There are, broadly speaking, two experiences of mind.
If I might be pressed to use other words, the mind performs two particular functions that we directly perceive.
Ok, so your brain does two things.
And they are these: to sense, and to think.
Of all life’s mysteries, it would be no exaggeration to consider the phenomenon of sensation among the most perplexing. Don’t be turned off if you think I’m being melodramatic. Mountain peaks have been scaled, ocean depths explored -- we landed on the freaking moon!
And those problems don’t even sniff the challenge of figuring out what sensation is.
How it is that we can see, feel, hear, or touch remains… well, just out of it. Sure, there are scientific mechanisms which explain it -- explain the process, that is -- but not the phenomenon! What amount of words or descriptions could ever truly capture… blue? Or soft? Or embarrassed? What makes a particular sensation a sensation? People ponder whether they could explain sight to a blind man. Well -- can you explain it even to yourself?
One thing is for sure: at the root of the mystery of the senses, lie the answers to reality itself. Because so far as any one man can know, reality and sensation cannot exist without the other.
But no matter the mystery, sensation exists as a phenomenon.
However it does it, that’s the first thing the brain does.
Second: to think. Let me ask you: do you know what thinking is? You may think that you do. You may feel it.
Do you know?
Allow me to put forth an idea -- resonance.
An initial impulse, followed by ever-decreasing aftershocks. Vibration.
This pattern, or metaphor as you may call it -- I believe most adequately sums the nature of thinking.
If you are inside, think about a warm, sunny day.
Don’t you see the grass? Hear the birds? Feel the sun? And yet of course, no such things exist in your immediate surroundings. Yet you perceive some impression, though deadened, perhaps muffled, of the same sensations. Look closely and marvel! How can you “see yet not see”?
That is what I mean when I say “resonance.” What the mind has sensed once, it can “play back” -- totally independent of further stimulation.
Imagine a life without thought now -- an experience consisting only of sensation, of taking in -- ingesting but not digesting. You experience that reality when you are engrossed in film, or music, or dance. How wonderful it is!
Though by this I really shouldn’t imply thought to be some enemy to the unencumbered beauty of thoughtlessness -- let us save pejoratives for another article.
For now, we stick to a more objective look.
Returning to the notion of resonance, we must also consider a distinct phenomenon that accompanies it -- which is abstract thinking. Now, the meaning of this term can often feel… abstract. Let us mend the pain of confusion.
Abstraction is symbolism. Symbolism is one thing standing for another. A clover is not merely a clover -- it also evokes ideas of luck and the Irish. There you are -- symbolism -- one thing standing for something else entirely.
You should appreciate that this is a phenomenon made possible by resonance alone. In reality, a clover cannot bring about a physical Irish person, nor can it create luck. But in a reflection of reality, senses can be mixed and matched, joined with feelings, correlated and bound together, such that the sensation of one produces a resonance of another.
This is thought.
Abstract thinking enabled by resonance.
See now, how such abstraction is a requisite for language?
A letter, take “s” -- a visual form, is paired with a sound. Not one heard physically, but resonated from an earlier hearing. Combining this sound with others forms words, which themselves are sounds paired with meanings, which are images or sounds or smells.
It all breaks down to sensations, all referring to each other.
Meaning is abstraction. Paired senses, resonating with each other.
I suppose when the eastern mystics say, "all life is vibration," their observation rings true.
(And here you thought you'd get a single post without a spiritual reference shoe-horned in. Didn't you get the memo? It's all connected, baby!)
So that’s your brain. A bit simpler now?
To become wise, you must under stand your confusions.
Knowledge builds upwards: conscious thoughts float on top of deeper feelings. What, in your mind, you can see most clearly, is most superficial. Remember that.
Impulses begin as deep neural pathways -- ones which know only fear and pleasure -- and transform, blossom into feelings, then feelings into ideas, and ideas into thoughts. There for us to sense are only these most refined mental concepts -- so far removed from the source that they have often become delusion or fiction. Yet we take these thoughts to be true simply because they are there, despite that most of what we are, and what we believe goes on behind closed doors, outside of our imagining and thinking, in the subconscious.
This is not to say this subconscious cannot be accessed.
Doors were made to be opened. But first, realize that while the whole kaleidoscope of your mental universe seems ever in flux, its entirety can be traced back to but a few roots. Diversity of thought is merely a reflection of the endless array of stimuli and experiences we have in this world.
So much has been said in the annals of spiritual literature about the importance of distinguishing the observed from the observer. Here on this site, we’ve done nothing to put an end to this task. However you’d do well too conceptualizing the whole situation in another light -- not as observer and observed, but as reflector and reflections.
At least, it’s another way of looking at it.
Your mind, the reflector. Your thoughts, its reflections. To know yourself, there is only one goal: to throw out reflection, and find the reflector -- which is the essence. The essence of you.
That which reacts -- not its reactions.
Imagine looking in a mirror and seeing not the reflections, but the essence of the mirror itself.
Mind bending, isn’t it?
But nevertheless, find me somebody who can do this and I will show you someone who understands, who is self-aware, who is wise.
But let’s try another metaphor, this one only a bit more extended.
Ready your imagination.
Envision a vast forest, that stretches in all directions to the horizon. The trees are bunched close together. They are probably well over one hundred feet tall, and bunched so close, that at the tree tops, where you are, nothing can be seen of the forest floor. An undulating blanket of interwoven green leaves stretches out, brightly illuminated by the sun. Leaves shimmer, and glow, fluttering green. Just feet below, are the twisting branches from which the leaves sprout. But quickly, as you move lower still, things become dark.
As you would descend downwards, you would notice curling twigs combining into branches, those branches into limbs, and limbs into thick trunks.
While leaves flutter, trunks do not move. They loom, in towering and silent stillness. Down, all the way to the forest floor, where the sound of the wind high above can no longer be heard.
This is the mind; this forest imagery another allegory.
Think first of the leaves -- they flutter, they are delightful. But they are weak in a way, mercurial. They point every which way, and so point in none. They shift as the wind goes, each with a mind of their own.
At this level, you cannot find security, nor permanence. Indulge in observation, watch how the leaves go. From such chaos nothing can be known, so be content to know nothing. Rather see, and no more.
But go deeper, you will find there is stability and order. You will find there is direction. You will know how ideas are supported and organized, and the forces which structure all that above.
Leaves are mere reflections of environment -- the result of interplaying sun, water, and wind. And most conscious thought is this way. Reflections of sensations, myriad, fluctuating ... intellectually worthless.
Discover what is beneath. Under stand the canopy, and you will know something timeless, strong, and sure.
Nothing comprises existence beyond sensory inputs -- unclassified, unmarked, indiscriminate variations and patterns. Yet how we grasp at something higher, believing there must be something more, but unable to put our finger on just what it is…
The mind is the grasper, yet what it grasps is merely the roots of its own creation. This reality wherein there is nothing to learn nor know, it hides from itself. That one could be the searcher and the searched for is only accomplished through ignorance alone -- an ignorance in which the grasper is complicit. For we desire to be ignorant. We desire to hide from ourselves the truth that all without is in fact within.
The mind needs function, meaning, and purpose. This is its essential aim. Tools, fire, hunting, and onwards to the iPhones and electricity of today -- everything is pursued with an intention and purpose in mind. Working towards ends only imagined but never realized, the mind is a builder. It appropriates the sensations it receives -- that is to say it converts sight, sound, or touch into something appropriate for use in construction.
Action exists without meaning, yet the mind refuses to accept this. Behind every action is an impulse, and drive. The quest for food to sate hunger, and the pursuit of sex to release aggression are but two examples. Such actions the body demands -- but what of the mind, whose abstractions create desires insatiable by physical reality?
Towards these ends the mind must create its own reasoning and purpose, things beyond those which is so clearly felt by the body…
and yet it must also believe its own machinations to constitute genuine motivations.
This it does by never questioning, and simply accepting it to be so. The preference of an ignorant state may seem unlikely to you, but it provides to humanity a great benefit, which is to be free of the soulless, black void of nothingness.
You see, the mind, absent any immediate problem to solve, must create the impetus for its own existence. It wants to work, mechanically, constructing theories and ideas, but to do so requires inventing the cause for this action. It cannot work on fumes; it cannot build on vapors; it cannot make something of nothing.
And it must build: it is voracious in this activity.
These roots, these groundworks from which all thought and action grows, these most fundamental assumptions we take to be true in order to act, to live, and to know what cannot be known -- here is the domain of the spiritual. To sate the churning mind, to stop the question of “why,” at the largest level, to allow us to continue to pursue our single-minded desires and passions free from haziness and uncertainty.
It is enormously empowering; it is severely limiting.
To create this “something” from nothing is to trap ourselves to the endless imagination -- one wonders whether this situation is oxymoronic. To become slave to freedom.
And yet one must wonder if this situation is not preferable to the void, where the scope of freedom has expanded and stretched beyond meaning, where terms like slavery and free will explode into insignificance.
In this horrid, enchanting stillness we become dead, yet wonder whether we were alive in life anyways.
A pure mind is empty.
A pure mind is ignorant.
A pure mind absorbs.
A pure mind sees but does not react.
A pure mind knows nothing.
A pure mind remembers nothing.
A pure mind is wide open.
A pure mind is intelligence itself.
A pure mind is controlled.
A pure mind understands.
A pure mind is perfect logic.
A pure mind has no assumptions.
A pure mind has no illusions.
A pure mind believes in nothing.
A pure mind has no problems,
A pure mind is clear.
A pure mind is unconfused.
A pure mind is always calm.
A pure mind never fears nor worries.
A pure mind is yours, if you can keep it.
From 1508-1512, the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo worked painstakingly on his most famous work of art.
Applied directly to the wet plaster in the ceiling, The Creation of Adam forms just one small, though prominent, rectangular portion of the kaleidoscopic series of paintings and figures with which Michelangelo covered the entire hundred-foot ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Working on top of scaffolding three stories above the floor, his head painfully craned upwards for hours at a time and with wet paint dripping down on him constantly, the work of art Michelangelo produced represented nothing less than a metaphor for the tough and exhausting process of creation itself.
Man creates God creating Man.
And perhaps, to go back a layer further -- God created a man, who now creates God creating Man. The line between creator and created begins to break down, and in this morass lies Michelangelo’s great genius of insight -- to provoke that ancient question of whether man, by our more nobler nature, can attain the essence of the divine, or whether our mortal coils do restrict us from doing so.
A third question lurks in the particular way he portrayed God -- Michelangelo surrounds Him with a flowing drapery that curiously resembles the brain. A student of human anatomy, Michelangelo, historians of art tell us, almost certainly had performed the dissections necessary to understand the physical shape and form of the brain. The superficial similarities are almost positively an effort on the artist’s part to evoke that most intellectual organ.
Here then is the question it raises, and it is profound: by this imagery, did Michelangelo mean to suggest God himself to be but a figment of human imagination?
My, what an incisive and penetrating intellect to hint at such profound questions in an age steeped in religiosity, no matter how tempered by growing celebration of rationality and humanity...
But alas, the intrigue here likely falls flat.
Michelangelo, we know, remained a devout Catholic all his life. More probably he tried to invoke that notion that the divine is in us, and if that divine nature is to be found anywhere, it is in the mind. Possible atheistic interpretations amount to anachronistic constructs made only recently in our own time of growing secularism.
But regardless of intent, there is something fascinating about the impulse to encase god in a brain-like shape. There exists something deeply hubristic and heretical about a literal surrounding and encapsulating of God within the brain. It implies the more abstract idea that we in some way control Him, capture Him, or even supercede Him.
God creates man creates god.
Or maybe man created the story that God created man.
Or maybe God created man, but with the ability to achieve the divine.
Perhaps this whole paradoxical tangle implies the two are somehow inseparable, arising as two sides of the same coin, or two threads intertwined. The whole pursuit to discover where one ends and the other begins a misperceiving that they cannot be separated at all.
To push you, however vaguely, in the direction of resolution, let me take you back two centuries before the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was so elegantly covered, to the greatest Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. As he understood it, there are two forms of knowledge. Laws and principles of normal human thought can be built up through reason. We can learn about the world, study science, and create logical proofs. All this he deemed ‘philosophy.’ But he claimed there to be a second form of knowledge, which was truth, ascertained not through philosophy but ‘theology.’ These truths were not products of reason, but of divine revelation alone.
What exactly constitutes revelation, is less clear.
But think, nevertheless, of this: If we return to our present hour, to our own era of growing agnosticism and secular spirituality, unobscured by the mythic and looming figure of “God,” and if we look clearly at ourselves and our beliefs, I wonder if at a certain point we can no longer separate “reason” and “revelation,” or “God” and “man” and find that the whole idea that they are even divided requires as much faith in the spite of facts than any separate god figure ever did.
Perhaps this separation of reality into part man and part god is the origin of religion itself. And given that humans tend to have faith in those things that quell their fear, one can only wonder what great leviathan lurks in the abyss of the human psyche to create the faith necessary for such a momentous division.
Perhaps the inevitable unification of God and man is what Michelangelo painstakingly invested four years of his hard work to portend to us through the almost-but-not-quite touching fingers of God and Adam.
Or perhaps, rather, I’ve gotten myself lost in Biblical fairy tales again.
How easily, as if by the devil's magic, our delusions can possess us.
Perhaps these delusions make us sinful human and separate us from the divine; perhaps they are divinity itself.
It’s worth pondering, either way.
Never forget that you’re the one who needs to sort it all out.