ROSALIND PEARMAIN shares some observations and insights into how our minds work in day-to-day life, and the quality of consciousness that results from calming the mind.
As soon as we wake up in the morning, our attention goes somewhere. Like a radar system, our minds pick up whatever seems to be loudest in their field of sensitivity. They might go to uncomfortable thoughts about the day ahead. They might focus on the question of how tired we still feel, or how drained we are, or how we can motivate ourselves to leave the snug invisibility of the duvet realm! Our attention might go of course to the dreams from which we have just awakened. Our focus might be seized by our nearest and dearest, our problems at work, our pets demanding attention, or our children needing help. It could also be that our direction of mind goes towards something to which we are looking forward.
So each day, we start the waking hours with mind activity that also has physical experience and emotions mixed with it. If you think about it, very often the first impressions of the day are shaped by the kinds of thoughts, sensations and emotions that arise when we wake. They affect the day that unfolds, like a filter or haze or particular tune playing across the course of the day. This is like a quality of consciousness.
There can be so much variation in how we feel when we wake up. We can feel down or up, energised and fresh or tired and depressed. Children seem always to wake up with some kind of zest for the new day. I was surprised once when I interviewed Heartfulness meditators and heard a few say that the practice made a difference to how they felt in the morning. They felt a kind of joy for the adventure of the new day ahead. It reminded them of how they had felt as a child.
There are two different threads of awareness weaving together here. It seems that there is a part of us that is always aware of something, as if we are making a map with our experience, through our brain and nervous system, telling us what is going on from moment to moment as it keeps changing. So we have a sense of being here in an environment and time, being alert to what is going on and vigilant in spotting new things happening. On the other hand, we can get in the car to drive a familiar route and find that we do not even notice where we are until we realise we have gone into autopilot and taken a turn that is not the one we wanted on this occasion! So our attention has gone somewhere else – perhaps to the challenging situation we will face at the end of the journey. Our awareness of where we are, here and now, is not very conscious at all. But if we look more closely, we discover that there is another part of us that is watching the flow. It is like a part of us stands on the riverbank and watches the flow of the water go by, the flow of stuff in our body-mind, but is also apart from it. It might suddenly alert us to the fact that we have taken the usual turning instead of the one we really want this time round.
… if we look more closely, we discover that
there is another part of us that is watching the flow.
It is like a part of us stands on the riverbank
and watches the flow of the water go by,
the flow of stuff in our body-mind, but is also apart from it.
Considering how vast the processing capacity of our brains and nervous systems are, we are hardly using much of it most of the time. “The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about one thousand connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections… Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes).”
Reber P., Scientific American, May/June 2010, ‘Mind and Brain’
So we have been given a phenomenal capacity to work with many dimensions of experience and consciousness of living in this vast universe. Yet, most of the time, if we are honest, what preoccupies our minds are all kinds of rather small and limiting thoughts, ideas, emotions and obsessions, as a kind of undercurrent bubbling away. Our minds seem to run away from us and bother us with relentless activity.
Alternatively, we might feel a bit empty and bored, and desperately seek to find something to fill our attention, such as food or distractions – our smart phones, computer games, TV shows or music. Our radar systems seems to be easily attuned to emotional and turbulent feeling experiences. Our awareness or consciousness is often taken by the more dramatic waveforms of emotion than the more harmonious ones of calm.
What shifts us out of these patterns? Physical activity or relaxation can help us feel connected to ourselves in a whole and immediate way, and also present and grounded in the moment. When we feel especially close to others, this can also release us from all the drama in our minds so that we can let go. Being in nature can suddenly awaken us to the simple and direct enjoyment of sun on skin or the flooding of colour from the greenness of nature. Immersion in water is the chance to feel even more sensation, as well as a quality of cleaning and refreshment, a kind of resetting of self into balance.
Over thousands of years, human beings have struggled with the same problems while facing life and adversity. Usually, painfully, there is no way to escape the givens of our existence. The only option we have is in our attitude towards facing them. We have choices in how our mind-body works with the struggles of living, but to be aware of these choices we have to look at how our likes and dislikes keep us spinning in the same wheel like a hamster. Have you ever observed how your mind repeats the same thoughts and patterns and feelings, so that there does not seem to be a way out? Our radar system can be trained to focus somewhere else, less noisy and clamouring. We can find ways to interrupt or change the ceaseless chuntering of our mental flow.
Our radar system can be trained to focus somewhere else,
less noisy and clamouring.
We can find ways to interrupt or change
the ceaseless chuntering of our mental flow.
So the practice of meditation came about in a myriad of forms. It gave a rocky but stable base on which our radar system could rest in the middle of a turbulent ocean of life. This tool for opening our mind and our consciousness from its prison gives us the main chance we have for transformation and for discovering the ingredients for a harmonious, inspiring and fulfilling life.
Article by ROSALIND PEARMAIN
Ros lives in Abingdon near Oxford, UK, and has worked with groups of all ages during her working life. She has always been interested in how we can change and transform. In recent years she has been teaching psychotherapy and qualitative research and is a Heartfulness trainer.