Sunday, July 6, 2014

Training the mind - 1

Not many sports can evoke such nationalistic fervor as soccer does. A ball being thrashed around a grassy field can raise or drop hopes of millions. The intense emotional scrutiny of screaming fans juxtaposed on the what goes on in the minds of the players as they attack or defend their positions more than makes up for the paucity of goals scored compared to other “high scoring” games. The psychology of the striker and the goalkeeper are very different as they come face to face separated by a ball in motion, the biggest prize on this moving chess board. The mind has millions of “thought balls” that are being kicked around between the conscious and subconscious minds. At any given moment, the mind is shuffling between an attacking and defensive mode, driven by the reward of objective gratification in the outer world. Like trapped air forming the core of a soccer ball, trapped energy forms the core of bundles of thoughts. If a soccer ball is deflated, the game stops, and similarly if the energy supplied to thoughts run out, the mind vanishes. In deep sleep, consciousness is withdrawn closer to the core of ourselves beyond the thoughts and the senses. Deprived of its fuel, the mind goes dark. Like a well timed geyser, consciousness erupts into the mind on waking up and the waking drama starts where it was left off.

Unlike soccer, where there is one goal post that the ball needs to get into, life has many goal posts. Competing bundles of thoughts moving in different directions consume our waking hours. With so many balls in the air at any given time, the intellect becomes a helpless bystander, like a referee without a whistle. The mind keeps galloping ahead till the vitality meter runs low, which then makes the body take a forced rest.

Just as the body may be trained to be fit enough to perform arduous physical tasks, the mind can also be trained to serve us in pursuit of our goals. The mind gets plenty of negative reinforcements during the course of the day and little positive reinforcement. Every thought that takes us a step in the right direction is tackled immediately by another thought that is counter to this. Giving in to these negative thoughts happens surreptitiously, and is labelled as “lack of will power”.  Imagine a soccer match where one team’s coach has influence over what the other team’s players do on the field. Just as strategies are discussed in a huddle out of earshot of the rest of the world, coaching the mind might also involve a similar approach.

If there are too many negative thoughts crowding the mind, imagine a situation where you are playing on a team that is facing off a fierce rival on their home turf. In this scenario, the crowd may be against you, cheering every move the opposing team makes and booing every counter move your team makes. In the context of a game, such a situation brings out qualities of determination, bravery and overwhelming will to win the game. However, in the game of life, it is all to easy to give in and claim helplessness. The only spectators in this instance are the thoughts in the mind, the world need not know what is really going on in the cloistered confines of one’s mind. Bodily cues however, may reveal what is going on in one’s mind. Bravery in the setting of adversity is what makes a hero.

How does one determine the goal of life when no one knows what comes after the end? There are any number of opinions available on what happens next. Some claim there is an after life, others say this life is it. Most arguments in this regard are made not by objective assessments, but based on what one’s mind believes. These beliefs are conditioned by one’s upbringing, environment and outside influences. Since the mind is powerless without the energy of consciousness enlivening it, the mind cannot be the authority deciding this question.

Both science and spirituality peer into the distance, one outwards and the other inwards. Both try to answer questions that we have no answers to. Currently, science cannot fully explain what spirituality tries to teach us and spirituality cannot provide objective proof for what science shows us. For example, there is no known scientific tool that can demonstrate the existence of the mind, yet we all acknowledge its presence. Nobody denies the mind citing lack of proof of its existence. Spirituality teaches us that there is something beyond the mind. Deep sleep and the waking state are mutually exclusive. One state depends on the mind, and the other is independent of the mind. Perhaps if one is able to maintain waking consciousness in deep sleep, one may be able to experience the state of “no mind”. Just as weightlessness may be experienced only in the vacuum of space, the state beyond the mind may be felt only if one is able to consciously escape the gravity of thoughts binding us to the mind.

Happiness derived from the objective world is a poor surrogate of what we should really be after. Think of a fisherman’s net that catches large fish and lets the small fish escape. When the net of the senses trap objects of the world, the happiness associated with them slips away. Its absence is only noticed when the these objects don’t bring the joy that they initially brought into the mind. Desires spread the senses thin by casting an ever wider net into the world of objects. Each “acquisition” by the mind emboldens the mind and its army of desires. This state of happiness is relative and not long lasting. Tired of this game, the body slips into a state of deep sleep. No one can end this game for us except our will to be contrarian to our lower desires.

Behind the final eleven players on a team that wins the soccer world cup, there is large supporting cast. There are also hundreds of players who have strived to make the team but there was someone else with better talent and skill. If our intangible mind can strain out happiness from the tangible objective world, it must be equipped with a special skillset to achieve this. When one understands that that pursuit of happiness is futile in the objective world, he or she arrives at a crossroads in his or her mental evolution. How many blows and disappointments it takes to get to this stage is in the hands of each individual. The stage at which one rejects the happiness of the objective world as temporary and has not yet tasted something more permanent is a difficult one to surpass. When the mind is not busy in the outer world, perhaps it is a good time to understand the workings of one’s mind as a dispassionate observer.

The state of mind determines the state of man
An artist's eye sees beauty in the world
A merchant’s eye sees money in the world
A saint’s eye sees himself mirrored in the world

A field of study that is vital to the progress of man is to understand the workings of one’s own mind. This is the where the daily battles for the creation and preservation of happiness and the destruction of sorrow takes place. Individual minds are an immense repository of data that is culled from everyday interactions with the world. A cockpit of a commercial airliner is very small compared to the size of its passenger cabin. The pilot knows he is responsible for the lives of all the passengers on board even if he does not know them by name. The conscious and subconscious minds can be compared to the cockpit and the passenger cabin respectively. Just as the cockpit and the passenger cabins are kept separate, the conscious mind has boundary separating it from the unconscious mind. A plane may be carrying a great scientist, a statesman or a world renowned athlete. But they all must travel to the destination that the pilot sets for the plane. A lot of faith is put on the ability of a pilot. Similarly, we may have hidden traits that may add a lot to the progress of the world around us, but if our conscious minds fail to recognize our latent talents, we set a very ordinary course for our lives.

The great adventure begins when we consciously decide to fly high above our perceived limitations. Nobody can fathom the vastness of the mind. Why place an arbitrary boundary around the mind and state that this is all I am capable of doing? One approach to achieving greater things in life is to plug in a destination for yourself and train the conscious mind to travel in that direction. What keeps us grounded to our present circumstances is an alternative negative thought that crops up whenever we start to think big. This thought is usually preceded by “but…”

Negative emotions thrive when the mind is confined to a limited sphere. Positive emotions make the mind expand outwards. The boundaries of the mind can be thought of as internal and external. Internal boundaries are what we desire from the world and external boundaries are what we expect to receive from the world. If we desire happiness but don’t expect the world to provide it for us, the search proceeds inwards. Desiring happiness and expecting it from the world ultimately shows us the ruins of sorrow. Desires can only hold sway as long as we have expectations. This process can be further simplified by not creating what we need, but by dropping what we don’t need.

Four mountain peaks
Pillars holding up the sky
Clouded from the vision of the sun
Tears run down the mountains to meet the sea

In all walks of life, people pass through four phases- childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. At the end of each phase, there is a certain amount of wisdom that has accrued. Time is a linear concept that moves in one direction, forwards. Fortunately or unfortunately, it does not allow us to go back to our earlier stations in life. For each of these four phases of life, the goals are different. A child’s mind is like wet clay. It can be moulded easily. It becomes the responsibility of adults to inculcate value systems that are universally accepted. What may have applied at a certain time in history may not apply in the current age. The mind may also be thought of as your child. Unless it is directed and led down the right path, it becomes disorderly and unruly. Without the sense organs, mind is essentially blind. Mental patterns fluctuate randomly and to a great extent, this fluctuation is a result of the input from the sense organs. On first waking up in the morning, when the sense organs are still dormant, the mind appears very fresh and calm. Like a child’s mind, it can readily accept the right input and retain it for future use. Whatever your goals in life may be, planting those seeds in your mind first thing in the morning will help retain that thought and with practice it can be turned into dynamic will that sets the stage for success that is self made.

Transition from childhood to youth is marked by the growth of desires. At this stage, what has been cemented in the mind as a child will determine the type of desires that one entertains. The mind is a storehouse of desires. There is never a worry about running out of desires. One needs to worry about time running out. Everyday is precious and each day that is lost in pursuit of trivial desires is a day that never returns. The human body has mechanisms in place to check the effects of runaway desires. For example, if one likes a eat a lot of food, the hunger center switches off after consuming a certain amount of food. Along with this, the happiness that one derives from eating the first bite of a meal turns into unpleasant experience when the stomach is overloaded with food. Quenching worldly desires brings diminishing returns of happiness. So what desires are the right desires that lead to increasing returns of happiness? A simple answer would be the ones that don’t directly involve the sense organs. Examples of these include, a desire to alleviate the sufferings of others, a desire to contribute something unique to the world etc.

The exuberance of youth gets tempered with the responsibilities that come with adulthood. But the pursuit of happiness goes on. Money becomes the currency of happiness. A certain amount of money is required for a comfortable existence and there is nothing wrong in saving up for a rainy day. But the desire for acquiring money carries with it the danger of never being fulfilled. If this desire for money is not checked, the door to unhappiness is thrown wide open. Acquiring money is a hedge against a fear of insecurity about what the future might bring. Pursuing another kind of wealth opens the door to greater happiness. The mind is never satisfied with any amount of money, a millionaires mind is always hungry for more. This hunger instinct of the mind may be turned into the hunger for knowledge. There are trillions of dollars being transacted in the world every day, but unless some of those land in your bank account, it carries little value to an individual. Similarly there is a vast amount of information out there. Unless some of that is pursued by the mind, one cannot claim to be knowledgeable. The right kind of knowledge is one that can be employed to help others. Knowledge that leads to further questions of the deeper purpose of human life is even more useful. One cannot feed the hungry by offering a sermon, but one can translate knowledge into the right skills that can make that happen. Similarly, one does not get enlightened by listening to a homily. But using that as a springboard to one’s own inner inquiry make take one further towards the goal.

Many people enter the stage of life referred to as “old age” with fear, anxiety and disappointment. The body may be getting old, but the mind need not. The cummulative mental attitude that one has at the end of each day will the attitude one has as the body ages. In the morning the mind is fresh and supple. With all the worries and difficulties of the day, the mind becomes fossilized at the the end of the day and is not ready to accept any suggestions to let go of what may have happened during the day. But a child behaves differently. At the end of each day, the mental slate is wiped clean of the impressions of the day. Adult minds carry over deep impressions of one day to the next. Over time, the mind gets “old and tired”. Having being exposed to the right ideas, pursued the right desires and acquiring wealth that really matters, one is ready to taste the wisdom that comes with mixing these. One need not brood over lost time. Everyday is a opportunity to see life’s goals in a new light.

The four pillars of life, namely, the right ideas, right desires, the right kind of wealth and the wisdom that comes with the mind going through these stages are the four mountain peaks. The sky represents happiness. Taller these pillars, greater is the happiness. If the sky of happiness is clouded by an active mind full of lower desires, ones energies flow into the world through the senses. Once this energy is lost, it cannot to put back into the body or the mind. Fresh mountain water quenches thirst, but salty water from the seas increases thirst. Keeping the mind closer a source of happiness within keeps it calm and sending it out into the world increases restlessness in the mind

To be continued...