I can’t make up my mind. My mind is made up. Apply your mind. Know your mind. It’s all a mind game. How many times in a day we mention this word? Perhaps never pausing to really understand what do we mean by it. Does it represent our emotional responses? Or is it about something beyond the temporal? About faith? Feelings? Spirituality? Or is it just another name for our brain. The most perfect computer. Is mind synonymous with the poet’s heart? No one has the answer yet. Sages and scholars, philosophers and poets, gurus and godmen, scientists, kings and commoners, oligarchs and democrats—all have enquired into this mystery—mind. Mind does matter.
Mind is something which has obsessed all faiths from time immemorial. We think about it and with it. All the time. What do we mean actually by mind? We understand that we have two important organs in our body—brain and heart. We are aware of our senses. We also know about intuition. We are aware of consciousness. Many believe in a soul. Others in conscience. Awareness. Intellect. Intelligence. Intuition. Yet, we conveniently use the word ‘mind’ as a synonym for all of these feelings depending upon the context to our individual state at a particular time. Is mind therefore analogous with all or any of the above assumptions. The dictionary defines mind as analogous with any of these beliefs. It is mana in Sanskrit and could be dil (heart) or dimaag (brain) in Urdu. In Latin, it could mean anime (intellect) or mens (logic). The Oxford Dictionary defines it as: ‘The element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.’
In Hindu tradition, there are several interpretations we find of the mind across the self (atman) and consciousness (chita). Various Hindu religious texts attribute a physical as well as metaphysical notion to mind. In Bhagavad Gita, mind is our awareness, the ability to discern the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, and act upon it. According to the Advaita thought, the mind is a subtle substance (dravya). Ramana Maharshi sums up the Vedantic view as: “The mind is only a bundle of thoughts.” For Swami Vivekananda, “The atman never comes nor goes, is never born nor dies. It is nature moving before the atman, and the reflection of this motion is on the atman.” This is what mind is all about. While Buddhist texts too use the word chita for mind, it includes perception, verbal and abstract thoughts, emotions, feelings of happiness and unhappiness, attention, concentration, intelligence and more. When Buddhism speaks about mind, it refers to every type of mental activity. Confucius talks of xin (heart/mind) as one unit.
In all three monotheistic traditions—Christian, Islamic and Jewish—creation is a finite act and the mind is the search of the ultimate truth as expounded in the Book by God and his Prophet. St Augustine thought that because it is immediately present to itself, the mind knows itself and that in knowing itself, it knows God as well while the more well-known Descartes’ famous anti-sceptical argument is simple—I think, therefore I am. All the Abrahamic religions talk more about soul and assume the mind to mean beliefs. Interpretation is by the word of God. The concept of the mind exploring a truth is absent. One is merely discovering the truth as revealed.
The New Testament employs a broad concept of the mind. It includes one’s worldview or outlook and the way in which it influences perception. But the particular perspective can vary to include morality. In Islam, the Quran and Hadith are focused on how to use the mind rather than its nature.
Interestingly, all of the ancient religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism—are based on the principle of eternal God and faith is about discovering this eternity, in the quest of which the mind plays the central role. The mind is mischievous (chanchal) and meditation (dhyana) and harmonious existence (yoga) are the essence of spirituality. The mind embodies this quest. This worldview is more in sync with what was discovered by the thinkers of the 19th century, with the exclusion of Marx and his followers where the existence of God itself is in question. The mind in this stream of thought merges clearly into the brain. Now scientists are discovering neural paths to non-linear and abstract thinking that give us an answer to our impulses, intuition and even genetic memory which lie in the mind.
Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, divided the mind into the conscious mind (or the ego) and the unconscious mind. The latter was then further divided into the id (or instincts and drive) and the superego (or conscience). Earlier, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his seminal work Critique of Pure Reason held that for our experience, and therefore our minds, to be as they are, the way that our experience is tied together must reflect the way that physics says that objects in the world must be tied together. Kant uses the term ‘impression’ rarely; it seems to be in the same camp as ‘appearance’ and ‘intuition’. On the other hand, another equally famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says that consciousness is not an essential property of the mental; the majority of mental states are unconscious. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Sketchfor a Theory of the Emotions, explores the relationship between the cerebral and the felt. The spontaneous conscious grasp of the situation which characterises an emotion, involves what Sartre describes as a ‘magical’ transformation of the situation. In a major study, American psychologists Libet, Gleason, Wright and Pearl (1983) found that neural activity precedes conscious experience of indenting to act (the so-called readiness potential, RP). In a replication of this study by another pair of US-based psychology professors Haggard and Eimer (1999), awareness of movement followed a later module of the RP, the lateralised readiness potential (LRP). LRP represents the neural activity over the motor cortex in the hemisphere that controls the opposite side of the body. More and more scientific studies now reveal that certain parts of our brains, which otherwise lie dormant, get activated by abstract stimuli. Intuition, especially the sixth sense, are all born in abstraction but get synthesised by our brain. Mind, in a manner, superimposes matter. No wonder, the heart (mind) has its reasons.
Seeing this connection between action and reason also tells us a lot about what our minds must be like. Somewhere is the penumbra of consciousness exists a vortex of our thinking. It’s an amorphous combination of physiological, psychological and metaphysical faculties of humans which we call mind. Meg Selig, the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success says: ‘Yes, your mind—that is, your thoughts—can change your brain. Odd as it may sound, as you create new thought patterns, you actually rewire your brain. The more you practice a new thinking habit, the more the same neurons will learn to work together and wire together. As neuroscientists say, neurons that fire together, wire together.’ In other words, ‘…directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function.’ Monism and dualism, the two theories of the brain and mind relationship, ultimately point towards a similar realisation. From cognition to memory, humans (and many say animals, even plants) have a mind of their own. It may take us many more years of ‘mindfulness’, meditation and enquiry to understand what the mind is.
The British poet AE Houseman asks:
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free, The birthright of multitudes, give it to me, That relish their victuals and rest on their bed With flint in the bosom and guts in the head
We have long talked about the wandering mind—of its transience, effervescence and volatility. In one of my lyrics, I ask:
Pal bhar mein ye kya ho gaya Woh man gaya..
(What happened in a moment
Away I went and as the mind flit)
Yet, in spite of all its digressions and maunderings, it’s the mind which has unravelled a million mysteries. It’s what we lean to the most every moment of our life. It is the repository of joy and sorrow, longing and belonging, dreams and memories. Love and hate, pain and passion. Give and take a lobe of brain. The mind knows but has no knowledge.
We read the scriptures, we sit at the feet of masters and listen to the gurus. Scholars and scientists grapple with this phenomenon. Somewhere yonder, in not so distant a future, we shall comprehend what the mind is. Or perhaps not.