Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Training the mind - 9

Time is a slow burning fire
A conflagration that consumes civilizations
The future is windward, past is leeward
Wisdom lights a fire that time cannot

Humans have always aspired to push the limits of physical endurance. In ancient Greece, an endurance run bringing a message of victory at the conclusion of the battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians is commemorated even today. The marathon, a race that covers roughly the distance from Marathon to Athens, Greece is named after that ancient run. Now there are other feats that surpass the marathon in terms of pushing the limits of the physical body. These include officially sanctioned races such as ultra marathons covering over 100 kilometers, ironman triathlons etc. The Tour de France, an epic bike race around France, is another example of the test of not just physical capacity, but also mental strength. The “longest hour” in cycling is not the last hour of a three week race around France, but an hour long race against the clock. It is the farthest distance that can be covered in one hour on a bicycle. In 1972, Eddy Merckx, the Belgian bicycle racer, considered one of the all time greats in his sport set the hour record. He described that hour of riding as the “longest of my career”. Since that record setting feat, only three individuals have ridden further in an hour. Modern aerodynamic equipment was not available when Merckx set the bar, although he had the advantage of racing at high altitude in Mexico City where the aerodynamic drag is also less. He also said this about the longest hour, “Here it’s not possible to ease up, to change gears or the rhythm. The hour record demands a total effort, permanent and intense, one that’s not possible to compare to any other”.

The uniqueness of the longest hour in cycling lies is the demands placed on both the body and the mind for every second of the 60 minute interval. Most of us cannot even dream of putting our bodies through those physical demands. But, whatever the state of physical health or wellbeing, with practice the mind can be fine tuned to keep a single pointed focus on a certain task. When we are engrossed in a book for example, the body automatically becomes still and relaxed. Time slows down and we may be able to maintain this relaxed posture for as long as the mind is concentrated on the book. But if we try to consciously still the body and sit in one position without focusing the mind, we become restless after a only few minutes. An even harder task, but not impossible, is sitting still and keeping the mind focused internally on a thought. The first minute of this simple exercise may seem like the “longest minute” of one’s life. The inference here is that stilling the body does not necessarily make the mind one-pointed, but focusing the mind has an effect of relaxing the body. All the great endurance athletes knowingly or unknowingly have developed great mental strength and focus which is then translated to the body. This along with practice and a gift of physical prowess sets them apart from mere recreational athlete. Among the top tennis players for instance, there is probably very little difference in terms of physical prowess among the top players. But what makes a player the number one in the world versus someone ranked in the top 50 is probably superior mental strength at key moments in a match. This is not something that can be learned on the fly, but requires years of practice. Indeed, some players reportedly practice some techniques of concentration such as yoga and meditation.

When someone is asked the question, “Who are you?”, the answer is usually their given name and not “Which one? The body, mind, or a certain thought?” A person may be referred to as father, mother, sister, brother, friend or enemy depending on his or her relationship with other people. However, the unique perception of the self that a person has does not change. One’s name does not necessarily change despite the changes that happen in the physical body over the years. The brand of clothing worn changes, but this sense of self does not. When you think about it, this “sense of self” appears to be localized somewhere behind the eyes. The point where the nerve fibers from the two eyes meet, called the optic chiasma is located in front of the master endocrine gland called the pituitary. This is a vital structure for the well being of the entire body. If we develop the ability to consciously focus our mental attention at this point, the mind may be thought of as being “centered in one self”. It may be  important to have a point of physical reference for the mind in the initial stages of concentration.  

Pure gold is so soft that it it can be moulded with one’s hands. To turn it into jewelry, usually other metals like copper are added to it to make it hard. These impurities are “hidden” under the lustre of gold. Only a goldsmith knows its true value. We project our personality to the world. Some of the time, what people think we are is in line with what we truly are. A lot of the time, there is a disconnect between what we are and what other people think of us. Like a goldsmith that knows the purity of a piece of gold, only we can make a honest and objective assessment of our individual selves. Unless we are an innocent new born baby or a pure hearted self realized saint, we cannot say we are totally free of negative traits. As we engage with the world, our personality “hardens” to some extent. We are shaped by our desires, anger, greed, arrogance and envy. A deep assessment of ourselves would likely reveal that we at some point in our lives have succumbed to these personality shaping traits. We may hide it from worldview, but these qualities never leave us. Having these traits does not make us bad people, it just says that we are human.

Everyday countless thoughts go throughout one’s mind. There is no one thought that defines a person. But focussing deeply on one thought, whatever that thought may be may lead to a deeper understanding of oneself. The thought is a means and not the end result of one’s mental focus. For example, watching thousands of cars go does not take one to a destination. But riding in a car, one is transported to the destination. The car may be big or small, run on petrol or diesel, a cheap or an expensive model. One may not care much as long as it takes one from point A to B. Similarly every thought is a vehicle. When one is sitting in a car, for the duration of the journey, for all practical purposes the car and the person inside are one and travel to the same destination. In the case of a thought, it is the vehicle, and the focus and concentration one applies is the passenger. A thought has to come from somewhere and it returns to an equally mysterious place. Identifying and concentrating on a single thought makes it a powerful vehicle that takes us deeper into the mind. One would need to practice and experiment for oneself to see if this is true in individual cases. Just as cars have windows through which we can see other cars and the passing scenery, one must look at other thoughts and feelings that may crop up within us in this manner. This journey on a “thought vehicle” is potentially endless. If it were finite, we would have all gone there and come back. It helps us see and discover what lies in the deepest layers of the mind. A car has to be reliable with proper tires, window panes etc. Similarly, for a thought to be a reliable vehicle to take us deeper within ourselves, it has to be fortified with proper focus, faith, endurance and attitude. If we decide that it will take us far into our own minds, it will. If we think otherwise, it will not take us very far. Repeated forays into the mind may unearth what we may already know about ourselves or it may spring up surprises. But one thing is certain. It cuts through patterned thinking and will likely help in setting up new and beneficial thought patterns if we chose to go down this path.

A lot of the problems of the world today can be ascribed to dogmatic thinking. Granted, it narrows one’s stream of thought on a certain idea or concept and potentially brings some social order. But not many take the power of this focus deeper than the idea itself. In early civilizations, fear of an external agents such as thunder evoked a sense of fear. This fear was channeled into making people think and act a certain way to please the Gods of Nature. Later, these external forces took a more benevolent turn, only towards those who “believed”. This also lead to fear that drove the masses towards accepting a certain stream of thought to be included in the “circle of believers”, thereby escaping ostracism and punishment. Now humanity is slowly coming to accept that fear is not a good motivator. The underpinning of dictatorships is fear, and that of democracy is free choice. The rise of democracy and free choice is a positive change for all of us. The battle still rages in the world today between forces of fear and that of free choice. The world suffers when there is fear. People in both free and closed societies have to raise their guard. It becomes difficult to lead a free and happy life when there is mistrust bred by fear. To eradicate fear, responsible free choice may be the answer. If one accidentally steps on a nail, one does not punish the foot that stepped on it. Instead, the foot is given great attention and care. If care is not taken, infection may spread rapidly throughout the body leading to a life threatening condition. Similarly in the world around, there are a great number of “nails of inhumanity” that are threatening our peace and prosperity. These “nails” can be eradicated for a generation or two by force, but to effect permanent change for the better, efforts have to be directed within each individual’s mind and not externally. This internally directed force, in the form of willpower to follow a righteous path cannot be imposed on people. It has to be sought out and cultivated individually.

Developing the art of keeping the mind in one pointed focus is an endurance activity and not a short sprint. The mind is ever focused on attaining a state of happiness. In life, one may have long periods of time when one is happy. At other times, it comes in short spurts and does not last. The degree and duration of happiness is directly related to our level of contentment. Let’s consider the example of acquiring certain inanimate objects like a car, a watch, a piece of clothing, jewelry etc. The acquisition of this object brings a sense of contentment as there is no further craving for that object immediately after getting it. This contentment results in a sense of happiness and unfortunately does not last very long. If there are other unfulfilled cravings, which frequently is the case, contentment then leaves us as does happiness. Human life is the greatest of all gifts, one does not have to crave it. It is already there. No one has the right to take that gift away from another, Perhaps, only time has that right. But time also replenishes the world with fresh minds and bodies. If one is contented with oneself, there is potentially no end to one’s happiness. Through the agency of this happiness everything else follows. Joy makes one work harder without feeling a sense of fatigue. Life becomes more comfortable with fewer needs. A joyful mind is not focused on negativity and destruction, making the world a safer and more peaceful place for others.

The attitude of the mind reflects our ignorance or wisdom. Attaining wisdom takes effort, but being in a state of wisdom is effortless. Just as it is easier to float on the surface of an ocean than to dive deep under water, it appears easier to remain ignorant of the depth of the mind than to plumb its depths. Everyone would like to know and realize the ultimate truth. But the answers have evaded us, it is not found in books or speeches. Like a tool that is used to cut a diamond cannot become the diamond, the mind is the tool to realize the ultimate truth but is not the ultimate truth. As wisdom grows, the mind narrows its focus onto the most useful thoughts. The gap between the “subjectivity” of lack of wisdom or “objectivity” of attaining wisdom narrows. The process of expanding the mind into states of wisdom is breaking down the barriers that may exist within that differentiates subjects and objects. There is an artificial boundary between the creative process of human minds and the objects that are created out of that expression. Recognizing this artificial boundary results in attachment and desires and ignoring this boundary leads to detachment and fulfilment. Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist had this to say about his creative process, "It is impossible to differentiate the symbols from the thing; but it is very visual. It is hard to believe it, but I see these things not as mathematical expressions but a mixture of a mathematical expression wrapped into and around, in a vague way, around the object. So I see all the time visual things associated with what I am trying to do."

Rather than have objects bring us happiness, we must make happiness independent of material goods the objective. Water is the basis of many liquids that we drink and enjoy. Some like tea, others coffee. Some are addicted to alcohol, other shun it. The flavor associated with juice made from one fruit may be more appealing from that made from another. In each of these instances, water the common medium through which all these differences arise. Nowadays, even plain old water is being differentiated by various creating labelling claiming one source is better that another. There is no evidence to support that bottled water is better than purified tap water, yet we spend billions of dollars on bottled water every year. According to the Earth Policy Institute, the amount of oil required to make plastic bottles to meet the yearly demands of American consumers is enough to keep 100,000 cars on the road every year. Only a small percentage of these bottles is recycled, with the majority ending up in landfills, incinerators and the oceans. We are doing the same thing with happiness. The medium through which people derive happiness may have infinite variations but that sense of happiness is a same qualitatively and cannot be quantified. This happiness can also be milked out of the mind through introspection and reflection. But the methods of doing this have different labels and out of ignorance, people claim and believe that one approach is better than another. The cost of this ignorance is loss of peace and a longer journey to reach a deeper and more lasting source of happiness.

There is little question these days that money bring happiness, through the acquisition of objects of desire. A recent study from the University of Michigan, found that as GDP per capita increases, the level of happiness rises. There is no point at which this levels off. The authors also inferred that “if there is a satiation point, we are yet to reach it”. This contradicted the prior notion, called the Easterlin paradox wherein people in rich countries were no happier than people in poor countries. Money fulfils desires to an extent, thereby leading to temporary contentment and happiness. However, it does not eliminate desires, the source of unhappiness. It hides but does nothing to cure unhappiness. Not everyone is rich and not every rich person is healthy enough to fully enjoys everything that wealth brings. Therefore, the notion of money buying happiness may be applicable on a societal level as demonstrated by the study mentioned above, but does not necessarily apply at an individual level.

Happiness that is sourced from within does not necessarily depend on money. In the same light, money can buy books, but not wisdom. Money cannot provide a lasting sense of contentment; and one can be contented whether rich or poor. Happiness, wisdom and contentment is not the slave of the currency markets of the world. It is a freely available resource that will not diminish over time, if we pursue right thought and actions. We can collectively grow this valuable resource and give it freely without fear of losing what we have. Although money can buy happiness as illustrated above, money cannot be given freely. If that happens, it results in rapid inflation and the value of money decreases. On the other hand, the more we give and share our wisdom, happiness and contentment, the value of this contribution increases over time. There will always be upheavals in the world. But with a surplus of these important values, any difficulties the world of today or tomorrow may face can be easily overcome. With collective effort and perseverance we can give the world its “longest period of happiness”.

To be continued…