Mind, Body and Soul

When we think of the mind, we often first think about our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and decisions. When our mind wanders, our thoughts jump from one topic to another. When we change our mind, we have decided to think of something in a different way than we used to or decided to do things in a different way.

The mind is usually seen as being not of the body and to be a different concept than the soul. Our body is the physical machine which keeps us alive; our organs, bones, blood vessels. This body, specifically our brain, enables our mind. Our mind, in turn, enables our soul; the soul which I define as the part of us which is of spiritual value, whereby spiritual denotes the dimension in which higher level thinking and our most pure and wholesome emotions fuse.

Rather than seeing mind, body and soul as separate things, we should see them as interwoven. Without our body, there can be no mind; without our mind, there can be no soul. (I am not aware of any evidence that we possess something like a soul disconnected from our body and it altogether seems to make little sense; so much of what we are, what we feel, what we think is deeply rooted within our brain, and measurably so; so how should a version of us exist without our brain?)

Notwithstanding this hierarchy, from body to mind to soul, we shouldn’t think of the body as being inferior to the mind, and the mind being inferior to the soul. Each is a wonder on its own, and in combination they are a wonder beyond comprehension.

It should be no secret to any of us that our mind is a big mess. Our thoughts, emotions, decisions and believes are not static, clearly structured or well organised. They are fluid and difficult to formalise. Thus we often ‘cannot make up our mind’. To complicate matters, we are designed to feel the illusion of control over our mind. We feel like we are making conscious decisions using thoughtful considerations; when in reality most of our decisions are made in the ‘subconscious’, a mysterious space which bridges our body and mind.

The subconscious may encompass the vast majority of our brain activity. It controls our body to keep us alive; by keeping the heart beating, filling our lungs with air, and by controlling a million different other things happening in our body. It also has been theorised that it is in the subconscious where our greatest capacity for creativity and many other higher functions of our brain lies.

As with many things in the biological and even more so in the psychological world there are no clear boundaries between the body, subconscious and mind. Take breathing for example: usually the subconscious and body take care of this routine activity. But we have the capability to take over with our conscious mind and control our rate and depth of breathing (to a degree). Many things we learn and master, like driving a bicycle or the grammar of a foreign language, will first occupy our conscious mind while slowly drifting into our subconscious as we gain mastery of the task.

“I think, therefore I am.” is an untrue statement. You are far more than the sum of our thoughts. However, you may say: “I think, therefore my mind is.” This, I think, is the closest we can come to a definition of our mind; it is our conscious thinking and those aspects of our memories and feelings which we can grasp with our conscious thinking. The mind is enabled by the body and the bridge between body and soul, the subconscious. Our mind is free of value; it just is the way it is made. Our soul is the potential or the realisation of our potential to become more than our body and mind would naturally become; to adopt good and wholesome values and follow through on them with our thoughts, words and actions.

Picture credit: ivanovgood

Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.

Look Within

Look within; within is the fountain of all good.

Marcus Aurelius

We often go about our lives in a robot-like way. We do what is prescribed by our biological, social and cultural programming; seek social confirmation, seek good-looking mates, seek power, seek wealth, and we do so without thinking about it.

Sometimes this leads us to satisfaction and contentment, and sometimes to misery. Living our lives in such a way is risky, since we are drifting, controlled by external forces and forces within ourselves which guide us unconsciously.

Stoic and Buddhist philosophy suggests a better way for us; that we must first of all become aware of our inner selves, our thoughts and desires. Only once we have found inner peace and harmony, can we be be truly happy and bring happiness into the world.

Image credit: 1239652

Jewellery

Ornaments are an important part of nature. Flowers use them to attract bees. Birds use them to attract mates. Frogs use them as protection from predators. It is therefore not very surprising that jewellery, face painting, tattoos and other ornamental devices are one of the many things which are shared by all know human cultures.

I often talk about spiritual values and the spiritual dimension of our existence and how it is an important part of living our life fully. Beauty and art are important bridges to the spiritual world and jewellery and other ornaments can convey beauty, and we should embrace them as valuable enrichment of our lives.

Unfortunately jewellery is often used for other purposes than to delight our aesthetic and spiritual senses. The most important of these is the visual expression of power since jewellery is not chosen for its aesthetic value alone but for how expensive it is.

If I wear an expensive piece of jewellery that you cannot afford, it shows that I have more ability to purchase – or obtain in other ways – things which you cannot. If you give me an expensive piece of jewellery as a present, it shows my power over you and you transfer me some power in form of the monetary value of the item.

This function speaks to our primate mind, which we are not guilty of possessing (since Nature has bestowed it upon us) but which we are guilty of not recognising and aspiring to transcend.

Just think about diamonds. I won’t say that diamonds are not beautiful – they are wonderful creations of Nature – but I am puzzled why other precious stones are not used as often in making jewellery; since they are just as beautiful to me. The same goes for gold. Sure it is pretty but other metals and materials are just as capable of delighting our eye.

Jewellery is often made from gold and diamonds since these are expensive. Which shows that the contemporary jewellery is often not in ornament but used as expression of power. The problem with that is that jewellery as power display does not enrich our live or the lives of others.

It does have costs for us, though. Firstly, we need to use our money to purchase it and thus cannot use the money for something more wholesome and valuable. Secondly, mining for jewellery and gold comes along with major environmental destruction.

Imagine a world where we create jewellery for its beauty; where the bulk of its costs goes to artists for their creativity; where we use it as a way to express our individual personality rather than all wearing pieces that essentially look the same safe for them using different amounts of expensive material.

We do not benefit from gold and diamonds. Corporations are. Sure your wife or girlfriend will be happy if she receives a nice piece of jewellery from you. Sure that happiness is often based on how expensive that piece was. But maybe you can think of another present; one that does not come along with environmental harm and that complements her as a person. If you are a potential receiver of jewellery as a present, think if you really need it or if there are other things (or actions) which might make you just as happy, or maybe even more happy, than receiving certain stone on a certain piece of metal.

Image credit: Nawalescape

Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

One of the marks of an expert is the knowledge of vocabulary within a specific domain and the ability to apply this vocabulary effectively and precisely. Listing to two engineers talk about the construction of a bridge, we would not understand much of their conversation, as long as we not happen to be a structural engineer ourselves.

If we are seeking a more meaningful and fulfilled life, we need to become experts in the field of language that will help us in this quest. I think that pleasure, joy and happiness are among the most important words we need to gain a good understanding of and I will provide a discussion of these in the following.

It must be noted here, that unlike terms used in engineering, there is no one true definition of what pleasure, joy and happiness mean. There are various conflicting understandings and in this article I am not claiming to be able to provide one universally agreed definition. Instead, I aim to provide a useful definition. One that is best suited to aid us in understanding ourselves and help us become more enlightened and fulfilled.

Pleasure

I define pleasure as a feeling of sensual gratification. You drink a class of cold water after a long walk on a hot, dry day. You eat a most pleasant meal after a time of fasting. You have good sex.

Pleasure is rooted deeply in our biology and is used as the ‘carrot’ by our biology to make us do what is good for our survival, well-being and procreation of our genes. Pleasure is easily exhausted. It is most pleasurable to drink one glass of cold water when one is thirsty, but a second, third, fourth and fifth glass quickly bring diminishing pleasure returns for us.

Joy

I define joy as a feeling of temporary elation caused by something we are experiencing. You see the sunrise over the ocean. You win the lottery. You have passed an exam. You have solved an equation.

Joy is not a reward from our reptile brains, as pleasure is, but related to our perceptions of what is good and beautiful. Joy, though, is not good in itself. Joy may be misguided, such as exemplified in the word schadenfreude, the joy at the misfortune of someone else.

Happiness

I define happiness as a lasting inner state of calm and contentment. While pleasure and joy are short-lived and intense, the feeling of happiness permeates every moment of our lives, for days, months or decades. You have a happy marriage. You love your job. You have found your purpose in life.

It has been found we have a base level of happiness determined by our biology and the culture in which we live in. However, I do believe that there are things in life we can do to become more happy and content with our lives, chiefly by finding and following a purpose and by a better understanding of our feelings, such as by meditation.

If I was to rank, pleasure, joy and happiness, I would say that happiness is the feeling which is most aligned with the goal of seeking a meaningful life and enlightenment. Pleasure is the feeling which has the greatest potential to steer us off the paths of enlightenment and betterment. Joy would sit somewhere in between these.

However, that being said, I don’t think we should try to eliminate pleasure or joy from our lives. They are a gift to us, they can provide us with energy and motivation for taking on the challenges of our lives.

In the beginning of this article, I have stated to goal to come up with a definition for pleasure, joy and happiness that is useful. I think the definitions provide above are useful, in that they can direct us in how to approach each of these emotions: For happiness, I think we should not be afraid that we may find too much of it and try to bring plenty of it into our lives; we should seek pleasure in moderation; and make sure that we embrace the right kind of joy, joy at things which guide us and others on a path to happiness.

Image credit: torbakhopper

Practice: Irrelevance and Impermanence

The universe is very big. We are very small. The universe exists for an immeasurably long time. Our lives are very short. These are simple facts that we often forget. An omission which easily leads us to overestimate the importance of our life, actions and feelings in the greater context of existence.

Western culture is built around the idea that  there lies tremendous value in each and every individual. The following two quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the German Basic law illustrate the Western focus on the individual and their protection from the area of Enlightenment and modernity respectively:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. […] Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law. […] Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. 

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

I believe that this understanding of basic human rights is the foundation of the peace and prosperity my generation enjoys. These documents provide a very robust legal framework for creating a peaceful and functioning society. However, they are a poor spiritual guide in that they omit some fundamental truths about our existence – that there is little factual grounds for imbuing our puny lives with such outsize importance (the original justification for this was found in Christianity – as God endowing the ‘unalienable rights’.)

We cannot find true enlightenment if we do not face what is fact to the best of our knowledge. Thus we need to overcome the basic assumption that each and every life, and especially our own life, is inherently immeasurably valuable. This thought at first might not sound very comforting; but it can be a source of tremendous strength. You don’t need to be special; there is no point. You can focus on what has been given to you, your simple, small and short life and embrace all that is good within it, without having to believe in some false higher purpose.

One of the key concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that life is suffering, and that the impermanence of everything – people, thoughts, objects – is one of the key drivers of this suffering. It is a truly inalienable fact of life and, to find peace and wisdom, we need to understand and acknowledge it:

The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world. 

Salla Sutta: The Arrow

Impermanence and suffering are two of the ‘three marks of existence’ in Buddhism with the third one being the concept of non-self. Non-self in essence asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in any living beings. For me, it is one of the more esoteric theories in Buddhism and I tend to classify it into the category of deliberations which easily leads us around in circles while being of little use. What I like to take away from it is the insight that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is mostly an illusion and believing that we have an immortal, immeasurable valuable soul is a belief held easily only with a good helping of self-aggrandisement.

The following practice is based on two basic understandings: Firstly, that we are impermanent and, secondly, that we are irrelevant in the sense that there is no magic to our lives which make them meaningful beyond the observable. 

  1. Become aware of the place where you currently are.
  2. Grasp in your mind the people who are in your building, then your suburb, then your city, then your country and finally the whole earth; each one so very similar to you and you being such a small part of them all.
  3. Become aware of the moment in time that currently is. Realise that in a hundred years you will have ceased to exist and your moment and struggles will mean little to those succeeding you. (If you happen to think you are rich and famous or have the opportunity to become so, add one hundred thousand years to the time-frame in this exercise.)
  4. Understand that by realising this you are acknowledging a fundamental truth of who you are and your place in the world. Your impermanence and irrelevance notwithstanding embrace the miracle of your existence, the ability to think and feel; the miracle that you may behold the beauty of the world, and to cherish the opportunity to add your microscopic ripple to the ocean of time and matter surrounding your life.

This practice and its theoretical justification is similar to the practice of embracing interbeing discussed earlier. The practice for embracing interbeing is only different in that it focuses on the connectedness of things while this practice is more inward bound, in asserting our place and identity in what we know existence to be.

In contrast to the practices of love, forgiveness and gratitude this practice is not immediately comforting. In fact it can be quite disturbing. It might be easier to live our lives if indeed there was any form of evidence that there is something magical which makes each of our lives worthwhile and valuable. Alas there is not. Given this, we need to face the facts as we are able to comprehend them. True enlightenment requires to be truthful to ourselves and finding wisdom within the constraints brought to us by the observable world:

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Sahassavagga: The Thousands

Image credit: Earthrise by Bill Anders

Practice: Love

One of the most precious gift we have been given is our ability to love. Our love may encompass the big and small, our love may encompass the beautiful and ugly, our love may encompass ourselves and everything around us. Think about the many layers of your love; the romantic love for someone special, the love for something you like to do, the love for your family, the universal love which drives your desire to help those in need and protect everything in creation from harm.

Love is a central tenant of many world religions. In Christianity both the love of worshippers for God and Jesus as well as the love of God and Jesus for worshippers are often repeated themes. Likewise worshippers are encouraged to love one another and others:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

In Buddhism love or loving-kindness is known as one of the four immeasurable minds. It is in essence the strong wish that all sentient beings be well and happy:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness

While we should practice our ability to feel this kind of love in every action and thought, the following practice may help us to become more mindful of our ability to love and strengthen it:

  1. Take five deep breaths
  2. Think of the love you feel for someone close to you, such as your partner, parents, pets, children or friends.
  3. Think of someone who was wronged you – do you have the capacity to feel love for them?
  4. Think of yourself, with all your faults and shortcomings. Can you find love for yourself?
  5. Think of all of humankind, every single living soul. Can you find love for each and every one?
  6. Think of all sentient beings. Cows grooming their calves; lion brothers fighting for their territory; elephants wondering together. Can you find love for each and every one?
  7. Think of existence as a whole; every particle in the universe, every field and power, seemingly endless time itself. Can you find love for this vessel in which we exist?

Love just like gratitude and forgiveness is a powerful, deep emotion. We have a natural ability to love and using this ability may make us stronger and wiser. Unfortunately in times when we are weak, it is often difficult to find love, and much easier to find hatred and self-pity. If we find ourselves unable to love easily, we may follow some of the other practices to help us be stronger and unlock our ability to love unconditionally again.

Image credit: Dan Sudermann