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
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
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?
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.”