Emo Philips: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

Emo Philips

Given that it’s the mind that makes up the stories with which we try to make sense of the world, perhaps it’s not surprising that the mind tells us the story that it is the most important part of ourselves.

We think of ourselves as distinguished from other animals by our thinking. When we think about what makes us uniquely us (as opposed to another individual human being) we often point to our memories — another brain function. And that’s all, in some sense, true. Our thinking faculties are well-developed compared to other animals. But often we seem to over-privilege our thinking, and even lose touch with other aspects of ourselves. People often confuse, for example, experiencing the breath in meditation with thinking about the breath. And often we get so much caught up in thinking, and identify so strongly with our thinking, that we lose touch with how we’re feeling.

In Buddhist teachings what we call head and heart are seen as being so closely connected that they are in fact one faculty, the heart-mind, or citta (pronounced “chitta”), and so there has been less of a tendency to privilege either the mind or the heart, reason or emotion, as has happened in the west. The essential unity of the heart and mind has been observed by hundreds of generations of meditators, and is also being recognized by modern neuroscience. The pathways in the brain that process emotion also process thought — the two seem (as Buddhism has always pointed out) to be inseperable.

Thoughts exist interdependently with feelings and emotions. The next time you’re in an irritable mood, notice how your thoughts arise from that mood. An irritable emotional state conditions the mind to look for things to criticize. We’ll even find fault with things or people that a short while before were praising as being wonderful. When you’re in a good mood your thoughts are bright, appreciative, and optimistic. So our thoughts are conditioned by our emotions.

It’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization

Similarly, our emotions are conditioned by our thoughts. For example, if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a conversation with a very critical person – say someone who is good at finding fault with others – we might well find that through speaking in a critical way (and speech after all is just an externalized form of thought) we start to experience a negative state of mind. Our words — our thoughts — have given rise to an emotion.

Of course this works for positive emotions and constructive thoughts as well. If we encourage ourselves to look for things to appreciate we’ll cultivate a more positive emotional state, while a positive emotion will tend to give birth to constructive and appreciative thoughts.

This in fact is the mechanism for the metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness, practice. In this meditation we consciously call to mind thoughts such as “May I be well, May I be happy, May I be at peace,” repeating them mindfully. What tends to happen is that over time a shift in our emotions takes place. Thoughts such as these evoke a positive emotional response from the heart.

And emotions (and the thoughts that are bound with them) are deeply conditioned by the body. You can usually tell when someone is depressed just by looking at their posture. The chin is down, the chest is slumped, the movements are slow. Similarly with fear or aggression, the physical manifestations are obvious. Change your posture and you change how you feel. When we begin to relax tensions in the body, as we often do at the start of a session of meditation — taking our awareness around the body and letting go of unnecessary effort — the mind becomes calmer and the emotions more positive.

Children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking

The link between the body and citta is now being studied by neuroscientists. It’s been shown, for example, that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking, and if you learn something while sitting at a desk it’s easier to remember the information when you’re once again behind a desk. Actors find it easier to memorize lines while they’re walking around.

We have a peculiar tendency to see parts of an interconnected whole (the mind/heart/body) as separate (the mind, the heart, and the body) and then, moreover, to play the game of “which is most important.” For most of in the west, the head (thought, rationality) is seen as top dog (it’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization).

But those of us who meditate often come to realize that the intellect cannot be relied upon alone. While the mind has a wonderful ability to construct opinions, to imagine the outcomes of actions, and to speculate about the past, we need to check out our thoughts against the more physical and emotional faculties of feeling, instinct, and intuition. It’s through testing our thoughts in this holistic way that deeper insights emerge. Feelings in turn should be subjected to analysis. We may feel rage, for example, and consider acting upon that emotion, but our thinking faculty can imagine the potential consequences of our actions, helping to dampen our ire.

One of the functions of meditation is for us to pay attention to all of our experience and to see how it all interrelates (thoughts and feelings, body and emotions, thoughts, and body). It’s fascinating to notice how, as we start to notice and value this interconnectedness, we begin to appreciate ourselves as a whole, rather than as a collection of disparate parts. Through mindfulness we become more integrated and more complete, and more balanced. We become more intuitive. We even become more wise. And while the brain may still tell us it’s the most wonderful organ in the body, it will also recognize that it’s just one wonderful organ amongst many.

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Søren Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Søren Kierkegaard

How do we find inner peace? How do we learn to overcome inner conflict? What is the guiding principle of our lives? Bodhipaksa takes a saying by the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, Kierkegaard, and looks at the Buddhist perspective on “willing one thing.”

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
– Søren Kierkegaard

This saying by Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, suggests that a mind divided is a mind unable to be at peace with itself. When we desire contradictory ends there is no chance for the mind to find harmony; always there is inner strife, conflict, and confusion. When the mind pulls in two directions at once we inevitably suffer; we are forever restless, dissatisfied, and second-guessing ourselves.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle that gives our lives meaning and purpose. I believe that we all attempt to find such an organizing principle. We choose one thing that is, for us, the most important thing in our lives. This focus determines our priorities so that we can make choices, aim at “willing one thing,” and thereby escape from inner conflict.

We may, for example, decide quite unconsciously that work is the most important thing in our lives. We tell ourselves that spending so much time in the office is actually a way of serving our family (we do it to give them a higher standard of living) but really we’re workaholics. And our families resent us and our work.

Or we may decide that the family is the focus of our lives and we end up railing against a teacher who has disciplined our child for having been disruptive or for harming others. We say we’re protecting the family while actually we’re harming them by failing to value ethical boundaries.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle

And a more internal example would be when I know I’d be happier if I meditated, but I have the idea of living in ease and comfort as the focus of my life and I end up avoiding meditating because it will inevitably lead to me having to exercise discipline over myself, confronting my inner restlessness.

Kierkegaard offers a whole list of examples such as pleasure, honor, riches, and power, that appear to offer a focus for our lives so that we can “will one thing,” and yet cannot fulfill that role. These are false focuses, promising inner unity but unable to deliver.

So we need to have an appropriate focus, a true focus. For Kierkegaard the person who wills one thing is the person who is focused on the Good.

Any other focus but the Good is self-defeating. In all three of the examples I’ve given the focus chosen ends up being self-defeating. They are self-defeating because the focus is not something into which we can throw the whole of our will without creating further conflict. When, seeking a point of unity in our lives we choose our work or career as our focus we have to try to negate or trivialize other aspects of our lives — not just family, but health, friendship, and leisure: anything that may get in the way of our work ambitions. This leads to our having unfulfilled needs, and these lead to further conflict. In seeking harmony we have found strife. Similarly, when we choose family as the focus of our lives we have to forget that the members of our family have to coexist with others, and when we choose comfort we end up trying to ignore painful issues and real conflicts that have to be addressed.

But what is the Good? It must be something ultimately real and enduring. It cannot be something impermanent or transient. it has to be something all-embracing so that it’s not in opposition to other aspects of our life.

Kierkegaard tells us that the Good can’t be something external to us or we will inevitably come to resent it. “The path and the place are within each of us. And just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul’s continual transformation.”

It’s by looking inside ourselves that we will find the Good — the focus that allows us to orient our lives so that we can find wholeness and escape the inevitable pain of “double-mindedness.”

Rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed

There are two ways, in Buddhist theory and practice, of seeing what the Good is. On the one hand we can see it as being our “skillful” (kusala) impulses: those thoughts and emotions that are based on love, compassion, and self-awareness. The task then is, in every decision we make, to look for the most skillful response we can muster and to act upon in as best we can. In doing so we strengthen our positive habits and weaken the negative. Thus the “striving soul” is engaged in “continual transformation” in pursuit of wholeness — the wholeness of a mind free from greed, hatred, and delusion. In this vision we are bringing the Good into being.

On the other hand we have a vision in Buddhist theory that the mind is essentially pure already: “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.” While in the first model “we” are a mixture of skillful and unskillful tendencies and our job is to get rid of the unskilful and bring skillful habits, emotions, and thoughts into being, in the second model “we” are inherently pure and luminous. The mind is like a jewel. But the jewel of the mind is covered over with “defilements” (unskillful habits, emotions, and thoughts). Our task is still to rid the mind of the unskilful, but rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed.

This pursuit of the Good involves a constant self-examination in the moment of choice. We examine our responses. Are we cultivating the positive or strengthening unskillful tendencies? Are we revealing the Good or obscuring it?

This pursuit of the Good gives us a way to put family, career, wealth, comfort, into a wider context. Family and work may still be of great importance, but more important still is that they are arenas in which we can cultivate or reveal the Good in ourselves and to encourage the cultivation or revealing of the Good in others. And in this way we do not set up family and work, or comfort and self-examination, or any other aspect of our lives, in opposition to each other and in opposition to what is most real in us. We learn to will one thing and in doing so develop true purity of heart.

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