Working with the mind to better understand the present
There are many ways to describe life. If we are allowed just one word to express it, that word could be ‘journey.’ Life is a journey with a distinct beginning and an end. It is similar to air travel. When we get on an airplane, and once its wheels lift off, we cannot leave the aircraft until it lands and the doors open. We come here with a body and a mind. From birth until death, we cannot part company with the body and the mind. The body is like the fuselage of a plane, and the mind is like the engine. It is not the size of an aircraft but the power of its engine that determines the distance and speed of an airplane. The engines are tiny compared to the overall size of an aircraft. Similarly, the power of the mind matters more than the size and shape of the body. The mind does not take up any physical space in the body, yet it determines the course of our lives.
Life in a nutshell
When we travel by air, we are given a ticket, with our name and seat number on it. While getting onto an airplane, we go past rows and rows of seats looking for the one assigned to us. Once we settle into the assigned seat, it becomes ours for the duration of the journey. No one else can lay claim to it when we hold a valid ticket. Once the plane lands, we leave an empty seat behind, and our ticket becomes invalid. Someone else at the boarding gate, patiently waiting to get on now has a claim to the seat and which becomes his or hers for the duration of the journey for which they hold a valid ticket. The chances are that all the human beings alive today at this very moment will make way for a new set of humans in a hundred years. Our ticket here is valid as long as the breath lasts. There is so much that can be done here and now. How we use our time is in our hands.
Achievement is possible only through effort during this life and not after
We are very good at postponing and procrastinating. That is because we have convinced ourselves that there is not just a tomorrow but months and years to come, and perhaps even lifetimes. When the notion of a long future is alive in the mind, and we stretch it far into time, it’s natural that the incentive to work at this moment may start to wane. If our awareness is on this moment, we can take charge and be productive right here, right now. But if our awareness is on thoughts of the future, productivity will remain the property of those thoughts, and we begin to procrastinate. Our power of awareness may be compared to an airline pilot and thoughts may be compared to passengers for whom the pilot is responsible.
On an airplane, there is only one main pilot and hundreds of passengers. The pilot sets the course, the speed of the aircraft and takes responsibility for the safety of all passengers. The responsibility of a passenger is to observe all rules and obey the instructions of the pilot. As long as they do that, they are free to enjoy the ride while in their seats. They may choose to read, watch a movie, sleep, eat or work. No matter what people do on the plane with their time, all passengers arrive at the same time, and all of them would have lost the same amount of time. That time can never be regained. After offloading one set of passengers another will soon board and the same pilot may take a new set of passengers to a different destination.
Similarly, we carry a set of thoughts in our awareness at any given period. Those thoughts may change with the passage of time, but our power of awareness does not. We may not be responsible for the information thoughts bring with them, but we are responsible for how we handle our power of awareness. Through this power, we can set the course and destination of our thoughts so once they leave our conscious perception they have a defined direction. If we don’t work towards taking ideas towards a productive outcome, we end up wasting time holding that energy in our awareness.
Unlike airline passengers who have to follow a set of rules, thoughts can travel without obeying any rules. Thoughts may even harm our safety and wellbeing. We allow this to happen unless willpower comes in as the mind’s law enforcement arm. Just as we fear and respect external laws, we ought to make a set of internal rules for thoughts to obey. In the name of freedom, we let our thoughts run loose. Freedom does not apply to our thoughts but to our awareness. Just as people are different from one another, thoughts may also differ from one another. As long as they follow a broad set of rules, we can discount individual variations amongst thoughts. On a commercial flight, we can either be the pilot or a passenger. We cannot be both.
Similarly, we can either be in charge of our awareness and determine the course of our thoughts and consequently our lives or be one amongst the thoughts and let something else define how our lives turn out. Chances are, one dominant set of beliefs will take over. That is when life appears to take an up and down course. We take good things that happen to us for granted and blame others, destiny or fate for bad things that happen to us. We forget that we defined good and bad in the first place.
There is no need for a pilot once the plane is parked and the engines are turned off. Similarly, awareness is of no purpose once the body and mind are laid to rest. A pilot plays an essential role between takeoff and landing. Similarly, our power of awareness is vital between birth and death. When we procrastinate, we waste an opportunity to “fly” through life safely and effortlessly while covering a lot of ground, taking thoughts to their destinations where they can be useful. Thoughts are the agents for all our attainments in the world. Just as a pilot has no relationship or responsibility towards passengers once they leave the plane upon reaching a destination, once we have achieved something in life through the use of our thoughts, our awareness should not dwell on those thoughts. If we can detach ourselves from our achievements, the power of awareness will be freed up to take a new set of thoughts towards other results. The mind of a prolific inventor works in this manner. The future can be invented but not discovered. The present cannot be invented. It can only be discovered.
The breath is the ticket determining the length and time of the journey of life
When we are born, we get a name which headlines our identity. Along with the identity, comes the ticket to life, which is the breath. We live as long as that ticket remains valid. We may have a sense of ownership over the body, but we can never have ownership over the breath. The moment we start to feel that we own one breath, it's time to let it go and allow another to come in. The sense of ownership over the body comes when we forget that we did not manufacture the bodily frame. We take it for granted as if it is our property. Once our ticket, which is the breath, expires and life leaves the body, it leaves behind an empty shell which is reclaimed by Nature. Atoms which constituted the body, being imperishable, are recycled. Another being will likely use the resources we used, the place we once occupied and all the supporting mechanisms for life, provided by nature and by the work of our fellow human beings, now or in the future. We are travelers who have forgotten both the fast approaching destination and the method of how to enjoy the journey.
Avoiding boredom on the journey through life
While we are on an airplane, flying from city A to city B, let’s say it is a 4-hour flight, it is likely that the goal of each passenger may not be only to get from the origin to the destination as quickly as possible; keeping the mind engaged and busy is also a consideration. Slipping into boredom on a long flight is not something we don’t look forward to and the onboard entertainment options as well as movies downloaded on our phones and tablets help. Life is a much longer journey, and the mind has access to various experiences thanks to the five sense organs, which have become our de facto entertainment console. We continuously sample experiences from the world without which the mind would quickly get bored.
Comparisons between experiences are the favorite pastime of the mind. Boredom may be the consequence of such comparisons. If the mind were just a pass-through entity, like a piece of transparent glass that allows light to pass but does not absorb that light, there would not be a question of boredom setting in. But the mind is not passive. Impressions that fall on the mind are incorporated, digested, and the mind then creates new forms linking experiences that streaming in with the impressions from the past stored in the mind. By comparing, contrasting and deriving inferences, for which the mind has the autonomy, helps create a unique identity. The identity remains fixed, and it grows more entrenched with time. The foundations of that identity may change based on new experiences that come in as we age, but its structure remains intact. That identity seeks to be continuously occupied and entertained. If the flow of new experiences slow down or stops, comparisons with past experiences become amplified, and boredom with the present may then set in.
Each generation has found ways to keep the mind busy and engaged through pursuits, hobbies, and occupations. When the mind isn't occupied through variety, it starts to protest by becoming an unbearable life companion. On a commercial flight, we encounter people of different generations, all with the one common aim, keeping the mind busy during the journey and staving off boredom, this is also true of everyday life. Even the so called lazy ones amongst us are engaged in keeping the mind occupied. It may not be through productive physical or mental work, but through daydreaming. Even if passengers on an airplane are bored during a long journey, the pilot cannot afford to be bored with the journey. He or she has to be alert every second of the trip. Similarly, when we are in awareness, we are always alert, and there is no place for boredom. Only when we slip into thoughts and become one amongst them, there is a chance for boredom to set in.
We have invented various types of entertainment options to stave off boredom. Every kind of entertainment available to us, whether it is in the form of an adventure, television, movies, internet or any such thing are used to keep the mind occupied. Although we don’t say we are going on a vacation to keep the mind busy, but in reality that is our aim. When the mind is distracted by something new and pleasing such as a vacation, it becomes less troublesome, and we interpret this as relaxing, and we start to feel happy. When the mind is fully occupied, the journey of life will seem smooth and enjoyable. Unlike a plane journey where we look forward to getting off the plane after it lands, we don’t look forward to the idea of leaving the body when the ticket of our breath expires, especially if we perceive our life as a good one full of comfort and wealth. We seek to stay for a little while longer, making empty promises to existence that we will change, promising to do this or that to help others or work on being a better human being. We can make as many promises as we like, but existence will never promise more than what we have at this moment.
The future can never be promised
Existence cannot promise anything to us in the future as the next moment is uncertain even for existence. The breath, our ticket to life may reach its expiration in the very next moment. No one can be certain how much of it is left. When this urgency becomes an actuality within in and not just a passing thought or idea, we will then realize the value of the time lost in keeping the mind occupied and busy. Like that long airplane journey where we dread being bored and stuck in the middle of a metal fuselage from which there is no escape till the plane lands, we fear being held in a mind that is bored. We cannot reach the state of inward freedom as long as we are spending the time we have here on earth working for the mind, trying to keep it happy and satisfied. We are slaves to our mind, diligently working on its behalf.
Keeping the mind empty keeps us in the present
Keeping the mind empty is an active process and can be hard work. There is need for constant attention and awareness without which, the mind will again fill up with experiences and the process of comparing and contrasting resumes. Imagine flying on a plane in which every seat is taken, and you are in the middle seat with heavy set passengers on either side who will inevitably claim a more than a sliver of space assigned to the narrow middle seat. Now contrast that with flying first class, in a luxurious seat which is more like a couch.
The uncomfortable middle seat is like the mind that is full of thoughts jostling to get up close and trying to grab our attention. When we are engrossed in the mind, our awareness takes the “middle seat,” with thoughts on either side, front and back. Our awareness is crowded in by thoughts of the future and the past. The present becomes a forgotten reality. The body is in the native and unaltered version of the present. The mind, on the other hand, is in a processed version of the present derived after distilling it through a filter of thoughts. We don’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell completely. Part of our awareness is on one idea or another as we experience the world.
The luxurious and spacious first class seat on a plane is like a mind that free of thoughts or with very little thought activity. We experience inner freedom when we are not amongst the crowd of thoughts. Such inner freedom has become a rare luxury in this modern age. Freedom is experienced in bits and pieces in the mind whenever a desire is fulfilled. That freedom does not last as it is dependent on the presence of desire and the fulfillment of that desire. Inner freedom from the mind, once attained, does not have conditions unlike the limited freedom within the mind.
Experiencing inner freedom
We can all have that state of genuine inner freedom if we put our attention, focus, energy and time into the simple act of observing the mind. The power of observation and witnessing is not a new skill that we need to develop, and furthermore, it is not a learned habit. It is innate, and the power of perception or observation comes from the depths of our being beyond the reach of the mind. The breath comes in from the outside and the power of perception wells from within. Both meet in the middle animating the body and the mind. The breath washes in and out of the body just as waves hitting sand on a beach. Wave after wave end their journey on the beach and what’s left recedes into the ocean, while the beach remains unmoved, unchanged. Our power of perception does not go anywhere. It is like that beach that stays in the same location, while waves have to travel from afar to reach it. We don’t have to fly to a distant location to find our beach. It is right here within us. Waves of breath wash it every moment. If we remain unmoved and observant and not be carried away by the ripples of thought, we will one day taste inner freedom. There is no need to travel anywhere.