Mastery over the Mind - Being a witness
The mind is an indispensable screen on which life’s experiences play out. It is also the meeting point of the five doors (senses) leading in from the world and innumerable windows that open to the dark mysterious inner reaches. For many, if not most, the mind has become a battleground where there is a constant struggle to achieve and maintain a state of happiness. The mind, which has no physical basis or external means of validation of its existence is in everyone’s direct experience and undeniably is the first place where we lay our spiritual foundation. Many of the experiences in the mind are a complex interplay of past events, present moments and future hopes and dreams. Experiences by themselves cannot tell us much about how the mind works. Experiences are the projection and the “projector” behind mental projections needs to be further explored if we want to fully understand and master the mind.
Since the mind cannot be seen and understood by an external observer, it is up to each individual to make the effort to understand how the mind functions. The mind readily responds to logic and a logical approach may be employed to gain an upper hand over one’s mind. For that, we need to first explore the fundamental ways in which we interact with the mind. Experiences may be seen as positive or negative. There are some experiences, however, that have little or no long-term impact on us and for all practical purposes may be considered as neutral. Mastery over the mind cannot be achieved through force. It can only happen through a gradual, upward evolution of our awareness. This evolution is more of an expansion which allows our awareness to encompasses not just the mind but also more and more of the the vast and potentially infinite “space” in which holds the mind just as the earth is a tiny ball in the solar system. From the surface of the earth, we cannot see the space which surrounds the earth. But from a spacecraft that is orbiting high enough above the earth, we may be able to see the vastness of space all around the earth. The further out we go, the smaller the earth appears.
When our awareness is wholly in the mind and we see the world from that vantage point, the mind appears very big, surrounding us in all directions. Thoughts that we identify with at any given moment function as the “ground” and the continuous stream of flowing thoughts at that corresponding moment may be considered as the “sky”. However, if our awareness ascends, not literally but far enough away from thoughts as to not to be closely identified with them, we may see the mind as a distinct entity in which thoughts are contained. The further our awareness travels from the mind, the smaller it appears.
Unlike sound, light does not need a medium to travel. Similarly, our awareness does not need the mind as a medium to expand. It can penetrate absolute silence completely devoid of any movement of thought. The state of deep sleep beyond the dream stage is one of absolute silence, but we are not conscious of that stage. It may one day be possible to be conscious of the mind as well as the silence that envelops the mind which may be thought of in terms of the vacuum that surrounds earth beyond its atmosphere. Just as sounds created on earth cannot escape the earth’s atmosphere and contaminate the space around the earth, thoughts cannot escape the mind and infiltrate absolute silence.
It is nearly impossible to jump from the mind into absolute silence. Just as we cannot escape gravity unless a counter force is applied which gives us the speed to escape gravity’s pull, our awareness cannot escape the pull of the mind unless there is another force pulling us away from the mind. Once we develop a witnessing stance, it will activate a passive force that gently pulls our awareness out of the mind’s orbit.
It is not easy to be a bystander and be a neutral witness when experiences that deeply resonate with us flash across the mind’s screen. Our attention is naturally drawn to the images we are presented within the mind. However, just as we cannot hold one idea or a thought for more than a few seconds at a time, we cannot hold our attention on experiences in their native state as they flash across the mind’s screen. They linger on in the grasp of our attention when we add information and interpret them in real time. We do this through the use of imagination and the projection of hopes, fears, and fantasies onto thoughts that course through our conscious awareness. These modifications make any given experience more granular and we begin to relate more deeply with them, the byproduct of this is another experience which may be recalled at a future date. This process can propagate into perpetuity. But if we take a step back before we start to modify any given thought or experience, our attention will not linger on them for long. The braking effect of a witnessing stance helps us achieve that pause in which we can pull ourselves back.
Developing a witnessing stance depends on two factors - silence and space. True silence isn’t just being inaudible to others. When we identify with thoughts, they speak to us, sometimes incessantly. Their interactions with other thoughts create a “mental sound”. This sound, although inaudible to our physical ears, draws in our awareness. A key step in making the inner milieu quiet is non-identification. Thoughts may seem like an endless stream, but each one is a discrete entity. However densely packed the mind is with thoughts, ideas, and experiences, there is some amount of empty space in between individual thoughts. These gaps may not be apparent due to the continuous flow of thought and our constant identification with them. With practice, we can perceive emptiness between thoughts just as we see empty space when we look up at the sky.
To develop the skill of looking at the mind in this perspective here is a practical experiment that helps. Set aside a few minutes where there are no distractions such as a phone ringing etc. Look up at the sky without thinking about any attributes of the sky such as clouds, emptiness, vastness, color, how it dips into the horizon etc. The gaze should penetrate deeply into the sky as if you are diving into it. Care must be taken to stop all analysis, recall, projection, imagination, and modification of thoughts that may come. After a while close both eyes and look at the inner sky just as you were looking at the outer sky. The inner sky may be a busy place full of thoughts, but don’t focus on any attributes of the inner sky and keep the same general awareness as was practiced with open eyes. If thoughts begin to cause a significant distraction to the unfocused vacant inner gaze (initially we may only be able to maintain this for a few seconds), the eyes may be opened and the exercise repeated starting with external gazing at the sky. It is best to do this early or late in the day and away from the sun so there is no strain on the eyes. This practice of diving into the emptiness of the sky will help in developing the witnessing potential that lays dormant within all of us.
The transition between thoughts is an extremely valuable space. Unless we are attentive, as thoughts fade in and out we will miss that gap and we will latch onto the next thought that comes. Any gap between thoughts is a potential springboard into absolute silence. Just as water escapes through cracks in or between rocks, awareness must be allowed to trickle into the tiny gaps between thoughts. In terms of developing inner silence, it may not seem like much initially, but over time, the cumulative force of awareness that enters space between thoughts will pry open larger and larger gaps. The mind will then appear to thin out, along with our worries, fears, and other impediments to happiness. These negative qualities live in thoughts and not in the space between thoughts. Once awareness is established in inner silence, we then have control over which thoughts to let in into that space. By selectively letting in constructive and positive thoughts which can then be translated into beneficial actions we may be of service to the world.
It is only by helping others that we gain the right to call ourselves human. Being of service to others also helps keep the mind away from the past or the future. Coupled with this, if we can maintain a state of nonexpectation of a return or a reward, the witnessing aspect will one day blossom. The mind will follow its nature which is to oscillate between the past and the future. A witnessing state of being rooted in the present, since we cannot witness the past which is dead and gone and the future which is uncertain and yet to come.