Tag Archives: Better thinking

What does the ego want?

My wife informed me that my daughter got down from her school bus crying. She told me the reason too, but I wanted to hear what my daughter had to say.

In the evening, I picked up a conversation with her on this. I asked her why she had cried in the bus.

“Papa, you know it was Suneethi’s (another girl in the bus) b’day today. She distributed chocolates to everyone in the bus and she didn’t give me”

 “So, why did you cry?” I asked.

“Because she didn’t give me”

 “OK fine, she didn’t give you. But why did you cry?” She looked little puzzled.

“It is a bad behavior, right?”

 “May be, but then why did you cry” I asked gently.

There was a pause. I repeated the question again.

“Because I wanted them to feel sorry..?” she said hesitantly and then quickly changed the topic to something else. I guess she saw the point.

This is what the ego always does. It thinks by reacting (emotionally) it can change a situation favorably or at least make someone guilty about it.  It’s easy to see how this works in children, their egos are still developing. But as adults look at the amount of messages we sent out by reacting to the world every moment. We are constantly saying to the world “I am right, you better change”.We all have a need to be in constant conflict with one or the other thing.

Aldous Huxley once said “I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” But will the ego agree?

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Logic

It is commonly believed these days that ‘logic’ is what prevents one from thinking creatively. Strangely, if you were to ask a spiritual master what is the obstacle on the way to freedom or realization, you might get the same answer. We have a villain and since ‘logic’ is an abstract concept, it is easy to blame it. I too have made fun of the ‘logical mind’ in several posts in this blog.

But one level deeper, do we really understand what exactly is this demon called ‘logic’? How does it influence our thinking? How to get over it? Or are we too busy inventing techniques to overcome ‘logic’? (It is like the concept of ‘sin’ in some religions. Once you can make people buy in to this belief, it’s easy to create a whole industry out of it)

Here is an insight that came along on this.

 The mind made up of thoughts. In the absence of thoughts, there is ‘space’ which the mind is uncomfortable with. Therefore the mind needs something to be going on continuously. In order to achieve this, mind has devised a mechanism which consists of two distinct things:

  1. There is a process that keeps dumping thoughts continuously in to the mind (to the next empty space to be really precise)
  2. There is an ‘algorithm’ that chooses what will go in to that space from a choice of millions of possibilities These two together keeps the mind engaged and active.

The second one follows and supports the first. And the second one is what is called the logic.

Contrary to what many say, the ‘logic’ might actually be good. The issue comes from the fact that at some point both the above acts become unconscious. This is where the problem lies. Even before you see something fully, you have already named it, categorized it and may be made an opinion on it, because in the little space that follows the act of seeing, the mind fills the details from your past experience.

When we talk of a creative thought, we are actually talking of that one which is unconditioned by your experience, memory, perceptions etc. It’s almost like the thought is not yours. And just because of the fact that it comes not from the conditioned mind, it can be anything – a new insight, a new poem, a new solution, a new dimension, a new potential or may be God himself.

In order to go beyond logic or transcend thought, there are two ways. One is to look in to the second act – to see how the logic can be refined to produce the best output. This is what most of the creative and innovation techniques try to do. There try to define frameworks and techniques which can orient the mind in a particular direction. This definitely might produce thinking that’s superior to normal, but then you aren’t really talking of that idea that’s born beyond the mind.

The other approach is to tackle the process of filling the mind with thoughts. This is what many spiritual traditions attempt to. This is done by the simple technique of being comfortable with space or nothingness. And the moment you are comfortable with the space, the need for the logic is gone. Space where there is neither thinking nor the need for thinking exists.

 Then in this space might arise that new insight or the thought that is not stained by the logic..

Need for continuity

For most of us, a large part of our thinking is unconscious and compulsive, in the sense that we aren’t even aware that we are thinking. But even then the mind is able to go on and on with thoughts to the extent that even if we wanted to, they wouldn’t stop. I have always wondered why the mind has to do this, because this is what leads to compulsive thinking and stress.

Even if the thinking is unconscious, there exists a continuity existing between thoughts. Which means there is ‘something’ that facilitates the connection of one thought to the next. This does not happen just in the case of compulsive thinking but also with day dreaming. Once the thinking can have it’s own continuity, it tends to act like an independent function and does not need the thinker to intervene as much as possible. This is the state of no awareness. In the state of no awareness the ‘unconsciousness’ spreads to other aspects of life, like decision-making, performing some routine tasks, reacting to situations…

It may be interesting to look at if this continuity issue arises at a thought level and spreads to other aspects of life or it is the other way around?

Even if we say that the thinking is unconscious, it is not really so. Most of the time there is a theme or a topic or an objective and there is mostly an order. But within that space, at the level of thought, the continuity is unconscious. But we need this continuity to think, to produce results, to make sense etc.

The intelligent mind actually adopts many techniques to keep thoughts together and give continuity. Here are few examples:

  • Stories – stories make up the lives of most of us (I am like this, my achievements, my sufferings, my this and that..)
  • Reactive Mind Patterns , Conditioned behaviour
  • Anxiety and anticipation
  • Resistance – Past/ Future

 This continuity spreads to all aspects of our lives and ultimately results in us seeking continuity in our own lives. And for most of us, this is what drives our lives. It is what strengthens our sense of self  which thrives on seeking continuity and fulfillment. But most of the time the continuity is so well established as a habit that people have absolutely no say of what they think and how they think.

What happens when the continuity is broken? Assume that there is no compulsive need for a thought to connect the next what happens?

This is probably the state what most spiritual traditions call freedom. They say this is the state where there is no likes and dislikes, no desires, no remorse … you can look at something without thinking and you do not need to react to something….

So the revolution is to go deep to the thought level and eliminate the need for continuity. Then all the mind patterns, habits, concepts and identity will simply collapse. Because the root cause lies deep in the mind.

But is that the real freedom that we as human beings want? I do not know…

Thoughts and possibilities

I was sitting over a cup of coffee with a friend of mine and he mentioned to me that he was leaving to Thirupathi that night (For those who do not know, Thirupathi is the abode of Lord Venkateswara and is the richest temple in the world). I didn’t feel like engaging in a conversation, so we just had some loose talk till we were done with the coffee. But interestingly, I could see that there were lots and lots of thoughts that came up in the mind in response to the topic of discussion.

As we walked back to the desk, I was thinking about this. Probably because I did not speak, the compulsive need to pursue a thread  wasn’t that significant, and this must have allowed all these different thoughts to come up in mind.

I tried to list some of these thoughts here:   (what is in the main bullet is the primary thought trigger and what is in the second level bullet is the secondary though trigger which comes from the primary)

  1. I haven’t been there yet, I would like to go
    • Is this the right time to go there? When is the rush less?
  2. Is this your first trip? Do you go often?
  3. It’s the richest temple, I read that there is a special ’chakra’ installed there to attract money
    • I read recently that the temple of Shirdi is the second richest temple
  4. I normally go to Sabarimala everyyear
  5. In Kerala, we do not worship Balaji
  6. Infact I have not been going anywhere for a long time
  7. I s it better to drive? I want to go when I get my new Car?
    • I will plan to get the new car in June
  8. Is it necessary to shave the head?
    • My sister had been to Palani recently to shave her daughter’s head
  9. It’s interesting that all the major temples of South India are on hill tops

 These different thoughts in fact stem from different aspects of our mind and personality. For e.g thoughts 3, 5, 9 come from the point that I want to show that I know these facts (probably this will enhance my sense of self as a ‘knowledgeable person’). Thought 7 is a dangerous one and can hit my self-esteem big time. Thoughts 4,5 justifies my not going there, so that my sense of self is not diminished etcetc.

 This is infact a practical illustration of the concept described in the post The act of mindful watching. In normal scenario we do not see so many thoughts for a single trigger. We probably have one or two. This depends on our personality, mood and state of mind. For e.g if at this moment I am nurturing a feeling that my life is a failure, the likely hood of me getting only thought 6 is very very high. And since each of these thoughts can take the conversation/further thinking in a totally different direction, we are most likely to take one of those thought paths than to look at more thoughts coming up.

Needless to say, more reactive the mind is lesser the options we see Many times there are those negative feelings within us waiting patiently to react to any thing that would engage them. This is the reason why everything looks negative when your mind is in a negative state.

As we discussed earlier, if we can overcome the compulsive  need to react to a trigger, more options simply arise and this is the most basic quality for a creative mind.

Psychological Camouflage

I was attending a meeting today where many senior people of the company were also present. This was one that ‘we are expected to attend’ and like every such meeting, this was boring and dragged on and on. Most of them were uninterested, but as it is customary in India, no one expressed it.

Time passed, and slowly one person got up, muttering something to his cellphone (very visibly) and pretending as if he is attending a call, walked out of the room. The reason looked quiet genuine, and a few more received calls and excused themselves to take them. (The cellphones are muted, so there was no way to figure out if there was a call really)

I sat there, curiously watching what’s going on.

I have already written in one of the earlier posts that mind (logical mind) plays a key role in sense perceptions. For e.g though there are so many things around, one must be seeing only a few things. These few things are those stand out from the rest or that has changed from last time, because the mind acknowledges only difference (linear from a previous state or transverse from the surroundings). All the rest is classified as usual stuff that ‘the mind already knows’. This applies to all the physical things.

Most of us are aware of this and this is what makes us dress like the rest around us or behave the way we have been behaving so far. Then we aren’t noticed by others. (the converse is also true, people who love to be noticed try to be different from others)

Trying to be identical to the surroundings is a phenomenon called camouflage, which is used (more predominantly in the insect world) both to escape from a predator and to attack a prey unnoticed.

Human beings dressing up like others etc is also a camouflage; for whatever reason we do not want to look different from the rest. May be this comes from the tribal nature of ancient humans.

But as humans, things need to be more complex.The incident described at the beginning is a totally different dimension to this camouflaging, unique to humans- I will call this ‘psychological camouflage’ (I do not know why this name, but this is what came up in my mind). At the first level, we try to behave like (well almost) people around us and over a period of time we develop what is called the right behavior (note that right behavior is always with reference to a society). Till this point, it seems OK. But what also happens in the process, we develop ‘expectations’ – how someone should behave in a particular situation. This ‘expectation’ is purely a virtual thing, it only exists in the mind (and the mind projected future). Any behavior around that is in accordance with this ‘expectation’ is generally unnoticed. Because the brain says – It confirms to what is expected.

Now if someone acts different to this expectation, it gets noticed. May the brain fires a ‘mismatch’ trigger or something like that. Each one of us are aware and conscious about this and many a times in our lives we pretend to be doing / not doing something to conform to other’s expectation. We psychologically camouflage in the projected expectations of people around us.

 It may be interesting to explore how this works. In the example described above, there is a conflict going on in the mind of the person to begin with. One part of the mind says – get out of this place. And the other part says –No it will look odd. This goes on for a while till the first part wins and you decide to leave. But then you do not want to look different (the ‘expectation’ here is that everyone remains for the entire duration and any act different to this is likely to be noticed by others) and then your cunning mind comes up with this solution – pretend as if you have just received a call and walkout to attend it. This may be not the perfect solution, but the best mind can create. The attempt is to make the act look as natural as possible, so that it goes unnoticed by others. This is attempting to camouflage.

If look around, you will be surprised at the amount of camouflage we all do. We may be looking intently at a presenter simply because that’s what is expected. We might be frantically scribbling notes in a meeting (especially when you have nothing significant to do) so that it looks natural. Watch someone who jumps a queue to join a friend who is far ahead.

 Always point is that we try to camouflage with what the world expects (and the world consists of other people who do exactly the same thing ..!). But most of the situations where we try psychological camouflage are points of cognitive dissonance, which is also the key for Innovation.

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.

Responding to a trigger – what happens in the mind

Continuing from the previous post, let’s look at what happens in the mind when you respond to an external trigger (an object or an event for e.g). Whether we acknowledge or not, in fact there is a subtle choice that we make with every trigger – Accept or Resist. Depending upon the trigger, we could accept/resist an event either in the past or the future. See the below representation of how a normal mind responds to an external trigger (For simplicity, I taking a very general case here to illustrate my point)

The path on the left side depicts normal thinking, where in every event or object is compared against a mental image (either of the past or of the future). Then one either accepts or resists the event(the categorization of the event as good/bad, right /wrong also happens here) Accepting strengthens the ‘sense of self’ and resisting creates a ‘threat to the self’. This resisting leads to compulsive thinking that is the root cause for most of the psychosomatic diseases.

So, is there a solution? Or an alterative? This is what is called ‘witnessing’ which is the essence of ‘mindfulness’(see the path on to the right in the picture). Here there is neither acceptance nor resistance. You see things as they are.

Typically we try to solve most of our issues at the lower layers (lower as in the picture). For e.g say I do not like apples. I could either avoid apples in my life or could substitute with some other fruit or convince myself to eat it. This is typically how we approach most of the problems. But in fact the real problem is not apple but  ‘my nature of disliking’ something. A fundamental transformation can happen only when the basic nature changes.

If we can make changes at the basic level (marked A in the diagram), the problems will simply vanish themselves. This is what many a spiritual traditions try to achieve and also the key to creative thinking.

But is that easy? We will continue the discussion in the coming posts…