Monthly Archives: March 2010

Commitment and Detachment

When I began to write about the two qualities of the mind, I never thought it would drag so long. I thought it was all done and today morning appears this thought. Looked like I had to write it.

In the previous post I have described some techniques to fine tune the two qualities of the mind. These have a profound effect on the mind and ones thinking. But it is easy to overdo one and get in to an imbalanced state. Especially when one is experimenting. If the expanding aspect is dominant, one feels relaxed, energetic, will have a holistic view of  things;but will have difficulty is doing task that demands continuity (an office job for example). If the focusing aspect is dominant, one becomes obsessed with tasks and end up chasing time always. Over and above the practice, there is one’s natural inclination to thinking that plays a role here.

It is very important to balance these two for the mind to work perfectly. This can be done by introducing a compensating element that can restore the balance.These compensating elements are the two virtues : Commitment and Detachment which one needs to cultivate.

When the mind is in an expanded state, one needs commitment to focus on work at hand and the goal in life etc. Otherwise he can become a day dreamer unable to focus the attention anywhere. Committment is bringing the focus to a specific point. And if you observe closely, this is an aspect of the logical mind (this is where self talks helps).

When the mind is only focused, the thinking can become extremely narrow and rigid, and the person becomes feverish about things. There seems to be very less possibilities.Feverishness is what gets people in to most of the psychosomatic diseases like stress. This is where one needs to master the art of ‘letting go’. And, this is not something the logical mind will or can do.

To have fine balance in thinking, both the aspects – focussing and expanding – needs to be fine-tuned. At the same time, one needs to cultivate these virtues – Commitment and Detachment which will serve as the levers to maintain the balance.

And to have Commitment and Detachment at the same time is yet another contradiction…

Training the mind to think better..

In the last few posts, we have been discussing about the two qualities of the mind:  focusing and expanding. May be it is interesting to look at some simple techniques that can train the mind on these. Though I hate to be prescriptive, I will take an exception here for these might be quiet useful for some of you. These are simple but very profound techniques.

When the “focussing’ aspect is weak, it is experienced as lack of concentration and poor memory. Fundamentally, there is a problem with continuity here, which disturbs a thought train. Here is a simple technique to strengthen this:

Sit quietly, close your eyes and count from 1 to 100 and then back, slowly. If you are distracted and lose your count gently bring the mind back and resume. Do it for few days and once you can do this comfortably, increase the count.

Children whose memory is poor and lack concentration can also use this. But regular practice is needed for few days or even weeks.

I do believe that memorizing things and reciting from memory also has a similar effect, but I haven’t really explored this much.

When the ‘expanding’ aspect is weak, people get too much trapped in thinking and this has an adverse effect on creativity. You can strengthen this by flooding the consciousness with sense perceptions.

Normally, your mind (thinking logical mind) plays a key role in sense perceptions such as seeing. That is why you selectively notice things around you and also miss out on details. But the moment you pay attention to every minute detail, movement etc, something opens up. Walk around seeing everything intently without trying to think, categorize, name, form opinion etc. The mind stops and the consciousness will be flooded with pure perceptions.

The same is true with sound – pay attention to all the sounds around and also the silent gaps between the sounds. Or touch – feel the body touching the cloths, the foot touching the floor, the breath touching your nostrils..

The technique of filling the consciousness with sense perceptions is a meditation technique used in many spiritual traditions.

There is also a ‘walking meditation’ practiced in Buddhist tradition where in one walks slowly, consciously with full awareness of each and every movement and perceptions. Become aware as the leg lifts, moves forwards, touches the floor, wait shifts etc..

As we have discussed, both these aspects need to be strengthened for better thinking. But too much emphasis on one will create an imbalance; one needs to balance the practice with his own natural inclination of thinking.

The only problem with these techniques is that they are too simple for the logical mind to accept and appreciate. It needs something more challenging and attractive.

Smile or Frown?

In the previous post, I wrote about the two qualities of the brain – focusing and expanding, and their role in creativity. Though these are qualities of the mind, they are also qualities of the brain. Anything that influences the brain has a direct impact on these aspects of thinking.

It is now an accepted fact that structural changes of the brain has an impact on the mind; mostly negatively. In fact there incidents keep a whole battalion of brain scientists engaged these days. What makes these cases interesting is also that they cannot be created (at least as of now) though a surgery or something like that. It is also possible to alter the way the brain functions by altering the chemical composition in the brain (what most of the psychiatric medicines do). To some extend the brain can change its own functioning through thinking (“I can win” types).

But if you have noticed carefully, the way our mind functions keeps changing without any such intervention: our thinking may be focus, or the mind devoid of thoughts, balanced or cluttered. Since we do not watch our minds, this goes unnoticed mostly, but we do rarely observe this, especially when we feel down, depleted of energy or there is too much on noise going on in the mind. And typically people try to get over this by indulging in something very distracting or through self-talks.

When I began to practice mindfulness, I saw that there is a correlation between the way the brain (mind) functions and the facial expressions. And this leads to a profound, but simple way to alter the way the mind works at a given point of time. The argument is that the reverse is also true.

We will discuss two facial expressions here and how they alter your thinking:

1)      Frown : When you frown the mind focuses. This is a state of concentration. There is a one pointed focus on something.

2)      Smile : Observe what happens to the mind when you stretch your lips for that beautiful smile? You can observe that the thoughts suddenly reduce, you feel a sense of space. This is a state of expansion. Your logic takes a back seat and this is also a state of creative thinking.

A variation of this is to feel the stretch at the temples (backward). If you hold this stretch gently for some time, you can see that you are in a state of attention.

It is possible to use these expressions to alter the way the mind functions at any point of time (especially if it is not in the state we want at that point of time). The approach will be to smile or frown consciously for a while till the way mind works alters.

Consider this example. You are listening to a presentation and you are supposed to give creative ideas. But those ideas aren’t coming. Then you observe that the mind is cluttered and distracted completely. In this situation, try this. Stretch the sides of the temples backwards and hold the stretch gently for a while. You will observe a dramatic shift in your attention and you will be able to come up with very creative ideas.

While this comes handy in many practical situations in life, I am not really sure the impact of really switching the way the mind works. Experiment it yourselves.

If you practice it carefully, you will also observe the change in breathing during these three expressions. This is another key, we will discuss this later.

In some of the traditions of Buddhism, the only thing they do is to smile (or laugh). That is their meditation, message and life. Mostly, they had figured this out.

Lord Ganesha and the Rat

In the last post, we discussed about the two qualities of thinking – focusing and expanding, and their role in creative thinking.  These two qualities in fact represent two movements in the mind. These movements are like channels through which the thoughts are channeled.

It is possible to make the mind experience this movement and hence train it. But it is not possible to do this when the logical mind is active and dominant. When the logical mind gets out of the way, the creative mind is exposed and it is then possible to experience this movement without the commentary. In some traditions of meditation they do this. One you are in deep meditative states (when the thoughts stop and the logical mind quiet) you can alternatively become aware of something very big (like a mountain) and something very small (like a grain of sand). If your meditation is deep enough, you can feel both the expansion and focusing of the mind. Note the term ‘aware’- in meditation we only become aware. It is the logical mind that thinks and the creative mind is just aware.

When the creative mind experiences this movement, it learns.

In Hindu spiritual tradition, symbols are used extensively to make such movements in the mind. It is also woven in to the daily living so as to help people think better. One such example is of Lord Ganesha. For those who do not know, Lord Ganesha is a fat, elephant-headed god with rat as his vehicle, who is worshipped to remove obstacles before an activity is undertaken (see a picture here)

See the brilliance of the people who designed this. When you pray to the lord, that is a moment where thoughts stop – which means the logic stops. Now the gross form of Ganesha gives you that expansion in the mind and the rat creates the movement of focus. And this is what you need when you begin any new activity – ability to think big and ability to pay attention to details.

It is in fact a great idea to use visuals (like statues or photos) to create these movements in the mind, because visuals are perceived by the creative mind.

The secret of creative thinking

It’s now commonly believed that creativity has got to do with the right brain, and that the logical left brain is the biggest block to creative thinking. It’s very hard not believe this because of the physical structure of the brain. But is it true that we just need to be right brained to be creative?

Few months back, I happened to watch a video of a boy whose left brain was removed in early childhood. He was about 18 years and pretty much is a normal person. It seems his right hemisphere .had pretty much taken over the functions of the left which happens typically when one of the hemispheres is removed in early childhood.

At that point of time, I had almost believed in the right brain-left brain theory. Therefore it was with great expectation that I watched this video. I was hoping to hear that this boy is either very creative or very spiritual. Nothing. He was almost a plain normal boy. 

 I began to wonder if the right brain – left brain theory was a matter of convenience. Perhaps it was because we have moved from studying the mind to studying the brain (thanks to the new technologies), which itself could be limiting our thinking.

I have come to believe now that there is something ‘dynamic’ in the brain that is above the physical structure (may be the analogy of PC Hardware and operating system will help). This ‘movement’ determines how the brain works at a particular instance, and is responsible for what and how we think

There are two distinct qualities of our brain:

–          Focusing : this is the ability of the brain to go deep in an almost linear fashion. This is typically expressed as concentration. You can also imagine that this is like going deep and vertical.

–          Expanding : This is the ability of the brain to expand; which is typically expressed as  ‘attention’. This is like going outwards and horizontal.

Every brain has these two qualities. But unfortunately, they tend to interfere with each other. For e.g, you are trying to read something and after a while you tune off and is thinking about something non-relevant. This is the expanding ability interfering with the focusing ability. The other way is also true. But in their pure forms, both of them are extremely powerful

Developing control over these two qualities is the first step to creative thinking. That is also to make thinking a conscious activity. When this happens one will be able to concentrate on something for long time without being distracted and at the same time he will be able to think divergently without being limited by his memory and logic.

Both these qualities are necessary in creative thinking. But in addition, there is something that will synchronize the  two in a very dynamic way (looks like, physiologically  Focusing is the aspect of the left brain, Expanding the aspect of the right and Balancing the aspect of the front brain)

So you can visualize the creative thinking like this : You think outward till you spot(feel) something important or something you are looking for and then you zoom in on that (the closest analogy you can think of is that of an eagle circling on the sky looking for the prey and zooming on it once found.

Most of us are typically caught up in the ‘zooming’ function, which is linear. The second step in creative thinking is to shift the default thinking mode to ‘expanding’

I would like to assume that there must be something in the brain (mostly non physical) that coordinates the two qualities. At the moment I have no idea what this is. But my hunch is that this is what is what the yogis call prana

Future, God and the Contradiction

Someone in the adjacent cubicle was getting a new car. As I reached office, there was a discussion going on if the registration number of the car was an auspicious one (for those who do not know, in India numbers 3,7 and 9 considered generally auspicious . Unlike lucky numbers  which are personal, these are ‘auspicious’ numbers generally for everyone. For bigger numbers, they need to add up to 9 or multiples of it)

Like all the other daily matters, gods play a key role in driving in India and the auspicious number is one of the numerous ‘grace’ invoking means.

As the discussion went on, someone presented an interesting statistics. It seems a study has revealed that the vehicles with auspicious numbers met more accidents that the rest. The most auspicious 9 (where the numbers added up to 9 or multiples of it) topped the list.

I was overhearing the conversation and this particular piece of statistics made me curious. I wondered if this info was right.

As I thought about it later, it looked quite possible that it could be true.

 Here is how it works:  It is those people who have an element of doubt in their ability (here in driving) who look forward to things that would provide them some form of assurance against things going wrong. So logically, the group with auspicious numbers ( more precisely the group who believe in auspicious numbers) are in fact less skilled than the rest. So the rate of accidents would be naturally higher in the first group.

This lead to another interesting thought. When one is actually performing an activity (driving here), the possibility of him doubting his ability is very thin; in reality all the doubts come up when one is thinking about it.  That’s to say only when you look forward to an activity in the future (in the mind) and insist that the outcome has to be something specific , then the doubt arises. And the doubt is rooted in the past – either his own past or the past of others that he has come to know.

Do animals have doubts? Unlikely. May be because animals do any activity in the present moment and in the present moment, there is no doubt. So animals do not need auspicious numbers, talismans, Laughing Buddha etc. All that’s needed only in the future which exists only in the human mind.

So, do animals need god? Also unlikely. Because you need god to help you with uncertainty which in exists only in the mind constructed future. Since animals don’t construct a future and seek security there, mostly they do not need faith and god too.

This leads to one of the greatest contradictions we face. It is only when we are thinking, we have a past and a future and that’s when we need god. But it’s when our thoughts stop, we are in the present moment and that’s the only place we get to know god.

You are what I think you should be…

At my new job,  I was supposed to meet someone for a discussion last week. Just to make sure that I make the right pitch, I enquired with a colleague how this person was. My colleague told me that he had never interacted with him, but from his appearance, he looked like a very irritable fellow. Soon I wasn’t the meeting with a person whose face exactly just said that –I am a very irritable person.

Like most of you, I too believed that someone’s face could tell a lot about his character; which means there is a cruel face, kind face, gentle face, dumb face etc. This incident made me think on this further. Why the hell there is a connection between how someone’s face looks and his character? Do we get it as a package? Or is it likely that one influences the other? Then what comes first? Does the character makes someone’s face the way it is (there are some people who think this way, especially when it comes to things like cruelty) or it is the other way round?

I found it hard to believe and as I thought about this a totally different dimension came to my mind.

There is already an association in the mind which maps different faces to different characters. We have learnt it from our elders, society and mainly films. That is to say, given a set of photos, most of the people would pick the same face for a particular expression.

Fine. Interestingly, this association in the mind forms a strong conditioning that influences our behavior.

 Typically our character has two components; one what we are truly made up of and the other what we develop in response to our environment.

Now assume that someone is born with a face that looks cruel (going by the normal conventions). He may not be aware of that to begin with, but the people around him react (unconsciously) to the way his face looks and this conditions their behavior. What they think of him is now ‘hidden’ in their interactions and his subconscious mind starts to react to this subtle message. If he is more of reactive nature, over a period of time and with many such interactions, he builds the character as conveyed by the people around.

I think this is what happens. People subtly induce the character on to someone depending on a patterns (association) they have in their minds and most of the people have no option than to conform to it. When they approach that person, there is an unconscious message that gets conveyed.

So the problem really is to do with the face and the patters all of us carry in our heads…

If there is someone who’s face and his character does not match (like you think he is a rough guy but he is actually a funny guy..), he is most likely a very creative person. Because most likely he has resisted this massive brain washing that the society attempted on him by being simply what he is.  

Add on:

Once I had a manager who (I think) typically learnt most  skills from books (including parenting, he told me once). There was often a problem between us. When we were in an intense conversation, I would take eyes off his face and stare typically at a blank wall or out through the window. For me these were the moments of intense attention, but he would take it that I have tuned off.

For all these games to work, people should have learnt from the same books or be from the same culture.