If the lenses are scratched or dirty, the vision gets affected. If the lenses are colored, the world around appears to be of a different hue. The mind is the lens that sees the present and the state of mind influences how we see the present. The transparent lenses in front of our eyes represent the future. The future may seem like a distant and faraway place, but it always lies just in front of us every step of the way just as spectacle lenses are positioned in front of the eyes.

When one requires corrective lenses to see more clearly, the prescription for these lenses is provided by someone with the right training and experience. Being unhappy in the present is like having uncorrected vision that provides a blurry image of the world. Just as blurry vision may be corrected with eyeglasses, unhappiness in the present may also be corrected by altering our perspective on the past and the future. When we are unhappy, it may be a result of memories of past difficulties or worries about an uncertain future. When we are weighed down by the past, our eyes appear to focus downwards. When we are dreaming about an imaginary and rosy future, the eye tend to look upwards. Remaining in the present, we tend to look straight ahead. In the blink of an eye, the upper and lower eyelids sweep across the surface of the cornea, wiping the surface clean of microscopic debris. Think of the upper eyelid as the future and the lower end as the past. Despite blinking thousands of times every day, we barely notice even one blink. Think of how disturbing it would be if all these blinks were noticeable. We have thoughts of the past and the future thousands of times every day. These thoughts don’t pass unnoticed. A lot of these thoughts consume our attention span. Every blink of an eye serves a useful purpose such as cleaning the surface of the cornea providing a clearer vision of the present. Thoughts of the past and the future can put the present in the right perspective. A brief objective memory of the past can set the right direction for the future. Since we live in an ever changing world, thinking only once about the past or the future is not enough. Just as the eyes are open majority of the time during waking hours with brief interludes of blinking, we need to try and stay in the present using brief interludes of thoughts related to the past or the future to help steer the course in the present.