Inquiring into our Minds
Scientists believe that the earth and the universe are physical phenomena with a natural order (The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow). In the view of these scientists, understanding the world and its evolution is obtained only through objective analyses of observable data. Similarly, biologists point out that all living forms, including primitive ones, exhibit some form of consciousness. Consciousness is essential to deal with its physical environment. The biologist’s further state that consciousness and intelligence exhibited by higher life forms are a natural growth out of the inanimate; as the forms of life grow more complex, consciousness and intelligence would also grow (Jacques Monod, French biologist). The consciousness exhibited by the primitive and higher-order life forms, however, differ in their qualities. In higher life forms such as humans, the faculty of consciousness is significantly deeper and intellectual. That is, the human mind is capable of going beyond its routine need for dealing with its physical world. With concerted efforts, it can inquire into its unconscious mind and discover knowledge that is not apparent.
Scientists now recognize that our lives are affected by two mental states: the conscious, which we are aware of, and an unconscious, that is hidden from us. Researchers are examining how our unconscious or subliminal mind works. One of the findings of this research is that mind affects the way we live; that is, our behaviors, perceptions, memory and value judgments are largely influenced by the mind’s subliminal processes rather than the conscious state (Leonard Mlodinow, “Subliminal: How your Conscious Mind Rules Your Behavior). These recent scientific findings are not a surprise to mystics and philosophers, who, for centuries, have been stating that our subconscious mind is the predominant influencer of our lives. The philosophers pointed out that our subconscious minds are constantly affected by two streams of thoughts: a positive or constructive stream that suggests traversing a path of righteousness, virtue, and ethics, and a negative or destructive stream that mires us in hatred, jealousy, and greed. As Czeslaw Milosz says “on one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil.” The only way to overcome the conflict between these two streams of thought is to emphasize the constructive stream over the destructive and overcome the unregenerate nature and strive to perfect it. This strive towards perfection requires that we distinguish between the “…the relative mode of existence (how things appear to us) and the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances)” (Quantum and the Lotus -Mathieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan). Such a distinction is essential to dispel ignorance that makes us assume that our egos are real and that the things we see around are everlasting, and the temporary happiness we derive from such material objects is permanent.
Seeking knowledge that dispels ignorance demands that we inquire into our inner minds and make qualitative changes to it. Hindu seers state that “He who explores his inward nature and integrates it is the ideal man.” Jesus Christ similarly urges man to bring about rebirth and become a new man, a born again Christian. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of ‘God.” Buddha says that we should seek enlightenment or ‘bodhi’ and replace our ignorance (avidya) with wisdom (vidya). The common message in these statements is that the value of consciousness and intelligence is reflected, not merely in the ability to deal with the physical environment but, when we take charge of our minds and perfect it.
The mind is behind our perception of the world. Conscious attitudes and assumptions about other people, objects, and the world at large affect the way we see ourselves and others. Even a small change in our mental state affects our perceptions; when we are happy and content, we view the world positively, and when we are angry and disillusioned, we view the same world negatively. In other words, our subjective mental states affect our perceptions. But, we often assume that our subjective perceptions are reality. As Houston Smith states, “With us, life’s problems press so heavily on us that we seldom take time to reflect on the way our unconscious attitudes and assumptions about the nature of things affect the way we perceive what is directly before us.” Our egos color our understanding of ourselves and others. We assume that the fleeting pleasures we pursue to satisfy our egos are permanent and we are repulsed by anything that would undermine and harm our egos. We must, therefore, constantly examine how our subjective perceptions color our understanding of ourselves and others and how the unhappiness and misery that we encounter in our everyday life are often the product of our ‘confused’ minds rather than the ‘true’ nature of things. We should train ourselves to recognize the relative mode of existence (how things appear to us) from the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances). Subjective changes in our mind occur only when, through contemplative self-inquiry, we acquire knowledge that allows us to structure our egos, and that helps us to release ourselves from undue attachment to the material world.
The knowledge we acquire from self-inquiry is distinctively different from the knowledge we acquire from scientific inquiries. The knowledge that science provides is more about understanding the material world. Science has contributed significantly to our understanding of the physical world and to our material well-being. From the food we consume, the homes we live, the technologies we use are the results of scientific advancements. Science has contributed to fighting poverty and hunger and better living conditions for many. It has brought the world communities closer to each other and has helped with material progress. This closeness, in turn, has provided opportunities for the communities of the world to work with each other and to take the world forward. Simultaneously, science also has contributed to misery and destruction in the world. Developments in technologies such as chemical and biological weapons and other instruments of mass destruction have made the world a less safe place to live. As Professor Adrian of the Royal Society of England, states, “…to destroy the world by the push of a button.”
Scientific developments are driven more often by the desire to understand and create rather than by moral and ethics. It is not driven by what is desirable or what is in the best interests of humanity. The predominant objective of science is contributing to our understanding of the physical world. But, human existence is not merely about comprehending physical phenomena or biological processes. And, life is not only about everyday existence either – winning food and shelter and protecting oneself from the environment. Life is also about “inner” fulfillment, social responsibilities, and individual and community values. How should I lead my life? What are my responsibilities to my society and to the world at large are as important to know as knowing the boiling point of water or the depth of the ocean. “Knowing the brightness of stars or the distance between them may have a certain utility, but it cannot teach us how to become better people” (The Monk and the Philosopher, Revel and Ricard). And, what is knowable is not restricted to lab experiments or empirical analyses; it also includes knowledge obtained through other means – intuition, and experiences. We can obtain such knowledge only when we seek answers to some of the deep-rooted questions that have been nagging the human mind.
Since the early days of human history, people have shown that they were not satisfied with the mundane world of existence. They were longing to know more about life than was knowable from everyday existence. As William Sheldon of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons points to, “….. continued observations in clinical practice lead almost inevitably to the conclusion that deeper and more fundamental than sexuality, deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even than the desire for possessions, there is a still more generalized and universal craving in the human makeup. It is the craving for knowledge of the right direction and orientation.” The desire to escape from the ‘confining walls’ of ordinary life and to find harmony in ‘higher’ experiences has sustained humans throughout their existence.
Inquiring into one’s own mind and seeking the right direction are neither empty nor subjective pursuits. They are fundamental to human existence. Life should make sense, and it should feel aligned. In the absence of such alignment, life would become meaningless and the discontent, in turn, would lead to anxiety, distress, and unhappiness. Today, in spite of the significant availability of material comforts, there is greater anxiety and disconnect in everyday life than it was in the past. The unrest among our youth, increase in poverty and homelessness even in “rich and developed” countries and drug abuse and mental disorders all suggest that our value systems have been breaking down and that we lack the wisdom to protect ourselves. Through self-transformation, we must take control of our minds and find a more positive and balanced approach to life. The inquiry and transformation must first start with us as individuals before we can change the world. Self-transformation is not revolutionary concepts, but they demand patience and perseverance. With small but concerted steps, we can discover the hidden values within us – compassion, love, and purity.
This short discussion is intended to highlight the importance of self-inquiry in everyday life. We will continue the discussion in the future.
Dr. Ram Sriram