Friday, December 19, 2014

Training the mind - 11

Shapes and shadows
Space is full of them
With room for everything
A star gazer is ever enthralled

We generally think of life as a circle. But the concept of time is not circular, it is more linear. We cannot go back to whatever may have happened in the past except through memories. And we can only travel into the future through fantasies. A lot of people unconsciously affirm to themselves that the present is boring, by dwelling either in the past or the future. Thus they create an imaginary circle that runs from the present to the past and the future and back to the present. Rather than being at the center of this imaginary circle, watching the play of thoughts do their thing, we allow ourselves to hitch a ride on this “time travel”.

Thoughts are very agile. Imagine one actor donning many roles, effortlessly morphing from one character to another. Now imagine this actor wearing a very colorful and intricate costume. A close up on any one part would appear very different from another. But when seen from a distance, the whole is seen and the intricate patterns seem to weave into one another. It no longer looks like an abstract design that is seen from up close, but a costume on an actor. Similarly looking at individual thoughts in isolation creates a pattern in the mind that may not be easily understood. But looking at the mind from a distance as a painting with many colors and patterns represented by the thoughts may give us a better perspective of it.

Travelling with individual thoughts and watching scenes from the past and imagined ones from the future can be a head turning experience, so to speak. The mind is a vast land. If it is not properly understood, it becomes at best a wasteland, and at the other end of the spectrum a dangerous and unhappy place. There is nothing wrong with thoughts if they come and go without affecting our emotions. The question then arises, is the problem more to do with thoughts bothering us or with us bothering with thoughts? There seems to be an invisible glue that makes some of these thoughts stick to our consciousness and this in turn stirs up emotions. Sometimes we feel like we have no choice other than to identify with thoughts that may arise. There is never going to be a shortage of thoughts. Letting one go will bring another. There is no easy answer why certain thoughts trouble us while others do not. The mind can be thought of as having two poles, a positive one and a negative one. As thoughts flow from one to another the “mind comes alive”.  Think of the positive pole as a collection of mostly positive positive and the negative pole as a collection of mostly negative thoughts. Electricity cannot be generated by having just the negative or the positive poles. It requires the flow of electrons from the negative to the positive poles. Similarly, the mind cannot be only positive or negative. It is a combination of the two that sets up “the current of thought”. Just as electricity flows continuously, thoughts flow continuously. We use proper insulation and wiring and channel electricity for useful purposes. The energy from the thought current between the negative and positive poles of the mind may similarly be harnessed. If one touches individual thoughts (by identifying with them), one may feel a shock in the form of emotion. If one uses this energy of the mind without touching individual thoughts, that energy is transmuted into wisdom. Wisdom is watching this spectacle as one would watch a shark through the glass of a shark tank. Ignorance is playing with the shark and risk getting bitten.

Insulating oneself from the emotional sting of individual thoughts can be a hard process to learn and perform well consistently. The sense of reality surrounding deeply emotional thoughts is hard to get over. We become clever movie directors weaving these thoughts into very realistic images. These images can only be seen by us, but wait… even we cannot see them. We can sense them but cannot hold the image as we see with our eyes. In fact, holding an image in the mind with the eyes closed requires a great deal of concentration and practice. There is no obvious screen where they are projected. What makes them seem so real are the changes they effect in body physiology. It may be the ultimate virtual reality experience. Detachment is one way of escaping the emotion trauma inflicted on us by our own thoughts. One can watch rain without getting wet by sheltering inside a house. The concept of detachment is similar. You observe without getting rained on. Attachment is complaining about the rain and getting wet when one has an umbrella.

When one enters a forest, one tacitly accepts the dangers of the unknown. It would be nice to run into only harmless deer, but that is not always the case. Wild animals may lurk in the shadows and may be just around the corner. To complete the ecosystem of the forest, both dangerous predators and harmless animals are needed. This analogy may be extended to the mind. The mind contains both good and bad ideas. A lot of the time, people are reluctant to go deeper into their mind as they don’t like the thoughts that may surface. To get around this, notion of good or bad is projected out into the world. The thoughts within are sheltered and ignored. Slowly over time, the dam that is build in the mind holding back these thoughts gives way flooding our mind. Since we may not have understood these thoughts, the backlash can be severe if we are overwhelmed with negative thoughts. Everything needs an outlet. The force of a severe hurricane is let out through winds that gush at high speed. It cannot blow for ever but in the short period of time it does, damage can be devastating. In contrast a mild breeze can blow for a long time and it will not do any damage. Similarly negative emotions that arise from thoughts can have a great amount of force. No matter how strong willed one may be, if this force is severe, we cannot hold it back. The outburst can have very negative consequences.  Once we let out this energy, we lose ownership over its force, but not its effects.

The force behind strong positive thoughts is also great. But it does not cause destruction and damage. Think of the jet stream, which blows several kilometers above the surface of the earth, at wind speeds that may far exceed even the strongest of hurricanes. But it does not cause damage on the surface of the earth. It has many beneficial uses such as for aviation and weather forecasting. Till such a time one is able to build up these stores of positive energy, even a little bit of it blowing continuously brings a sense of peace and happiness, and importantly does no damage.

One of the first steps of understanding ourselves is the acceptance of the existence of good and bad thoughts within ourselves. By accepting that, we can then begin the process of facing these thoughts. An organized and persistent approach is preferable. This builds will power. Staying with a tried and tested method will keep the mind on solid footing should unexpected events begin to wash away prior efforts. What I mean by tried and tested is something one has tried for oneself over a period of time and is suitable to one's temperament. The results would be apparent to oneself, whether a certain technique is working or not.

There are many who have tread this path through the mind. No one technique or formula is universally applicable. Only you would know what works and what does not work for yourself. For example, there is a reason why diets don’t work. Tastes are varied. Although there are only a few basic flavors that that receptors on the tongue recognize, the variations can be infinite not to mention cultural influences, other senses such as smell and sight. Habit patterns are hard, but not impossible to break. A new diet is not looked on as entirely new, but in the context of what the mind has been accustomed to. Intellectual reinforcement is weak in the face of a mind firmly set on a habit pattern. It has to be gently weaned away from those grooves into new ones. Just as the body may reject a sudden change in dietary pattern, the mind which has been used to a diet of certain habit patterns will reject any sudden efforts to change them.

Laying a new road from point A to point B takes a lot of time and effort. But, one may be able to travel between point A and B in a matter of minutes on a newly constructed road. Habits may be thought of roads that travel through the mind. Just as one does not usually drive around aimlessly, a wandering mind picks us these habitual thought patterns and settles into those grooves until it is prompted to change course. Then, it may find another groove and it goes on and on. If a city has bad roads, it is far easier to repave existing roads rather than tear everything out and rebuild. Similarly, the mind that is accustomed to certain habit patterns, if allowed to travel along those lines of thought but with an entirely different perspective, than those old habits may be replaced with new ones. This requires attention and being aware of what the mind is doing at any given point in time. This may be achieved by setting aside a few minutes or an hour each day to first understand the mind’s habits, then being aware of what those habits are doing to other thoughts and then finally replacing those habits with better ones.

Rather than look at life as a circle, consider life as a series of interlocking triangles. A three dimensional pyramid can be thought of as progressively smaller triangles stacked one on top of each other. Unlike the structure of a pyramid, life does not follow a predefined plan or order. A lot of unexpected things may happen. Everything that happens in life can be thought of as existing within a triangle formed by three basic needs- food, sleep and survival. Everything else is built on top of that. When even one of these three basic needs is compromised, everything else may fall apart. Just as the space at the base of the pyramid is the largest at the base and narrowest at the top, the deep seated happiness that one has when these basic needs are fulfilled may be greater than that provided by any worldly possessions. If these basic needs are not fulfilled, nothing else matters. Even if one does not have much, one can still derive happiness out of life if these needs are fully met. Similarly in the mind, all its contents can be thought of existing within a triangle formed by the events of the past, present and possible ones of the future. There is another triangle formed by you the observer and the negative and positive poles of the mind. Fear links these imaginary triangles. As there are infinite amount of thoughts, there are potentially infinite number of interlocked triangles of the observer and positive and negative thoughts. If one were to give this a three-dimensional structure, it gives a rough idea of the structure of the mind. Developing fearlessness may potentially unlock these interlinking thoughts and help unravel the mind and make it smaller and more manageable. Large chunks of ice in the form of icebergs are hazardous to ships, but small flakes of snow, which are the building blocks of ice are harmless. Fear “freezes” thoughts and makes them clump together. These clumps of thoughts may have rough edges that create friction in the mind as they interact with other clumps of thoughts. This friction may cause restlessness and quickly consumes peace of mind. Fearlessness “warms” the mind and makes thoughts flow away from one another giving the mind the appearance of a uniform body of water. Stilling the mind may be thought of as this process of unravelling clumps of thoughts. By this process one does not deny or suppress thoughts but prevents them from clumping together. If the flow of thoughts are well managed, they can be directed towards useful purposes just as the banks of the river direct and redirect the flow of water towards the sea.

To be continued...