I am often struck by what I think is one of life’s greatest paradoxes: even though our entire experience of reality depends on our mind, most people have no idea what mind actually is.
Everything we perceive, think and feel arises only with mind’s participation. That being the case, wouldn’t it be useful to have a good working knowledge of our minds?
There are reasons why some people may feel they can’t answer this question. Those with religious convictions may believe that probing too deeply into the nature of mind is trespassing onto church ground. ‘What is mind?’ becomes a matter of faith, rather than something to which there is a definitive answer.
Other people may think this question is the preserve of professionals. Unless you have the right postgraduate degree in psychiatry or neuroscience, you can’t possibly answer it.
In the West, where our cultural focus has traditionally been on the objective nature of matter, it was not until the very recent past that mind was considered a valid subject of scientific enquiry. In particular, only in the last 20 years have we developed technology sophisticated enough to measure changes in neural activity, and a broader quantum model that helps account for the nature of consciousness.
In the East, where the cultural focus was traditionally on the subjective nature of consciousness, the smartest minds were engaged in a rigorous process involving hundreds of thousands of hours of disciplined observation, analysis, and testing of hypotheses. One of the great joys of being alive in the early twenty first century is witnessing the convergence of east and west, ancient and contemporary, outer and inner, in moving towards a holistic understanding of mind.
Can a definition of mind be usefully outlined in a short blog? Of course not. But it doesn’t have to be! The truth is that conceptual explanations are of very limited value. If I was to tell you that chocolate is sweet, that it comes in a variety of flavours, and that initially hard, it melts in your mouth, my description would be accurate enough. But it wouldn’t even begin to convey the deliciousness of chocolate. The best way to find out what chocolate is like is by experiencing it.
Ditto the mind. The practices developed by meditation experts over millennia guide us to discover the true nature of mind, not as concept or idea, but as a non-conceptual reality. This is the ultimate purpose of meditation. Empowered to experience our own consciousness directly, many people find, in those first glimpses of the pure nature of mind, an extraordinary truth. We discover for ourselves that our mind is innately tranquil and radiant. That it is infinite, with no beginning and no end. That far from being some existential void, it is imbued with the most profound, happiness-giving qualities.
We observe that the thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves and others, which pervade our mind for so much of the day, are mere cognitive activity – weather passing across the sky of mind. It can be hugely liberating to experience the reality that we are not our thoughts and feelings. Our ultimate nature goes way above and beyond them.
What’s more, we experience the paradox that even though we set out to explore our mind, the result is as much a feeling as it is a perception. An experience beyond concept and for which words are therefore wholly inadequate, but that may be hinted at using such terms as ‘oceanic,’ ‘peaceful’ and ‘benevolent.’ This isn’t some religious experience or ecstatic emotional high. It’s described by meditators from all backgrounds, secular and religious.
So often meditation is sold as a tool for stress-busting, pain management, healing, an alternative to anti-depressants … so the list goes on. Yes, it does all of these things. In spades! The reason it does is because it gently brings our body-mind continuum into a state of coherence. In that state, the primordial nature of our own mind becomes apparent.
Even the briefest experience of mind is life-changing, because when we can free ourselves from the agitation or dullness that pervades our consciousness and encounter our own true nature, if only momentarily, we can never go back to believing ourselves to be nothing more than a bag of bones. We have experienced a dimension of being that transcends all our usual ideas of self. We have come home.
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