In previous essays, I have proposed that the defining characteristic of our humanity is our consciousness. Because we not only have the ability to think and make decisions but are also consciously aware of these mental processes we have what is sometimes called a “theatre of mind”. Consequently we are forced to deal with two worlds – an external world (the world “out there”) and an internal world (the world “in here”).
This dichotomy, results in a paradox. Our sensory perceptions provide inputs from the exterior world which we then use to construct our picture of the world. As the Polish-American scholar, Alfred Korzybski famously told us, “The map is not the territory.” And indeed we deal with the external world via an internal map of it, a representation. We know for most purposes that representation is accurate enough and we generally navigate our way around the world adequately. But the map can contain many errors due to the physical limitations of our sensors and due to the psychological filters we use whilst constructing this representation. We never experience the exterior world directly but via this representation.
So here is a fundamental truth that I would ask you to hold onto –it is the mind that creates our experience of the world!
Now our human sense of well-being is largely determined by the state of our inner world, and therefore, as a corollary, the state of our mind. A person who largely lives in a state of equanimity, does so, not because of having fortunate circumstances in his outer world but by having a mind which is able to represent that outer world in a useful and realistic way. The enlightened mind understands then, that it is not the external world in itself that determines whether we suffer pain or experience joy so much as how we interpret it (the good Dr Phil would say what meaning we take from it) and how consequently we interact with it.
Now another dichotomy also becomes apparent. Many people take great care of their bodies. They exercise, are careful with their diets, have regular medical check-ups and so on. Given however that our personal well-being is more determined by our minds than our bodies, it seems strange that not many of us pay similar attention to the fitness of our minds. Perhaps it is largely because of three factors.
Firstly, most people are convinced that their welfare is largely determined by their physical circumstances. This is because they identify with their bodies more closely than they do their minds.
Secondly, (and possibly as a consequence of the first) there is a huge industry created to attend to our physical well-being which is very good in seducing us with its advertising and propaganda. It would seem that the message promoted in this way is that the purpose of life is above all to preserve our health and prolong our lives. Now these no doubt are desirable outcomes, but they are not what creates meaning and purpose in our lives or indeed in any way assures our sense of well-being.
Thirdly, the philosophy on which our Western societies are built is market capitalism which is largely built on consumerism and envy based on physical possessions.
As I have shown in other essays these principles do not lead to well-being. Well-being is dependent on our state of mind. But a life built on the foundation of an enlightened mind should also be not overstated.
Matthieu Ricard is a French geneticist who gave up his scientific vocation to study Buddhism. Interestingly whilst he is an advocate of Buddhism he is clear that you don’t have to embrace Buddhist beliefs to train your mind to look at the world in a better way. As well he does not advocate that such effort will be rewarded with continual bliss.
“A full life is not made up of an uninterrupted succession of pleasant sensations but really comes from transforming the way we understand and work through the challenge of our existence. Training the mind not only makes it possible to cope with mental toxins like hatred, obsession and fear that poison our existence, but also helps us acquire a better understanding of how the mind functions and gives us a more accurate perception of reality. This, in turn, gives us the inner resources to successfully face the highs and lows of life without being distracted or broken by them, and allows us to draw deep lessons from them.”
And that is an eloquent summary of what I had intended to say in this little essay!
More than anything an enlightened mind helps liberate us. It is not so much a matter of doing whatever come into our heads, but rather of freeing ourselves from the constraints and afflictions that often dominate and obscure our minds. It is a matter of taking our life into our own hands rather than abandoning it to the tendencies created by by habit and mental confusion.
Again as Ricard puts it:
“Instead of letting go of the helm and just letting the boat drift wherever the wind blows, freedom means setting a course towards a chosen destination – the destination that we know to be the most desirable for ourselves and others.”
(This week I have quoted Matthieu Ricard. In my coaching work I have often used his text Happiness which I would highly recommend. A couple of my clients maintain that this book changed their lives! Ricard promotes meditation as a mechanism for training the mind. If you are interested in pursuing that approach I would recommend his book The Art of Meditation. The quotes above come from the latter book.)