from The Theosophist May 1979

Time and the Troubled Mind

Hugh Shearman

Sometimes it is well to proceed from the particular to the general. Consider, hen, a particular troubled state of mind that afflicts many people. At a time when they want to get to sleep, the mind becomes immensely active. It presents them with endless images. It brings up old and evil memories. It dwells on anxieties. It invents conversations. It goes over the events of the day.

What is the sufferer to do if he wants to get to sleep on a particular occasion or if he wants to avoid the recurrence of this distressing condition of mind? There are, of course, other factors as well as the mind. Physical conditions are very important. The would be sleeper must be physically comfortable, neither too hot nor too cold, nor suffering from the effects of eating or drinking too close to sleeping time. But if these factors have been eliminated so far as possible, what is he to do about his mind?

Various suggestions for quieting the mind have been proposed, some of them traditional and widely known. One method is to give one's attention to counting imaginary sheep going through a gate. The idea is to give the mind a simple task to perform - just enough to preclude attention to other and less tranquil pursuit. But normally the mind is sufficiently ingenious to protest at the fatuity of this task and, before twenty sheep have been counted, it is rushing agitatedly in several other direction.

There is also a simple "yoga" procedure that some people find efficacious. Imagine a ring of soft, barely perceptible light surrounding the feet. As one breathes in, it moves up to the knees, and down again as one breathes out. After a while, it may be allowed to pass the knees and move in a similar fashion between knees and hip joints, always moving up as one breathes in and down as one breathes out. In this way it can be allowed to do its relaxing work further and further up the body, the mind giving a gentle attention to its movement. In the end it will have passed right up the body and beyond it, so that one's attention is moving out to it through the little trap door at the top of the head and the breathing has probably become the slow and shallow respiration of sleep. By that time one is quite likely actually to be asleep.

But if the mind revolts and such devices do not work, what is one to say to that mind?

What the agitated mind must be told is, quite simply, "There is no past. There is no future". It may well be convenient to combine this assertion with the slow rhythm of breathing; but it must be firm assertion and not just a repetition of words. If the message can be firmly conveyed, the agitated mind will stop keeping the sleeper awake. This approach can sometimes put a person to sleep, not in minutes, but within seconds.

Why does this message so often prove successful in quieting the mind f the sleeper? And has it not a significance for all troubled conditions of mind?

Animals's field of attention

Mind is universal. All nature is full of examples of mind or creative intelligence at work. In the various living organisms as much of this mind manifests itself in and individual form as the circumstances of the organism are likely to require. Most animals do not have to think. Instead they deal with their individual circumstances by instinctive reactions which are rooted in a pattern appropriate to their species. That pattern shows considerable intelligence but not individualized intelligence.

In humanity, mind is individualized. Humans are, to some extent, able to think. This is accomplished through their capacity to give attention to two or more things at the same time, including memories and mental images. This in turn makes possible such processes as comparison, analysis and synthesis, the establishing of generalized conclusions and the initiation of conceptual thinking.

An intelligent domestic animal can pursue a train of thought quite a long way, memory of past experiences supplying the connecting links. One can observe a cat or dog patiently watching a succession of events which he believes are going to work out to his advantage. Some of these trains of thought that animals follow are much longer than we might expect, involving many successive links. But though he may have a train of thought, the animal does not have a field of thought. He does not command a complex of associated images from which he can derive generalized conclusions and concepts. The animals is virtually incapable of giving attention to two or more things at the same time. If he is scratching his ear and wants to pay attention to what his human patron or some other animal is doing, he is likely to stop scratching his ear, the paw perhaps poised in mid-air, forgotten because a new object of attention has been interposed.

Mental attention in the animal is like a spotlight picking out one object at a time. He can learn to move it to another object and another, so that he can follow a train of associated images. Otherwise he surrenders himself, with what we often sees as remarkable grace and dignity, simply to the authority of instinct and the limits of circumstances. His life is wonderfully free from internal conflict, and such mind as he has is largely untroubled.

Mental attention in the human is more like a floodlight, picking out a number of objects simultaneously. And since man has some emotive relationship to most of these objects, the effects which have his attention are images which embody memories of the past and anticipations of the future so that, unlike the wild creatures or even domestic animals, he will "look before and after - (and ) pine for what is not".

The purpose of the human stage in evolution is to establish the basis of an experiencing an self conscious individuality - a personal selfhood. The first stage in doing this is to identify self with the physical organism and with the automatic reactions and memories associated with it. Intent on this task, mind in the human busies itself from early childhood with evaluating every experience, every relationship and circumstance, according to the criterion of whether if favours and extends the personal self or whether it threatens and diminishes it, whether it is "pro-me" or "anti-me".

The systems of values which constitute our human world are all based on this principle of evaluation and are profoundly dualistic. Our feelings and personalities are mobilised in the service of the values we have built up. These systems can be very sophisticated and are not necessarily narrowly selfish. Intelligence shows us that our interests are very much bound up with those of other personal selves, and the individual in his state of competitive separateness comes to know that mere narrowly selfish aggression is not necessarily the most successful way of ensuring the security and extension of his selfhood.

Nevertheless, a time has to come when disillusionment sets in. The individual begins to know that enough has been done to establish his individuality. He begins to be weary of the emptiness of the competitive values and the mutual exploitation which permeate the world which mind creates when it is fixated to this task of perpetually judging everything as pro-me or anti-me. He sees that something inherently unclean runs not only through the more combatively exploitative aspects of life but also through such apparently idealistic pursuits as religion. His world begins to collapse for him because the suspicion has occurred to him that the self he has been developing and protecting is not, after all, the real Self, and that the real Self reveals itself in him only when these subtly competitive pursuits have been abandoned.

Field of past and future

Yet even when glimpses of this truth come to the individual from time to time, sometimes opening a chasm at his feet, the bit of mind that he has appropriated as his own has been trained for aeons in this compulsive practice of whether it is pro-me or anti-me, giving rise to perpetual alternations of approval and disapproval , hope and fear, and to an anxious clinging to a vast accumulation of images intended to protect, to inspire or to attack. In spite of his occasional insights, his mind keeps on functioning as "the slayer of the Real".

In its operations, this troubles mind has two, and only two, field of activity - the past and the future. From the past it builds up its memory bank of accumulated evaluations, its impressions of what is pro-me and anti-me, what may threaten its selfhood and what may extend it. And from these it devises its various policies, prudential techniques and strategies for securing what it hopes for in the future or, of course, avoiding what it fears. Only when these two fields of activity - the past and the future - are vacated can the troubled mind be still and be used by a true and real selfhood.

All this is not to say that a liberated individual, a Master of life in whom mind is no longer fixated to the service of an unreal selfhood, does not recollect his yesterday he has abandoned that psychological past and future which, in the rest of us, provides the playground for the compulsive and disturbing activities of the fixated mind. In terms of clock or calendars, the past and future still exists for him but he is no longer using them with an impure and unrealistic motive.

At this point, one may ask if all this is not itself crooked thinking; for is not this description of the processes of the mind simply itself a device of the mind? And how can the mind still the mind?

The mind, of course, cannot still the mind, for the mind, for the mind is impelled by a motivation that is not its own. But if we have reached a stage of enquiring into the happiness and agitation that proceed from the mind's existing condition, it may well be that we have, stirring within us certain new motivations.

This problem was once propounded to Sri Ramana Maharshi. He was asked how it could be valid to use the mind to deal in any way with the problems of the mind. He replied that a stick is used to stir up a fire in which weeds are being burned and, in the end, the stick itself is also consumed. One might add that the stick thus used is being held and directed by somebody greater and more perceptive than itself.

So here is something to experiment with. When we are unhappy about the troubled mind, we often get into a state of much distress and discouragement through our unavailing efforts to empty or still it. We try to suppress or control this thought or that thought or replace one image by another and so on. It is like trying to control the waves of the sea. They are too many for us and too confusing. But are there not really only these two factors that agitates us - the past and the future?

If these are to some extent negated, a further question arises, "whose past and whose future?" Perhaps this leads to a further moment of insight when truth can declare in us, "There is no such self".

There is no technique for causing the dewdrop to "slip into the Shining Sea", nor is that event a prize to be personally possessed or personally desired. But it is at least possible to look more perceptively than we do at the problems and conflicts in which "poor humanity " is involved. Whatever else we may find ourselves to be, we certainly are that humanity.

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