Over the past few days, I have been thinking about the importance of having the right mindset. If there would be one superpower I could have, it would be to control my mind. We truly are prisoners of our thoughts (I’m using these terms interchangeably without getting into the technicalities of the differences between our thoughts and mind).
This realization hit me like a rock as I came out of a deep meditative state. It was almost as if I was under a stupor for years and all of a sudden, I awoke with forceful energy. The clarity of thought, peace, and positivity I experienced in those moments were absolutely incredible (think the movie Limitless or Taravangian from The Stormlight Archive). I took notes furiously, realizing that it won’t last for too long. I was right of course, and it’s such a shame. Is it possible to remain in such a powerful mental state all the time? Can daily meditation achieve that? These are good questions, but for another time. This one is a meditation on the realizations I had on the importance of mind control.
Get hold of the mind. The mind is like a lake, and every stone that drops into it raises waves. These waves do not let us see what we are. – Swami Vivekananda
I grew up greatly inspired and influenced by Swami Vivekananda. It was surprising to me how much he was able to achieve at such a young age. I was also incredibly impressed by his apparent superpowers – long-distance telepathy, extreme capabilities of concentration which allowed him to devour books at a superhuman pace and have an impeccable aim, and he had a magnetic charismatic personality too, which cast a spell on everyone he met. It is of course, difficult to ascertain the veracity of such stories which are more than a hundred years old. It is undeniable though, that the man was truly something.
What you will observe when you go through his lectures is the huge importance he placed on mind control. As a kid, I didn’t really understand the importance of meditation and of being able to distance yourself from your incessant thoughts. But I can say today that I see it now. I have explored several (mostly Indian) meditation techniques over the past few years. And although I haven’t been disciplined enough to practice it on a daily basis, I can attest to the incredible joy and clarity of thought experienced (sometimes) when you are able to calm down your mind.
I feel that meditation has been wrongly understood by western civilization. I’m not going to double-click on that thought here. At the risk of sounding cocky, I will say though – meditation is just a tool and also, it’s not supposed to be easy if you truly want to reap its full benefits. By easy, I mean you’re probably not going to be able to reach the desired mental state by following along a guided meditation for a few minutes on your smartphone app.
Our lives can be so much more productive and fulfilling if we cease to be slaves of our thoughts. Our thoughts are not us. It helps to visualize them as stemming from our monkey brain (a term I picked up from this amazing Ted talk by Tim Urban I watched a few years back). And then have this other rational, sensible voice of the observer (again, not going into the technicalities of whether this observer is the ego, the intellect, or the self). This discussion can get real complicated real fast if we bring in the psychological and spiritual considerations. But to keep things simple, I realized that it helps to have the construct of right and wrong.
The monkey brain is more often than not wrong and the observer is more often than not right. A very important point to keep in mind is never to deal in extremes. The monkey brain’s aim is to lure you into hedonistic pleasures and temptations – to have that ice cream, to skip exercise, to procrastinate important tasks, etc. And as the observer, you should strive to perform two duties:
Observe your thoughts (monkey brain) impartially. Use as much willpower as needed (hopefully not a lot, you only have a fixed amount; use pre-built systems and emergency strategies instead) to fight against these impulses. Use your judgment here. It is a fight worth fighting, no matter what your monkey brain tells you. More often than not, the easy way is not the right way. A disclaimer is needed here – you need to use your judgment in fighting this good fight to tame your mind. It is possible to overdo it. As Dr. Jordan Peterson says in 12 Rules for Life, you should negotiate fairly with your inner voice (monkey brain). If you continue being a tyrant to it for too long, it will strike back with resentment and chaotic disobedience.
This fine balance is something I have been struggling to find. On one hand, you can emulate the monks and sadhus who torture their senses and monkey brains into submission by abstinence and sensory deprivation. On the other hand, you can treat it as your child – sternly enforce discipline for the entire week and then take them out for a treat on Sunday. This second approach is what sounds appealing to me. But woefully, I haven’t been able to follow it with success persistently. For example, when I do go for an occasional treat after a week of strict dieting and exercise, my monkey brain succeeds in silencing the rational observer part of me completely. And I end up eating four pints of ice cream, an entire pack of chocolate cookies, and two bags of frozen blueberries all in one sitting. Food is just one example. The same analogy extends to so many other spheres of life.
When you are able to control your monkey brain and perform tasks that you are required to do in a timely, productive manner (like all proper adults are expected to do in our society), then you will feel good about yourself. All of us are familiar with the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a series of hard tasks. But it is also possible that you start to hate your life and feel like you are acting like a robot – mindlessly ticking off the list of tasks. You’ll find yourself wondering –
aren’t we supposed to be smart, sentient beings who should be doing much greater things than making our beds or doing mind-numbingly boring chores? we only get this one life. We aren’t going to get this time of life back. Why not have fun and enjoy while you can? And there is truth in that. That’s why we come back to the all-important theme of striking the right balance in all spheres of life. And this is the third hard task that you, as the rational observer have to perform – find that boundary of fine balance. You have to do what you need to do (Karma concept from the BhagwadGita). Maybe then you can do what you want to do. The rational observer part of you should be able to do enough of both.
As you advance, you will realize that there is a way to enjoy even the things that you need to do. Sometimes, it is just a matter of changing your perspective. At other times, you might realize that you can totally eliminate the tasks which you so hate and can in no way come to enjoy.
These are just my observations. I’m not an expert on any of this stuff, nor can I say that I have a good handle on every single aspect of my life. Putting out one’s thoughts in a coherent manner on a piece of paper (or as digital content on the internet in our times) has the wonderful effect of organizing your thought process. It almost forces you to think through the mess in your head and lay down a structure. It is the mental equivalent of cleaning your room and has ripple effects in other aspects of your life. That’s why journaling is so popular too. People who swear by it claim that it changed their life completely once they started penning down their thoughts.
Anyway, that’s probably one of the many reasons why I have decided to start this blog. This article started off as a note to my future self for reference, maybe someone else in this world might find some value out of it. If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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