Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Mind: friend or foe?

I “Don’t Mind” – Mind: friend or foe?
Spiritual consciousness might be described as that level of awareness that lifts us from ego-protective/affirmative consciousness towards Oneness. Clinically or medically it might be described as the quieting of lower brain activity in favor of higher brain (pre-frontal lobe) activity. The variety of descriptions is potentially unlimited. I would like to explore spirituality from the inside view of our thoughts and images and their attendant emotions.

Our minds are a most wonderful invention. We can create fantasy images and worlds, write novels and sci-fi stories, get involved in the lives and details of fictitious television characters, rant at world events or leaders so far away or removed from our daily life that they have no effect on us at all, weep at the sufferings of peoples long ago whom we have never met, obsess upon the defects and imagined critiques of friends, family, or co-workers without any regard to their actual personalities or thoughts, and on and on into infinity with no relationship to anything else but our minds.

Indeed, I would aver that most people live more in their minds than in the objective reality around them. More in a world of mental images and thoughts with only a nominal relationship to objective facts, than in any reality viewable by other human beings. This isn’t necessarily problematic in most people, at least from a functional point of view. But from the existential view of “what is reality” and “how to achieve true happiness” this fact is what makes us all a little crazy. It’s just that, as Paramhansa Yogananda put it so charmingly, “crazy people of one type tend to mix with crazy people of the same type.”

To grow up means, in part, to separate our reaction to circumstances (which includes people) from the circumstances themselves. To hold one’s tongue is the better part of wisdom, for example. To bide one’s time before responding is the diplomat’s way of coping with his world. But, in fact, I believe that very few people on this planet make the distinction between their reactions (likes and dislikes) and the objective facts, circumstances, or people who, in their view, trigger those reactions. Obviously if I think my mother-in-law is a pill, she most certainly must be a pill. It may never occur to me that she is a “pill” only to me because I fear or dislike her critique of me. She may be revered by others and maybe in fact a kindly person, but my own hyper-sensitivity to being accepted or receiving her approval may make me reactively judgmental or negative towards her. Thus I conclude that she is a “bad” person. I might, instead, have concluded that it’s my problem and if I were to make an effort to get to know and understand her, or to be friendly and helpful towards her, that the issue I feel may exist may in fact dissipate!

Most people, therefore, do not distinguish between their response to circumstances from the circumstances themselves. How, then, is it possible to examine critically and with detachment my own stream of thoughts and images with which I reconstruct what I am pleased to call reality? This is a tall order for “tall” people of great courage, mental strength, and an expanded consciousness.

The process of growing spiritual consciousness was defined long ago by the great sage Patanjali (author of the famous “Yoga Sutras” which contains the even more famous “8-Fold Path”) as the dissolving of the mental images and emotional responses that the mind creates in response to sense-inputs, memory, thoughts, and impressions. Medical science understands that sensory input is reconstructed in the brain (or mind) for the purposes of evaluating and responding to its meaning (threat or promise) to the ego/body. All sense impressions are essentially experienced vicariously, in the mind. My hand may report a hot sensation when I place near a flame but it’s my mind that tells me what it is and why I need to move my hand away from it. 

Now admittedly in this example it happens so fast that it seems like the hand itself contains the intelligence. And, heck, why argue: hands are really valuable things and of course the entire body is a body of intelligence. But nonetheless, without the supportive functions of the brain and mind it is at least possible theoretically possible that we might not know immediately that the heat sensation is a threat. And this is more so the case when we perceive potential threats in the form of critique from the casual or subtle remarks of our supervisor or spouse.

Mental imbalances or immaturity demonstrate these principles best. A child throws a tantrum (practicing “tantrum yoga”) over not being given another cookie. We dismiss this as immature. If an adult did this we’d wonder about his sanity. A person who hallucinates and sees threats where none exist is clearly living in a false reality of the mind. Being overly sensitive and feeling critique at the slightest hint of disapproval creates fear, anger, and anxiety in a person when absolutely nothing was intended by a casual remark.

Watch the 10 o’clock news sometime and analytically determine how many statements are factual and how many are opinions expressed with qualitative adjectives. Very little news and much speculation and opinion are what feeds the beast of what sells the “news.” Heated arguments between conservatives and liberals can occur when the people involved have little if any involvement or power in changing things. It’s so easy to get worked up, whether compassionately or in condemnation, over issues and people with whom we have no relationship and no influence. It’s all in our heads.

Maturity and spiritual growth are not essentially all that different (at least up to a point). Disengaging from one’s own opinions and reactions comes as we grow in understanding and appreciating different points of view. Not surprisingly, there is a general correlation between levels of education and the ability to see different points of view.

I know that some view the spiritual path as focusing on realities far removed from daily life. I wouldn’t argue with the fact that for some people that is unquestionably the case. Buddha and other great spiritual teachers, however, counseled “chop wood and carry water.” This means: get real, stay grounded in present realities, and don’t obsess over subtler realities that you haven’t experienced. Good advice, certainly. It would be mistake, however, to assume that this counsel implies that wood and water are the only realities worthy of our interest. Quite the contrary. Focusing on the present moment is intended to relax the feverish tendencies of the monkey mind to create realities that have nothing to do with, well, realities.

The mind is like a factory: it churns out all sorts of useless products and some helpful ones. It inclines to constant interpretation (a Darwinian would say in “self-defense”), analysis and response. Whatever its Darwinian utility and proclivities, it may be fine for skiing down a slope, taking an exam, being interviewed, driving down the freeway and all sorts of other practical functions. But it does tend to take control and continue spinning out possibilities long after its contribution is useful.

To grow in maturity and to grow towards spiritual consciousness (of “Oneness”) requires calming this ego-active, ego-reactive, functionality of the mind. As Patanjali put it, “Yogas chitta vrittis nirodha.” (Peace and Oneness are achieved when the reactive processes of the mind and emotions are permanently dissolved.)

We can attempt to discipline the mind and we can concentrate the mind. These efforts form the basis for much of the techniques of meditation: using breath, using mantra, using mindfulness, for example. In addition to this is a tool which is demonstrably powerful: feelings! It’s our emotional response to perceived realities that sends the mind into the hyperdrive of ego-active, ego-protective, and ego-affirming vortices. In extremis we might even create alternative fantasy realities. Thus if we can access and stimulate feelings of devotion and expansion of consciousness while also concentrating the mind in this direction we find that the calming and expanding of feelings does more to dissolve the feverish activity of the mind than only discipline or concentration.

Paramhansa Yogananda stated, “Chanting is half the battle.” By this he meant not just the traditional act of devotional chanting, but the repetition of a meaningful and feeling saturated image or word formula as a form of both concentration and expansion of consciousness. I am using words that a bit clinical and cold for some but the effect remains “effective” no matter how described.

Thus we have the irony that to achieve sanity, maturity and spiritual growth we use the mind to focus on a reality that is transcendent to sense realities and, from the materialists’ point of view at least, unreal all together! Go figure and yet, the truth of this has been proved repeatedly since the dawn of humanity. Saints have demonstrated power over death, over matter, over gravity, over bodily functions time and again in ways that defy the materialists or mere philosophers again and again.

Thus it is that devotion to God whether in the form of the guru, a deity or the impersonal form of Light, Sound, Love, Peace, or Energy can so concentrate the mind as to dissolve its ego active tendencies. Even science admits that the five senses that report the different objects in our world are lying to us. Beneath the appearance of separateness is the underlying reality of energy (chemical, atomic, etc.) that renders all things as having the same essential substance!

We may survive better for the ego-active mind but we cannot find happiness through mere survival. Wealth, beauty, pleasure, power, name and fame bring no lasting happiness. This is proved time and again. Only the saints give consistent testimony regarding the summum bonum of life, the brass ring of true success comes only through ego transcendence. This is what meditation and devotion, one and the same, offer to us.

The mind is our greatest friend and greatest foe. To bring the mind to heel takes the courage and strength of a true hero. Meditation and the power of the grace that flows through the true guru are the keys to expansion of consciousness that can make us free. Learn to check and rein in the mind’s restless tendencies, both through meditation and during outer activity. Test your endurance and re-direct your sensitivities towards even-mindedness under all circumstances. The less we identify with the body and ego in favor of serving the needs of a greater reality (without unnecessarily endangering the body or ego), the greater happiness we shall achieve. For beneath the surface of the appearance of our separateness is the One.

Nayaswami Hriman