Monthly Archives: September 2009

The muted TV

Over the last weekend, I was watching a film on the TV, when the phone rang. I muted the TV and picked up the phone; and it was a call for my wife. As she came walked in to the living room to attend the call, I returned to the sofa to resume watching of the film.

Not to disturb her, I didn’t turn the volume ON, but continued watching the picture.

This was interesting. I was trying to make sense of what’s going on without the audio part. I had to concentrate hard. It occurred to me that I haven’t watched something so attentively for a long time. And it was not easy.

The telephone interruption ended, but I continued to watch the film without the audio. I looked at people more closely (in to their eyes, lips..) and I could understand most of what is going on clearly. When there was audio, it was taking most of the attention and I paid little attention to really the whole experience (I think I paid real attention to the visual part only when there was no background clutter..)

I am all the more convinced now that language (or speech) disrupts our perception process by drawing our attention to it. Or may be there is an unnecessary urgency in us to ‘understand’ things..

When I look back at this, I also get a feeling that most of our primary needs and emotions can be expressed easily without any language. Then what we need the language for? – for all that mess that we have been building around us which is creating a false identity for us

Try listening to someone intently without processing what they say or without trying to interpret or even respond. You are in for a great revelation….

Past and the future…

Sometime back I wrote about our anticipated future being actually our negated past. Here is something interesting that I came across which in a way supports this point.

I was watching a UKtv video series on brain and mind. One of them had this interesting experiment. There was gymnast attempting to perform what is called Gienger saltos; which involves leaving the high bar, performing a back summersault and a half twist before re-caching the bar again.

It begins by the coach slowly taking her through the steps to get her mind accumsted to the sequence of movements. Then she goes on to attempt it. But she fails repeatedly. She couldn’t re-catch the bar at the end of the sequence.

She had to take a different approach now and she does something interesting. She sits down with eyes closed and visualises the the whole saltos in her mind (that she is performing it successfully), slowly, as detailed as possible. She does it over and over again. After this she goes on to perform the saltos and gets it right in the very first attempt.

What happened here? As she was visualizing the whole sequence in her mind, she was creating a pattern in the brain as if the event had already happened. So when she did this at last, she actually was doing something that she was already accustomed to –at least that’s what her brain thought.

I think this is the crux behind visioning, where in you convert a future event to a past event in the mind, so that brain can perform it automatically.

I came across another very interesting study that clinically proves that it is the same part of your brain that is activated both while you remember something from the past and while thinking about the future. (See this blog)

So I guess the future does not really exist, except in the mind; that too as past. But if we can master the art of converting the future to the ‘past’ (before it happens in reality) may be it is a great tool for changing our lives.

Of course the next question will be: does past exist except in the mind?

The beauty of contradictions

Last week, I was in a session discussing about TRIZ (For those who do not know, TRIZ is an inventiveproblem solving methodology which has 40 principles. This is an easy way to solve a problem using these principles : phrase your problem in to a contradiction (there is a parameter that’s improving and there is another one that is suffering) and then using a matrix, you can identify the correct principles to be applied)

That left me thinking a bit about contradictions. Have you wondered what happens in the mind when there is a contradiction? Why is contradiction an important aspect in problem solving?

I think this is because holding two contradictory thoughts in the mind simultaneously, makes the mind bit confused, and there is a moment of uncertainly and stillness. This stillness is where mind is receptive to new ideas, looking beyond the patterns.

Now when I think of it, all the religions used this brilliantly to convey their teachings. The “Bhagawat Geetha“, one of the most popular books in Hinduism begins with illustrating a contradiction. It starts with Krishna telling Arjuna : You are mourning for those not worthy of sorrow; yet speaking like one knowledgeable. The learnt neither laments for the dead or the living. (Chapter 2, verse 11 – This is where the great Shankara starts his interpretation of Geetha). Geetha is conveyed in to the stillness created by this contradiction.

Incidentally Geetha also ends with a contradiction. Towards the end, after the message is conveyed, Krishna contradicts whatever he said in the verse : Relinquishing all the ideas of righteousness, surrender un to Me exclusively, I will deliver you from all sinful reactions, do not despair.(Chapter 18, Verse 66)

Many sayings of Jesus has this contradiction in them. This is a good example: “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

This is what happens here: there is an immediate compulsive tendency for the mind to respond and this is based on patterns or conditioning. But when there is a contradiction, mind waits for a moment, not sure which pattern to execute. And this is a moment of awareness where you are open to newer possibilities.

I think for the contradictions to really become effective and bring about a new dimension to problems, it needs to be felt by the heart and not the head.

The problem of ‘interpretation’

Continuing the thoughts from the previous posts: A thought formed…. ,How the mind associates thoughts….

After a few more experiments with how the mind associates/connects different thoughts, I think I was not completely right in saying that our past experiences are interpreted and stored in the memory in ‘text like form’. I think it is slightly different. It is rather like the “interpretation” coming between you and the experience. These interpretations could be emotions (I like him, this is bad, horrible, I can’t take this pain…) or some priorities that we assign (I need to pay attention to this, there is an opportunity in here, this is what will make me successful…). During our thinking process, connections between thoughts are formed based on these ‘interpretations’

I tried to visually represent a thought train that I had. See below. This was a thought (thought train) that passed in my mind and I caught it after a while.

A thought train 

This is what happens. Because we have become dominantly logical people, the logical mind comes between us and the experience- judging, categorizing, analyzing. It is rather like trying to understand the ‘meaning’ of an experience, rather than the experience itself. Perhaps both the interpretation and the experience get to the memory, but our mind is more concerned about the ‘interpretation’. So, many a times, the experience fades away in memory and what remains is the ‘interpretation’.

But when it comes to the events that have not really happened (they exist only in the mind), the interpretation might have not yet happened. That’s why day dreaming still is an enjoyable thing to do..

But, why do we have to interpret things in an almost compulsive manner. This is because it is this interpretation that connects you to the world to create your sense of identity (of course a false one). We believe that our existence / identity depend on the world and what world thinks of us and there is a constant attempt to ‘prove’ to the world around who we are.

Most of the ancient religious traditions lay a great emphasis on ‘silence’. This is the key. Stop talking, and then the compulsion to express your feelings / experience as words will come down. And so the compulsion to interpret.

Another brilliant way to stop interpreting is to be with nature. As you might have observed, our need to interpret is much lesser when we are with nature, than with other human beings. Though there might still be some attempts like: what a lovely voice that bird has. But it is still infinitely better if you think of the complex process of interpretation that you need to undergo on meeting another human being…

When you were a child and probably you looked at a tree with wonder, not knowing what it is, your father told you – this is just a tree. And soon you learnt the trick. When you see a tree now, there is an immediate compulsive thought that comes up in the mind ‘that is just a tree’…

The Zen master, in the morning describes a dream that he had to his disciples.

The first disciple says ‘Master, hot water is ready; you can have your bath’.

The second says “Master, The meditation room is ready’.

 And the third asks “Master, What would you like for breakfast today?”

No one seems to pay any attention to the dream that the master described.

The master smiles: ‘If any of you had attempted to interpret my dream, I would have thrown you out of here’

How the mind associates thoughts….

Post my experience described in the previous post (A thought formed..), I successfully did ‘catch’ some of my thought trains and traced them back to the origin. I was basically curious to find out how a thought originates and  forms the first association (or connection) with the next one; which is the beginning of the thought train.

This wasn’t easy. I could do this only on handful of occasions. I wasn’t aware most of the other time and even when I was, it was not possible to trace the thought back to the origin.

But I found something interesting from the experience, on analyzing the first association. When an association is made between a new thought with one already in the memory (a past incident), the comparison is done rather ‘textually’ (like a string matching, sentence matching etc..) and not “visually”. But when the connection is done with something in the future (an imagination that is stored in the memory) it is ‘visual’.

                Another way to state this is to say that most of our past experiences are stored in the memory in ‘text’ form (when I say, text, don’t get carried away by text as we use in day to day world. I couldn’t find another appropriate word for it) and our imagination (anything that has not yet happened) is stored ‘visually’ (pictures static or moving).

                 You must have seen people who can associate two or more seemingly non-related things. (Btw, you must have also have done this yourself some times). Typically people who are found of story telling, have this ability. Given any incident, they will tell you a story, that is connected to the incident in a strange but uniquely strong way. I have been trying to find out how some people are able to do this, while others not. I think the answer lies here in what I described above. These are the people who can do a ‘visual’ association.               

                I think this is what is happening. When you have an experience (visual, auditory, emotion, conversation ….), the mind (the logical mind) has a compulsive need to interpret it and store in the form of language. This actually connects the ‘experience’ with you (the self or the ego or the identity whatever you call it). As you go along, you forget (or lose) the real experience and retain just the ‘interpretation’. Next time a similar experience occurs, it is first ‘interpreted’ and the interpretation is then compared with already stored interpretations in the memory to form the connection.

                Here is an example to understand this: You see a beautiful flower. The experience is “the beauty”, but say the interpretation is “Oh! I don’t have this in my garden”. Some days later, you see a good painting. The experience actually is the same: “the beauty”, but you are probably not able to relate this experience to seeing the flower because the connection is not happening at the level of experience. Now assume you see another beautiful flower, and the interpretation immediately is “Another one I want to have in my garden” and may be you connect the experience to the previous one.

                Since most of the events in life (perhaps with the exception of the time we were children) are interpreted and stored in the memory and this makes the associations to the past events slow and memory dependent. On the other hand, the future events (our imagination) has not yet been interpreted and they are stored in visual form.

                So if we need to form the right associations (with the past events of our life, what we have seen, heard, read, did…) we need to rather store the experience and not the interpretation. Then I think we will be able to do visual associations.When a new experience comes, immediately the association is made and this is effortless and fast.

                 This I believe is the crux of Mindfulness or awareness. When we are aware , what gets stored to memory first is the experience; then the mind kicks in, to do the interpretating job and also stores the interpretation to the memory. When a new experience comes and you are aware, the experience is compared to prior experiences first and only if there is no association found, the interpretations are compared.

                You can experience this yourself, when you are intensely aware in a situation, you form many associations to your child hood events (probably the only time, we didn’t much interpret things, but rather experienced them).

                The two problems that cause this are the ‘language’ and ‘thinking’. We have a compulsive need to interpret, analyze, judge, categorize and label everything around us and connect them to ‘us’ to form our sense of identity.

A thought formed….

Of late, I have become curious about mind and the brain and have been reading about it and also trying to reflect on the working of my own mind. And every time it’s amusing how the mind works.

One thing I have been attempting of late is to ‘catch’ some my thoughts (the compulsive ones). I become aware and observe any thought that’s going on in the mind and then try to trace that thought back to its origin. I failed mostly except on very rare occasions, one of which I am about to describe here. This gives a glimpse of how mind uses associations / connections to form thought trains.

Saturday evening, I was sitting for a meditation session. I was sitting quiet, relaxed and aware, when this sequence of thoughts flashed in my mind. It began when I realized that my spine was not erect and I had to adjust my posture.

This reminded me of one of primary school teachers who used to say “those who sit with bent backs are idiots”

….Next I am driving to my hometown where I meet this teacher on the roadside and I get down to greet him…

….My car is a skoda..

.. white skoda..

….No. It’s a red Sx4

(*Skoda and Sx4 are two car models..)

At this moment I caught this thought train (observed it) and it stopped. All this happened perhaps in a fraction of a second or so (or may be much less than that…). Since I was very aware (I assume), I could trace back to its origin and see how the thought train formed. As I retraced it back, the complexity was really amusing.

 Here is a brief description of how it happened.

To begin with, the whole thought train began with a bodily sensation (feeling my back). As I translated that in to a sentence in my head, it connected it with another related thought that ‘a bent back is not good’. This thought immediately formed a match with a sentence in my memory which in turn took me to the teacher who used to say it.

Till this point, it was all textual. Now comes the visual. I roughly knew the place where the teacher used to live. The next thing in the mind was me getting down from the car, to greet my teacher as I passed him.

Now here is a twist. Naturally the thoughts should have gone with me meeting the teacher. But the above visual was bit complex as it also had a car (a white skoda, not the one I drive currently). A few weeks back, I was talking to my wife about buying a bigger car and I told her that may be a skoda is a good option. I didn’t mention white to her, but that was my preference.

 So the thought now moved to the car- a white skoda. Immediately there was a new visual – a red Sx4.Recently, as I was driving I happened to follow a red Sx4 and I had a feeling that this was a better car and should perhaps consider this.

Here I caught the thought train and it stopped…

It is amazing how complex such a seemingly simple thought train can be. Mind connects memories, facts, emotions, text and visuals so effortlessly and spontaneously to form one of the millions of thought trains that pass through the brain.

No wonder we believe in God.