Sunday, October 12, 2014

Training the mind - 10

Icy clouds sandwiched
Between a fiery sun
And a blazing cauldron underground
A tender balance between anger and love

The sliver of land that is the earth’s surface and home to life as we know it is sandwiched between two giant fires. One is the sun and the other is the earth’s core. Both of these are vital for the existence of life on earth. Recently, scientists using a new X-ray technique (1) were able to determine the exact melting point of iron at a pressure that is at 2.2 million times that of the earth’s surface at sea level. Extrapolating these findings to the earth’s core where the pressure is 3.3 million atmospheres, they estimate that the earth’s core is almost 1800 F hotter than previous estimates. This makes the temperature of the earth’s core similar to that of the surface of the sun. This heat along with the earth’s rotation on its axis creates the magnetic field that is so vital to the existence of life on earth. Birds and turtles take advantage of this magnetic field and use it during migration. Without this magnetic field, charged particles from the sun called the solar winds would strip away the ozone layer exposing life on earth to harmful ultraviolet radiation.

When looking at humanity through the lens of this biomagnetism, it cannot but inspire awe and wonder at the both the scale and interdependence in nature and the fragility of human life. The human nervous system also produces an electromagnetic field. This is very weak compared to that of the earth, which can be detected as as far away as the moon. Otherwise, pocket compasses would be thrown off by our own magnetism and would be useless. Some people postulate that extrinsic magnetic fields affect human health. However, based on scientific evidence currently available, the World Health Organization concludes that there are no health consequences to exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, exposing the brain to a magnetic field similar to that of a conventional MRI scan, using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation has been tested as a treatment option for patients with depression, migraine, dystonia, stroke, Parkinson’s disease etc. According to Dr Sven Bestmann at University College London, "It's a way to stimulate nerves in the cortex without having to open the skull and insert electrodes." In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has approved this as a treatment for migraine headaches and depression. Further research is warranted.

The mind is also subject to magnetic influences, albeit in a metaphorical way. We are all attracted to kind and loving people and generally repelled by angry people. This power of emotions to attract or repel is fairly universal. Hunger is common to both humans and animals. But “hunger” in the mind is a uniquely human quality. This hunger takes several forms. It is easier to love fellow human beings when this “mental hunger” is not there or is satiated. It first takes the form of desire to acquire something. If left unfulfilled, this hunger transforms into anger. If fulfilled, another desire erupts that makes us want to repeat it. A mental pattern is then created deep within our mind. We may reach a point where we cannot live without the objects of our desire. If our desires are fulfilled, we may develop pride in ownership. Alternatively, we may also develop envy if someone else has something we really want or cannot get. All this starts with a “hungry” mind. The mind does not know the specifics of what it wants. All it knows is that it is hungry for something and is constantly searching for happiness. This mental “hunger” for happiness can be turned around into a positive attribute. Instead of directing the mind towards the acquisition of objects, if you let’s say have the desire for creating happiness in others, it may take us down an entirely different path. This path ultimately ends in feelings of love and compassion. If one is not able to succeed in making another happy, this desire to create happiness for others does not transform into Anger (Animal), but still remains as a HUnger (HUman) waiting to be satiated. If fulfilled, it creates additional desires for repeating this process which may a good thing for ourselves as well as for others. If we keep repeating these good actions, it may then become our nature and we cannot but live this way. At this point, it becomes important to avoid pride is doership and to also ignore the envy that others may direct at us. Instilling higher ideals in the mind and using the power of desire to fulfil those will ultimately lead to right conduct that is beneficial to all mankind.

This mental hunger for happiness never goes away no matter where we are on the ladder of mental evolution. As we move from individual ego to universal ego, or seeing the oneness in all, the desire to remain happy persists. When we talk of the body, we don’t name each part and state that it is healthy and happy. The term applies not only to the entire body but also the mind. Similarly, when we speak of the happiness of mankind, it must include everyone. There are plenty of clues pointing us in the direction of morality. This sense of morality that goads us on the correct path has many origins. It is shaped by our upbringing, prevailing societal norms, religious beliefs etc. No matter what the influence, it helps us uncover what is an innate tendency to follow the right path. If we go with the assumption that deep down everyone has a moral compass that always points us in the right direction, then there is hope for even the most wicked of humans. We tend to castigate these people as “lost causes”, but who are we to stand in judgement when we all have our own faults. The best hope for mankind is to develop a “herd immunity” against wickedness and hatred. If the majority of people step up to clean their own “inner dwellings” this may be possible. Instead of outer offence against others and inner defence of one’s faults, one should adopt inner offence against one’s negative traits and outer defence of good actions. The real battle for superiority should not that of one group over the other, but the higher mind over the lower mind.

The lower mind is subject to periodic sensory flooding. To escape this, the relative “dry ground” of the higher mind is a safer place to be. One could take certain Biblical references to flooding in this metaphorical context. The story of Noah’s Ark, depicted in Genesis is told in different versions in Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. This story of the Ark mayhold certain hidden lessons for uncovering universal truths. The decoding of which may reveal the functioning of our own mind.

This explanation is not intended to offend sensitivities or change people’s beliefs surrounding the Noah’s Ark. The intent to see if there are some lessons that could help with the struggles one faces internally in the mind. In this spirit, the Ark could be taken as representing the human body. There are some references to the Ark having three three decks. In one interpretation, St. Hippolytus (2) (170 to 235 AD) wrote  that the lowest deck was for wild beasts, the middle deck for domesticated animals and the top deck for humans. These three decks could be taken as symbolic of the broad categories of mental propensities, which could be categorized into three groups. No one is purely one or the other. Rather, we are a combination of these in varying proportions. The first is, calmness, clarity, stability, centeredness and balance, which are desirable human qualities. The second is turbulence and activity. The third is inertia, dullness and ego, the “wild beasts”, that leads to the disruption the first two propensities. The mind floats on a sea of desires. When one is flooded with these desires, there are two choices. One is to go after them and try to fulfil as many as possible and the other is introspect and wait till the storm passes. One’s mind is best studied and understood if one prevents thoughts from “leaving it and going into the world”. Sequestering the mind in the “Ark” of the body, its three propensities are identified and separated. Since we cannot easily throw away the lower propensities of mind, we must carry them but not let them mix with the higher propensities of the mind. The mind has “three decks” where we can separate and quarantine these mental propensities.

According the story of the Ark, it floated for a period of time going in different directions before landing intact on a mount. Despite the agitations that may try to disturb the mind, if it is tended to with watchful introspection, after a period of time, these three propensities of the mind are entirely transcended and another plane is reached which is the higher mind. Thoughts by themselves in isolation do not make up the mind. The flowing of these thoughts does. Both a pond and a stream has water. Water flows in a stream and it is stagnant in a pond. Only flowing water can ultimately reach the sea and not stagnant water. If there is no water, it becomes a dry sandy bed that used to hold water. Similarly, when thoughts dry up, there is no flow of thoughts, hence no mind to speak of. If there is no mind, there cannot be agitation and restlessness. But that does not remove the basis of the mind, on the other hand, it may be revealed. One may refer to this as the higher mind, consciousness or whatever one may want to call it. When a river dries up, the sand on the dry river bed may be the same as that on the banks when the river flowed. Similarly, the higher mind does not disappear when the lower mind is overcome. Furthermore, the story goes that at the end of Noah journey, he sent out a raven. The raven being sent out from the Ark by Noah could be symbolic of the restless breath that accompanies an agitated mind. When the mind is in a peaceful state derived from calmness and balance, it is symbolized by a dove. One could similarly go deeper into other parables and mine valuable information that may be beneficial for inner growth.

The two extremes of mental attitudes are calmness and agitation. Anger equates with agitation and restlessness; and compassion and love equates with calmness. The ascent to a higher mind is going from the extreme of agitation to that of constant calmness. There is no magical transformation of the body when one is established in a higher mental plane of calmness. But it provides a different lens to look at life’s unique problems. The world does not change overnight, but one’s attitude and perception of the world changes for the better. Time may appear to become more valuable and one may start to think about what one could contribute to make the world a better place before time runs out. The may be a greater sense of purpose in whatever activities one may be engaged in and love may transform into more universal feelings of brotherhood. There may not be a distinction between high and low work. All work becomes equally important. It becomes one’s nature to constantly work just as most things in nature such as the sun and the trees. These are real and tangible benefits available to all and are not the domain of a few individuals. The only requirement is dedication and focus on achieving this goal. The only expense is time and effort. Some people retreat to forests, caves and mountains to explore the inner workings of the mind. In order to test the theory that happiness is possible without a worldly prop, it may be essential to strip away everything that modern civilization has to offer and retreat to those places. But people who have done this successfully would probably state that whatever role one may have in this world, be it an employee or employer, parent or child etc, if one does one’s duties in the same spirit as that of a renunciate living in the wilderness, the same results of happiness may be had. Rather than put the body through the rigors of living in a cave, it is easier to live in the safety and comforts of a city while keep the mind in the peaceful confines of the inner cave of happiness.

Whatever the type of practice one may adopt towards the goal of taking the mind from a state of restlessness to calmness the technique is not as important as the end result. The generic term for this transformative process is called meditation. Everyday thousands of thoughts go through our consciousness. Perhaps for a split second, we may fully identify with a thought, then switch to another and so on. For that short period of time that we are identified with a particular thought, we are meditating on that thought. But this is quickly interrupted by changing our attention to another thought. This shift in attention translates to restlessness and agitation. But keeping the mind in steady concentration on a particular thought, whatever that might be, is transformative for the mind. When one is able to hold one’s attention on one thought for longer and longer periods of time, other thoughts don’t die away, they fade away from our sphere of attention. Their amplitude changes and they may still be active in the background where their noise cannot disturb our focus. This state of mind cannot be gifted, conquered, inherited or acquired by means other than individual practice.

There have been several scientific studies using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the minds of experienced meditators. They have shown changes in brain function and connectivity. One such study (3) done at the Yale School of Medicine by Dr. Brewer explored the effects of mindfulness meditation using fMRI scans. Three types of mindfulness were studied. They included concentrating on breathing, feelings of goodwill towards oneself and others and concentration on whatever thought the subjects chose. fMRI scans were performed at rest and during mindfulness on experienced meditators and controls. Experienced meditators showed deactivation of the portion of the brain involved in daydreaming. The goal of meditation is to remain focused and the fMRI scans showed that the brain was functionally doing that during meditations. Each of the three techniques of mindfulness showed similar results. Another interesting finding was that experienced meditators during both rest and meditation had connectivity patterns that were significant different from that of control subjects. They demonstrated simultaneous activations of parts of the brain that prevented mind wandering. This part of the brain is called the default mode network located in the posterior cingulate cortex.

Why be in the present moment and what is wrong with having a wandering mind? After all, it may seem like less work to let the mind hop around from thought to thought rather than focus on a serious task. It turns out that a “Wandering mind is an unhappy mind”, an aptly titled research paper published in the journal Science in 2010. In this study (4), Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University developed an iphone app to collect real time information regarding thoughts, feelings and actions from people as they went about their daily activities. This information is being collected in their database and is available online at They studied a sample of 2250 adults given three questions; “How are you feeling right now?, What are you doing right now? and Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” They came up with some interesting conclusions. About 47% of the people reported mind wandering. The type of activity they were engaged in had no significant impact on mind wandering and no impact on the pleasantness of the thoughts to which their minds wandered. When people reported mind wandering, they were also less happy. Even if the mind wandered to pleasant topics, mind wandering made them unhappy.

Another study (5) has shown that mindfulness meditation can change decision making from a emotional to a rational choice when faced with unfair choices. In this study by Ulrich Kirk et al., published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, they showed that mindfulness meditation may have an impact on human decision making, which is thought to be a product of emotional or rational processes. In their study, 66 subjects were divided into 2 groups. One group consisted of expert meditators who practiced a Buddhist meditation technique and the other was the control group. They played a version of the Ultimatum Game. In a two person Ultimatum Game, one player offers to split a certain amount of money with another player. If the offer is rejected, neither player gets any money. It turns out, that if the offer is 20% or less than that of the proposer’s share, the offer is rejected most of the time. People prefer to get nothing rather than a lower share of the reward. Although, it seems irrational, these responses have neural correlates. An area of the brain called the anterior insula is related to the emotions of disgust. Their hypothesis was that emotional regulation mediated by meditation could alter this area of the brain and lead to more objective choices in the Ultimatum Game, therefore meditators would more likely accept unfair choices. They used fMRI to study the brains of responders while playing an anonymous version of the Ultimatum Game. Meditators were more likely to evaluate and accept unfair offers without activating the anterior insula, the area of the brain related to emotions of disgust. Instead, compared to controls, they activated areas of the brain associated with introception (not to be confused with introspection), a term coined by Sherrington to include bodily sensations and later expanded to include the condition of the entire body. This process is related to our perception of feelings related to the body and ultimately relates to our emotions. In conclusion, meditators were able to uncouple negative emotions related to unfair offers by remaining objective in the present moment through the process of introception.

By the process of meditation, a thought or a mental concept could be stretched to fill a longer and longer period of time rather than being extinguished in a matter of seconds and or a fraction of a second. This attention on a thought for a long period of time fills one with a sense of peace. Is this the goal of meditation? Probably not. It goes deeper and deeper beyond this. Like Noah’s Ark, our attention and sense of being is transferred to that one thought which holds us. Everything that we are becomes compressed into that one thought. If it moves we move with it. If is remains stationary we are also in that state. Everything is relative to that thought. Like a solitary Ark on an ocean, that becomes our refuge for the duration of that practice. In the initial stage, we look at a certain thought and hold our attention on it. There is a sense of separateness from that thought. As we get closer and closer to that one thought, the sense of separateness or distance also diminishes. Then there comes a stage when we “land” on that thought and we start to “live on it and off of it”, just like we do on earth. With deeper concentration, the thought of being separate from the thought does not arise. Just as we find interplanetary travel to be interesting but nobody really volunteers for it as we want to remain in the safe confines of earth’s atmosphere, we call that thought “home”. With repeated practice of meditation in that “thought home” the mind gradually transforms. Old thought patterns slowly die out and the mind appears fresh, clean and rejuvenated with each session. When one is well established in this routine with regular practice, there is always a danger of developing a dependence on that thought or concept. In the later stages of meditation, even that helpful “thought home” that we become accustomed to has to be dropped. Just as the Ark reaches dry land, the thought would have served its purpose once we are able to step away from it yet maintain the same mental attitude in a conscious waking state as we do in deeper meditation. Where do we step on to? It is not a new and fascinating place. It has always been there but we have not recognized it. It is the silence between two thoughts. There is a relatively large amount of space between water molecules, that we cannot see when he look at water. Similarly, there is a potentially infinite amount space between thoughts, but we cannot see it when we look at the flow of thoughts through the mind. Just as we merge with that one thought during meditation, the ultimate goal is to merge into that silence between thoughts, losing our sense of individuality. We become that silence and through that silence, we witness whatever happens around us. We have reached “the home of peace and happiness” where we are one with that icy silence that is sandwiched between the restless fires of individual thoughts. This “silence” between thoughts pervades the mind of every human and becomes the common meeting ground for all of us. Individual thoughts may differ, but the basis for those thoughts, which is the silence between them is the same.
(1) Anzellini S, Dewaele A, Mezouar M et al. Melting of iron at earth’s inner core boundary based on fast x-ray diffraction. Science vol 340, no. 6131, 464-466, 2013.
(3) Brewer, JA, Worhunsky, PD et al. “Meditation Experience is Associated with Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 108 (2011) 20254-9.
(4) Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 330, 932 (2010).
(5) Kirk U, Downar J, Montague PR. Interoception drives increased rational decision-making in meditators playing the ultimatum game. Front. Neurosci. 2011

To be continued...