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BANGKOK POST ARTICLE SEPTEMBER 2020
Mind-awareness, its functions and how this relates to mental health
‘With our thoughts we make the world’ the Buddha
Whether we look from a spiritual, medical, philosophical or scientific perspective there is across the board acceptance that happiness is primarily a function of our mental state.
Spiritually this has been understood for thousands of years throughout many traditions. Medically it is becoming more and more recognized as a (if not the) major factor in both the onset of and recovery from chronic disease. Philosophically, great minds from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein all recognized the extent to which an external world only exists in dependence on our minds. Scientifically, developments within the quantum field in particular are saying the exact same thing.
The logic behind this always comes down to the indisputable truth that our minds are responsible for a huge part, many would argue the major part, of the world we experience. Indeed how can we even talk about an objective world separate from our minds since such a world can only be known through the medium of our minds!
Even on a sensory level, how many of us are aware that there is a blind spot in our vision, that 70-80% of our visual field is in black and white? On a daily basis, none of us are, as our brains fill this in. Optical illusions show us the extent to which are senses are not just observing an objective world but in many ways creating such a world. Conceptually the extent of this mental fabrication is even greater, think about how memories change over time, how our impressions of people can be completely wrong despite strongly believed in, how the way we envision a place we are about to visit rarely conforms to how it actual appears etc.
The most important result of this mental fabrication is that it is the primary source of our inner happiness or suffering. We can see that even when alone with no particular sensory input we can create hellish suffering or heavenly bliss just through our thoughts. We are in many senses controlled by these thoughts and the scenarios they create.
Where does happiness lie?
Are we all looking for happiness? When presented with this question many people respond with a no, they are looking for fulfillment or meaning or achievements in their lives. While not incorrect the essential meaning is the same we are searching for peace, joy, contentment whichever words we use to describe that.
When we examine the nature of our minds we can see there are two distinct ways in which we experience the world; through our senses, the five doorways to sight, smell, taste, sound and touch being the first. Then what is referred to as our mental consciousness our internal world of thoughts, emotions feelings etc.
Which then of these two ways is more relevant to our happiness? One of the biggest problems in our modern world is the over emphasis on sensory satisfaction. We look for happiness in the next food, sound, experience, person, possession etc. Indeed our society especially our media and advertisers push us to look in this way all the time. The problem with this is that none of these external sources of ‘happiness’ will last. They are by nature impermanent and changing all the time. It is impossible therefore that any of these can produce long-term happiness since they themselves simply don’t last. Add to this the fact that our suffering rarely comes from these external sources but rather from the way we react or interpret them. What we see, hear, touch etc. is far less the cause of our problems than the way we relate to these things through our mental consciousness.
Clearly then if we want to both create more long lasting genuine happiness and reduce our tendencies toward suffering we need to work on the level of this internal mental experiences. There it is that we can find long term happiness that doesn’t depend on transient, unreliable external phenomena.
From that point of view happiness can be seen to be much more a result of what we bring to the world rather than what we take from it.
How do we begin to cultivate this inner joy?
Awareness is the fundamental basis to mental health. This refers to awareness both to our ‘external’ reality and our internal mental states and involves the development of attention. As William James stated, ‘for the moment what we attend to is reality’. We can therefore begin to control this ‘reality’ and the happiness or suffering it induces by controlling what we attend to.
This mental development ideally requires a threefold process. Initially we need to listen; this may be from teachers, books, videos etc. Then we need time to contemplate and understand the truth or not of what we have heard. Finally we must integrate this understanding into our minds, for ‘words alone will not suffice’! Here is where the practice of some form of meditation becomes important.
Practically a simple calm abiding meditation practice, such as focusing on the breath, done regularly will bring this awareness into our minds. Even a small amount of this type of samatha practice, 10-15 minutes, ideally daily, will suffice. We must view this technique as a marathon rather than a sprint.
There is an important precursor to this though; to enable this meditative integration we must learn to relax! Not in a spaced out sense but with ability to quiet the obsessive thinking within our minds. If we approach meditation with our normal goal orientated, results driven, wound up, tense, ego-driven mind it will simply not work. Hence we find morality or living a wholesome virtuous life as a foundation for Samadhi or meditation practice, since it by nature lets the mind relax. We first need to let go!
What are the benefits of this awareness?
Through developing this awareness we can see at least three substantial benefits;
An ability to live more in the present moment. These days mindfulness is a well-known term to express this mind set. In the present moment only are we alive, from this moments viewpoint there is no past or future. Hence anxiety which is predominantly focused on the future cannot arise and worry mainly reflecting on the past cannot arise. The present moment is indeed beautiful and exhilarating! Why do people jump from airplanes, engage in extreme sports etc.? Because it brings them forcefully into this present moment.
A degree of control over our thoughts. A lovely analogy here is that of a dog and lion. If you throw a stick for a dog it will always chase the stick. It is said, though that if you throw a stick for a lion instead of looking at where the stick goes it will look to where the stick came from. In other words you will only get to throw a stick for a lion once! In the same way an unaware mind, like the dog, will chase after thoughts and become a slave to them. We identify and become these thoughts and thereby let them control our destiny, run our lives and define our emotional reality. When we learn to create some distance and perspective on our thoughts they become much less controlling and in many cases we can actually choose which ones we follow and let go of those we don’t need. Be like the lion!
Some space within our minds. An untrained mind will tend to react in habitual ways to triggers that come into our lives. More often than not these triggers will be negative and produce harmful results through responses physically, verbally or mentally. With the development of awareness we learn the capacity to take a step back when faced with life’s challenges. This space allows us to consider our reactions and choose wiser ones which lead to more positive outcomes for ourselves, others and the situation.
In conclusion we should come to realize that the above benefits and the state of mind which enables them is not something unattainable, pie in the sky or only the domain of mystics. This is something relatively easily obtained within a fraction of the time we spend on the other meaningless activities we engage in daily. Countless individuals over thousands of years and thousands of people in this present time have achieved this awareness in their minds and experienced the immense benefit this brings to one’s life and well-being. Don’t wait you also can achieve the same!
Next: ‘Emotional balance’ understanding our emotions their nature and how to deal with them…
MINDFULNESS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Complimentary article from Tenzin
21st century and mindfulness
The reality of all of our lives is that they contain suffering, difficulties and problems. It is also our reality that we all wish to be happy. So, while this is not exclusive to the 21st century the reality particularly of mental suffering has been compounded more than ever before. We must first understand where true well-being comes from and that it is from within ourselves not from external means that we bring this into our lives. Despite the enormous influences telling us otherwise it is a complete error to believe that the more we consume the happier we will be. It is not what we take from the world that makes us happy it is what we bring to it from ourselves.
What is therefore the relevance of mindfulness in the 21st century? The inputs into our lives and therefore minds have become vastly more in number and in degree of complexity. As a result, our minds are far more unhealthy suffering from anxiety, worry, stress, depression and manifold other symptoms many of which were never so much of an issue before. Lack of mindfulness/awareness within our minds is one of the chief if not the root of many of these unhealthy mental issues.
Our current century involves the evolving from a natural environment to one full of artificial stimuli. Phones, schedules, to do lists, work schedules, deadlines, computers our external influences have multiplied beyond recognition. All this is moving us more and more out of touch with ourselves, our reality and our inbuilt awareness.
Losing touch with ourselves, our awareness, our sense of community and human interaction as well as the natural environment has left us with the problems stress, anxiety and depression.
The principle reason for this as mentioned is that external influences have increased enormously all of which pull us out of ourselves and fool us into believing that the external world is where happiness lies.
Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. It is a mental reaction to the manifold external stimuli which were in nature few and required for survival to countless and which are mostly unrequired for survival.
Stress also arises due to bringing our long ‘to do lists’ from our long-term memory all at once into our short term memory…not wonder it cannot cope.
While these circumstances trigger this mental reaction, it is the inability of the mind to effectively deal with these that is the root of the problem. Changing our external world in the main is impossible to achieve but if we can deal with our minds ability to deal with these circumstances then we can be happy in any external environment.
The essential point here in terms of where stress comes from is to emphasise that it is our own minds that create stress not the external environment. That means the solution is in our own hands not beyond our control. As long as we still believe happiness and suffering come from outside ourselves we have no hope or chance to control these things. When we understand the root is from within then we have somewhere to begin working.
Rather than ourselves being in control of our thoughts they control us. There is no awareness that we are more than our thoughts. Without awareness there is no perspective that thoughts are just ‘thoughts’ we do not have to identify with them or become them. That also those very thoughts are creating a reality that is just that…’a reality created by our thoughts’ quite apart and disconnected with the actual reality. Without this perspective which awareness allows we are spun around in wandering thoughts taking us wherever they wish and among this chaos we manifest stress. Our foundation here is to learn we are not our thoughts we are more than that, we have a level of awareness below these and not becoming or identifying with our thoughts is not only more skilful but eminently do-able. We cultivate awareness to take a step back from the thoughts be the observer just as if we were watching a show etc. In such a way we learn not be controlled by our thoughts.
Most of our daily activities have become automated so that they are carried out without awareness. We drive, eat, wash, cook, walk and work in a state of mind performing functions without any actual awareness of those activities. How many of the tasks we performed during the day can we remember at the end of it? This shows how little knowledge of what we are doing there is. By definition this means we are acting in a state of our minds are never in the present moment when on autopilot therefore technically we are never living in the only moment we can actually be alive in. This leaves us feeling disjointed out of place and uncomfortable even in the seemingly most enjoyable moments of our lives.
We have an inbuilt fight or flight response which happens in a natural environment due to real threats to our life or habitat. The body's sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.
This same inbuilt response is activated through non-actual threats to ourselves. A traffic jam, being criticised, being late for an appointment, feeling guilt over what we have said or done. These and so many other daily occurrences are not at all life threatening, yet our inbuilt fight or flight response is being activated by them and contributing to our stress anxiety worry etc. Our own minds are creating this illusion of these things being so vital when they are not. Again, awareness is the key to changing this.
Out of this response arises the trinity of self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption. We attack ourselves for what went wrong (I’m an idiot), flee from ourselves through distraction into work alcohol tv phones etc. or get stuck in our heads and ‘why me’ etc.
Depression: Reminiscing over negative things from the past not letting them go and feeling that things will never change is primarily what leads to depression. Although certain physiological conditions certainly contribute to depression it is primarily an emotional state and therefore arising from and treatable with our mental processes.
Anxiety: concern with what could happen in the future, the manifold ways in which things ‘could’ go wrong primarily leads to anxiety. Worry about ourselves, our situation, our status family friends etc. and how these could manifest negatively in the future creates this state of mind.
We can see therefore that both of these mind states are mentally created predominantly on the basis of complete illusions without any basis in reality. Particularly reality of the present moment.
If we are in the present moment, not only are we experiencing the only moment we can actually live in, but these illusions and the depression and anxiety they create cannot arise.
As the previous note creating fantasies related to the past and future lead to anxiety, worry depression etc. and add to the inputs which initiate our fight or flight response and thereby lead to stress. Our foundation in dealing with this is the cultivation of awareness and this can be done both within and outside of meditation. (see basic meditation notes handout 1)
The mind much very much like the body gets stronger with practise. The more we cultivate awareness the more we have it in our mind life and daily experience.
A calm unagitated mind is a healthy happy mind. Just like water with dirt in it when agitated the dirt spins around and there is no clarity. Once the dirt has settled and the water become still there is clarity. The mind is the same when agitated through stress etc. there is no clarity, no peace, and no health. Acting within such a mental state is like acting when crazy or when drunk, exhausted or disturbed in some other way. Clearly nothing constructive will come from such a mind. Not being able to sleep and lying awake at three in the morning is clearly not the time to make life decisions. In the same way when the mind is ‘crazed’ through stress etc. one’s actions are not helpful to oneself or others. We get less done etc.
Conversely a calm settled mind deals constructively with our daily life issues, with this type of mind even the problems of the day become easy and we make considered effective decisions.
There is no question even amongst the most conservative scientific medical professionals that our minds play a huge role in our physical health. It is increasingly widely accepted that actually the state of our minds is the single biggest factor and influence on our physical health. Experiential practise with our mental health shows us very quickly how even our small niggling day to day body aches and pains are almost all connected with our mind state. We can reduce and eliminate so many of these health issues via working with the mind.
On a larger scale life threatening disease such as cancer has been shown again and again to be most effectively treated mentally. This is not just a position taken by the alternative medical community but is almost universally accepted among main stream medical practitioners.
We can see when some people first sit down to meditate they cannot sit still and afterwards often complain of back aches leg aches etc. These issues when people begin to try to calm the mind are very clearly instances of mental unrest the ‘aches’ they complain of are actually mental problems manifesting as physical issues.
We only actually have one moment in which we live-the present one. If we are being in the past or future, we are not actually living we are existing in a dream illusive state not with ourselves and our actual reality.
Anger arises due to fantasies created by the mind of wrong done to us (see handout on anger). When we are in the present moment these fantasies cannot abide.
Worry normally relates to problems from the past, anxiety normally relates to issue that ‘might’ arise in the future (see handouts on these)
Physical pain is in reality just heat and movement within in the body. It is also compounded and increased dramatically by the mind not accepting and fighting against this pain. This can be dramatically reduced by being with our reality in the present.
Time appears to pass so quickly because we are never actually alive to things when we are living in the past or future. Why does time pass so much slower for children for example because the live in the present moment and therefore everything they see is new. For us everything is also new, but we don’t see it that way therefore this also makes time seem to go so much quicker. Why should we pay attention to things which we have seen before is the way we operate.
Without the all-consuming distractions of living in the past or future we can be creative, we can be free to develop new ideas and better ways to be. Our whole life becomes joyful and fun even the difficult parts.
What do we mean by being mindful. It involves staying in the present moment without judging what occurs as good or bad, right or wrong. Like anything in life this improves with practise and once one has experienced the joy of the mind staying in the present it becomes easy to want to keep developing this quality of mind.
Some of the benefits mindfulness can bring to our life include: a. stepping out of the thought stream; stepping back we gain perspective we can see how thoughts are conditioned, and how they change. How we create our reality. b. Being with discomfort; turning our attention to physical and mental discomfort helps us to tolerate and accept it. We can get beyond our instinctive habit of immediate personal comfort and avoiding pain. Observance and not identifying the pain as me both assist with this. c. Disengaging from automatic responses; we experience the arising of a sensation, thought or feeling followed by the urge to act in response to it followed by overt behaviour of body and speech. Now we can pause evaluate if the response is appropriate or not. d. Transpersonal Insight: enabling us to go beyond the prison of ego and self-obsession and see the interdependence of all things that we are in essence ‘an orchestra without a conductor’ e. moment to moment observation of the mind’s antics; we see how we project onto others and do not see things clearly, we notice our minds stereotyping, judging, jealously competing, idealizing, denigrating and doing other not-so-noble things that are part of human nature. f. seeing how the mind creates suffering; how our minds create our own heaven or hell. Seeing this process how we push away unpleasant and grasp to pleasant helps to relieve this process. g. embracing opposites, our views of our self and the world are merely mental constructions, I’m good, bad, stupid, mean, kind, whatever labels we give to ourselves and others. Seeing this allows us to let go of these constructs be kinder to ourselves and to others. h. developing compassion; partly by showing us how connected we are, how we all suffer the same and thus arise compassion and just as our own hand is hurting wishing to relieve all others suffering as well as our own.
We all fall prey to this way of thinking on many occasions. When on Monday morning we are already looking forward to Friday evening, when we are living for our holidays, when we are waiting to recover from the headache, the illness, the new car, new job. The thought in our minds that ‘when I get this then I will be happy’ ‘when I recover from this then….’ etc. As long as we think like this we are never happy in the moment because we are searching for happiness somewhere else. Our practise will definitely lead to us being just as happy on Monday morning as we are on Friday night. If not, it is not effective.
Beginners mind is living with our present moment experience. We see things from this perspective as a child does for the first time. The reason for this is that in reality everything we are seeing is actually new. All compounded phenomena change moment to moment they are in reality new in every moment. We close this perspective off with our minds stuck in the past or future and are unable to see things as they are. Being present and mindful always brings this reality into our minds.
Here let’s try to see the difference begin with some breathing meditation allow the mind to calm down. Begin to become aware and notice the mind how is feels when agitated. For example, bring a difficult emotion from the past into your mind, relive the emotion feel it in the mind and the body. Then see how it feels when it clams down. Experience and contrast this difference.
The differences that happen in the brain are reinforced from a scientific perspective. Scientific evidence shows that our brain is unlike any other organ in the body--it’s designed to adapt constantly. The brain is not static. It is meant to change over its entire lifespan.
By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially inﬂuence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneﬁcial. See handout (4)
Here intention can be on many levels and one should at least aim for the highest far reaching level even if that is not achieved. The same practise, i.e. a meditation session, can be done with various degrees of intention; i. for peace and calm in one’s mind just for today. ii. For one’s own long-term mental health iii. To achieve mental health for oneself to be more beneficial in the world and to others in the long term e.g. one’s friends & family, strangers and even those we find difficult. Clearly aiming for the last intention is far more meaningful far reaching and profound. Even if not immediately achievable it is the best one to aim for.
Set your intention what would you like to achieve? These may include being kinder, more compassionate, more focused, making better clearer decisions, having better relationships with others. Or less stress, anxiety, depression and more joy and clarity in life.
Think about how you would like your life to be. Make your motivation as vast as possible in such a way it will include everything we want it to include.
Remember the root of bringing everything positive into our lives is awareness….
As the expression says, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating!’ don’t just take our word for it. Try bringing this awareness and mindfulness into your mind and life see how it resonates with you. Experience the freedom that comes from not needing to be the slave of your thoughts being in control having the joy of living within the present moment.
Like anything else in life practise makes perfect keep going with this on as regular a basis as you can. Just 15 minutes a day of simple meditation has been proven to change your life, rewire the brain to be happier, calmer kinder….allow yourself the chance to experience this!
EMOTIONAL BALANCE 'WHAT IT MEANS AND HOW TO CREATE IT' BANGKOK POST ARTICLE OCTOBER 2020
Emotions are vital to our well-being since they determine the state of our minds and the experience of happiness or suffering that our minds then create. Working with our emotions then becomes an issue not just relevant to extreme moments when harmful emotions rise up but is an integral part of developing inner peace and joy every day of our lives.
Despite this, a clear definition is difficult mainly because emotions are so varied in nature. We can, however, determine some common aspects to emotions: they are energetically elevated states of mind which often lead to physiological and behavioural changes, they seem to arise without control for most of us, although I will argue that more control is possible. They are often lacking a basis in reason being more of a spontaneous feeling and they mostly are accompanied by an often strong feeling of displeasure or pleasure.
Where do emotions arise?
We can categorise where emotions come from into three areas:
Basis; this refers to where we are as a person, our upbringing, education, culture all determine whether emotions arise or not but also whether we slept well or have difficult issues arising in our lives.
Trigger; which sets off our emotions be it a person, place situation.
Response; this may be on a mental, verbal or physical level to the emotion.
How to distinguish emotions
To begin with, emotions of all types are felt within our mental consciousness not within our senses. We certainly experience feelings within our senses but the emotional reaction to whatever we engage with takes place always at the level of our mental consciousness within ourselves. From this perspective emotions all have a degree of inaccuracy in the way they engage with the world; since rather than the actual object out there being what they engage with, it is a mental image of that object. Think of your home while away from it, a family member who is in another country, we are clearly not able to engage with the actual object we are thinking about; it is only an image of that.
The most important distinction within emotions, however, lies in whether they are positive or negative (healthy or unhealthy).
Negative emotions will always have an agitated aspect to them; they feel uncomfortable and the more one cultivates awareness of one’s mind the more clearly this discomfort is seen. Take some easy examples: anger when it arises creates discomfort. We don’t sleep properly, enjoy our food or other normally enjoyable activities when consumed by anger. Secondly, and far more essential to understanding and being able to work with negative emotions, is that they are hugely unrealistic in nature. For example, the object of our anger is vastly over exaggerated in its negative aspects and we tend to cultivate and foster these aspects ignoring any contradictions to this.
Positive emotions on the other hand are almost completely opposite to the above. While still capable of being strong energetically they tend to be much calmer states of mind and also far more realistic in their perception of the object they are engaging with. Some examples: love and compassion are universally understood to be positive in nature, even when powerful. One can see a level of calm within the mind when they arise and they conform much more to the nature of reality plus projecting healthier emotions.
What do we mean by emotional imbalance?
From the above we can see that what is meant by being unbalanced emotionally is to be overly under the sway of negative emotions. These lead to agitation in the mind and often negative reactions, physically, verbally or mentally.
Why do negative emotions arise?
Clearly all emotions are similar in being energetic in nature but that energy is responsible for enormous suffering when the emotion is negative or unhealthy in nature.
The reason for the seemingly uncontrollable arising of these types of emotions is rooted in an exaggerated holding onto an identity. These patterns of harmful emotional reactions then become set into our minds and become instinctive ways of responding. We then fruitlessly attempt to control our reality to avoid the upsetting objects and get closer to our ‘helpful’ objects. This combined with a clinging to the imagined permanence of our lives and the world we perceive, means we battle ourselves in try and establish some control.
How then can we restore emotional balance and happiness to our mind?
Emotions are not fixed. We are not born with the same degree of anger, compassion and attributes. Just like the body but with a far greater capacity, the mind can develop and get stronger or weaker in its various functions.
The first and probably the most essential method is to first clearly recognise negative emotions as harmful. Without this any attempt to work with them will not have any long term benefits.
Response: Once strong negative emotions arise, we are in damage control territory. We need to avoid letting the situation get worse (verbal or physical reactions can exasperate things). The advice here is to either remain unmoved like a ‘stick or stone’ or to try to distract oneself. Bring different thoughts into your mind, say prayers or mantras, physically engage in a distracting activity.
Trigger: At those times when harmful emotions arise, we need to train our minds to be able to step back and not let our habitual reactions kick in. To do this we need to be able to distance ourselves from identifying with and being controlled by the emotion. Knowledge of simple meditation techniques can be a great asset.
Basis: This is where we begin to bring some long-term changes to our minds. All harmful emotions have antidotes. For example, anger has two antidotes: patience and love. The more patient we are the less angry we will become. The more we cultivate genuine unconditional love the more we understand others and hence avoid anger towards them.
Change within the habitual tendencies of our mind is not only possible but the most vital thing we can do in our lives. Whether those changes happen is entirely up to ourselves. Positive changes in our minds and lives is not a distant possibility but a certainty, based on simple cause and effect.