Sunday, April 24, 2016

Heart and mind: Bridging the gap

A talk given in Sarasota, FL on April 14, 2016

There are three dimensions to the health of a human heart. They are the physical, the physiological and the psychological. Modern medicine is good at healing illnesses that affect the physical and physiological aspects of the heart. These two are unique to each individual. We cannot experience the joy and pain of another through the physical and physiological dimensions. We can share another being’s happiness or suffering only through the psychological window of the heart. That window is the link that can either unite us or divide us. Medicines cannot enhance or fix it. On the contrary, it may mask and suppresses the psychological aspect of the heart.

There are many things that give us a sense of unity and purpose such as shared values at the level of the family, society and the nation. But these are relative and may not include everyone equally. Each individual’s thinking varies and no two people can think alive. At the level of the mind we are very different from one another. But through the concept of time, we are all united whether we like it or not. All living beings in every part of the world share this present moment, whether or not there is awareness of the moment at the level of the mind. The body and the life contained within in it cannot exist in the past or the future. It is an ongoing process and the sense of being alive can only happen in this moment. Life may have existed in the past and is likely to do so in the future. But that does not apply to an organ such as the heart. It has to beat and pump blood to rest of the body in sync with time otherwise we would be dead.

The lifespan of the heart may be looked at in terms of months and years or a string of heart beats stretching into the billions. On an average day, the heart cycles through about 100,000 heartbeats. We hardly ever pause to reflect on the enormous amount of work that the heart carries out each day. Every minute about 5 litres of blood is pumped through a vast network of  blood vessels in the body by an organ the size of one’s fist. If anyone has difficulty staying in the present moment, all one has to do is sync the mind to one’s heart beat. Both the mind and the heart work all the time. We have absolutely no problem with the heart working all the time. It’s work is taken for granted and ignored. More the mind works, the more we “see it”. If we see too much of the mind, we tend to get wound up in stress and tension. The less the mind works, or the less we link our awareness to the workings of the mind, the more peaceful we become. Even if the mind “falls asleep” the heart continues to work. When our awareness is enmeshed and inseparable from the mind, we are “asleep” even though the senses and the mind appear to show wakefulness. Uncoupling our awareness from the mind is true wakefulness. For this to happen, every moment of time must be a cue to maintaining watchful awareness

We have all been in situations where we are acutely aware of the value to time. For example, imagine you have arrived at the airport late and the line snaking through the security check is moving very slowly. This can easily trigger a heightened sense of anxiety and one becomes very aware of every second that ticks by. The value of those precious seconds becomes very real and tangible. As we rush to board the plane, awareness is maintained in the moment. Let’s say you manage to get into the plane just before the door closes. There is perhaps a great sense of relief and panic dissipates. It may take a little while for the mind to settle down. Very quickly awareness shifts out of the moment. Now we start thinking about the journey ahead. Let’s say the flight is 4 hours long. We then start to think about the length of the journey and how to defeat boredom may then become the predominant preoccupation. The present moment is forgotten and we try to distract the mind by reading, watching a movie or perhaps sleeping. Time that was so valuable just a few minutes ago has now become a source of boredom. That same four hours that we do everything possible to get though “unconsciously” may be of tremendous importance to someone else, such as someone who may be working on a very tight deadline.

Time links the heart and the mind. One has a form and the other creates and sees forms. The heart holds no secrets and it’s design is fairly simple, relative to such a vital function it provides. It’s walls don’t ever leak and the blood that goes in comes out before each heartbeat is completed. The mind is much more complicated, predominantly due to the contents it holds. It’s design may be simple or complicated, it is hard to say, as the eyes cannot see how it works. What we see of it is what it presented to us as thoughts and memories. The mind is most comfortable when our attention is in the past or the future. Try to bring it to the present and it rebels. It cannot exist as it does when our awareness is chained to the present. The mind also appears to be a one way street. A lot of information goes in every day. Some of it is accounted for and much of the rest is unaccounted. Experiences slip in without us being aware. The mind has a gluttonous appetite is constantly fed by the senses. We can live many parallel lives within the mind. They intersect at two points. One is memories of the past, and the other is concerns of the future. A simple processor of sensory input and a generator of emotions that the mind is, has been turned into tremendous source of misery and unhappiness. The heart is predictably predictable and the mind is predictably unpredictable. The heart can do without the mind, but the mind cannot do without the heart.

The mind may be calmed through positive emotions such as love, which the heart provides. The heart can rest only when there is peace, which the mind usually obstructs. The health of the heart depends on the state of mind. This “rope” that links the two is frayed during the day and repaired every night in sleep. During the day, it is pulled and stretched, at times to a breaking point. The mind can leave and travel all over the world and come back, all in one instant. The heart is bolted in one place, and it is at the “heart” of the spider web of blood vessels. The mind is the least troublesome when it is at the center of nothing, but we paradoxically keep pushing it back to the center of everything. Wherever the mind goes, our life goes. If there is hurt perceived in our mind, it feels as though we are mortally wounded. And a gain perceived by the mind feels as though our physical being itself is enhanced. This has always been the case with most of us and will continue to be so. This is commonly referred to as an emotional rollercoaster. The heart is the motor that powers this rollercoaster and the more we ride it, greater is the strain placed on it.

Just as a beam of light gets distorted as it enters water, our concept of life gets distorted when we see it from the context of the mind and individual thoughts. Each one has the right to hold his or her own individual perspective of life. This is not fixed as the mind is constantly changing. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Each time we dip into the mind, we are different from the time before. The mind cannot be seen through the medium of thoughts just as the eyes can see everything but itself. We need a mirror to see the mind. That mirror is awareness. Awareness remains the same, even if the mind changes. Just as the mirror is unchanged even if what it reflects changes. Like awareness, the life energy that courses through all of us cannot change on a whim. It is a constant as long as we live. The heart may be considered to be a physical surrogate of that life energy. The major change that the heart goes through is mainly physical, as part of the normal aging process. But its functional aspect remains the same till our last breath. The current model of the heart that is provided by evolution is the same in all humans, although the model year may be different in each of us.

As we develop a keener sense of awareness, we may be able to see that we are neither the mind nor the heart. But through awareness we can act as a bridge between the two. From that perspective, one can easily see that the heart has absolute discipline and self control. Most of its workings are automated. It is a true wonder of nature. Mind is also disciplined in its own way. It’s brief is to add unpredictability, as opposed to the monotony of a steady heart beat. Those who lead unidimensional lives, may miss out on the different flavors of life. Enjoyment comes from experiencing that diversity that life offers. Experiences are meant to be “use and throw”. But we “collect and stow” whether we enjoy them or not. There is only so much we can accommodate in our real time awareness. By accumulating everything we come across, the mind becomes a crowded place that we cannot easily navigate through. Lost in the myriad facets of the mind we ultimately lose our grounding and knowledge of who we really are. One need not go to a remote hilltop or a forest to reflect on this. Each heartbeat provides a sense of grounding that can bring the confusion within the mind into a clearer perspective. Life should be like a balanced meal, partaking in the lessons offered by both the heart and the mind.

There are many methods that have been put forth for the purpose of controlling the mind. But fundamentally, the mind cannot be controlled. It is its nature to be as it is, that is constantly moving from one place to another. For example, we cannot control the sun and make it shine with lesser or greater intensity. But can change how we experience sunlight. For instance, by going to the tropics we can experience more of its warmth and by going to more northern latitudes, we experience less of it. The mind will always function the way it has been functioning. When we experience life only through the mind, it becomes chaotic and confusing. Through various techniques, the influence of the mind on how we experience life may be lessened and through that we wrongly infer that the mind has been controlled. What we can control is where our awareness is at all times. Through force of habit, it keeps slipping back into the mind.

Since we are talking about the heart, one method of subduing the pull of the mind on our awareness is to tie it to the heart. One need not necessarily feel the inner workings of the heart, and individual heart beats need not be felt. Through depth of feeling, the one can attune with the psychological aspect of the heart, which is the pure quality of love. One cannot hold onto the mind and also go deep into love. The mind must be sacrificed if one is truly lost in the depths of love. Love thrives on a diet of freshness and spontaneity and the mind lives on a very stale diet of the past. Both cannot coexist. The choice to be one or the other rests with each and every individual. Just as the body becomes sluggish when overloaded with food, the mind also loses its effortless grace when loaded with memories, thoughts and worries. The process of weaning away our awareness from thoughts and memories has to be a steady and persistent one. When one starts a new exercise program for example, one cannot expect to lose all that excess weight in one day or one workout session. Rather it is a cumulative effect and once the goal is achieved, exercises must be continued to maintain those benefits. Similarly, once awareness is established in something other than the mind, it must be actively kept there, or else it may start to slip back towards the mind.  

The mind has become an all powerful influence in our lives. Just as we can stand in water and still breathe as long as the nostrils are above water, we can safely exist with the mind and enjoy what it has to offer as long as we keep our attention above the reach of the mind. The primary fuel for the mind is memories. Whether memories are good or bad, over time they become like quicksand and we cannot escape their clutches. Every minute the mind gorges on sensory experiences. It is a continuous flood that keeps entering it without any possibility of stopping. Once they enter the mind, they cannot be easily extracted. These experiences are the only wealth and treasure that the mind has. Using them, the mind exerts a great influence over us, just as weeds take over a yard that lies neglected. In our case, neglect is inattentiveness. At first, the mind exists as an amorphous emptiness. It is a potential. That potential can be great. It can also be easily frittered away. This is very different from the heart. Every heart beat is the same, the force of contraction of the heart with each beat is not a potential, it is an actuality. Life is both a potential and an actuality.

Of the three basic requirements for human life, air is free and abundant. The other two, water and land are not so easily to come by in certain parts of the world. Lot of wars have been fought over them. Thankfully mankind had the foresight to sign the outer space treaty in 1967, that bars the use of outer space for destructive purposes and is open to all countries. Despite the abundance of air, with each breath only a tiny amount relative to its availability is inhaled and of that a smaller fraction is allowed into the bloodstream. The lungs do not get greedy and inhale more that their capacity to hold air. This is not so with the mind. Every moment, the mind likes to fill itself with more and more thoughts. Air is virtually weightless. Even though the column of air extends all the way to the border of space, it does not crush us. Thoughts are not physical entities and have no weight at all. But even a few thoughts can seem very heavy and they can easily weigh us down. The amount of air and oxygen let into the body and allowed to circulate is exquisitely controlled. But when the mind opens us, there can be a torrential downpour of thoughts and feelings. In that flood, useful ones gets washed away leaving us drenched and wet with emotion. The protective envelope of attentiveness can help us pick out useful thoughts from the rest.

Thoughts by themselves do not have the power to hold us captive, unless we give them that power. We do so by the depth to with we are involved with them. The more we feel that the “thoughts are mine and I have to act on them” the more powerful they become. Think of a billboard that you pass by as you are driving. If the the advertising is attractive and gets your attention, you tend to dwell on it and it sinks into the mind forming an impression. If it did not interest you at all, it would just be another passing image. Once an impression is formed, it comes back in various forms. Each impression tries to link itself to another. They don’t usually exist in isolation. There is safety in numbers. Soon enough, they spin a tight web around us and that prison becomes permanent and it may become impossible to escape from it. There is a lesson to be learnt from how the heart functions. Like any internal combustion engine that can only function when there is an intake of air, the heart functions when there is intake of air by the lungs. That air may be fresh or polluted, smelly or fragrant, the heart does not differentiate. It does not selectively hold onto oxygen sourced from fresh and fragrant air that is transported in the red cells. The mind is very picky and we have created this situation through our likes and dislikes. The only way to break out of the prison of the mind is to renounce likes and dislikes. Nothing else need be changed in one’s life or nothing external need be given up.

For every experience that creates an impression in the mind, there are hundreds and thousands more that have not been able to create an impression. Rather than focusing on the ones that have sunk into the mind, if we are able to take a step back and look at them not through the lens of duality (chosing between this or that) but look at them in totality (the whole mind space), it can help us turn into observers rather than actors. If this distinction can be made and practiced, thoughts cannot have any power, just as a water slides off a rock, they will flow and remain in their natural state. Our natural state is a thoughtless state and the the natural state for thoughts is freedom from our attention.

Once we claim them as ours, thoughts cannot and will not leave us. We cannot gift or sell them to another person. They become our property for life, whether we like them or not. It is important to be picky and selective as we acquire them. The mind is like a wall and thoughts are like balls bouncing off a wall. If we say, a certain thought is mine and throw that into the mind, it will return back to us at some point in the future. Greater the force with which it is thrown, greater is the force with which it returns. If one is very deeply engrossed with experiences of the world, they are retained in the mind as memories and will return immediately or at some point in the future. It all depends on whether the circumstances are right for them (in order for thoughts, memories and experiences to return to our conscious realm). Just as the end product of digestion is very different from the food we eat, every experience that creates an impression on the mind looks very different when they surface again in the future. Usually they come up either as emotions or as desires, unrecognizable from the initial experience. This is how the mind perpetuates itself. If there is one thing that is immortal within ourselves that we can easily experience, it is this process.

Memories indicate an incomplete experience. If something is enjoyed totally in every aspect in, it cannot be recorded in the mind. The mind records something for the future only if an experience is incomplete. For example, when one enjoys a sunrise so totally to the point of becoming one with the experience, there is no question of a memory of that experience. Memory arises only if one is removed from the experience. We don’t have a memory of how our body felt when we were five years old for instance, as we were one with the body at that time.

We cannot easily empty the mind of all the accumulated impressions from the experiences of the past, but moving forward we can certainly be attentive to prevent or limit this process from continuing further. Techniques such as meditation serve to undo the impressions from the past that have accumulated in the mind. During that meditative state, as the reel of the past unwinds, new ones will not be created as long as we can pay attention and not interpret the thoughts that may arise from the mind. They may relate to events of the past or imagined events of the future based on past experiences. One must try and watch it just as one would watch smoke is leaving a chimney. That smoke may be harmful if inhaled. Similarly, when thoughts that bubble are indulged it will be harmful to our progress. The smoke that leaves a chimney cannot return. Similarly, once thoughts leave the mind without our interpretation of them, they may never return. Trying to understand thoughts that come up as one attempts to meditate is like aiming to find a secret message encoded in a column of smoke. This process of unraveling the mind is best done while the heart is still beating and the body is warm. Once death comes, that chance is lost for good. At the time of death, if our awareness is fixed in the body and the mind we are identified with the impermanent and we get swept away in that wave called death. If through meditation, we can separate our awareness and keep it independent of the body, as an observer, perhaps we become part of that which does not die, that is awareness itself. The heart will one day die, but it dies trying to keep us alive. All that hard work may be in vain, if we don’t make any attempt to understand our true nature while we are still alive.

Fundamentally, we are all the same. Stripped down naked, there is little difference. Everyone has a covering of skin under which there are muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones all supporting a biochemical soup that flows throughout the body. We do our best to differentiate ourselves from others by the clothing we wear, our surroundings, dwellings, mannerisms etc. These stem from the mind and not the body. Just as we differentiate our physical reality from one another, within the mind, thoughts separate themselves from one another by the layers of sensory impressions that each thought absorbs to varying degrees. Stripped down to the basics, the mechanism of the mind probably is very similar amongst all of us. This can only be experienced if we are not different from the observer within. That “observer within” is a fundamental particle that cannot be broken into two. The mind exists when there is more than one thought and observer is experienced as pure awareness when there is only one.

Very few people feel a deep sense of oneness with others. For all practical purposes, the heart looks and functions the same in each one of us. That functionality extends to the animal kingdom as well. Even if we are not the same at the level of the mind, we cannot deny that at the level of the heart we are basically one and the same. Both unity and diversity are important. The heart represents unity and the mind represents diversity. The body and the mind show us that they can coexist. But we say we are united when it suits a purpose and cherish our diversity when it serves another purpose. Given a choice, it is probably better to call the heart our home rather than the mind. At a deeper level, our “home” is neither in the mind or the body. Everyday we take an excursion in a park called the mind. Becoming so engrossed in the attractions on offer we forget to go “home”. After a while, we become homeless and we start living in the “open” in the mind. The mind is connected to the heart where the rich folk live, those rich in love. Whether we are “poor” in the mind or “rich” in the heart, we have to find our way back to our true self. Time is our only treasure. If it is spent wisely, we will get there before we spend it all. Time cannot be carried over like accumulated vacation. Every moment will have to be utilized before death. It is best to use it with awareness rather than let it slip by unconsciously.