Nitya Teachings

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The Apple Experiment

         The Western idea of mind is broken down into four parts in traditional Indian psychology. Their interaction produces the totality of what most people vaguely call the mind. A “thought experiment” from the UU Peace class illustrates this process very well.

         We gathered into pairs to brainstorm the event, which undoubtedly seemed like overkill to my hapless victims. I got everyone to focus on me, and for the briefest instant pulled an apple out of my briefcase, held it up, and tucked it out of sight again. While it was held up I asked “What is this?” The entire process took about a second.

         The groups each filled a whole page with ideas about "what it was," which we then collected. These ranged from applelike concepts to mythological associations, urban legends and arcane references. My guess is there were also lots of thoughts held in check as to why we were spending time on something so trivial.

         Here’s why: the process illustrates how the mind works. In the Indian scheme, manas or mind is the first stage, the part of us that asks “What is this?” We are biologically hardwired as well as psychologically conditioned to direct our mental energy toward identifying our surroundings so as to avoid danger and seek pleasure and sustenance. (This can also be a technique to discover the Absolute, if “What is this?” is accompanied by neti neti, whereby all identifiable thises are subtracted from the solution; but that’s another story. We almost always focus on identifiable thises.)

         In response to “What is this?” the cittam, the memory banks, recall similar items from the past. Nothing is ever forgotten, so every damn apple you’ve ever met is in there. This is only one of the astounding miracles of existence we casually take for granted, how those thousands of memories are activated in the blink of an eye. If we didn’t zip ahead to the next step, they would parade before our mind’s eye indefinitely.

         But very quickly buddhi, the intellect, kicks in with its identification. A name label is our handy way of epitomizing the identity of something. Though the process was too fast for anyone to notice, each had the nearly instantaneous answer to my question, that “This is an apple.”

         And lastly, the ahamkara, the ‘I’ or ego sense, brings in its personal preferences and concludes “Apples are good. They are food. They are not dangerous. I like apples.” If we had had someone who had eaten a poisoned apple or was allergic to them, they would have concluded “Apples are bad. I don’t like them. I should avoid them.”

         This fourfold process is going on all the time. Why do we care? Because it demonstrates how little of the actual world we are taking in, and how much of it is our highly refined and yes, prejudiced opinion. For most Americans, if I’d held up an Arab, they would have spewed negative associations for hours. It wouldn’t matter how saintly the person was, the memory links would have been lethal. And all this comes from propaganda conditioning. This is how we are prepared to fight. We don’t have to be coerced, we just have to be convinced.

         The actual source of our thoughts is hardly encountered at all after our first few years of life. This is true with everything, not just the bogeyman of the hour. If I had brought in a wax apple or even a red ball with painted streaks, our minds would have gone through the same process of interpretation and reaction, and identified them as apples. The modern world has piled false images on top of the already false system we operate under. Without a “hands on” examination, we might still believe we had seen an apple even if we hadn’t.

         If we are ever to return from spiritual death and come back to life, to use the traditional imagery, we must open ourselves up to something more than this static reactivity to our surroundings. We must relearn how to “see” the world. Is there anything more important than this?

         The key question is, does the apple really exist or not? Everything we “knew” about it was supplied by us, a tiny amount by our sensory system and the vast majority by our memory banks. Where is the actual apple in all this?

         The Indian description of reality is that it has to be as real as a berry in the palm of your hand, in other words, irrefutable, axiomatic. After the thought experiment the apple was diced up and passed around. Since experience is dramatically mediated and truncated by our thoughts, such as “I am now eating an apple,” which brings in the millions of memories of previous apple eating, we turned off the lights and concentrated a moment before eating it. Hopefully there was a brief instant of true experience that transcended all our concepts. Certainly the what-it-was tasted very good and was undeniably eaten. For a millisecond it was “a berry in the palm of our hands.”


Scott Teitsworth