Sunday, April 28, 2013

The conquest of the mind. Lessons in practical spirituality from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Life is a game that is played between the earth and the skies

Man and animal arrive on sandy shores to claim their gift
Man is given the mind and the animal hide and paws
Going their separate ways man battles a mind adrift

A game is a test of wit between friends
A war is a test of wit between enemies
These last so long as the earth and skies do not part
The earth and sky reflect the body and mind

What do you take for the battle within
Where friends and foe may not enter
The game of deception begins the night
The morning star declares the winner

The feet move and the mind turns for the battle without
The mind is subdued and stilled for the victory within


The natural state of the human mind is that of peace and happiness. A healthy body is always at ease and free from dis-ease. The body and the mind may be compared to the earth and the sky. Gravity keeps the earth and the sky together. Similarly, an invisible “natural law” keeps the body and the mind together. When the sky is full of rain bearing clouds, the sun may not be visible but the light from the sun is still visible. Similarly when the mind is full of thoughts, the inner reality may be hidden, but one can continuously feel the presence of life in the mind and the body. Just as rainwater falls to the earth, all thoughts in the mind ultimately have an effect on the body. Storm clouds do not leave a visible imprint on the sky once the storm dissipates. But a storm can leave a lasting impact on earth. Similarly emotions in the mind leave a lasting impact on the physical body long after they have disappeared from the mind.

Every cell in the human body carries a complete copy of the human genome, the master blueprint for the body. Using this masterplan, DNA contained within cellular structures replicates and thereby creates new cells which keep the body healthy. Changes to this DNA, called mutations, can occur due to both inherited and environmental factors such as UV light, chemicals, viruses, tobacco exposure etc. The body also has the ability to repair DNA damage. This ability to repair DNA is counterbalanced by various factors that inflict damage to DNA. If this balance is tipped in favor of damage of DNA, diseases take root in the body. For example, if there is sufficient damage to certain critical genes that suppress the formation of tumors in the body it could lead to the spread of cancer in the body. Current genomic research is focussed on identifying gene expressions that result in common diseases such as cardiovascular problems. In the future, therapeutic interventions targeting specific genes may become available for treating certain common chronic diseases.

Similar to the existence of a masterplan for the human body, one cannot rule out the possibility of the existence of a blueprint for the mind. Just as every cell in the human body is produced from the genomic plan, thought patterns may also be produced based on an organized plan from basic seed thoughts. Western science deals with the body and Eastern philosophy deals with the mind. Eastern philosophy has coined the term karma to denote fruits of one’s actions, whereby sin begets sin and virtue begets virtue and the cycle goes on and on. According to this theory, every thought and action of ours whether good or bad produces a reaction in the mind and this is stored in the mind as karmic seeds that manifest sometime in the future when the circumstances are appropriate. Stronger the initial impression on the mind, stronger is the later reaction. Each thought has the capability of becoming a seed thought that creates a whole new set of thoughts. We don’t have direct control over how cells are produced from our genetic blueprint, but we have a free choice on how we utilize our mind to create new thought patterns. Every cell has a specific function and purpose and thoughts can similarly be organized to have beneficial purposes. Spread of negative and non beneficial thought in the mind can be thought of as “mental cancer”.

Just as subtle thoughts affect the gross human body via neuro chemical messengers that are produced in the brain, there may be a link between the human genome and the seed thoughts that are stored in the mind. Although these basic building blocks of the mind, akin to the DNA and the physical body, have not yet been identified, one cannot rule out the possibility of its existence. We lack scientific proof to support the existence of the basis of the mind, similar to the proof of the existence of the double helix structure of the DNA provided by Watson and Crick. However, this lack of scientific proof does not prove its absence either.

Modern medical science is now gravitating towards treating the human body at the level of the genes. Treating the mind to cure mental uneasiness and promote peace and happiness at the level of the mind is similar to treating the body at the genomic level. This is very different from the use of pharmacological agents to affect neurochemistry, which is an attempt to influence the mind through changes in the physical body. Just as positive changes in brain chemistry helps the mind, positive changes in the mind may also have a beneficial effect on the body.

If a link between the human genome and the mind can be identified and harnessed, there is vast potential for curing bodily ailments through the power of the mind. However, most of our mental energy is dissipated in dealing with thoughts of the world. Even though the mind does not have a physical base, it likes to acquire everything the world has to offer. Indeed, most of the conflicts human civilization has suffered over the ages from is directly or indirectly related to the acquisition of natural resources. These resources may quench man’s quest for material advancement, but it ends up dividing people. Mental and spiritual advancement unites people.

If we could take something to the afterlife and were given the choice of taking one thing  from the world and one thing from the mind what would the answer be? There are infinite different worldly objects to chose from. Every individual may have a different worldly object they may want to bring along. The mind however is different. The mind is like the sky. Can one divide and and take only a piece of the sky? The entire mind has to be taken along. Similarly we cannot keep only certain thoughts and discard others. We can carry with us the overall state of mind which is the sum total of all our thoughts and propensities lodged in the conscious and subconscious mind. These include the karmic seeds or stored impressions of our past thought and actions. When we go to sleep at night, whether we are laying down on the cold bare earth or on a cot made of god, the only thing comes with us is our state of mind at the time we fall asleep. When one is peaceful and happy, the mind appears as one and we try to do everything we can to saturate every thought with this bliss. If we are worrying and thinking about something as we we fall asleep we feel restless as this is not the natural state of our mind.

A state of worry is like a foreign body lodged in the mind. We try to create divisions in the mind to separate ourselves from it. Like the sky, that portion of the mind that troubles us cannot be divided and discarded forever. It stays with us until we either bury that worrisome thought in the subconscious or we make a conscious effort to resolve it in the conscious mind using various techniques. An example of one such technique is dispassionate enquiry into the root cause of why a certain thought troubles us. The first gate that guards against this enquiry is our ego which tries to point us in the direction of the world for the answer and not the inner self. Once you subdue the guards at the gate of ego and enter the fortress of the mind, we see a very busy marketplace that again distracts us. Just as fresh fruits and vegetables have a finite shelf life, troubling thoughts have a finite time limit before they disappear into the subconscious. The hurdle of distractions in the mind have to be overcome quickly and the troubling thoughts have to be probed further and one may find the answer in an unfulfilled desire. If this deep seated desire is confronted and dispensed with by logical reasoning about its frivolousness in light of impermanence of everything including ourselves, that desire will never come back to trouble us.

The human body is visible to the naked eye, but the trillions of cells that constitute it are not. Infinite variety of thoughts are felt but the seed thoughts behind this variety of thought is invisible. Like the genomic blueprint that exists in every human cell, every thought we have carries traces of it’s seed thought. One does not have to drink the entire ocean to determine that the water is salty. One drop of ocean water is sufficient to answer that question. Similarly tracing the origin of one thought may explain a lot about the mind if one assumes that the mind is a repetition of patterns. When Newton understood and explained the gravitational force that made an apple fall to the ground, this explained the force that pervades every corner of the universe. One may say that the external environment or other influences may have triggered a particular thought, but inner enquiry should be directed towards what placed the seed in the first place that later sprouted into a certain thought pattern based on those external influences.

When you take a piece of iron, the constituent atoms are not visible. That piece of iron can be melted and moulded into several shapes and forms that are distinct from one another. When you are able to visualize iron in atomic form, from the perspective of the atom each of the different shapes and forms that the piece of iron is transformed are the same. The mind is like that piece of iron, it can be moulded many different ways. The basis of each individual thought is like looking at the atomic structure of iron. The mind cannot explain the origin of each thought, but hidden in each thought is an explanation for the mind.  In every earthly object, the gross forms hide the subtle atomic forms and the subtle forms explains the basis of the gross forms.

One can also think of the link between the mind and the body just as air and water are linked. Atmospheric air contains water molecules, which is are invisible. Water contains dissolved air. This dissolved air cannot be felt as one would a gust of wind. Vibrations from the mind can reach every cell in the body and impulses from every cell in the body are ultimately transmitted to the mind through the brain. When there is disease in the body, the discomfort is felt in the mind. When there is tension in the mind, the discomfort is felt in the body. In order to extract air from water, it requires heating and to extract water from air it requires cooling.  Similarly, treating the body and the mind require separate approaches. Just as use of energy is common to both heating and cooling of water, the goal of peace and happiness is common to the treatment of the mind and the body.

When one is treating the body, the mind needs to be rested. When one is treating the mind, the body needs to be rested. If body and mind are active at the same time while treating either one, agitation results. When the surface of the ocean is agitated by stormy winds, waves are generated and the churning of the water and the swirling winds creates foam on the ocean surface. This foam is neither air nor water. If the winds subside, the water settles down and the foam disappears. But the water cannot settle down if the winds do not settle down. The agitated mind that results from a restless mind and a diseased body is like the foam on the surface of the ocean. We are so used to have an active and restless mind, we don’t know what to do with a calm mind. The positive aspect of a calm mind is bliss and the negative aspect of a calm mind is boredom. Curing the body cannot cure a restless mind. But calming the mind can greatly influence the body. Hence, keeping a positive and a calm mind is of great importance.

Sun Tzu and The Art of War

An ancient Chinese military general wrote a book on military strategy over 2000 years ago, which had a significant impact on Chinese history during that time. The principles laid out in his book The Art of War, although a treatise on military strategy, has influenced modern day thought in the fields of business, sports, law and politics. The title of the book is interesting. Art indicates creative forces and war indicates destructive forces. There is a constant daily psychological struggle between creative (good) and destructive (evil) forces in one’s mind. In order for a battle to be waged and a winner declared, opposing sides must both show up for the battle. On the battlefield of the mind, sometimes forces of good such as noble thought, benevolence, peace and happiness predominate and sometimes the forces of evil such as anger, vice, greed, jealousy etc predominate. A rough balance is maintained during one’s lifetime which preserves our humanness. In order to transcend into a state of divinity, we first have to develop the courage to wage a definitive psychological battle and crown the forces of good as the victor. This inner struggle cannot use external objects for help. On the field of the mind, all the tools have to be generated there. The only thing we can take from the world to this inner battle are lessons and strategies from wise men who have fought this battle before. Perhaps, Sun Tzu was one such wise man. Using physical warfare as a metaphor, he may have been explaining strategies for this inner struggle.

Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War is divided into thirteen chapters, each one containing several aphorisms. Using the translation of this work by Lionel Giles (1875-1958), published in 1910, I will make a humble attempt to provide a commentary on each aphorism that would hopefully be helpful in winning the inner battle of good over evil.

To Be Continued....