What is the mind?

For those who have conquered the mind, it is the best of friends. But for those who have failed to do so, the mind remains the greatest of enemies. – Bhagavad Gita 6.6

For the atma to process the information it receives through the senses, it uses the faculty of the mind.The eyes may see a red flower. From the optic nerve, electrical impulses travel to the brain and make the image available to the “seer”. It is the mind that responds to the flower, the mind that recognises it. Calls it ‘red’ and ‘flower’ and perhaps responds with an emotion. The brain is the physical organ in the physical body that links the physical body to the intangible mind.

Historically, thinkers have wrestled with whether the mind, with its responses to sensory stimuli, determines who we are. Five hundred years ago, Western philosopher-mathematecian Rene Descartes proposed that it’s by the actions of the mind that we know we exist.

The Bhagavad Gita turns this idea on its head. “I am,” the Gita teaches, “and therefore I think.” Without the presence of atma the mind cannot think.

The Gita informs us that as the brain is the part of the physical body, the mind is the part of the “subtle body”. But physical or subtle, both bodies are material. The mind is responsible for thinking, feeling and intention. These faculties are generally informed by the stimuli we receive from the senses. Like a computer’s hard drive, the mind is a repository of facts and memories. It doesn’t necessarily understand the significance of the information it processes, but it places sensation in two broad categories, pleasure and pain, and responds accordingly.How sensations are categorised is largely based on past association with similar sensation.

Just as the height of an ocean’s wave is influenced by the weather, so the mind, according to how it has been influenced by the sensory experiences we’ve had, responds to new sensory input with either desire or repulsion, elation or depression, courage or fear, celebration or lamentation. Every sense experience, whether it comes from the eyes,ears, nose, tongue or skin, leaves an impression on the mind. The software of the mind is constantly updated through daily experience.

Here’s an example. You see a car coming towards you. Depending on how fast the car is moving and your previous experience with cars moving at that speed, the mind will produce an instinctive response. If you associate cars with accidents and death, you may feel fear. If you associate cars with prestige and glamour – and if it’s the right kind of car – you may feel avarice. Phobias are heightened responses to past sensory input that has left a strong, negative impression on the mind.

Is the mind ever neutral? Not for long. The mind changes constantly based on our ever-shifting experiences. As children, we may be afraid when we look over a cliff; by the time we are experienced adults, the same view may seem exhilarating. Even things that invoke little emotion in us can become objects of passion within a moment. If we identify with the mind, we subject ourselves to all these shifting emotional states.

Every morning I sit down to meditate on the divine sound of my mantra. Anyone who meditates knows what comes next: my mind races through whatever I struggled with yesterday or, if not my problems, then the problems of my loved ones, or it chews on an old argument, or gets lost in memory. If someone is baking in the next room, I can switch in an instant from meditation on my mantra to meditation on cookies. At some point, I will become aware of the wandering mind and ask myself,”What happened to the mantra?”

This reveals something important: we are separate from our thoughts.If we weren’t, how could we direct the mind away from them?

The mind is an amazing instrument. Objectively, it’s an absolutely brilliant creation. Subjectively, it can make life unbearable. As John Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

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 What is the Intelligence?

Gradually, step by step , one should become situated in trance by means of intelligence sustained by full conviction, and thus the mind should be fixed on the Self alone. – Bhagavad Gita 6.25

The power of discrimination- to be able to decide the value of what we want ( or don’t want) and whether we should strive to achieve it- is beyond the mind’s scope. Rather this is the function of the intelligence.

Intelligence( buddhi in Sanskrit) holds the reins of the body-chariot. In other words, it is the faculty that guides the mind, distinguishing right from wrong, moral from immoral, truth from illusion, and pro from con.

If I walk past a bakery and smell something tempting, my mind likely interprets the aroma as pleasurable and decides,”I want it”. But if I have diabetes, my intelligence, I hope, will stop me from actually eating whatever it is I smell. If the intelligence is not properly trained, however, it will give in to the mind’s demand and I may find myself suffering the consequences.

The Bhakti tradition describes 4 types of intelligence.The first is the ability to learn simply by hearing or observing, or to absorb information and then draw conclusions. For example, if a man with this type of intelligence is told it’s illegal to steal and that stealing sends the thief to prison, he won’t steal, even if the opportunity presents itself.

The second type of intelligence is the ability to learn through experience. Those with this type of intelligence hear that stealing is illegal, but overwhelmed by temptation they do it anyway. The consequences of their actions lead to regret, which in turn leads to wiser choices in the future. Although those with this kind of intelligence learn from their mistakes, there is danger in relying on trial and error rather than exercising discernment before making mistakes in the first place. As Benjamin Franklin said,”Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other”, Or as a Roman proverb says,” Only the foolish learn from experience- the wise learn from the experience of others”.

The third type of intelligence should be called misdirected intelligence – one in which we chronically act contrary to our own well being, refusing to learn despite experience. Those with this kind of intelligence hear that stealing is wrong, are caught and punished, but steal again and again, either because they believe they can beat the system, or what they are stealing is worth the possible consequences, or they have no other choice. We usually think intelligence as proper discernment. This type of intelligence calculates based on a misunderstanding of one’s real self-interest and can cloud one’s ability to make good choices and avoid bad one’s.

Yet there is a state of intelligence that is above and beyond the three types I have described. We find it within us when we tune the intelligence to the soul.The guidance of sacred texts and enlightened people help us make this attunement. Despite the dreadful news we encounter every day- war, terrorism , murder- self-realised men and women understand that deep in each person’s heart lies the capacity for a healthy life rooted in unselfish love. They try to live their understanding, so they naturally refrain from harming or stealing from others. The capacity to love is innate in all beings and is the purest expression of intelligence.

What is the ego?

Once, a sage was sitting on a bank of a river. Gazing into the sweeping current, he saw a scorpion struggling fruitlessly to save itself from drowning. His heart softened, and he reached down and gently scooped the scorpion out of the water. The scorpion swung it’s tail and stung his hand. Distracted by the pain, he dropped the scorpion back into the water. Realising it was again drowning, he again lifted it up, only to be stung again. Pain jolted through his body a second time, and for a second time he dropped the scorpion back into the river. As the sage reached into the water a third time, an onlooker asked, “Why are you trying to save a creature that keeps hurting you?”

The sage whisked up the scorpion and was stung again. This time he managed to toss it on to the river bank and save its life. As the scorpion crawled away, the sage smiled at the passerby and said,”We all live according to our natures. Just as it’s the nature of a scorpion to Sting, so it’s the nature of one who loves the Supreme to be compassionate.”

This seems like an extreme example of compassion, and perhaps it is, but it gives us a glimpse into the nature of one particular enlightened person. If our intelligence becomes purified through spiritual practice like this sage’s, we too can tune into our own spiritual nature or, as the Gita puts it, turn false ego into true ego.

A person who has given up cravings and all sense of proprietorship, who is devoid of False ego- he alone attains peace. — Bhagavad Gita 2.71

When you are asked, “Who are you?” you’ll probably give your name.If pushed for more information, you might say where you were born or list your nationality, occupation, or social roles or positions. “I am Sarah from Minnesota, a mother who works as a secretary.” If you are asked to go deeper, you might say something more personal- perhaps state your religious or political affiliations or your taste in music, art, or fashion. That’s because we feel these designations define and distinguish us from others.

But do they?

From a yogic perspective, all these self-conceptions are actually expressions of the ego. The ego is self-identity. The dictionary defines ego as a ” Conscious thinking subject,” or “the part of the mind that gives us a sense of personal identity”. In social interactions, ego may refer to our “sense of self-esteem”, and someone who expresses his or her self-esteem at the expense of others is called”egotistical”. Various schools of thought have explained the ego in different ways. For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote,”The transcendental ego is the thinker of our thoughts, the subject of our experiences, the willer of our actions, and the agent of the various activities of synthesis that help to constitute the world we experience.”

The Vedic texts define the true ego( distinguishing it from false ego) in a similar way, as the eternal self, the atma, the conscious living force within us. The pure self, or the pure ego, has a natural innate identity in relation to the Supreme Being. When we deny or negate that relationship, we are left with only superficial designations we become American or Chinese, male or female.That ego is false and to maintain it requires that we forget our spiritual identity and identify instead with all secondary, material aspects of ourselves that don’t extend beyond this life in this body. It leaves us thinking in terms of ” I am this body and everything in relation to this body is mine.”

Because we have to live in this world, it’s easy to pin our identity on social labels- man, woman, young, old, Indian, American, black, white, Muslim, Jew- or to base it on what we have, know or feel. But excessive identification with these external labels is the root of suffering.

Beyond the suffering we ourselves may endure as a result of these misconceptions, people acting under the false ego profoundly affect the people around them. External labels by definition set us apart from others. They divide us into groups and species. Worse, they allow some of us to assume that we are more important than the rest of us. The false ego is powerful. It leads to selfishness, arrogance and the desire to dominate and exploit others, and it can find reasons to justify almost anything. The more we give into these tendencies and the more we allow ourselves to be driven by our differences, the further apart we are pulled from one another.

But the most troubling affect of the false ego is the toll it takes on the atma. If we allow our material ego to take charge, the atma will enter a dreamlike state. Ignorant of our divine nature, we’ll spend all our time between birth and death suffering and enjoying what we can, but we’ll never find peace.

If the real ego, or self, awakens to its full potential, it will direct body, mind and intelligence to help us live an enlightened life.

(This article is an excerpt from Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Within)

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