Last time we looked at practices for the emotions and how to deal with negative conditioning that stops you from recognising your true Self. Your emotions get caught up in the stories you tell about yourself and your thoughts fan the flames, often making things worse. So in this post, we’ll explore how to untangle yourself with practices for the mind.
The mind isn’t just about thinking and processes ideas – it’s full of all sorts of stuff, including emotions, instincts, moods, and feeling states. So the mind is really your ability to be aware of your experience, whether that’s a thought, feeling, sensation, or an event outside of you. In other words, consciousness.
However, we tend to get stuck on the content of consciousness rather than the deeper reality. So for the purposes of this practice, mind refers to your cognitive development and how you think and perceive reality, because these are the things you can influence in order to awaken. Practices for the mind include:
- Meditation and Mindfulness
- Mind Training
- Taking perspectives and examining assumptions
- Reality Maps – belief system and worldview, etc.
- Philosophical inquiry
- Jnana Yoga
- Reading and Study
- Writing and Journaling
- Puzzles – crosswords, Sudoku, Chess and Go, etc.
As a reader of this blog you probably know this, but I’ll say it anyway: the mind isn’t the activity of the brain and the brain doesn’t create consciousness. It’s consciousness that creates the brain – and arguably everything else – but we can’t get into how that works in this post. If you’d like to explore the nature of consciousness in depth, I highly recommend the work of Don DeGracia at his Plane Talk blog. You can read his epic series The Yogic View of Consciousness here.
Your mind is coloured by everything you come into contact with and this affects the way you think and feel. This usually happens without your awareness, so it’s a good idea to learn how to pay attention to what’s going on in your mind. Then you can sort through the influences and make better conscious choices.
Some states of mind are more healthy or conducive to happiness than others. To gain mastery over your mind, you need to increase the healthy states and decrease the unhealthy ones – an obvious statement! – but how do you do it?
In Buddhism, the main unhealthy mental states are desire (or attachment), aggression (or aversion), and delusion (or ignorance), as we saw in relation to the Emotions last week.
Consciousness is also described as having four layers made from the seeds sown by all your accumulated experience, your family and society. The idea is to feed your consciousness positive seeds and that will bring about more positive outcomes. The Buddhist conception of the mind is too complex for this post, but you can read more on the four layers here.
The practice of Mind Training is all about planting positive seeds and reminding yourself of your true nature. You can learn to watch your thoughts without getting sidetracked or feeding the emotional storylines that cause so many problems. You can do this with the usual meditation practices, but there are others you could try.
In the Tibetan tradition the practice of lojong, which means ‘mind training,’ uses 59 slogans to train the mind to be more present. The slogans deliver the teachings of the Buddha in a way that’s easy to remember and incorporate into a daily practice, such as: Whatever you meet is the Path, Be grateful to everyone, and Don’t ponder others.
Mind training sounds like a cerebral activity, but it’s rooted in the practice of cultivating bodhicitta, or compassion, which is centred in the heart. Along with the slogans, it uses the tonglen meditation (see Emotions) to heal wounds and dissolve suffering. I’ve written a whole book about this practice aimed at writers, but it can be used by anyone and applied to any activity. For more, explore the slogans here, or get the book!
If you don’t want to work with slogans, you can do Concentration practices to train your mind. This is about developing one-pointed attention that you can use to stay focused on one thing at a time. In terms of music, it’s a bit like learning basic techniques, such as scales and arpeggios, before going on to learn more complex pieces of repertoire.
At the simplest level, concentration is about paying attention to what you’re doing. You do one thing at a time and don’t let your mind wander. This sounds similar to mindfulness but it’s not the same in practise. Mindfulness is about being open to whatever arises, but concentration excludes everything else except the one thing you’re focusing on.
There are specific practices you can do to train in concentration, such as focusing on an object, an image, or a candle flame. You can also use these basic practices to go into deeper absorption states called jhanas. For more on that read The Eightfold Path: Right Concentration, and for example practices go here.
Once you’ve trained your mind to focus, you can begin using it to understand reality. There’s no point looking into the nature of reality if you don’t first understand your own mind, at least a little, because the two are interconnected. The way your mind works influences how you see everything else so you need to be able to step back and observe your own thought process and question your observations.
Your cognition, or ability to think and understand, develops in stages as you grow up. The word ‘cognition’ is often used to refer to abstract and rational thought, but it’s more about how you acquire knowledge through experience and by taking multiple perspectives. Each stage of growth has a progressively more inclusive or wider perspective on reality – read more on that here.
As a practice, taking perspectives means going out of your way to look at situations and ideas from alternative perspectives, especially ones you may not agree with or actively dislike. Your perspective conditions how you interpret your experience, so the more perspectives you can take, the more you’ll learn and grow.
Writing every day is a good way to stay curious and challenge yourself to look at life from multiple angles. You don’t have to do it professionally – keeping a journal or blogging regularly is enough. Creative writing also gives you the perfect excuse to research and expand your knowledge. I’ve strayed into surprising places in my quest for the right detail in a story.
Writing has been shown to improve your thinking because it encourages you to express your feelings and ideas more effectively. It can also improve your physical and mental health, boost memory and intelligence, and help you to understand yourself better. In a study on ‘expressive writing,’ researchers found that writing for 15-20 minutes a day reduced stress, and improved motivation and confidence which helped students do better at university. More here.
Expressive writing involves writing about your life experiences and personal issues with the intention of reframing and learning from them. But you have to be careful not to get caught up in the story. Keeping a journal or diary can be a good discipline to practice, but there’s no point if you just fill it with ego bullshit.
One way to avoid this is to learn how to think and reason well because it’ll help you to question your assumptions. That doesn’t mean you have to become a logic-spouting robot. Reason is often seen as purely rational and logical, but it also includes what used to be called the passions, or emotions – especially in relation to intuitive reasoning.
However, there are many traps you can fall into along the way, like cognitive bias and various logical fallacies. If you want to see these in action, just look at the comment sections of the internet – they’re riddled with strawman arguments, ad hominem attacks, loaded questions, and so on. More on the 15 most common fallacies here.
Doing puzzles and playing strategic games like Chess and Go can also help to improve your reasoning and logic skills. The board game Go was used by Buddhist monks to train their minds and learn detachment from outcomes. There’s some debate about whether doing puzzles is good for your brain or not – they might help to keep your mind active and alert as you age. Read more on the fascinating philosophy of Go here.
Learning basic logic is a good start, but if you want to understand the nature of reality, it won’t be enough. The laws of logic were identified by Aristotle as the Principle of the Excluded Middle – something is either true or false and nothing else; and the Principle of Non-Contradiction – something can’t be both true and false at the same time.
Aristotelian logic became the foundation of Western thought and philosophy, and has been causing us no end of bother since. But things are starting to change as people recognise the value of different forms of logic and the need for paradox. One of these alternatives is four value logic, known in Buddhism as catuskoti, which means ‘four corners.’ This kind of logic gives four possibilities about whether something is true or false:
- It’s true
- It’s false
- It’s both true and false
- It’s neither true nor false
It’s a bit of a mind bender, but the point of four value logic is to nudge you in the direction of recognising the reality behind everything else. It’s supposed to stop your rational mind in its tracks, a bit like a Zen koan – something I explored in my novel Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic.
Read more about how Buddhist logic has inspired new alternatives to Aristotle here. And to get your head around Buddhist logic, I highly recommend The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings of the Noble Nagarjuna – read my review here.
The ‘goal’ of the spiritual quest is to discover your true nature as one with the divine. Following the four value logic of Buddhism can get you there, or you could try Jnana Yoga. This is called the ‘path of knowledge’ because you study spiritual texts and inquire into your true nature in order to attain moksha. Source texts include the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. You could do the same with other religious traditions too.
Calling it the path of knowledge makes it sound like an intellectual exercise where you read a load of books and fill your head with spiritual sounding ideas. But as Swami Sivananda explains, this isn’t the case:
“Jnana Yoga, or the science of the Self, is not a subject that can be understood and realised through mere intellectual study, reasoning, discussion or arguments. It is the most difficult of all sciences.”
It’s a difficult path because you’re using the mind to explore the nature of the mind, so it’s easy to get lost in a hall of mirrors. To prevent this, you need to be grounded in the body and a spiritual practice of profound selflessness. Jnana Yoga isn’t about accumulating knowledge for yourself so you can look wise and clever. It’s a deep inquiry into the true nature of reality and consciousness for the good of all. More on Jnana here.
One of the biggest obstacles on this path is the mind itself because it’s full of things that hide your true nature and stop you remembering who you are. So the process of growing in spiritual knowledge involves removing the accumulated ideas, beliefs, emotions and habits that keep you in darkness.
Many of these beliefs and ideas come from the culture you live in. As we saw in the Collective Context post, your mind perceives reality through a lens distorted by the myths of civilisation. You need to deconstruct these myths if you want to wake up. This isn’t easy because the myths are usually unconscious, so you need to question everything.
It’s a big task, so start with the obvious ones that plug directly into your identity and ego, and then expand from there. Do this with all your maps of reality, including psychology and spirituality. This doesn’t mean you destroy your maps and drop into an abyss of not knowing. You need some sort of map to find your way around, but don’t assume your maps are accurate.
Some maps are more helpful than others. And some will lead you astray or round in circles. Arguably, none of your maps will show the way to your true Self because that’s not on any map – it’s beyond all maps. But a map of the spiritual path can still be useful – just draw it in pencil, and keep an eraser handy!
As we saw in the Personal Context post, psychological and spiritual maps are meant to aid understanding but shouldn’t be taken as dogma. You don’t have to conform to a psychological model or make yourself fit a predetermined idea of who you’re supposed to be. And spiritual maps are guides that you’re supposed to let go when you no longer need them.
Buddhism has various ways of pointing to this truth:
- You use the thorn of Buddhism to remove the thorn of suffering, and then throw the thorn of Buddhism away.
- You cross the river on the raft of Buddhism and when you get to other side, you leave the raft behind, you don’t carry it around on your back.
- If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
None of this means you forget what you’ve learned when you let it go. There’s nothing wrong with knowledge and there are times when you need to learn new things and discover new perspectives. The idea is to hold that knowledge loosely in your open hand and remember that life is always changing so your mind needs to change too. The last word goes to the Buddha:
“Who is your enemy? Mind is your enemy.
Who is your friend? Mind is your friend.
Learn the ways of the mind. Tend the mind with care.”
Next time we’ll explore practices for the Soul…