Why is it so hard to keep the mind still?
The mind is complex and fascinating. We have access to the outer periphery of the mind, and not to the inner core from where thoughts well up. The senses feed into the perimeter of the mind which we call the conscious mind. The inner core or the subconscious part is off limits and not directly connected to the senses. Stilling the mind involves more than just taming the surface currents. Unless we develop a deeper understanding of how the mind moves and operates, it becomes challenging to still more profound layers of the mind which are responsible for a lot of the turbulence on the mind’s surface. It cannot be done through force of will.
Similar to the mind, in the body, we have conscious awareness of the superficial aspects, and the rest is under the control of an automatic mechanism. For instance, we can feel our skin, but we cannot feel the flow of blood just under the skin. We can taste the food, but we cannot follow it as its essence is being absorbed into the bloodstream. There is a lot that happens in the body and the mind that is out of reach of our awareness.
Every action involving the body is a work of high precision. The simple act of walking is a good example. Walking requires coordinated movements of the arms and legs and involves a harmonious interplay of the brain, nervous system, muscles, and joints with one aim, which is propelling the body forward. Imagine if the arms and legs were not coordinated and moved in different directions.
The Four Limbs of the mind
Like the body which uses arms and legs for mobility, the mind also has its ‘arms and legs.’ The two legs of the mind are the past, and the future; and the two arms are conditioning and the accumulated behavioral pattern which builds our character. As long as awareness is moving amongst any of these four factors — past, present, mental conditioning, and the attitude we have built up, the mind stays in motion.
Time Divides the Present into the Past and the Future
For there to be a movement of mental energy, there needs to be room. Time creates room in the mind by drawing a line across this present moment, dividing what has been experienced as the past and what we want to experience as the future. Just as when we walk, one leg at a time is in front, alternating with the other, thoughts alternate between the past and the future. Every thought of the past has a corresponding thought that is projected into the future. For instance, when we remember something of the past, we either look forward to that experience repeating, or we fear its return. This anticipation, whether we fear it or welcome it, is projected into the future. More strongly we identify with any experience, negative or positive, the bigger a future we reserve for that experience. As long as awareness goes back and forth between the past and the future, the mind remains in movement.
Influence of Character and Conditioning
Mental conditioning and our character are like the two arms of the mind. Conditioning can direct the movement of awareness to specific areas of our past. The future is influenced not just by our conditioning, but also the character we are continually shaping.
Role of thoughts
Where do thoughts fit in on these four influences on the mind — past, future, conditioning, and character?
Thoughts are like the blood flow in the body. Just as the same blood goes to every part of the body, but the end use is different, thoughts go to every part of the mind. The contents related to the past, future, conditioning, and character all use thoughts. Thoughts appear to us as different but underlying their contents is the same energy. Just as blood is continually flowing and getting recycled, the thought stream is also continuously in movement and their energy gets recycled.
Silence and Stillness of the Body and Mind
Just as fresh air oxygenates the body, silence can energize the mind towards stillness and away from its restless movements. Since silence is empty without any contents, there is no movement in silence. Thoughts may exist in silence, but they take on the quality of silence which is stillness devoid of content. The senses cannot experience such pure silence. True silence is a presence of eternal stillness and not the coming and going of soundwaves.
When we keep the body still, it is implied that the arms and legs are also still. There is no movement in such stillness. We may have control over maintaining such bodily stillness, but it remains challenging to remain still for long. This is on account of the movement of the mind.
Even when the body is still, the mind is continually in movement. Its ‘arms and legs,’ comprising of thoughts related to the past, future, conditioning, and character, will not stop moving. We may force the mind to stop moving towards any of these four aspects, but rarely are we successful. Even with great effort, it cannot be sustained for more than a few minutes.
We equate mental stillness with the cessation of mental activity. Consequently, we try to arrest the flow of thoughts. But in the body, we don’t associate stillness of the body with the cessation of blood flow. That would be catastrophic and is what happens in death, even when we are still whether sitting, standing or lying down blood never stops flowing. Similarly, inner stillness can happen even as the mind continues to function. Like flowing blood, thoughts will continue to flow. Just as we can stop the movement of our arms and legs at will, we can control the entry of awareness into different areas of the mind through keen awareness.
Awareness helps with Mental Stillness
We may not be able to control the mental movie that plays, but we can stop lending our awareness to the mind and its four limbs. Unless our awareness animates the parts of the mind projecting the past, future, conditioning and our character, they don’t exist. In sleep, these four entities are absent. When the muscles of the arms and legs are starved of nutrition, they naturally become weak and cannot carry us very far even with great effort. Similarly, witnessing and not interacting with the mind starves its four limbs of nutrition. Thought energy will continue to flow into those areas of the mind, but the images in the mind will not be as vivid and captivating.
Awareness is like our eyesight. With our eyes, we can touch the top of the highest mountain even if our feet can never make it there. Through awareness, we can quickly look beyond the thoughts of the past, the future, prior conditioning, and the rigid cage of our character. The present moment is a mountain that the mind cannot climb. More the mind exerts itself, the further away from the present it goes. Witnessing does not require mental exertion. It is inner watchfulness. Through such watchful awareness, we can go where the mind can never reach. Rather than trying to actively still the mind, it is more effective to watch the movements of the mind from a place of stillness. Then identification with the mind as ‘my mind’ and ‘my thoughts’ will diminish, and we enter the silent state of no mind.
Where there is inner stillness, the mechanism of the mind will not disappear. It will always be there for our use. Like a car sitting in a garage waiting for someone to sit inside, start and drive it, the mind will wait for us to turn the key and use its abilities. Every interaction we have with the world requires work on the part of the mind. The mind will become part of the rest of the team which is led by pure awareness, remaining still when not in use.
Originally published at https://mindandsoul.space on May 8, 2019.