I walk my dog between 7 and 8 am most mornings. We are grateful to live beside a gorgeous, off-leash ocean walk with mountain views across a strait. This stroll through paradise is interrupted by the screams of a homeless gentleman who does a version of primal therapy most mornings. The screams are blood-curdling and often obscene. It is his protest against some terrible treatment I am sure. After completing his morning catharsis, paired with a visit to the surrounding bush to relieve himself, he attaches straps to his shoulders and pulls his shopping cart full of personal belongings to the local village where he quietly accepts handouts from passersby. It’s a sad spectacle and on most days I feel compassion for him. The exception is when he threatens to kill my dog. (It’s not the point of this piece but why our city council believes that leaving him alone in his private hell to torment women and children, (and my dog), to be a compassionate policy, is beyond me).
In the vernacular, most people would agree that this poor fellow is “out of his mind”.
I disagree. He is actually in his mind. But it’s the mind that is tormented by, and identified with, the past. He acts as though these atrocities are still happening, and he must fight them off or die. We have past mind, present mind, and a future mind. It all depends where a person directs their attention. And if we’re not consciously directing our mind to past, present or future, we’re being hijacked. As with any hijacking, the victims are being terrified. The only difference between a literal hijacking and this metaphorical hijacking of the mind is that we are both the hijacker and the highjacked–we just don’t know it. Until we know it.
This requires a wee diversion to distinguish and connect “mind” and “Mind”.
Let’s start with pure consciousness or awareness, which we can call Mind. Mind is not personal. It is pre-personal and even pre-world. Mind is distributed throughout the material immaterial realms permeating all life. This is itself controversial, as many scientists would say that mind comes out of a brain, and doesn’t come into play evolutionarily until some mammals and humans. I think they are wrong. For me, Mind precedes and is the milieu out of which all matter and all energy emerges.
Humans (and who knows how many other animals) are creatures who are not only aware. We are aware that we are aware. In meditation we can experience this state of pure, impersonal awareness. There is only fecund stillness, silence. No thought. No feelings. No images. With Mind we can watch our personal minds doing what personal minds do – mostly think about the past or worry about the future – the past mind and the future mind I referred to earlier.
But there is another part of me that is aware that I can watch this awareness being aware of my personal mind doing its thing. I mean, what part of us is aware that we are aware of Awareness. It gets really weird if you stay with it for too long.
Maybe it’s soul? Just a hunch. I think of soul as the deepest aspect of “self” that is still personal before merging back into pure non-personal awareness or Mind. It’s personal without personality or ego. It’s Mind one step down from itself. Personality is two steps down. This doesn’t imply that Mind is better than soul or personality. They are just more or less subtle expressions of the same “thing”.We are localized and unique expressions of Mind.
When eastern gurus and western new age spiritual teachers tell you that only being in the present (present mind) counts for anything, they are only partially right. There is nothing wrong with being in your past mind or future mind. It’s just that it’s take some serious practice to do this intentionally and not compulsively. And there’s the trick of it. When we are intentionally in past, present or future mind, soul shines through.
The gentleman who sleeps by the ocean and awakens to fits of rage is as harnessed to his past mind as his shopping cart is to his shoulder straps. His behaviour is compulsive. Some terrible violence was enacted upon him and he won’t get over it, or won’t get the help that might enable him to live in relationship with his past with a lot less drama. The sobering truth of the matter is that the past mind is where most human beings, myself included, spend most of their time. Some are better at keeping the torment to ourselves in a more socially acceptable way. Meditation reveals this very quickly. Try to empty your mind. Then watch how you are held hostage by your past.
Catching on to when we are in past mind is tricky because for most of us, most of the time, it just feels like “me”. It consists of habits, language patterns, and behaviours that were (often) formed to compensate for less than ideal conditions growing up. We came to certain conclusions about self, others, and the world which, by the time we’re adults, are so grooved that they show up as unconscious assumptions–just the way things are. The quickest way to disabuse ourselves that our assumptions constitute truth is to get married. We discover that this intimate other has a whole other set of assumptions about what is true and real. Then it’s game on. It’s only when both individuals are able to see that neither set of assumptions are necessarily correlated with reality as it is, (but rather as the past was) that there’s half a chance of making it work. Intimate relationship first reveal and then (ideally, if we let it) brings us into our right mind – letting things be as they are, not as we interpret to be them from the perspective of past assumptions.
That’s the past mind, but we are also tormented by our future mind. And by torment I mean we compulsively live in a future over which we actually no control. Which is why we try to control it through worry, planning, calculation, etc. Again, we do this in part because past mind assumes that the world isn’t safe, and that we’re royally screwed if we’re not hyper-vigilant about controlling all outcomes.
The compulsive nature of past mind and future mind causes most of our suffering when we are adults. (As children our suffering is caused mostly by big people who don’t know how to love little people).
There’s nothing wrong with directing the mind to the past. Say you are writing a memoir. You direct your attention to remember past events. Knock yourself out. That’s not suffering because it’s not compulsive (and therefore not based in fear). Or say you are budgeting for the next year. All kinds of calculation, prediction, etc. is required for this task. This is a prudent and useful use of mind. But once your writing session or the budgeting is done, and you continue to find yourself defaulting to past or future unconsciously, you are suffering. Being in your present mind then involves the practice of catching yourself in the act of being somewhere and some time you haven’t chosen to be, and gently and tenderly returning to the present. The present mind doesn’t compulsively analyze, interpret, label, brood, ruminate, worry or make up shit that’s not real.
When there’s nothing to think about, what’s the point of thinking? Just see, feel, sense, respond, move, enjoy, cry, surrendering to what is. Before you. Now. Those who are able to choose when they are in past mind, present mind, or future mind, live closer to both soul and a pure state of awareness, or Mind. We experience these people as “spiritual”. They are less identified with the personal mind, and more with soul and with Mind itself. (Also Heart, but that’s a different post). Personality fades. Soul, which has nothing to prove, and only light to bring to the world, is cleared for mission. Think Richard Alpert, the former Harvard professor, turned acid-dropping hippy, turned spiritual teacher. By the end of this life, despite a debilitating stroke, his soul was all that was left. People came from all over the world to receive a blessing from this man of light who was confined to a wheel chair and whom we came to know as Ram Dass.
The poor raving lunatic hasn’t lost his mind. His mind works well. It’s just imprisoned by past trauma. To be in our “right mind” is to have gained the competency to consciously choose what to do with our mind, whether to stay present, or to time travel to the past or future. By the time this capacity comes on line we are expressing more of our soul than our personality. Again, this doesn’t mean personality is bad. It’s just that as we become more spiritually mature we are less attached to the experiences, stories and interpretation of those stories that we once identified with.
To be in our right mind is to be able to see clearly and interpret clearly, without the baggage of the past or trying to figure out a future that is, and always will be, uncertain. It is to get comfortable with uncertainty, that is, with not knowing nothin’ about what’s on the horizon. It is learning to trust that we have what it takes to do life without preformed categories, images, and narratives that our past mind and future mind love and confuse with reality.