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

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: Equanimity

A key insight of Buddhist philosophy is that the highest goal to strive for should not be boundless happiness – since that is bound to disappoint – but instead a sound evenness of mind, equanimity. Equanimity requires us to overcome attachment, to brace us against the loss of even what is most dear to us.

As part of our regular practice we may try to seek this evenness. Prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead and find solace in the belief that we must not be overly joyful to have a good life (although when joy does find us, we may embrace it).

  1. Take four deep breaths.
  2. Think of something that troubles you. This might be something that has happened, might happen or a general state of things.
  3. Accept that difficulties are a part of life. We may never be free of events or thoughts that trouble us.
  4. Imagine yourself in ten years time looking back at what concerns you now. Will you feel about it in the same way? Or will the sharpness of the feeling have subsided, will you be able to look at it in a calmer way?

This practice is motivated by something I came across in the book ‘Positive Intelligence‘ by Shirzad  Chamine. Here the technique of ‘Flash Forward’ was suggested as a possible way to become emotionally stronger. Essentially this technique involves imagining ourselves towards the end of our lives and looking back at a decision we are about to make. What decision would our older, hopefully wiser, self recommend us to take? I think this is a great way for us to think about what faces us in our lives right now and provides an excellent way to detach ourselves from seemingly pressing matters.

Finding equanimity though requires more than just following this practice or others. It requires finding a whole new perspective of life and our place in it. We need to become very good at recognising our own feelings and desires and becoming their master rather than being controlled by them.

Finding equanimity is also something which can hardly be achieved in isolation. Other practices such as finding compassion, love, understanding the nature of interbeing and impermanence are critical for us to achieve true and lasting equanimity.

Just as a mighty boulder
stirs not with the wind,
so the wise are never moved
either by praise or blame.

Dhammapada Verse 81

Image credits: Frank Winkler

Practice: Interbeing

We live in the illusion that we posses a self which is well delineated from the world around us. Whereas in fact, we are interwoven with everything around us in innumerable ways. No particle in the universe exists independently. Everything is affected by everything else.

Modern science has shown the inter-relatedness of many social and natural phenomena. However even in ancient times, interbeing has long been seen as one of the fundamental truths about existence, especially in Eastern cultures.

The principle of anatta is one of the foundations of Buddhist thought and asserts that there is no distinguishable self in any living being. As such, we each exist only within the context of everything that surrounds us. Pratītyasamutpāda is another principle which states that nothing is created in isolation. Anything is created in the context of something else which already exists. 

Just like embracing forgiveness and gratitude, I believe that meditating on the inter-dependence of all things aids us in expanding our consciousness and brings us joy and wisdom. To aid in this meditation, I have developed the following simple practice:

  1. Breathe in and out slowly three times.
  2. Become aware of your body and its current place in space.
  3. Expand your mind and attempt to become aware of everyone else who is currently in the same building as you, then of everyone in the same city, then in the same country and then on the whole of earth. Realise how you are not so much different to everyone else but just one minuscule piece of an incomprehensibly large whole.
  4. Become aware of your body in its current place in time.
  5. Expand your mind and attempt to feel and become aware of everything that has happened to you since yesterday, then since last week, then since last year. Expand your mind further and become aware of all that has happened in the last one hundred years. Realise that everything you are in this moment is the result of a long chain of events, and your moment now is but a drop in the ocean pulled by the tides of time.

I believe it is essential for embracing the truth of interbeing that we acknowledge what an infinitesimal piece of existence we are. We are bound to overestimate our own importance and agency and underestimate the torrential power of the context that surrounds us. If we accept our own irrelevance, it is easier to realise we are but a part of a very big whole. This I believe can be a great source of comfort and strength, since it fulfils our natural desire for something in our lives that is larger than us, such as a divine power.

There may not be a god who cares about our fate and desires but being part of something so grand, so incomprehensible as our world is a miracle nonetheless. Embrace the beauty of being part of this miracle and relieve yourself from the need to be something special; we all are, together.

Life Purpose in the Modern World: Beyond Family

We live in an age where there is a short supply of higher purpose. Sure, there are the world religions which might promises us a place in heaven upon proper conduct – but most of the premises these religions are based upon are difficult to take seriously in the 21st century.

Humans can be surprisingly uninsightful at times but generally we are quite smart, and I believe that the erosion of organised religion can be traced back to our collective insight that they just don’t make much sense.

However, I believe our biology programs us to seek purpose. With organised religion being not an option for many of us, we have been looking for purpose in other places.

Firstly there is the hedonistic purpose of seeking happiness for ourselves which is adopted by some. Unfortunately, pleasure seeking is a shaky path for finding true happiness – it seems we can achieve that much better by caring for others. I would say that this purpose is not very popular; sometimes sought out in younger years but often replaced with another purpose, arguably the most widely adopted today. That is the purpose to provide and care for our families, especially our children.

In our collective mind there is little doubt that this is a sensible and morally correct purpose. However, I do think that it is good to question even those things which seem self-evident to us. So the question I want to discuss here is whether this is a good purpose or not.

There are many good things about this purpose, chiefly that it is not about us but about others. I think there is much beauty in our love for our families, and we should embrace
it whenever we have the opportunity. However, we must also be aware that this purpose is rooted in our basic biology – since looking after those genetically closely related to us helps propagate our genes.

So I think an argument can be made that this might not be the best choice for being the leading, single highest purpose of our lives. That is because, not unlikely like the world religious, it does not hold up to deeper scrutiny. It is just biology to love our children – it’s what all mammals do.

That is not to say that it is bad – in the contrary, it is beautiful and holy. This is just to say that it is not more than biology. If our children survive, our genes will pass on. If we teach our children to be good people, they might spread more goodness into the world. But what difference does this make in the context of what we have learned about the
universe? We are a tiny speck of humanity and humanity is a tiny speck in the cosmos. How our genes are fairing and what part of our values live on makes little difference in the greater scheme of things and even for our family: our great-grandchildren will only inherit around one eighth of our genes and probably equally as much – if not less – of our values.

Moreover, with our love for our children comes a danger. What if you have to make a choice between their welfare and that of others. Will we not always choose our children irrespective of what is the fair or good thing to do?

Instead, we can take the love we harbour for our families and use it as a foundation
on which to grow universal love. Love for every human being. Love for every
thing in the universe. Love for what we know about and what we don’t know about.
Love for ourselves.

So we shouldn’t abandon the love for our family – we should just be careful to define the value of our lives based on the welfare of our family. Families cause problems, families break apart. If we do not define ourselves through our families, we can become stronger – in bad times and in good – and give more love to those we care about the most without compromising our ability to open our hearts to an even greater love which encompasses everything there is, has been and could be.

What to do if a person is not kind

I tend to believe in the inherent goodness of whomever I meet. I believe that each one of us has a desire to bring joy and happiness to others; even if that is to the detriment of others. I also think that most people I have know are kind. They are friendly and try to help wherever they can. Some might act unkindly from time to time but I do not think that means they are not kind in other circumstances.

Unfortunately one encounters people sometimes who seem inherently unkind. They are not friendly. They do not have kind words for others. They are not interested in helping others, they are only interested in advancing their own interests. These are the people who will be nice and obedient to those in positions of higher power but will barely tolerate their peers or those they think lower than themselves.

I think we should grow within us love and appreciation for every human and conscious being. How can we do that if there are those who do not repay our kind acts? Will the way they are affect us negatively on our own paths to greater kindness and love? I feel hurt on an emotional level if someone does something unkind towards me. My natural response is to dislike them and to harbour bad thoughts about them. I think that is not the right response.

I believe what we want to be and what we could be is far more important than what we are or what we have been. No human being exists independently. How we are is not shaped by some magic formula which is intrinsic to us and fully under our control. Instead, we are shaped by our environment, the context in which we exist. If someone is unkind, they might be so now, since they do not care about the feelings of others. It seems like they are exactly what they want to be. However, that is only an illusion. They want to be what they want to be because of various factors which are completely out of their control.

I believe that for every unkind person there is a path to become better, a context in which they will be kind people. Our role is not to hate them or be offended by them but to see how we can be their guide in becoming more caring and kind. Most likely we will not succeed – but sometimes we might. The easiest way to help is to assure we do not become unkind ourselves. Instead we should aim to be wise, enlightened, balanced and kind to set an example which will hopefully inspire those around us. It is a challenge but also an opportunity to become stronger and more wise.

At no point should we fall for the trap of thinking that we are better than those which are not kind. We need not forget humility. Our own flaws are beyond measure. We can try to act as good as we can, but we should never do so in a self-righteous way. Maybe there are other factors which makes us not like a person and we project unkindness onto them without justification. Maybe we ourselves act unkind on more occasions than we would like to acknowledge; thinking of this, we most certainly are. We can only hope than that there is maybe someone else who might help us to overcome our own shortcomings as well.

Featured Image: WikiMedia

 

On Preventing the Extinction of Mankind

Few will disagree that the continuation of our species as a noble goal to pursue. It just feels inherently plausible to us. But I think that we should nonetheless reflect upon whether this is really such a worthwhile and important goal to pursue.

Some say that we may be the only species in the universe with consciousness, and therewith the only ones able to appreciate the beauty of nature as well as to imbue it with meaning. I would say: so what? That we perceive our consciousness to be so special might be one of its many inherent flaws. There is nothing to suggest that our way of experiencing the world is any less valuable than that of other animals or plants or rocks for that matter. Furthermore, statistically speaking, in a universe with many billions of galaxies, it seems very unlikely that we are the only creatures capable of producing art, laws and language. Any way we look at it, given the vastness of the universe, it seems very likely that ending mankind will go largely unnoticed on a cosmic scale.

That being said, we are here for better or worse and a pressing question is what to do with our time. I believe that we carry within us a love for ourselves and for others, and that this love is something which we should embrace as a generous present the machinations of the universe have provided for us. We also carry within us a love for nature, for animals, for mountains, for stars, for the beauty of a grain of salt and the rhythm of rain falling on leafs. If we accept this love, we see that pursuing survival for ourselves and our planet and the species which inhabit it, might be a pursuit which is in balance with our nature and not in conflict with what we know about the universe.

In any case, we need to accept that humanity as it lives now is guaranteed to be extinct. We have made changes too drastic too our environment and we are on the cusp of gaining too much power over our own genes to continue existing within the bounds of our current gene pool. Drastically changing our nature might still take some generations to accomplish but it seems quite inevitable. Interestingly thus it lies within our power to shape our own biological destiny.

I think that achieving survival for our current generations and those which will follow us should be one of our top priorities. Apart from keeping order and peace and proving us with the basics we need for day to day survival, it should be a main focus of our economic activity. Sadly, though it is not. Our economies create demand by consumption of individuals. That is not a sustainable. We cannot continue to consume more and more to assure our economies are on a trajectory of constant growth. I think we should create demand for our economies by large projects and initiatives which we decide to be important. Some of these could be related to our survival on this planet; such as reducing carbon emissions, exploring ways to protect us from asteroids and supervolcanos. Even if we do not have a strong foundation to argue for the importance of humanity in the greater context of the universe, it seems very self evident that pursuing these projects is more useful than the ability to buy a new luxury sedan every couple of years.

Featured Image: The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1777