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 an (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? Daily, none of us are, as our brains fill this in. Optical illusions show us the extent to which our 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 being strongly believed in, and how the way we envision a place we are about to visit rarely conforms to how it 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, and 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 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 the 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 mindset. In the present moment only are we alive, from this moment's 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