The Human Mind
Holistic Health Series
Resource Note # 8
The human mind is an instrumentality of knowing that has been devised by Cosmic Intelligence to allow for Consciousness to gain experience. Many different ideas exist about the mind and its functions. The valiant efforts made across the millennia to understand the true nature of this marvelous phenomenon known as the mind, have yielded only partial success.
The mind perceives and acts through the body, which is its gross form. The brain functions as the vehicle for the mind, and mirrors its operations. However, the mind is not limited to the body. Wherever we direct our attention, the mind is already there. It moves with awareness, and can function apart from body consciousness – as in sleep, trance and after-death states.
Calming the body makes possible the quietness necessary for the study of breath and energy. In the same way, regulating the breath brings the mind into focus. When the grosser levels of the mind are brought under control and tamed, then its subtle functions come to the fore. They stand out in clear relief & take on a vividness that makes them more available for observation.
The Evolution of Mind
The natural world is made up of complementary patterns of biological activity that operate in mutual harmony. Seasonal changes are based on the movement of the earth around the sun. The flow of the tides and the physiological rhythms are influenced by the cycles of the moon. Plants get their nourishment from the earth, while the animals feed upon them. These two natural kingdoms co-exist in a cycle of energy exchange that involves a flow of CO2& oxygen.
Animals instinctively flow with this overall pattern of nature, and form an integral part of its beautiful fabric. However, their behavior is rigidly established by the demands of their environment. Animals are subject to the brutal law of the jungle. As an animal kills and eats, so is it killed and eaten. There is no security, and very little capacity to anticipate or plan.
The animal that lives in the wild must be constantly alert to possible danger, and ready to react instantaneously with its limited capacities. For example, certain signals set off automatic defensive patterns. If they serve him well, he survives. Those actions that help to preserve the animal are passed on to future generations, and become part of their bio-computer hardware.
The animal’s ability to learn is limited, and its awareness of alternatives is negligible. Its survival depends not so much on knowledge and understanding, as upon those inherent patterns of action that serve to regulate behavior and integrate it into nature. These are the “automatic” survival mechanisms, over which most animal species have no conscious control.
In higher animals though, these automatic or instinctual mechanisms come into play only when the pressure of needs exceeds a certain level. For instance, a male bird will respond to the silhouette of a female bird by beginning his mating dance when its sexual need has not been satisfied for some time. If it is isolated from the female of the species for a long enough time, the stimulus needed to trigger the response becomes progressively less specific. Eventually, this behavior pattern could be set off by a semblance of another bird simply flapping its arms!
The instinctual urge becomes even less important in the case of mammals. It serves only as an emergency measure for them. Their bio-computer has greater capacity, and may be programmed in a variety of ways. Mammal behavior is thus governed by habits, which are learned patterns of response that are amenable to change. Habits operate from a higher level of organization, and regulate behavior such that mammals gain increased flexibility of response.
In the human being, there is the additional capability to alter the bio-computer program that is employed. The person can judge which habits most suit his or her purpose, and create them in oneself. Nevertheless, underneath this sophisticated human capacity for thought, there persist the more basic of the automatic survival mechanisms such as those associated with fear or sex. In the human being, four primary instinctual needs or primitive urges have been identified:
a) Food, b) Sex, c) Sleep, & d) Self-preservation / protection.
Human individuals usually meet these basic needs in a relatively more refined manner, through conscious self-direction. However, the underlying instinctual drives goad the person to provide for needs that are deemed to be most essential for survival. Without the support of these primitive mechanisms, the individual may neglect to provide for what is essential and thus perish. Whenever one’s sophisticated capacities lead the person away from arranging for basic necessities, the instinctual mechanisms come to the fore and push for more urgent action.
However, with the human ability to think in larger time frames, people may comfortably anticipate their needs and provide for themselves accordingly. They can organize to procure whatever is necessary, without waiting for a push from the emergency instinctual urgings.
The individual is thus freed from the tyranny of automatic reactions. He or she gains greater freedom and control over his/her behavior. The human capacities of choice, freedom & control thereby imply a greater level of awareness & a higher stage in the hierarchy of consciousness.
This stratum of the human personality, which possesses the capacity for self-awarenessas well as the anticipation of the future, is known as “the mind”.
The Characteristics of the Mind
Firstly, the mind is an observable entity that is a part of our external world. Our deeper awareness can observe the functions of the mind. The mind thus belongs to us, but “is not” us.
Secondly, the mind is an instrument or a tool that processes sensory information so that the material world may be properly cognized. Our awareness works through the mind in order to glean information from the external world.
Thirdly, the mind is an organic entity that has a highly organized structure as well as a cycle of nutrition. It has its own appropriate food, metabolism, waste products, and also derangements that can occur from its malfunction.
Fourthly, the mind is invested with a certain quantum of energy that produces various tangible effects. While not itself aware or intelligent, the mind benefits from the light of pure awareness that is reflected onto the mental field. The mind thus gives the appearance of being conscious, even though it rides upon the reflection of the greater light of consciousness in actual practice.
Fifth, akin to the clouds in the sky, the contents of the mind are constantly shifting. However, a constant awareness lies behind (and at the base of) the changing mental fluctuations. This faculty of conscious awareness has an ongoing ability to observe, witness and perceive, and is characterized by an unbroken sense of being.
Sixth, the mind is of a non-physical but material character. Its nature is subtle, ethereal and luminous. Thus, the mind has no particular shape or size. Akin to water, it assumes the shape and size of whatever object that it happens to perceive and examine.
Finally, the mind is akin to the nature of space. It encompasses and pervades all of its contents. When the mind is emptied of its thoughts and emotions through meditation, we come close to actually seeing it. But, that is precisely when we come to recognize its basic insubstantiality.
Just like a blank screen, the mind has no meaning apart from the images projected on it.
The Point like Nature of the Mind
The mind essentially comprises of a series of points of attention. It consists of various points of thought, feeling and sensation that follow one another in rapid succession. The mind constructs reality out of putting together many points. The shifting movement of the mind tries to construct the reality of the object from its moving points of attention.
Even though the mind is point-like in nature, it can pervade the body as a whole. This is similar to the manner in which the fragrance arising out of a drop of perfume quickly permeates the entire body. Similarly, the mind pervades our entire field of perception. Though each episode lasts only for an instant, these instants follow one another successively – thus collectively providing a broad sense of the entire field of awareness.
As the mind is a mere point of awareness, each mind is unique. However, its shifting, point-like nature allows it to focus upon only one particular object at a time. The mind takes a series of snapshots, which may be integrated together in order to construct a view of reality. But its snapshots distort that reality by presenting only one side of it.
Thus leads to the various limitations of the mind. Firstly, this gives the mind a tendency to become narrow. The mind attaches itself only to those points of view that it has already seen, and fails to see the whole at any given moment. Secondly, the mind tries to construct a holistic picture by simply trying to put together diverse points of view. However, there is always some element of the holistic nature of reality that gets missed out in this process.
Thus, every mind develops its own perspective, and potentially an inherent bias. Each one of us is true to the perspective of our minds. However, we often fail to see that this perspective is not universal or even common, but is in fact the expression of the mind’s limitation. Just as in case of the five blind men groping the elephant, the mind is often partially right but completely in error at the same time.
The Mobile Nature of the Mind
The mind consists is extremely volatile in nature. The ever-shifting mental panorama of sensations, emotions & thoughts reveals the constantly changing or mobile nature of the mind.
Our stream of consciousness is essentially a rapid series of point flashes of mental activity. However, the stream of the mind is more akin to a series of discontinuous lightning flashes that occur in rapid succession, and collectively allow us to put together a continuous image.
This is because the mind is not only a shifting point in space, but also a changing point in time. In fact, the mind is the prime point from which the ideas of time and space are constructed.
The Sensitive Nature of the Mind
The mind is the very organ of sensitivity that underlies all the senses. Everything that we see or feel leaves an imprint upon the mind. And when our awareness withdraws from the senses (as in deep sleep), the mind remains filled with thoughts and emotions.
The nature of the mind may be compared with that of the wind. Both are subtle, formless and unpredictable. They both possess force, energy & movement. The clouds that the mind blows are those of thoughts and emotions.Akin to the wind, the mind is also not amenable to direct observation. Inferences about it are made through the observation of its movements & effects.
In fact, the mind is very easily affected, distracted, excited, depressed, disturbed, or hurt. In that case, the mind places barriers around itself that dull its sensitivity. As people evolve in awareness, they learn to consciously project positive thought forms & avoid the negative ones.
The Polarized Nature of the Mind
Just as all matter essentially consists of dual charged particles, the mind consists of opposite but complementary forces that are placed in various degrees of mutual interaction. Thus, the mind is prone to polarized reactions. Whatever we think about spontaneously creates its opposite tendency too. Every thought is observed to always reinforce its opposite.
Thus, the mind is prone to ambivalent or extreme tendencies. Being caught in the opposites, the mind easily reverses itself. Instead of trying to force the mind in any particular direction as a means of drawing it away from extreme positions, one should thereby seek to calm it down.
Because of its volatile, point-like and dualistic nature, the mind is hard to grasp and almost impossible to control. It has a nature and movement of its own, which it tends to impress upon us. All of human life is essentially a struggle to learn to regulate and control the mind.
The Structure of the Mind
The human mind exists in many states. The working of the conscious mind is what people normally refer to as the “mind.” It is observed to have three main components: a) manas(the lower mind), b) ahankara(the sense of I-ness) and c) buddhi(the faculty of intelligence).
The lower mind, orManas, is that part of the mental instrument which remains in direct contact with the incoming data from the sensory organs. Also known as the sensory-motor mind, it collects sense impressions and coordinates them with the motor responses.
Manasis akin to a television screen that monitors the events of the outside world, and upon which sensory input is displayed. Because of the constant bombardment of stimuli, the lower mind remains in a state of flux. This sensory-motor mind can also register memory traces.
The lower mind takes in sensory data, and responds automatically on the basis of habit or instincts. However, the intelligent use of the data that flashes on the screen of manasdepends upon the actions of the other two functions of the mental apparatus.
The sensory-motor mind is not imbued with self-awareness. It is tied into nature and the flow of phenomenal events.
However, a sense of “I” brings the ability to separate the self from the flow of events and to think of oneself as an individual entity. This I-ness is called “ahankara”.
The second component of the mental instrument is known as ahankara, or the sense of I-ness. It provides a sense of separateness from the rest of the world, as well as a feeling of distinctness and uniqueness.
Ahankarais the agency that defines which of the sensory data and memories represents the “I.” It is the property of subjectivity that takes the input, and relates it to a sense of I-ness. When sensory impressions come in via the sensory-motor mind, the ahankaraserves to transform these into a personal experience by relating them to an ephemeral individual identity.Ahankaramakes possible the question, “What’s in it for me?” and also the ability to say, “This is mine.”
Ahankarais often translated as the “ego”, but is actually a broader concept. It encompasses a whole spectrum of I-ness, starting from that which underlies the lowest animal’s efforts to maintain its integrity. However, ahankarais not an active decision making or thought-producing agent like the ego of western psychology – which defends the individual against being overwhelmed by internal wishes/impulses as well as demands from the external world. It is simply the boundary line that separates “I” from “not-I.”
Ahankaradoes not instinctively flow with nature. By creating such barriers as “mine” and “thine,” it separates the self from others. With the intervention of Ahankara, thoughts are no longer merely images flashed on a screen. They become “my” thoughts.
Thus, when the manasfunctions on its own, a rose is “seen.” But when ahankaraadds its influence, the experience is transformed into “I see a rose.”
Once an incoming impression has been flashed onto the screen of manasand related to I-ness, then some decision must be taken. A judgment must be made, and some kind of a response shall perhaps be selected. This power of decisiveness, discrimination, understanding and judgment is the third major mental function, which is known as the buddhi.
The buddhirefers to a special kind of intelligence or wisdom that momentarily evaluates the situation, and decides upon an appropriate course of action. The progressive uncovering of the pure buddhiyields the capacity to step outside the vicious cycle of impulse-driven behavior. As it becomes refined, Buddhiis able to make independent and creative decisions.
These three constituent functions of the mental instrument occupy the center of the stage in human psychology. Their interrelated functioning produces what people recognize as the normal “waking” consciousness. Together, they make up the “mind” of which we are aware.
However, these are not to be regarded as three different/independent substances or faculties. Manas, ahankara andbuddhi may also not be anthropomorphically conceptualized as three independent personalities that oppose one another. They actually function as a unitary whole.
A number of other structures surround, support and relate to this central mental complex.
One of these is the memory bank or chitta, which principally lies outside awareness. It is the storehouse of past impressions and experience. It is from here that memories bubble up to appear on the screen of the lower mind. There are also the five externally situated senses (the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and the skin) that provide the input data that is registered by manas.
On the “other” side of the mental complex lies the highest field of human consciousness. This is called the self, or the purusha. It is thought of as both the highest state of consciousness and the innermost center of the psyche. Reaching this results in a serene, encompassing awareness.
The foregoing conceptualization of the mind is operational in nature. It not only facilitates the observation of the working of this mental instrument, but also helps to eventually transcend the mind in the course of the individual’s evolution towards the higher states of consciousness.
This formulation is in sharp contrast to that of the modern psychoanalytic theory, which postulates the three components of the mind as the ego, the id, and the superego. These three elements of the mind are conceptually presumed to have mutually contrary tendencies. When they disagree, as they usually & vehemently do, it gives rise to intense mental strife & conflict.
The Functioning of the Human Mind
The mind may be likened to a lake. Like that placid body of water, the mind is potentially calm and crystal clear. Akin to the waves that appear in the body of the lake, the thoughts or mental modifications (vrittis) stir the mind into activity and obscure its true nature. These thoughts may arise from the lake-bed (memories) itself or from external interaction (sense perceptions).
When the waves are relatively quiet and the water is clear, one can see through to the innermost levels of the lake. Similarly, when the mind becomes perfectly calm, it becomes completely transparent. The innermost being of the human person then comes into evidence.
Thus, the salient challenge is to develop voluntary control and regulation of thought processes. When this is accomplished, the consciousness that underlies the thoughts ceases to be obscured – and becomes fully apparent. When the consciousness can thus differentiate and disentangle itself from the mental modifications, the individual is able to observe the thoughts.
Thought forms, or the modifications of the mind, may be classified in terms of five categories that reflect their function in mental life: a) accurate perception or cognition; b) inaccurate perception; c) fantasy or imagination; d) memory; and e) sleep.
The Operation of the Sensory – Motor Mind
The lower mind acts as a collecting device that takes in as much sensory data as possible. Since the manasis not equipped with the ability to evaluate or make decisions, it responds to the accumulated information by habit or through the intervention of the instincts. The lower mind is somewhat like a dull & unimaginative drone that does its job without understanding why.
The basic nature of the sensory-motor mind is to doubt. Being unable to size up things and getting no help in this respect from the instincts, it simply doubts the validity of everything.
The lower mind “manas” has a very limited ability to organize behavior. It does not provide for the delay of gratification, planning or preservation of the integrity of the organism except through rote habit or when emergency action of the instincts comes into play. When the lower mind is left to fend for itself, its responses are actually reactions based on habit.
In the absence of the influence of the more evolved parts of the mind, the sensory-motor mind is susceptible to the push and pull of the instincts and the effects of past conditioning. When a certain mental impulse springs onto the screen of manas, it is the discriminative faculty of buddhithat decides whether or not to give in to the impulse. The manascarries out its orders.
The Memory Bank (Chitta)
Underlying manasis a pool of memories that contains the traces of past experiences. This storehouse of impressions is known as chitta. Ordinarily lying outside of awareness, it is the foundation or mental stream in which the rest of the mind operates.
Chittais akin to the river-bed over which the other parts of the mind flow. The sensory mind or stream of consciousness is simply a series of ripples on its surface. When the lower mind is not receiving a constant stream of sensory input, it is open to input from within. The thought waves which surface in the sensory motor mind actually arise from this memory bank.
Chittais the basic stuff out of which mental functioning arises. It is comparable to the “unconscious” of modern psychology. It acts as a passive reservoir that receives and stores the impressions that result from the interaction of the senses with the world outside, and thereby accumulates (like an immense lake bed) a huge pool of sensory impressions and data.
When the chittais struck by influences from the outside, it throws up certain instinctual reactions or primitive urges that eventually give rise to emotions. This facet of chittais similar to the psychoanalytic notion of the id, which is the underlying pool of instinctual energy or libido that sends up waves that energize mental functioning.
On the other hand, when the senses are quiet and the lower mind is receiving no information from the outside world, the memories, fantasies and impressions from the past begin to bubble up. These are supplied by the chitta. When sensory experience is suspended, the inner mind gets free play. The material arising from the unconscious may then be more clearly observed.
Lighting up the Mind
The higher aspects of the mind have the ability to voluntarily and selectively limit the kind of sensory data that is admitted into the lower mind. This voluntary control over the senses gives the person greater access to the unexplored part of the mind that resides within the chitta.
When sensory input is significantly reduced, the mental field is cleared enough so that material from the unconscious may begin to be acknowledged. The “hidden” mind is now allowed to come forward, and bring past experiences as well as colourful & vivid fantasies into full view.
However, any involvement with these images and fantasies is not to be cultivated. One must acknowledge the fantasies or hallucinations, but learn to step around them.
The unseen influence of this concealed section of the mind is eliminated when it is brought into awareness. The distortions in mental functioning are thereby minimized, and the mind can be more easily navigated. The higher levels of consciousness may thus be more easily approached.