It’s easy to rattle off the main functions of our physical bodies without encountering much debate at all. You may have noticed however, it’s not the same case when we look at the Mind.
In fact, it’s quite baffling to consider the different ideologies surrounding the mind and its function. Explanations provided by psychology, religion and philosophy tend to be radically different, often even contradicting each other.
‘The problem is that to know the mind, we must first know ourselves. We must understand who we really are.’ – David Kinsley
Ayurveda and Yogic thought offer deep insights into this area of questioning: What’s the relationship between our minds and ourselves? What’s the nature of this incredible instrument? Or its connection to the body?
Why It’s So important
When I was younger, I once tried to ride a bike…with no prior knowledge of how to do so. Despite having all the enthusiasm in the world, I had not yet been taught how to steer or break. As you can imagine, it didn’t end well!
The situation with our minds is not all too different.
Awareness sits within the mind from birth, yet many of us are never taught how exactly to steer or break – that is, how to use the mind with all of its complex sensitivities. Societally, we’re left in the dark regarding the comparative functions of reason, sensory perception, feeling and will.
This causes tendencies such as attachment to desires, or the inability to coexist with fear – which may appear as secondary issues, but really do stem from a lack of understanding of the mind and its functions.
Unfortunately it’s the norm to take these secondary issues as being primary. This usually results in blaming others, and we can see how this pattern has the unfortunate tendency to snowball into social, relationship, or political issues.
Depending on how it’s used, the mind really can create great happiness or cause disastrous havoc. Training and really paying attention to our minds (through methods of mindfulness and meditation), will not only solve psychological problems, but also guide us to a higher potential of spiritual awareness.
The mind as an instrument
One way to consider the mind is as an instrument; regarding it as a means of receiving information from our external worlds. Through this lens, the mind is the world’s best computer, providing the highest organisation of matter possible and allowing our physical worlds to be cognised.
Using the mind as a tool, we direct our attentions, cultivate feelings, use reasoning faculties and develop our wills. Notice how we speak of ‘my’ mind, suggesting it’s something we have, rather than what we are. Issues arise when we forget that the mind is an instrument of ours; something we should control, not the other way around!
The ever-changing states of mind
Anyone who has tried to meditate can tell you of the seemingly never-ending thoughts, sensations and emotions which colour our minds every second. These mental actions aren’t the same for one second.
If you look closely though: you’ll see that your stream of consciousness isn’t really a ‘flowing stream.’ Rather, it’s a rapid series of flashes of mental activity, discontinuous but occurring so quickly that we piece together an image. Bad news is, this means it’s impossible to still the mind. Good news is, with meditation we can access stillness beyond the mind!
The dualistic nature of the mind
Many Eastern spiritual traditions make the case for a dualism embedded within the entire universe.
Similarly, Ayurveda suggests that our minds too are dualistic in their nature – consisting of opposite forces interacting in varying degrees. The mind tends to move between opposites, and is often prone to inconsistency or extremity. At least one time in your life you’ve likely noticed that you’re emotions are caught in extreme opposites. You’ve also likely experienced the phenomena where someone asks you not to think of something, and your mind immediately thinks of it. For this reason, yogic teachings emphasise the importance of not forcing the mind in a particular direction (it might do the opposite!) and rather, gently guiding it away from extremes.
An exercise for the mind
Time to explore the nature of your mind!
First, try and sit in a quiet spot where you will be undisturbed for the next ten minutes. Choose an object, preferably a natural one, such as a plant.
Next, direct all of your attention to it. Become aware of how your attention changes between each moment, as you observe it. Notice how it’s through this series of perceptions, you create a whole idea or perception of the plant, rather than all at once. Try to hold your full attention to one particular part, and notice the difficulty in doing so for more than a minute or two.
After this, examine your emotions. How’re you feeling? How’re your emotions sitting in relation to your perception of the plant? How’re your emotions changing? How does observing them, change them? Where in the mind, did you locate your feelings?
Finally, notice your thoughts. See how one thought follows another. Look at the patterns of your thoughts. Observe how many of them actually have any practical value!
By learning to use the mind as a tool, through meditation or practices such as this one, you can gain a greater control of your emotions, thoughts – lowering the hold they have over you.
As you are governed less and less by impulses, fears and desires – you will gradually find increased balance within your life.
Most importantly, you will move closer to learning and acting as who you really are – creating harmony and bliss within your being.
If you’re interested in learning even more about the mind, come and slow it down at a Happy Buddha Retreat! Both midweek and weekend schedules include an insightful Meditation Class. On my retreat, the wonderful Mel elaborated on the mind’s complexity even further – exploring areas such as the difference between our brainwave states!