The power of our mind

In my previous post, I discussed the Buddhist ‘No Soul’ doctrine, which, in essence, does away with the idea of a permanent ‘Self’. That does not imply that I don’t believe we have a ‘personality’, i.e. a ‘character’. It would be foolish to try to deny this: I have (or am) a ‘self’.

I just don’t believe it survives our death somehow (which is why I use a lower-case ‘s’ for ‘self’), so that’s not what orthodox Buddhists are supposed to believe, in one way or another.

This ‘self’ manifests itself in various ways: we have a specific appearance, we say and do things that others wouldn’t say or do (and vice versa), or we do them in different ways, etcetera. In short, we are all different.

Greek and scholastic philosophers would refer to it as ‘form’, as opposed to ‘matter’, and I actually think their definition still makes sense:

“Form is the actuality of matter. Through its form, matter becomes something actual and something individual.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter 1)

One of the most obvious manifestations of our ‘self’ are our habits because, in practice, some of our habits bother us as we try to improve ourselves. All of us also have specific habits that we find very hard or even impossible to get rid off. But it is not impossible. Even ingrained habits are not permanent and can be changed. A good deal of the work of William James deals with habits. A more recent book on it is The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg, 2012).

We also have character. The Web definition of character is ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.’ But so even these qualities can change over time, just like habits – although I will readily admit (not only from what I see around me but also from my own experience) that it is extremely hard to change one’s habits. It’s even harder to change one’s character. Perhaps we should say habits and characer are semi-permanent. However, analyzing it all from a Buddhist perspective, it’s obvious that even habits and character are anicca (impermanent). If you want to change yourself, I’d recommend contemplating the following wise words:

Watch your thoughts, because thoughts become words.

Watch your words, because words become actions.

Watch your actions, because actions become habits.

Watch your habits, because habits become character.

Watch your character, because character becomes destiny.

It seems the author of these wise words is unknown. I first saw them on a commercial Hindu calendar in India, and they immediately struck a chord inside of me. In fact, I immediately stuck them to the mirror in the bathroom, so I would see them every morning. They make it clear that the ‘self’, ‘I’ or ‘me’ is conditioned by life or, to put it more correctly, by the way one leads his or her life. Leading a good life requires discipline or, to use a word I’ve used a lot in my other post, practice.

Man as a social and moral animal

Using a term coined by a great book (Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, 1994), it’s tempting to define our ‘self’ as “our individuality as a social and moral animal.”

You may not like the definition of people as a social and moral animal, but I think the definition makes a whole lot of sense, and so let me go along with it for a while.

Let me first note that, as a social or moral animal, we go through a life cycle. In this context, it’s customary to refer to ancient wisdom on how ‘man’ is supposed to change through his life. Asian thinkers often define three stages in life: (1) the young single, (2) the family man, and, finally, in old age, when only limited family and societal duties remain, (3) the thinker/monk/philosopher who prepares for death. Writers such as D.T. Suzuki are quite straightforward in linking these stages to one’s sexual energy but, personally, I like to define these stages in terms of giving and receiving:

  1. As a child or youngster, and as a young man or woman, we are (mostly) in a receiving position, as we learn and try to understand. We have and use a lot of energy during that time – and Freud was probably right in noting that a lot of it comes from sublimating sexual energy indeed. Some of us have excessive energy, and it can kill us. In fact, looking back myself, I am not sure I’d want to be young again. I find that growing older and wiser is a blessing really – in disguise or not.
  2. As an adult, we both receive and give, in a very intense exchange with our families, our friends, and other members of society in general. We are very productive then, but have little freedom to chose because of practical constraints and all kinds of obligations towards the people who surround us. It also consumes us, in a way. Often to such extent that most people don’t manage to prepare properly for the final stage in life, which is the stage in which we let go, in which we accept all and, hence, in which we focus more and more on trying to give back, instead of taking.
  3. Indeed, when we get older, we prepare for death. We should do so by reducing our dependence on others, rather than increasing it. We should focus on giving only, without any expectation of getting a return. Wisdom is but one of the many things we can give (it’s one of the reasons why I started this blog). In order to give only, we have to stay healthy, both physically as well as mentally. Hence, as we grow older, and contrary to what you may expect, the duty of taking care of oneself actually increases. It’s, once again, a matter of practice, or discipline in life.

Let’s get back to the social or moral animal that we are. Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, have all studied this ‘self’ – man as a social or moral animal – in depth. Let me, to illustrate the wide range of questions all these scientists (try to) address, simply take a quote from the introduction to that best-seller that inspired my definition :

“The questions addressed range from the mundane to the spiritual and touch on just about everything that matters: romance, love, sex (Are men and/or women really built for monogamy? What circumstances can make them more so or less so?); friendship and enmity (What is the evolutionary logic behind office politics – or, for that matter, politics in general?); selfishness, self-sacrifice, guilt (Why did natural selection give us that vast guilt repository known as the conscience? Is it truly a guide to ‘moral’ behavior?); social status and social climbing (Is hierarchy inherent in human society?); the differing inclinations of men and women in areas such as friendship and ambition (Are we prisoners of our gender?); racism, xenophobia, war (Why do we so easily exclude large groups of people from the reach of our sympathy?); deception, self-deception, and the unconscious mind (Is intellectual honesty possible?); various psychopathologies (Is getting depressed, neurotic, or paranoid ‘natural’ – and, if so, does that make it any more acceptable?); the love-hate relationship between siblings (Why isn’t it pure love?); the tremendous capacity of parents to inflict psychic damage on their children (Whose interests do they have at heart?); and so on.”

To be clear, it’s not my intention to answer any of those questions in this post. What I want to do in this post is, quite simply, to highlight the power of our mind, especially in regard to taking charge of our own destiny.

To a large extent, that’s what Robert Wright actually also seems to want to do, as he asks a bit further in his introduction: “Does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic [moral] impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate? The answers, in my opinion, are: yes, yes, yes, yes, and, finally, yes.” (p. 10)

To some extent, I agree with him, of course: more knowledge about how this mind-body of ours works, and how we function as a social or moral animal, surely helps. However, more knowledge does not automatically lead to the required moral and mental discipline that is needed to change the way we go about our life. For that, we need (to) practice. We need discipline.

Such practice may be Oriental meditation practice, so let me say a few words about that.

Meditation as a behavioral therapy

Some psycho-analysts look at meditation practice as a therapeutic technique only. I’ll just quote one of them writing on Zen practice in particular, but the remark is not specific to any school of Oriental thought:

“[Zen] practice is a structured [and] relational context for eliciting, tolerating and working through one’s patterns of organizing affective experience”, or – to put it even more simply – “Simply sitting still for regular periods of time every day, does end up having a steadying and centering effect.” (Engler, in: Jeremy D. Safran (ed.), Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, 2003)

While such view (i.e. practice as therapy only) may seem reductionist, I have no fundamental objections to it. Having said that, let me quickly inject a pedantic note. The adjective ‘relational’ in the quote above (Zen as a structured relational context) actually refers to the role of the master in Zen practice, and the author (Engler) notes that his or her role is not unlike the role of a psychoanalyst treating a patient.

On this role of the master, or ‘Dharma transmission’ in Zen practice (which actually suggests that there is some line of ‘authority’ on the ‘truth’ going all the way back to the Buddha), most writers on Zen seem to agree that “this is so central to Zen that it is hard to envision any claim to Zen that discards claims of lineage.” These writers would usually refer to the first of the so-called ‘four statements of Zen’ to justify this claim:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence upon words and letters;

Direct pointing to the soul of man;

Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.

First, I would like to note that it is somewhat random, in my view, to say that the above four ‘statements’ are the ‘essence’ of Zen. Of course, they are attributed to Bodhidharma (aka as Daruma and/or Damu), the first patriarch of Zen, and, as such, well… Yes. He’s the first patriarch of (Chinese) Zen indeed. But let me quickly say a few words about him.

He’s a fascinating historical figure, who is said to have brought Zen to China indeed, around C.E. 520. It’s not quite clear where he came from. One account says he was a ‘Persian Central Asian’, while another says he was a ‘South Indian of the Western region’). Yet other accounts call him, quite simply, ‘the Blue-Eyed Barbarian’. As you can see below, he is usually depicted as a “rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed ‘barbarian'” indeed (the reference is from Wikipedia).

He is also said to have taken up Shaolin Kung Fu training, but he was “either refused entry to the shaolin temple or, else, ejected after a short time”, after which he “lived in a nearby cave, where he faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time.” The painting below gives an idea of how people think he might have looked like.


Striking, isn’t it? Believe it or not, this is not some recently made cartoon, but a work of art from the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto, dated ca. 1518. In any case… Let me get back to the matter at hand: the role of the master.

First, I really wonder if a man like Bodhidharma would really have wanted to create a highly structured philosophical corpus. I think he was just as much as a rebel-philosopher as all those other founding fathers whom we admire so much, including the historical Buddha, or Jesus for that matter. Second, I don’t think the first of those four ‘Zen’ statement actually says that a master is indispensable. Third, even if the first statement is to be interpreted in such way, then I think the second, third and fourth of these statements immediately relativize his or her role, and the role of the tradition and lineage in general.

As noted in my other post, I sympathize with loners such as Dokuan Genko (1630-1698), another Zen master, but one who openly questioned the ‘transmission’ principle and, hence, the role of the master, thereby effectively ending his line of ‘transmission’.

Having said that, I do acknowledge we all need teachers in life and, more importantly, people who lead by example. That brings me to the next topic.

Free will

People do change their life, sometimes in a bad way but hopefully more in good ways. And they usually do so after some reflection: they make a conscious choice. I am not saying it’s easy: we have to deal with our demons usually step by step, and one by one only (although there are examples too of strong-willed people who reverse the course of their life in one single day too), and it is very hard to beat all of them – if only because the last surviving demon will often combine all of the demons you thought you had defeated before.

Robert Wright makes a useful distinction between (a) the ‘practical’ doctrine of free will, which he accepts as ‘the basis of morals and law’, which structures human society, as opposed to (b) the ‘metaphysical’ doctrine of free will, which he rejects). William James, the founding father of pragmatism, also wrote extensively about the apparent contradiction between (metaphysical) determinism and the (practical) doctrine of free will, so that’s nothing new really.

In my view, describing the doctrine of free will as a ‘practical doctrine’ is quite dismissive. I consider free will to be real. Full stop. It emerges, somehow, in that discursive and associative logic that characterizes our thought processes and, hence, it’s as real as emotions or perceptions as far as I am concerned. In fact, I think the wise words on the relations between thoughts, words, actions, habits and character that I quoted above, are a beautiful expression of how the law of cause and effect (or the law of karma, if you prefer Buddhist terminology) actually operates in our personal life: there’s a logic, indeed, in what we do and who or what we become. While, at times, we may think there is no escape from that logic, our destiny is not inevitable. We can change the logic. We take decisions. Our mind is free and, therefore, we are free.

However, to bring this discussion a bit more down down-to-earth, I should note that one of my smarter brothers asked me once how many decisions in my own life I’d consider to be truly unconditioned? Reflecting on it, I had to agree with his point of view: we may take such free decisions only once a year or so or, more probably, even less. When we marry, for instance. Or when we decide to quit rid of a really harmful habit, like smoking or drinking. Or when we decide to get in shape again, after years of inactivity. Or when we decide to change jobs, not because we want more money, but because we want to do something that’s more useful. Or when we decide to commit a substantial amount of our money or our future revenue stream to a good cause. Those decisions are not frequent. However, the frequency doesn’t matter. The point to note is that we are truly free. People do re-invent themselves or, somewhat less revolutionary, gradually change themselves for the better.

The mind

The mind is what we human beings have in common, and what makes us free. So what is it? What are its characteristics? In my previous post, I argued that there’s no such thing as the ‘essence’ of things, so the mind does not have an ‘essence’ either. One could define it as an activity, but what kind of activity? Let’s look at what smarter people than me thought about that.

There has probably been no more elaborate attempt to analyze ‘the operations of our cognitive faculties’ than Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft. Attempting to summarize this huge work would be futile but, in line with what I wrote above on the ‘practical’ doctrine of free will, perhaps we could all agree with Kant – he’d be appalled by my simplistic rendering of his work – that our mind has some analytical capabilities, which also allow us to analyze our (impermanent) ‘self’ (I mean the habits-character thing) and decide whether or not to do something, whether or not we are happy with this impermanent ‘self’, and whether or not to change it. This is our freedom of will, and it negates reductionism.

Let me advance another intuitive argument against reductionism in this context. We all know that there’s a fundamental ‘law’ in Nature which says that entropy increases. That leads to things falling apart and, in general, goes against complexity. Yet, we see growing complexity in nature, as evidenced in our own evolution as a species. There is something at work there that cannot be explained without reference to structure and systems, to cybernetics. Likewise, we obviously all know that things fall down because of gravity. Yet, we build airplanes that take off. Hence, an airplane (and especially an airplane with a pilot) is more that the sum of its parts: while its individual parts can’t fly, the plane can. The plane has been built because there was a concept of a plane: it was designed designed to fly. I should also note that it won’t fly without a pilot. Likewise, the driver in a car is not part of the car, but without a driver, the car won’t move (in an orderly manner that is). Hence, concepts, design, and purposeful behavior cannot be reduced. There is a structure there that cannot be reduced. As such, I like to think of inventions such as airplanes and computers as manifestations of the mind.

So what’s the structure of the mind? It seems obvious its structure is not individual. This begs the question: Is the mind universal? This, in turn, begs the question: What does one mean by ‘universal’? Unchanging? Or inter-subjective – meaning your mind is the same as mine?

As to the last question, the mind is surely inter-subjective to some extent, as evidenced by the existence of inter-subjective ‘realities’ such as mathematics, language or culture, but your mind is obviously not the same as mine. And what about the mind in a child versus the mind in an adult? A child building a little house to play with, out of simple building blocks, is of course different from an engineer doing calculations to verify the structural integrity of some daring new design for a skyscraper. One could say both use their mind. However, it is obvious the workings of the mind in the engineer will be somewhat different than those of the child.

As for the second question (is it unchanging?), I don’t have the answer to that but – intuitively – I would say it’s not. I think the mind of bright thinkers now – or our ‘culture’ in general nowadays – is more sophisticated than it was, let’s say, a thousand years ago. One of the reasons is that the mind today can build on the bright insights of thinkers of the past, so I believe there’s an aspect of cumulative wisdom/knowledge here.

I should also note how our ‘mind’ today is rapidly being ‘enhanced’ as a result of technology and resources that were not available in the past. Just think of the Web for example, including collectively built tools such as Wikipedia for. [And, just for the record: I really don’t agree with critics who claim that the Internet does not encourage the kind of ‘slow reading’ that is required in order to understand deeper truths or study more complicated theories. My own personal experience is that it helps me greatly to better understand new topics which are of interest to me such as, for example, the math underlying quantum mechanics, which I am currently exploring.]

That being said, while learning, wisdom and experience gets handed down from generation to generation and, because of technological advances such as the Web, becomes more accessible and better organized, resulting in a huge accumulation of knowledge accessible to all – a very Hegelian thought – I hasten to add that the world we’re living in does not seem to reflect Hegel’s naive idealism. Indeed, whether or not this this world is really becoming a better place for all of us, is debatable. The optimism associated with the Age of Enlightenment and modernism has vanished, and the term we use to describe the current age, post-modernism, indicates mankind is currently struggling to define where we’re headed, and how we can take charge of our own destiny as a collective rather than as individuals.

However, that’s another discussion altogether and so I won’t say more about it here. Let me try to define the concept of the mind more clearly. The above-mentioned intuitions clearly indicate that properties we would associate with ‘the mind’ are:

  1. A capacity to design [I could re-launch the teleology versus metaphysical naturalism debate here once again (cf. my remarks on reductionism above) but let me skip it here altogether] and, related to this capacity to design,
  2. A property one could loosely term as ‘creativity’. While the capacity to design is more analytical, creativity works – to a large extent – through association: one concept or idea brings another, or induces us to try harder and invent some other way around the problem.

In short, the mind has the capacity to ‘make’ things or, at the very least, to make things happen and/or make things change. Hence, the mind is not only about ‘cognitive faculties.’ At the very least, it’s also (and as least as much, I’d say) about making things happen, about us being in this world. [This world indeed, not the next. We should appreciate how privileged our species and our generation is in this regard: for most other species, being in this world is about survival, and about survival only, as it was for most of mankind not so long ago also. We are in an amazing position. We should count our blessings.]

Another important ‘thing’ (which one can again relate to the properties mentioned above) that one would naturally associate with ‘the mind’ is ‘meaning.’ The mind generates ‘meaning’, or makes things meaningful. Meaning (or ‘sense’) is contextual: giving meaning, or making sense, is basically situating things in a larger whole. This is another reason why I reject reductionism. One could define the mind as a mental activity that structures (or mentally organizes) our perception of physical reality. Such structuring is both ‘objective’ (or ‘universal’ if you want) as well as subjective (i.e. linked to our personalities): in the end, we are talking about my perception of reality, and that’s likely to be somewhat different from yours.

Finally, perhaps the most important ‘thing’ one would associate with the concept of the mind is ‘awareness/consciousness.’ In this regard, one should explore the question: can we observe the mind? We are of course aware of the mind working [cf. self-consciousness, although that word triggers the question again of what is this ‘self’ that we are conscious of] but can we really observe and analyze it?

In meditation, we observe some kind of ‘monkey mind’, some kind of mental activity that jumps from object or some ‘thought’ to some other object (or ‘thought’) – and one will agree with the remark that these ‘thought-objects’ are often about some feeling, emotion or memory inside of us. As we observe and increase our awareness of this ‘monkey mind’ in meditation, we may suddenly be aware of what I refer to as the ‘pure mind‘. It happens in what I define as the third and final stage in mediation, which is all about losing the self (or letting it ‘evaporate’). [In case you haven’t read my previous post, the three stages of meditation are: (1) Relax: ‘let go’; (2) Focus: ‘observe the mind’; and (3) Lose your individuality: ‘let the self evaporate.’]

Huh? Yes. You’re right. While my discourse so far has been quite rational, we’re entering the realm of beliefs here. The pure mind has no individuality, unlike the feelings, emotions, memories etcetera that keep our ‘monkey mind’ busy. Should we use upper-case letters here? Perhaps. Up to you.

Materialists or reductionists will probably not be convinced by the arguments above. They will argue that the mind, including this ‘pure mind’ that, as far as I am concerned, is just as real as my ‘monkey mind’, is nothing but a ‘by-product’ of the chemical, electrical and biological processes in this physical body of ours. And they are right: of course the mind does not exist ‘independently.’ It would indeed not be there if it wouldn’t be for our body. You can see it as a ‘by-product’ indeed.

Somewhat less derogatory philosophical terms which one can find are ‘property dualism’ or ‘emergent materialism.’ These philosophical positions can be summarized as follows: mental properties emerge whenever matter is organized in the appropriate way (i.e. in the way that living human bodies are organized). Whatever. As mentioned above, I don’t care too much about labels. The point to note is that the mind is so much more than just these electrical and chemical impulses of our brain inside our skull, even if it is of course self-evident that the mind would not function without these impulses (without them, we’d just be dead indeed).

In this regard, I should really recommend reading Michael O’Shea’s Very Short Introduction to the Brain (2005). It is an excellent little book about how our brain actually works, written by a neuroscientist with impeccable credentials. He would not argue with what I write above: the mind is as much about organization and structure, as it is about the transmission of electrical and chemical signals, and there’s certainly a structure there that has nothing to do with our individuality and, hence, may be looked as as organizing what I refer to as the pure mind.


I haven’t said much on self-consciousness above. What’s self-consciousness? I’d start by noting that the experience of being aware of ourselves is somewhat different from the experience of being aware of other people or objects. Having said that, it’s obviously something else to conclude from that this would also imply some kind of ontological difference between the self-consciousness and our consciousness as such. Indeed, in my view, that’s nonsense. People who would claim such ontological difference would usually quote statements such as:

  • ‘The eye that sees cannot see itself.’
  • ‘Awareness cannot be objectified.’
  • ‘Show me this ‘who’ who thinks, who acts!’

So what? What about these statements?

As for the first statement, it would seem very easy to rubbish it. Imagine an intelligent robot whose ‘eye’ is a camera that it can also point at itself: we have an ‘eye’ here that can see itself, don’t we?

Of course, now you’ll protest and say that’s not the point. And you’re right. That’s not what that statement is about. The argument is about whether or not that robot could distinguish between the ‘I’ as a subject as opposed to the ‘I’ as an object. Now that is obviously a matter about which hundreds – no, thousands, or even millions – of pages have been written, and so I don’t want to add to that. I’d say: buy the movie ‘Her’, and just reflect on it – thoroughly. I think you’ll agree with me in the end: it’s simply wrong to somehow conclude that, because of the difference between the ‘subject me‘ and the ‘object me‘, there’s also some kind of ontological difference between the self-consciousness and our consciousness as such. The distinction we are making here the ‘me’ as a subject and the ‘me’ as an object is not an ontological one: ‘I’ as a subject and the ‘I’ as an object have no separate physical or ontological existence.

Having said that, being aware of oneself as a subject, instead of as an object, is clearly an existential experience that stands apart from our experience of others (or ourselves) as objects (or subjects). Let me quote here from a little notebook of mine:

“The mutual awareness of the other as a subject, instead of as an object, is a deep experience. Young people confuse it easily with what people call ‘love’. It surely is something that softens what I’d call ‘the existential fear of being alone.”

Does this make you smile? Good. 🙂

Let me turn to a more contemporary discussion: Artificial Intelligence. I’d say that the challenge for scientists who are working on artificial intelligence (AI) is not really artificial intelligence but artificial consciousness (AC). Indeed, AI might actually be the easy part: it’s about finding ways to make computers apply a set of rules to process information in a way that resembles human intelligence. By contrast, AC is about the experience not of some outside object but of oneself. A.C. is about creating an (artificial) ‘I’ that, even if it would not have any individuality, would be actively involved in what I would call ‘sense-making in the face of mortality.’

I could refer here to the famous statement made by Socrates: ‘The aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.’ He made this statement just hours before his death according to Plato’s account of it in the dialogue ‘Phaedo’, who also called philosophy ‘a preparation for death’. A large part of our intellectual life is indeed related to sense-making in the face of pain, sorrow and death, as Buddhists acknowledge when accepting the first of the Four Noble Truths: ‘All is dukkha.’

This raises an interesting question: if we would manage to build artificial consciousness, could we do it without impregnating it with the reality of death? I actually wrote a long story before ‘Her’ was released, which could have served as an alternative script and which intended to examine such questions. However, I discontinued the story when the movie came out. 😦 [Jokes aside, it was somewhat weird to suddenly see that movie, but then I guess that, when a great movie like that comes out, there’s probably many people who think: Hey ! I could have written that story ! In my case, I actually did. It just proves that, when the time is ripe, many people will advance the same ideas.]

So what do I believe in?

Some of the statements above sound ‘religious’, and so you’re probably curious to what I consider to be non-rational in my beliefs. Conscious thinking, or observing how our mind works, does often feel like a spiritual, mystical or religious experience, indeed. Deep meditation is an ‘existential’ experience, and I actually haven’t had many of such experiences. It’s not only about experiencing the ‘pure mind’, but also about noting how it’s simultaneous part and not part of ‘reality’. But, again, these are just words that don’t matter much. What matters is the experience, and the physical, psychological and moral strength that it gives you.

In my view, the experience resonates with the concept of ‘tauma’: this is, according to the ancient Greek philosophers, a basic ‘wondering’ about things that lies at the basis of all philosophic thinking, or even the ‘urge’ to think. [Again, the question of whether or not this ‘tauma’ is triggered by the perspective of death is an interesting one.]

One can also link it to the Japanese Zen concept of ‘kensho’ – ‘the first showing’ which, in my view, is the basic feeling or realization of ‘I know that I don’t know.’ So it’s a humbling experience, one could say and, in Zen Buddhism, this is clearly distinct from the concept of ‘Enlightenment’, on which – unsurprisingly – none of the master writes a lot (if they write at all). They don’t need to in my view. This ‘intermediate’ concept of kensho makes a lot of sense. If kensho is a condition in which we realize that ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’, Enlightenment may, quite simply, be nothing more than the next step: ‘I know what I don’t know.’  Perhaps we should just accept, indeed, that that is all there is to it and, hence, not waste any words on it.

Now… I still haven’t answered your question: what do I believe in? Let me say the following about it.

Just as much as I believe that free will somehow appears in this discursive and associative logic that characterizes our thoughts and stream of consciousness, I believe that our mental processes also show the pure mind at work. And, hence, I actually believe there is a pure mind and, because it transcends the individual, I could write it with a capital M indeed and call it the Mind. Just to be clear: it has nothing to with a God concept: I don’t pray to the Mind, and I do not draw any comfort from assuming it’s there, or emerges somehow – “whenever matter is organized in the appropriate way” as those ‘property dualists’ would say. However, I should immediately distance myself from them by noting that I believe the mind itself is not purely passive; while the mind ’emerges’ because of the way our brain is organized, the relation also goes the other way: our mind also organizes the brain, as O’Shea rightly points out. [And note, once again, that O’Shea is not just anyone: he’s a very eminent neuroscientist, so you should, perhaps, think twice before you take him on.]

In any case, as far as my personal lifestyle is concerned, I don’t think my beliefs actually matter much. What matters is my way of life. When everything is said and done, it’s all about being in life and, hence, reflection is just a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I must admit that the whole process is a rather slow one, a very slow one actually, but I do take heart from some of these ancient texts when the going gets tough:

The constant falling of drops fills even a water jar. 

The sage likewise, little by little, fills himself with merit. 

(Dhammapada, verse 122)

Observing the mind

How do we observe the mind? I haven’t stumbled upon any better prescription for observing the mind than the brief introduction to zazen (meditation) written by – yes, again – Dōgen:

“If you wish to attain enlightenment, begin at once to practice zazen. For this meditation a quiet chamber is necessary, while food and drink must be taken in moderation. Free yourself from all attachments, and bring to rest the ten thousand things. Think of neither good or evil and judge not right or wrong. Maintain the flow of mind, of will, and of consciousness; bring to an end all desires, all concepts and judgments. Do not think about how to become a Buddha.

In terms of procedure, first put down a thick pillow and on top of this a second (round) one. One may choose either a full or half cross-legged position. In the full position one places the right foot on the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh. In the half position only the left foot is placed upon the right thigh. Robe and belt should be worn loosely, but in order. The right hand rests on the left foot, while the back of the left hand rests in the palm of the right. The two thumbs are placed in juxtaposition.

The body must be maintained upright, without inclining to the left or to the right, forward or backward. Ears and shoulders, nose and navel must be kept in alignment respectively. The tongue is to be kept against the palate, lips and teeth are kept firmly closed, while the eyes are to be kept always open.

Now that the bodily position is in order, regulate your breathing. If a wish arises, take note of it and then dismiss it. In practicing this persistently you will forget all attachments and concentration will come of itself. That is the art of zazen. Zazen is the Dharma gate of great rest and joy.”

The ‘attachments’ and the ‘ten thousand things’ are clearly related to the suffering ‘self’, or the ‘habits-character’ thing as I termed it. This ‘self’ usually keeps us very busy. Too busy actually, and that’s why it’s not that easy to create the awareness that is needed to observe ‘the flow of mind, of will, and of consciousness’: our ‘desires, concepts and judgments’ do indeed ‘spoil the view’. So we should analyze those desires, concepts and judgments, in order to see how exactly they are spoiling the view. Let me try to do so:

1. As for the ‘desires’, there are more than enough books on ‘romance, love and sex’. I don’t want to add one, so I will be very short on this. It is obvious that a lot of our mental activity is focused on producing or correcting ‘mental maps’ that are coherent with what we feel or experience, and those primordial feelings occupy a large part of our inner space. So, part of our interest will have to go out to explore a bit further as to how our mind – or our thought processes – can influence those feelings and emotions. [Again, as for those materialistic and/or reductionist critics who would doubt one can influence his feelings or emotions in the first place, let me just reiterate that self-control is not easy indeed, but that there are enough monks around out there who prove it’s possible. There are also plenty of good books around indeed that help millions of people deal with their emotions, and – if one looks at the number of copies that are sold of those books – it would be foolish to suggest these books aren’t useful.

2. As for the ‘concepts and judgments’ that Dōgen mentions, I guess there’s no alternative here but to dig into philosophy a bit, including Kant’s epistemology, analytical philosophy, phenomenology and what have you. In short, we’re talking about ‘the philosophy of mind.’ However, I will not focus on the classical ‘mind-body problem’ (I think some of the remarks above make clear I think this problem has busied too many people for the wrong reasons) but more on the structure of the mind itself, so Kant’s central problem indeed: “Kant saw the mind could not function as an empty container that simply receives data from the outside. Something had to be giving order to the incoming data. This ordering occurs through the mind.” I’ll come back to that later.

The concepts I will introduce below are extremely down-to-earth, and, hence, very ‘practical’, which is why I keep it so simple. Having said that, they’re consistent with what we know about the brain. [For a reference, see that ‘Introduction to the Brain’ which I mentioned above.] Let’s first agree to refer to what goes on in our mind as ‘mental states’ or ‘mental events’, as that’s consistent with what most philosophers would call it. Then I think it’s proper to distinguish at least three types of mental states or events:

  • sensations and perceptions or, more generally, experiences;
  • thoughts;
  • decisions.

The difference between them is obvious: thoughts have to do with those mental maps that we are producing all of the time, while experiences are the stuff our mind is working with.

At this point, I should, perhaps, note O’Shea’s distinction between sensations and perceptions: “Perceptions are the brain’s educated guesses about what the combined senses are telling it.” (A Very Short Introduction to the Brain, 2005, p. 64) However, the distinction is not essential to the current discussion on hand. I should also note there is more philosophical term for experiences: qualia, although I am not sure how ‘robust’ that term is from a neurobiological point of view. It’s obviously Latin, and it literally means ‘what sort’ or ‘what kind.’ Wikipedia defines qualia as “the ‘what is like’ character of mental states; the way it feels to have mental states such as pain, seeing red, smelling a rose etcetera.” Another definition, which I like more because it’s so much shorter and clearer, is just ‘raw feels’.

Our thoughts are obviously something else than the brute experiences: thoughts are expressed in words. They are intimately connected to a vocabulary, so to the ‘language’ we are using. So qualia are subjective, and thoughts are somehow more ‘objective’ (or at least inter-subjective) – if only because language is inter-subjective (or ‘objective’).

Now we have to establish the relationship between the two. I think this relationship is complicated. Let me put it this way: the mind is a mental activity which structures our experience, and I believe the structuring we do leads to conclusions and – more importantly – to decisions, which I distinguished from both of the above categories. That’s something new, I think, because I haven’t heard about any philosopher of mind who would refer to ‘decisions’ as a third category of mental events.

What’s a decision? They’re not just a ‘conclusion’. A conclusion is a conclusion. A decision is something else: we always decide to do something. Here I take an ‘interactionist’ perspective, which can be stated simply as: ‘our consciousness is causally active.’ This causal activity leads to new experiences, and so here we have a cycle which indeed allows us to change ourselves (and so how we experience things) and our world.

So… Well… That’s it really. I have nothing more to add, except for a few footnotes perhaps, such as the following one.

A short digression on Kant

As I said above, there has probably been no more elaborate attempt to analyze ‘the operations of our cognitive faculties’ than the one by Immanuel Kant, in a work that most of us have heard about but very few of us have had the courage to read (at least I haven’t): Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (translated as the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’), which appeared in 1781, and which was the result of a decade of silent and obviously very hard intellectual work.

According to Kant (or at least according to the summaries I read), we cannot know ‘das Ding an sich’, or the ‘things in themselves’, and our mind structures our experiences in a sort of two- or three-staged way:

  1. First, the mind structures our experience in time and space.
  2. Then we apply a number of a priori concepts, or categories, to our experience.

Kant neatly orders these a priori concepts in four classes of three:

  1. The categories of quantity (unity, plurality and totality)
  2. The categories of quality (reality, negation and limitation)
  3. The categories of relation (substance and accident, cause and effect, and reciprocity)
  4. The categories of modality (possibility/impossibility, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingence)

Now what do we do with that? Nothing much. It’s nice that Kant, on the go, also gives mathematics a more formal basis (according to Kant, mathematics and geometry are based on the a priori concepts of time and space), and that he, equally on the go, disproves God (he thoroughly rubbishes all previous attempts to prove God). However, I don’t think these schemes (which basically – like the scholastic schemes – also build on Aristotle’s categories) help us to get on with our daily lives. In addition, it would be interesting to see how the process of ‘structuring’ could be related to recent neuroscientific discoveries, but I guess neuroscience, while having made incredible progress over the last decades, can currently not offer much guidance here.

As mentioned above, to ‘get on with our daily lives’, all these words won’t help too much. We need a more action-oriented perspective. Now, as for what that ‘action-oriented perspective’ could or should be for us, I guess we all have to find that out for ourselves. A master or a teacher can be helpful but, as mentioned above, it’s like learning how to ride a bicycle: no one can teach you how to lead your life. You have to decide that yourself.


By now, you’re probably very tired of reading and so you’re right to wonder whether there’s any conclusion to this post. Perhaps not. Let me wrap it up by giving you yet another quote:

‘We are in the words, and at the same time, apart from them. The words spin out, spin us out, over a void. There, somewhere between us, some words form some answer for some time, allowing us to live more fully in the forgetting face of nonexistence, in the dissolving away of each other.’ (Lagan, in Jeremy D. Safran (2003), Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an unfolding dialogue, p. 134)

That’s beautiful, isn’t it? However, let me remind you, once again, that the beauty of a quote like this should not lead to us forgetting that we should not stay in the words. They should lead to action. Let me therefore conclude with the wise words I started out with:

Watch your thoughts, because thoughts become words.

Watch your words, because words become actions.

Watch your actions, because actions become habits.

Watch your habits, because habits become character.

Watch your character, because character becomes destiny.

As far as I am concerned, this is guidance enough for me. Let’s look at the moon, indeed, to further develop our own personal action-oriented perspective on life, not at the finger or, to use the analogy of the bike: at some point we have to stop talking about it and just ride it 🙂


3 thoughts on “The power of our mind

  1. Wow, that was a really good read. Slightly long though. It would be good for a reader if you could break it into a couple of smaller posts, for the content is beautiful and I was losing focus as I kept reading it.. 🙂


    1. Thanks for that ! That’s sweet. I followed your advice and broke it down into two separate posts. It’s heavy indeed. I’ve been in various jobs, in various parts of Asia, and so I guess it condenses a lot. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes.. I said so because I rarely come across such rich content in the blogging world and it would have been a pity to not read it due to the human mind’s weakness of losing focus after a few minutes.. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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