Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Mind: Full of preservatives

The origins of modern day “instant” digital photography are buried in antiquity. The earliest forms employed a pinhole camera, also called camera obscura (Latin for dark room). A basic pinhole camera is a box with a tiny aperture that lets in light, which falls on the opposite wall creating an inverted image of the object that was illuminated. Later, glass lenses replaced the pinholes. The 10th century Arab physicist, Ibn al-Haytham is credited with the invention of the world’s first pinhole camera. The principles of camera obscura were initially described by the ancient Greeks and the Chinese. In the 1820s, Nicéphore Niépce employed the phenomenon of camera obscura and captured the world’s first photographic record. The next big revolution was color photography and more recently digital photography. The first photograph took several several days of exposure. These days, we can take several photographs in a fraction of a second using our smart phones. Our eyes are the best examples of pinhole cameras. In fact, camera obscura was the model for the human eye as described by Leonardo Da Vinci.  René Descartes extended this to the eye and the mind. Although the human eye is a prototypical pinhole camera bringing in information to the brain, the other four senses also bring in “images” of the world around us in the form of sensory input that can be analysed and interpreted by the mind.

The face of the mind that is turned towards the world depends on external light that travels through the eyes to the back of the brain (called the occipital cortex) where images are then reconstructed. If the mind were just an archival, storage and retrieval device, it would be no different from a modern day digital camera housed in an average smartphone. The mind does much more than just “preserve and protect” images from degradation. It can also create its own images. These images are not always exact replicas of the outer world but rather a composite of our experiences and our interpretation of them. The light for this “pinhole camera” that projects images generated by the mind does not come from the external world. The source of that light is mysterious and unclear.

It should be a source of great wonder that the mind is able to generate its own light without having any contact with a physical thing. Just as all the light from the external world converges on a small aperture in the center of each eye without which the world would not be visible to us, the ego is the “aperture” through which the “inner light” flows into the mind. This “inner light” is the likely source of power for the mind whereas the light from the external mind triggers a cascade of events within the mind that creates an experience. What we refer to as the mind is a space that is separated from the outer world by the senses and the inner reality within each one of us by the wall of the ego. In other words, the mind, in theory is a finite entity as long as one has a sense of individuality. What we do with the mind is left to us, but the state of the world today and in the future is dependent on how we use the mind.

Each one’s contribution, however big or small is very important. The sum total of everyone’s contribution creates the world we live in. For example, one single tree does not produce oxygen for the planet. Scientists estimate that there are three trillion trees on the planet. Two mature trees produce enough oxygen to support a family of four (according to Environment Canada). It is not just humans than depend on oxygen. All other species of animals share that dependence. Our mind could be compared to a tree. Just as trees consume carbon dioxide and generate oxygen, if each of us could absorb just a little negativity that is so pervasive around us in today’s world, and emit even a little amount of positivity the world would change for the better in a short time. Air cannot be seen or grasped. Only when there is movement of air, as in a breeze, can it be felt. The mind is infinitely more subtle a substance than air. But the energy it puts out, positive or negative can be felt by people around. In this manner we can certainly impact our immediate surroundings, be it our homes or the workplace.

The facade of the mind we all know very well has the five senses as the doors to the world. The back wall of the mind, behind which lies our deeper unadulterated essence, comprises the ego. It creates a sense of division, albeit arbitrary, between us and the world. Take the example of a piece of blank white paper. If one fills it up with small circles, we see the circles and not the white paper. The previously large white space has now become several small white spaces within each circle. Similarly the ego has created a boundary and usurped “space” that does not belong to anyone or anything in particular. Within that unique space, we create our individual life that is projected in the mind through thoughts. Anything on the mind’s side of the wall is considered ours and whatever is beyond is not. We are chiefly concerned with what we consider ours. Realization of one’s true self is a gradual process of breaking down this wall. Nobody likes living in a cramped and confined space. We all seek open spaces and that is where we are most relaxed. We are great at creating external props for relaxation. Few have mastered the art of internal relaxation, without regard to external circumstances.

Relaxation is a natural state not just for the body but also for the mind. Modern technology has been very kind in providing all possible means to relax the body. But very little is available for the mind. Relaxation of the mind derived from chemicals such as alcohol is only temporary. In the long run, it leads to suppression of thoughts which eventually will bounce back when the effects of the chemical agent wear off. To quell this thought rebellion, one has to consume of more of it both in quantity and frequency ultimately leading to adverse effects on the body. Furthermore artificial aids in general, relax either the mind or the body, not both simultaneously. For example, if the mind is relaxed using external means such as alcohol, the bodily mechanism is put to work to process that alcohol to create that state of relaxation in the mind. Sleep relaxes both the body and the mind. However, one is not conscious of that state of relaxation. It is passive rejuvenation. Enjoyment is nothing but conscious relaxation. It is a universal desire, to enjoy life. Contentment and awareness without taking sides create the milieu for the true enjoyment of life. This enjoyment does not cost anything and can be had anytime or anywhere. Natural resources need not be plundered in pursuit of that enjoyment.

When we speak of enjoyment, where is it perceived from? The mind is where the enjoyment is reflected, but it is not perceived from there. Like a meeting point in a public space such as a theatre, the mind is a venue where the inner world meets the outer world. Imagine watching a play that never concludes. Even the most interesting theatrical event gets boring if it goes on and on. Once the plot is revealed and the suspense is over, the playwright normally concludes the play a short while later. In the mind, many such “plays” or trains of thoughts are unfolding every day. When one ends, another starts. It would be easy if there was only one line of thought. This is in everyone’s experience. We are “action stars” jumping from one train of thought to another, each of those traveling at high speeds. As as simple exercise, one could try to sit through one line of thought, whatever it may be and follow it to to completion. Just as in a theatrical play, there will be a beginning where the plot is allowed to form and develop and finally there is the concluding act. Thoughts also follow the same pattern. They are meaningless when taken in isolation. We create our own play in our mind by giving them context and meaning and rather than enjoying our production, we become enslaved by them. The main actor in this play, “I” is an elusive character. No one has ever met him or her. We have created this character who makes his or her way into every thought play. The play stops, generally when our attention folds and not when the whole sequence is complete. Once this happens, the actor “I” decamps backstage, disappears and reappears in the next thought. If there is an actor that never tires, it is that “I”.

The theatre that our mind is, is our respective individual private space. The main actor “I” is entirely our creation and the plot is written from our imagination. We are free to disband this entire charade at any point in time. It can happen at this very moment if we are in total agreement within. But something holds us back. The mind has become too enticing a place for us to bid our attachment to it goodbye. Even when the inner climate of the mind is bad, we forget that all this is our own creation, and we force ourselves to sit through that day in and day out, as if we are dragged in against our will. No doubt there are parts of the mental play that are thoroughly enjoyable, but for those few transitory moments, we put ourselves through hours of misery. Is it worth it? One must ask that question of oneself. Only then can there be a push to seek a higher state of existence, not subject to the see sawing of the mind. The owner of a theatre has the privilege of walking in backstage and meeting the actors. The rest of the audience will have to stand in line, buy tickets and enter in an orderly fashion from the front entrance to take their seats. The front entrance of the mind is adorned by the senses. Even though we are the “owners” of our mind and we should be able to know the mind in and out, we don’t know any other way into the mind other than to enter it through the senses. The senses are open for entry only during certain hours of the day, in the waking state. At this time, there is a great rush of impulses that flood in. Our voices are drowned out amongst thousands of experiences that are created within the mind every day. Hence the need for silent contemplation wherein the senses are given a forced rest. Initially this may prove difficult, but with time and persistence, it becomes easier to see the mind without the babble created by what enters through the senses. We may then see a facet of the mind that was previously not visible to us. It reveal the door that leads to higher perceptions.

Another basic concept to consider is that the mind is an in between place. It is like for example, a train station between one’s home and place of work. Going to the train station may be a necessity to get from one’s home to work and vice versa. To interact with the world we need the faculty of the mind. The art of inner transformation is to understand the difference between using and becoming. Rather than using the mind for specific purposes, we have become one with the mind. That identification with the mind is the source of our inner restlessness which gets projected in outer activity. The mind can never be static and still. If we become one with the mind, we adopt its characteristics, chiefly restlessness. A train station is a busy place, with trains coming and going. Thousands of people who are milling around may be in close physical proximity but are strangers otherwise. In a busy place like a train station, one cannot possibly remember all the faces one may have encountered but all one recalls is that the train station was a busy place. While travelling in a train, we generally don’t go around introducing ourselves and getting to know everyone. We keep our privacy and respect the right of others to do so. Similarly, in the mind, various thoughts may come together, not necessarily linked to one another. Just as in a packed train we keep to ourselves, similarly, we must try to train ourselves to keep a buffer of silence between ourselves and thoughts. Thoughts are very transitory. Their destination is not necessarily the destination we want to reach. Just as a train stops at several stations with passengers getting on and off, as the day goes on thoughts enter and depart. Unconsciously, we tend to follow thoughts that lead us to a place we never intended going. If one can follow even a few thoughts very consciously and deliberately, it will shed a great deal of light on how we are tricked by the mind day in and day out. With respect to the mind, we start the day in one place and end the day in an entirely different place. Imagine doing that on one’s daily commute!

The mind comes alive and carries so much meaning to us only because we have given it sole possession of our power of attention. That power is our only true wealth. Greater it is, more is the achievement both in the inner and outer dimensions of our lives. When a river is channeled through a narrow valley, the water rushes with tremendous force. The same river in a wide open plain flows very gently and the current of the water flow is weak. Similarly, when our focus is narrowed, one’s attention is greater and vice versa. We lose our power of attention gradually over time by giving it to the innumerable thoughts that cross our mind. Meditation is nothing but withdrawing our attention from thousands of thoughts and giving it to one thought. That thought need not be an abstract concept that has nothing to do with the outer world. In fact, a greater form of meditation is focusing one’s attention on solving the problems of the world or making a new contribution, big or small. The end result of one’s contribution is not as important as the intensity of the effort one puts in.

We have carved for ourselves a “living space” within the mind. Whatever is projected on the walls of that space creates the context in which we interpret information that flows in through the senses. Each individual has painted an uniquely different mural that is representative of the world he or she wants to live in. Although a photograph hung on a wall is a permanent record, it can easily be replaced by another one. Similarly, the living space within the mind can be decorated with whatever images we want to hang there. If those images are good, the world is experienced through that context. If the images are bad, everything outside will appear so. No two individuals look at the world the same way due to this phenomenon. The world is a tremendously beautiful place. There is beauty everywhere and in everything. For example, an atomic scientist finds beauty in the functioning of atoms, the spin of electrons and the mysteries of subatomic particles etc. A botanist may find the same degree of beauty in the plant kingdom, a musician in music and so on. In each case beauty is seen through the pinhole of an individual’s perspective. Imagine if one could see all the beauty in the world with a much wider lens. The mind is a conduit to the world, but it isn’t the world. Most people find it hard to look at the world without the lens of the mind distorting the true picture. The mind provides a composite image based the aggregate information derived from all the five senses.

When we set our attention on a particular object, almost instantaneously an experience is registered and created internally. In our respective lifetimes, we probably have cycled through millions and millions of experiences, both significant and insignificant. Understanding how this process works, that is, creation of an experience by the mind will help us get to higher ground when a flood of images suddenly appears in our mental space. Pick any object, for instance a jug of water. How many times have we come across a jug of water and how many times have we registered that as an experience? If we consciously direct our attention to a jug of water placed on a table, it registers as an image in the mind. That image is an exact replica of what we see with our eyes. This is true of any experience. Just as it is helpful to pause and count to ten when one is about to explode in a fit of anger, it is useful to understand the process through which experiences are created in our minds. By that, one, we will realize that we are the source of that experience; and two, it may help us in selecting out the experiences we really want to keep. Just as there are debates and elections before a leader is chosen, our chief mental inclinations may be modified through an internal vetting process to suit the type of life we want to lead. Typically, it is the other way around. Life around us shapes our mind and sometimes drags us in directions we don’t desire to go.

Before an experience is registered, there is a defined sequence of events that takes place. First, there must be an object of interest. Let’s take the example of a jug of water that was mentioned above. When we set our attention on it, we “touch” the object despite there being a physical separation between us and the object. The arrow of attention then rebounds and returns to us through the eyes in the form of light that reflects off that jug of water. Once the light reaches the eyes, it sets off nervous impulses in the eyes and the brain. This is true of the other senses as well. Once these impulses reach their respective sensory centers in the brain, ripples are created in the mind. These ripples manifest as feelings in the lower mind and the reasoning power of the higher mind then reasons out what these sensations and feelings are. Based on our prior knowledge of what a jug of water looks like, we recognize the object as a particular thing. Once that recognition is made, an image is created in the mind. That image is not created outside the body but deep within us, in the mindspace. We cannot transfer that image to someone else as we could with a digitized photograph. We can only describe it from a stored image in our memory bank. We run into a dead end once the image is created. That dead end is the “I” or the ego, an imaginary thing that suggests that “I am the experiencer”. Since this “I” is the experiencer, it must also suffer and enjoy depending on what that experience is about. We have become identified with the imaginary “I” hence the sense of reality that accompanies feelings of suffering.

Children enjoy life more than we do and their mental burden is less than what we adults experience, perhaps a result of the “I” or ego being in a rudimentary stage of development in a child. This suggests that the experiencer is further back beyond the “I” or the ego. The power of attention is sourced from inner awareness that lies deeper beyond the mind and is independent of the ego. Beyond that inner awareness is the true subjective being. In relation to that subjective self, the mind, body and the senses are all objects just as the jug of water is an object that we perceive. In essence the mind is just as objective a world as the world that is outside of our senses organs. The difference is that in the mind, we paint the pictures and in the world outside nature does it for us.

The ink with which the mind paints images is designed to last a long time unlike the passing seasons of nature. Those images in the mind may appear to fade not because of the impermanence of the ink but due to our diminishing power of recall. As time goes on and we shift our attention from one experience to another. Furthermore, as an experience recedes from our conscious recall, deeper it gets buried into the subconscious mind. As far as the mind is concerned, preservation of every possible experience is of paramount importance. Hence the necessity of the storage bin of the subconscious mind. There is no recycle bin where images are shed and destroyed. It is hard to answer the question of why and how the mind operates in this manner. Luckily, we are not the mind and we have the conscious ability to “rise” above the mind and look at it from a higher perspective.

An understanding of the mechanisms of the mind may help us rise above the daily difficulties of life. This process of rising up above the mind is not a “life averse” process but rather a “life embracing” one. In the mind, thoughts are not the problem, but how we think and act based on them them is the real source of much of our difficulties. It is also can lead us to greater happiness. A photograph can never replace the actual moment when the picture was taken but it serves as a good substitute. The mind can never replace the each moment that passes but it recreates them so we can view them later at our leisure. Just as a photograph can evoke great joy or sadness, the images that that mind brings up can also do the same. Life is best experienced directly in every passing moment rather than through the photo album of the mind. We can then hope to be selective in what images go into that album. Only glimpses of life can be captured in pictures but not life itself. When we have something as precious as life within and around us all the time, why look for it in the glimpses of the past that are stored as pictures in the mind?