Previous Next

  Check out "Bad Habits of Mind"




Mind exists throughout life. Even each cell in the body, for example, has a mind of its own - it knows what its function is, and it proceeds to fulfill it. The bee seeks out nectar and makes honeycombs, the ant plays its part in the colony, and plants use sunshine, send down roots, and make leaves. This is to say that all living things have a mind of their own.

A person's mind is intimately related to the brain, but the two are not identical. When you come to think of it, could any two things be more unlike than a piece of brain tissue, on one hand, and a thought, feeling, or sensation, on the other hand. What it is that creates thoughts, images, etc., in the mind, in response to something in brain tissue, is not known. We can study nerves and synapses to the nth degree, and we will still not see the thoughts.

In some mysterious way, something in the brain activates something in the mind - memories, thoughts, feelings, plans, intentions, fantasies, impulses, and so on. Only living things have a mind - when life goes, the mind goes, too.

The mind is not accessible by the senses. You can't observe it directly, the way you can observe the brain. By looking at a bee's brain, there is no way to see its intention to search for nectar or, by looking at an ant's brain, to see the ant's intention to serve the queen.

Similarly, what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste is a function of mind, just as mysterious. What we see, for example, begins with light striking the retina. The retina responds by creating nerve impulses, which travel to the brain. In the brain, life responds to the nerve impulses by creating an image, which is immaterial, without substance. The image is experienced in the mind by the organism. Experience is a feature of life.

A thought is a most peculiar thing. Before a sentence is spoken, the speaker knows what he or she wants to say and then proceeds to say it. This is to say that the thought exists as a whole before it is put into words. Although a sentence has a beginning, middle, and end - that is, it exists in time - the thought that precedes the sentence does not exist in time. Furthermore, it does not take up space. Time operates in sequence, continuously. It is like computer data, which is also sequential. The mind, however, does not operate sequentially. Rather, it is like the hard disk, which accesses data randomly. (See Gunaratana for more on this topic:Gunaratana Chapter 12.)

Does the mind have boundaries? If it does have boundaries, are the boundaries of the mind the same as the boundaries of the brain? Does a thought have dimensions? Does an impulse or a thought arise in consciousness with a beginning, middle, and end? No, an impulse or a thought is not time-bound with a beginning, middle, and end. Even when it is put into words it is different from the words that express it.

Words must not be confused with the things that they represent. Words are powerful because they simplify reality. Any word is a simple and perfect symbol representing a complex and imperfect reality. For example, consider an apple. The dictionary definition of an apple is "the fleshy, rounded, red or yellow or green, edible fruit of a tree of the rose family." Every apple conforms perfectly to this definition. There is no apple that isn't an apple in these terms. The word "apple" is an idea that includes all apples. The definition is constructed so as to be perfect - no apples are excluded from it. Now consider an actual apple. Does it have soft spots? Does it have variation in color? What is its shape? How does it taste? Are there cuts and blemishes? Is it partially eaten? It is easy to see that any real apple is unique, individual, and imperfect. It is enormously complex, whereas the word that names it is simple. Every apple is much more than the definition of it. Even an exhaustive description will not include minute variations in color, texture, and shape.

We can see, then, that every word and every description are symbols representing something real, but every real thing is much more than any word that names it or any words that describe it. Every person is much more than any word that names him or her or any words that describe him or her.

Since words are perfect and simple, the mind is led to think that real things other than words can be perfect and simple, whereas, in fact, they are always imperfect and complex. Under the sway of this misleading thinking, you might think that you can always be right, whereas you will often be wrong. You might think that you can know everything, whereas you can know only some things. You might think that you can be free of mistakes, whereas you will make mistakes. You might think that you can always be intelligent, whereas you will often be unintelligent. It is the mind's facility for language-making that leads us to expect perfection and simplicity in a world of imperfect, complex reality.

The fact that words and descriptions exist leads us to think that they pervade reality outside of the mind, as if the words said everything about the things they represent. On the contrary, words exist only in the mind, the human mind. There is a total, complete difference between words and what they represent. Words are words, and what they represent is what they represent, and the relationship between the two is a creation of the mind.

Verbal simplifications lead to a lack of compassion. Since compassion is the perception of someone as fully human, with all the magnificence of human capacities, it follows that lack of compassion is the perception of someone as less than fully human. Prejudiced people see others as being constituted by a name, and the fullness of their humanity is limited to that name - limey, dame, broad, faggot, bum, low-class, dumbbell, criminal, wimp, loser, failure. When they reject or harm or even kill such a person, they are rejecting or harming or killing what to them is a name, not someone fully human.

A good example of this kind of thinking can be found in a passage in Innocence Under the Elms by Louise Dickinson Rich (Louise Dickinson Rich, Innocence Under the Elms (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1955), 18). "When I was young, one who Drank - and Drinking with a capital D meant imbibing anything at all containing alcohol and carried inexorably in its wake delirium tremens, unspeakable vices, the squandering of hard-earned wages, the pitiful cries of hungry children and brutalized wives, filth, squalor, poverty, and anything else reprehensible that happens to occur to you - one who Drank, then, was ipso facto an unnatural monster." In Rich's day, one who Drank was a monster through and through.

Compassion should not be confused with pity. Compassion enriches the understanding, whereas pity is emotionally draining. I have spent much of my life pitying my mother. "Feeling for her" was not something that I should have had to do. As Emerson said, "Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer. If not, attend your own work." Once, when a hairdresser cried on Rita's shoulder, Rita rejected pity and said, "First do your job. Then you can cry."

Words, then, are perfect. A word is designed to represent what it names. It is in the nature of a word to omit the complex reality of anything it names. In contrast, reality, other than words, is always imperfect. Every person is imperfect. There is no person who can be always right, never make a mistake, be perfectly beautiful, understand everything, or know everything. A person who appears to be always in the right, never make a mistake, understand everything, and know everything is pretending.

Saying this does not reduce the value of words, and it does not reduce the value of reality outside of words. Rather, it elevates them both by recognizing the difference. The fact that words exist in the mind and only in the mind makes the value of the mind all the greater.

It is sometimes thought that computers are a model for the mind. Computers operate differently altogether. They work using binary numbers sequentially. There is no evidence that the brain uses binary numbers. Even if it did, the conversion to thoughts in the mind would still remain a mystery of life.

Nevertheless, there are obvious parallels between a computer and the processes of life, including the mind. The binary numbers are coded, much as the genes in DNA are coded. Both a computer and the brain can use logic. Obsessions in the brain are similar to loops in computer programming. However, why it is that certain sequences of the building blocks of DNA (genes) produce certain effects is a mystery, a secret of life.

The human mind can operate in two ways: it can be engaged with reality, or it can be disengaged. When our mind is engaged, we are paying attention to what we are now doing - we are minding the store. If the mind wanders, someone might say, "Mind what you are doing. Don't be so absent-minded" or "Be mindful of what you are doing." When our mind is disengaged, we are fantasizing, imagining, composing, remembering, planning, intending, . . .

An unwelcome thought/image/memory is a reflection of the real episode. It is a function of the continuity of time to keep it in the mind as a part of the present. Although the tying together of the past with the future is found throughout existence, in human beings it is the mind that is the seat of unwanted holdovers from the past. It is a remarkable feature of human life, unlike other life, that ideas and feelings in the mind can be addressed. The burden of past trauma, humiliations, failures, and rejections can be lightened. The idea that feelings are irremediably connected to past events can be seen to be a delusion. It is the mind that connects feelings to memories of past events. The occurrence that is now in the past is no longer existent. What exists is something in the mind. I can address it: "That feeling is a thing. It is only itself. The past is irreversible. Outside of the mind, only the facts remain. Worrying can't change them."

With our understanding that mind is a feature of life, the human mind then takes its place alongside all the other minds in Nature/life. Certainly, we human beings have our special mental abilities, but so do other creatures - the ability of birds and monarch butterflies and salmon to find their way across thousands of miles and the ability of animals that know where they buried their winter provisions (sometimes in dozens of places underground), for example. We human beings are animals, pure and simple.

At the same time, the human mind - everyone's mind - is amazing. It is continuously creative, making something new of each moment. The accumulation of all this creativity over time results in a civilization. Our entire civilization is the product of the human mind.

The natural condition of all non-human animals is alertness. Most animals are in danger, and so they need to beware. Being aware of what is going on in one's surroundings is the natural condition. Because of a human being's ability to think independently of the environment, many of us have lost this natural alertness - our minds wander, we are lost in thought, or we are distracted by inner thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, this natural alertness can be recovered. It is an object of philosophy and an object of the practice of meditation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Life only avails, not the having lived."


Home Page - Commonplace, Ordinary, Everyday Life