Sunday, July 27, 2014

Training the mind - 3

An unwritten code
Written in the land of the free
Sliding down a helical staircase
Leaving its impression on every door

Life starts when one door closes and another opens. When the door of the womb shuts, door of the mind opens letting in the light of the world. Like a brand new computer with a basic operating system, the brain is the “hardware” and the mind is the “software”. Computers may be programmed by a binary code of 1s and 0s. The human body is programmed by the genetic code. This is a quaternary code consisting of the letters A (for adenine), G (for guanine), C (for cytosine) and T (thymine). These four letters standing for nucleobases in DNA arranged in innumerable combinations create the blueprint for the entire human body.  Every cell in the body is given this genetic blueprint based on which all cellular processes go on.

The mysteries of the mind have not been fully unraveled as we have with the genetic code of the human body. A newborn’s mind is equipped with basic survival instincts and we remember little else from our infancy. We certainly did not have all the worries, fears and anxiety that we now experience as adults. As we embrace our “new mind” as adults we quickly forgot our “old self”. From a child who is spontaneously happy, we turn into adults who depend mostly on the external world to derive happiness. The world also is blamed for our misfortunes. Like a long lost shipwreck, our hidden mental treasures are buried somewhere in the ocean of the subconscious mind as we splash about in the shallow pond of the conscious mind. Fear of the unknown in the outer world stems from fear of what we don’t know about our own selves. The world is a mirror that reflects both our flaws and our good points. Just as one puts on a dress in front of the mirror and the image in the mirror appears to put on the same dress, what goes on in the mind appears to go on in the world. But we take what goes on in the world as real, and what goes on in the mind as imaginary. No two people look at the situation in the world in the exact same light as each one’s mind operates differently. One could take a step further and stretch this to argue that sickness and health in the body is also partly a reflection of the health of the mind.

The nervous system of the body is divided into two parts, one is under conscious control and the other part (autonomic nervous system) operates automatically and is not typically under our direct control. The body handles the most important life preserving functions on its own. These include respiration, control of heart rate and blood pressure. The more expendable and disposable functions such as the senses are under the control of the conscious mind. Just as an unstable government may destabilize an entire country and consequently affect the lives of millions of people, poor control of the senses also destabilizes the mind which in turn can affect the body.

Mind control is not just the domain of magicians and hypnotists. It is within reach of everyone provided enough effort and time is expended. It starts with trying to understanding the conscious mind. Reading one’s own mind may be compared to reading a book. We tend to get engrossed in books that deal in topics that appeal to us. It is hard to read a “dry” book. At any given time of the day, the mind could be a fast paced thriller, a relaxing page turner or a boring read. Just as reading a book requires us to keep a book a certain distance away from our eyes with our body in a comfortable posture, the mind needs to be kept at a comfortable distance in order to visualize it. When the body is comfortable, our thoughts don’t dwell on it. When the mind is calm, we don’t identify with it and it becomes easier to “step away” and visualize it.

Thoughts appearing on the center stage of the conscious mind are dressed and prepped for their roles “back stage” in the unconscious mind. One does not pay a lot of money to go to a theatrical performance to sit through all the backstage practice and preparations. We judge a performance based on what happens on the live stage. Over the years, we have spent a lot of time accumulating desires, experiences and ideas that are stored in the unconscious mind. These in turn play out in our conscious mind. With this great investment of time that we have made that is non refundable, why not sit as an observer and watch the performance enacted by thoughts in the conscious mind for even a few minutes everyday?

Initially this drama may appear haphazard and disjointed. It may almost seem like several different performances are fighting for the stage with thought actors from different plays running into one another. After a while, only the more persevering thought actors remain and the play may then become boring. Over time, the stage of the conscious mind will eventually empty itself. That is a good time to work on getting a “backstage pass” to the unconscious mind and seek out thought actors that can enact a deeply meaningful and elevating play in the conscious mind. It is rare to find a renter taking the same care about a house as its owner. We are owners of our conscious mind, but we treat it as a rental. As owners of our conscious mind, we always have the right to entertain thoughts that are beneficial and uplifting and discard unhelpful ones.

New research suggests that the old adage “Practice makes perfect” may not be completely true. With many hours of practice in any given discipline, a certain degree of proficiency may be achieved. In his bestselling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives a number, by highlighting the “10, 000 hour rule” based on K. Anders Ericsson’s research on expertise. More recent research points to something else other than pure “time in the saddle”. Activities such as chess and music that require more mental prowess than physical abilities have been extensively studied. A study by Peter Hambrick, published in the journal Intelligence provides evidence to propose that practice alone is insufficient to achieve an elite status in activities such as music and chess. Other factors such as innate ability and age at which people start an activity may further explain why some achieve an elite status without significant practice and others fail to do so despite a lot of practice. In a more recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Miriam Mosing et al., the interaction of musical achievement, hours of practice and emotional competence was examined. A deficiency in the ability to process emotions, also known as alexithymia, is associated with negative health outcomes such as hypertension and depression. In their study, they found a significant link between reduced alexithymia and musical achievement. Furthermore, in this twin cohort study, they speculate that there is a shared genetic link between alexithymia and practice. The same genes that predispose an individual to alexithymia makes him or her less likely to practice and vice versa. Therefore practicing without the right genes goes only so far.

The human mind is predisposed to seeking happiness. Since the goal of happiness is universal, everyone has the ability to achieve happiness. Let’s assume that this predisposition for happiness is genetically embedded. The means to achieve this happiness however, cannot be causally linked to our genes, as it varies in proportion to our efforts and the environment we are in. A person committing a heinous act of violence seeks happiness that comes from fulfilling that urge, ignoring the grave consequences that would follow. Performing a saintly act brings very different rewards, but happiness initially comes from fulfilling the urge to perform that act. Just as water is the basis for a refreshing cold drink or a poisonous one, happiness is the common goal behind all our actions, whether they are good or bad.

Rather than seek out happiness in the external environment with the resultant consequences, it may be better to look for it internally. The mind is a very sensitive gauge of whether our search is proceeding in the right direction or not. Not confounded by what the senses have to offer, the degree of mental calmness positively correlates with our sense of happiness. It may be worth our effort to follow “10, 000 hour rule” to achieve mastery over our own minds. Every moment of introspection counts towards this.

To be continued...