Update 4: Taming the mind

Spending so much time watching the mind one thing becomes increasingly clear : much like the brain itself, the human mind has many layers that work in different ways and patterns. Some layers are well connected to those senses that get information from the outside world, while some others are mostly connected to the body and what it feels from inside. Some layers of the mind are quite smart and capable of handling complexity, while some are quite dull, short-sighted and react blindly.

One of the fundamental problems of human existence is that, even if the smart parts of the mind are well informed by true wisdom, its dull parts, if left unchecked, are really dumb and can lead us time and again to unwise, short-sighted behavior that creates trouble for us down the line.

It shouldn’t be too scientifically inaccurate to say that the smart parts of our mind operate mostly out of those parts of the brain which are specific to humans, such as the neocortex, while the dull parts operate mostly out of those parts that we have in common with different classes of animals. Something like the following happens constantly : our senses get information from the outside world, that info passes through a part of the mind that evaluates if the info is agreeable or not, we get the corresponding feeling in our body, and then deep parts of the mind, often subconscious, react automatically to this feeling with a thirst for more if it’s agreeable or aversion towards it if it’s disagreeable.

These processes operate in the dark of our subconscious and, if unchecked, often lead to disorders such as compulsive behavior, addictions etc. For example a very common addiction nowadays is sugar and foods that contain it, even though from a purely rational standpoint we should avoid pretty much all of it. What to say of screens, social networks, dopamine? There are even people encouraging dopamine detox now because the modern world has made us dopamine junkies, and that is ultimately harmful for us.

Buddhists, Hindus, Jains etc. generally believe that if we let ourselves be controlled by the dull, animal parts of our brain and mind, which follow only what is agreeable in the short term, then when we die our attachment to existence leads us to a rebirth among like-minded beings, in this case animals. While the key to a birth in a higher, happier plane (for Christians, picture angels of many different kinds) is to manage our life wisely, by proper standards of the specifically human parts of the brain and mind.

In Buddhism, as a science of spirituality, there is a very simple tool which is used to get in touch with the mind’s deeper, duller, survivalist, body-connected parts so as to make them smarter by joining forces with the smart parts that understand wisdom. It’s a tool which is connected with both: the breath.

Indeed the breath can be controlled voluntarily by the smart mind if we so desire, but when we don’t control it voluntarily, the deeper, survivalist mind takes over and does the job in the background of whatever else we are doing at that time. So it acts as a bridge between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The idea is to observe the breath, with all the attention of the smart parts of the mind, while letting it become automatic, i. e. controlled by the usually dull parts of the mind. This is how both parts get in touch, and then, through practice, unite. It’s like taking a deep dive into your subconscious (and Freud should have tried this) and making it smart instead of dull and reactionary. The end result is unlocking control over parts of the mind that were previously running automatically, in the dark of the subconscious, and some that used to be dormant but are now being awakened (e. g. memories from early childhood, and then before that, etc.).

The Buddha (in English, the Awakened One) called this samadhi (collecting [the mind] , putting it together) or citassekagatta (unification of the mind). This practice gives us control over our monkey-mind, which no longer wanders wildly in the swamps of incessant inner dialog and daydreaming, and becomes useful, able to do many things, just like a wild elephant, after taming and training, can be used to carry heavy tree trunks.

At the moment, I am still in the initial taming and training part, and when the training becomes a little too strenuous, my wild mental habits may temporarily take over. Then, the lovely monastery may start looking like a prison, and some parts of my mind may start wandering why I am not roaming the Earth freely. So I have to remind it that I have never roamed the Earth freely, that every move between two points has always had a cost, which I almost always tried to minimize.

Thus there are days when the different parts of my mind enter in open conflict. Thankfully, this time around it hasn’t gotten really bad so far. Last time I was a monk in 2016, I had a pretty bitter version of this conflict from the very first day, all the way until I disrobed 2 months later. So it looks like I am relatively firmly on track, since one of the good things about this path is that, all else remaining equal, the situation can only improve, by virtue of large amounts of meditation practice.

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