The Importance of Silencing the Mind

Each day we wake up, and for an immeasurable split second there’s a delay in our witnessing of consciousness. Of where we are, what we’re doing and a sense of dreamlike peace before the noise starts, before we engage with our mind.

Sach day we wake up, and for an immeasurable split second there’s a delay in our witnessing of consciousness. Of where we are, what we’re doing and a sense of dreamlike peace before the noise starts, before we engage with our mind. The flooding of thoughts then begins and moments of the day ahead of us is taken up with preoccupations, a series of questions that our inner dialogue throws up, demanding our attention. It is chaos being in one’s own mind. We are trapped, distracted and most of the time completely unaware that we are so.

Philosophers, neurologists, spiritualists and those seeking, exploring and have found enlightenment eloquently dub this state of mind as being unconscious. That is to say we are mentally preoccupied with our constant stream of thoughts, analysing vast amounts of information consecutively. From deciding what to wear each morning, what to prepare for dinner that evening, thinking about what someone said to you at work the day before that you didn’t agree with, the upcoming social events in the calendar, contemplating the obsessive thought of eating a sugar filled snack that goes against the current diet you’re on, or worrying about the bills at the end of the month. Exhausting.

Imagine five minutes of pure uninterrupted silence, not necessarily in the soundless sense, but a stillness of mind. Easy enough to imagine the concept, but whether this state of mind is achievable is something different. Our minds have been conditioned over time to keep up a constant busy mental state that is ultimately guiding our everyday lives. Within our minds we identify with our sense of self. We feel that we are the drivers in control of our thoughts, decisions and so forth. Sam Harris talks about the self as an illusion[1]. From a neurological perspective, the self cannot exist; there is no ‘self’ found in the brain. The sense we feel of being an ‘I’ or ‘me’ is linked to our ego, something we cling to to explain how we are able to think for ourselves, make our own decisions, possess consciousness. Everything we experience however, is a myriad of neural processes that come from our brains. The self is an abstract concept derived from our subjective experiences used to describe this phenomenon.

“You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.[1]”

The term being unconscious references the state of mind in which most of the time we operate in. We are consciously unaware that our perceptions, behaviours, experiences, thoughts and decisions are ultimately guided by consciousness and not ourselves. Bruce Hood, a cognitive scientist, agrees with Harris that we experience a sense of self, but beyond that feeling we have no way of identifying a true self. It is an illusion because it does not exist independently outside of the person having the experience.

Illusions often have negative connotations attached, but this phenomenon is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be viewed positively and help us to deal with busy minds and enhance our well-being. If we accept that our sense of self is an illusion and recognise that our thoughts, worries, emotions, and behaviours are attributable to neural processes and subjective interpretations, we can ease mental stress. By filtering out and separating the things that do require our attention from the ones which do not can bring calmness and contentment. A healthier state of mind.

Traditional practices of spiritual nature such as meditation seeks to disassociate oneself from ego and mind entanglement. Thereby allowing one’s mind to be fully present and experience the here and now. To live in the present, appreciate where you are and what you’re doing is far more enriching than being stuck in the past or imaging a future which we ultimately have no control over. Alan Watts expresses a sentiment of enjoying life for what it is, rather than what we perceive it to be sometimes in our head.

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.[2]”

The ability to attain silence in the mind can generate a series of physical benefits. Lowering blood pressure for example has a knock-on effect of decreasing tension-related pain, improves the immune system and the body’s regulation of serotonin, enhances vision and kidney health and improves energy levels. These effects improve mood and assist the ability to further silence the mind, and so on.

This improvement cycle sets the stage for personal transformation. Lowering anxiety, sharpening the mind, increasing creativity and allowing you to expand consciousness and harmonise your surroundings. With a clear mind, you can approach your day to day decisions with more focus and ultimately enrich your experience of the present for yourself and for those around you.

“If the inner talk can drop even for a single moment, you will be able to have a glimpse of no-mind. That’s what meditation is all about. The state of no-mind is the right state. It is your state. [3]”

Being mindful is an awareness and acceptance of the present. In Buddhism, the silent mind is not something you can force. In fact, the more you try to quieten your mind, the more you propel it into activity. The busy mind has been described as “monkey mind”, as it is continually distracted by one thought or another, emotion or body sensation [4]. A silent mind is alert, sensitive and aware of its surroundings. It is free from judgement, conflict, confusion and negative emotions such as anger and jealousy.

Mindful meditations such as vipassana, satipatthana and anapansati promote mindfulness as a central element of practice. By training your mind to observe and become a ‘watcher’ of your mind, you begin to notice how your mind reacts to what is happening around you. With concentration and practice, you learn to let these thoughts come and go without reacting to them, and more importantly without judging them. A gentle introduction to mindfulness meditation is to sit somewhere quiet, with eyes closed if that helps, and pay attention to breathing, in particular the movement of the abdomen when inhaling and exhaling, or of the breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils. Once a level of comfort with breathing has been reached, awareness can be extended to thoughts, feelings and actions.

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.[5]”

Research on mindfulness mediation from a neurological perspective has been shown to not only improve attention, body and emotional awareness, but neuroimaging techniques suggest that certain areas of the brain can be changed for the better [6]. Thus leading to improvements in treatment of mental health disorders and people with brain abnormalities. Analysis of over 80,000 brain scans has revealed an advanced improvement in successful diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric patients [7]. Instead of treating a cluster of symptoms based on behaviour and interpretation, brain scans appear to detect the true underlying cause of people’s conditions. A study carried out on prisoners showed that many had troubled brains such as tumours, over-active or under-active brains. Furthermore, these were treatable conditions that could change people’s behaviour and ultimately their lives. Imagine being able to positively rehabilitate those who had carried out criminal actions so they were better for themselves, people around them and society as a whole. The need to punish otherwise normal functional human beings could be replaced with brain treatment programs, encouraging support, understanding and compassion to those who are unlucky with the brains they were born with.

“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better – Socrates.”

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Notes:

[1] Sam Harris Free Will
[2] Alan Watts The Essence of Alan Watts
[3] OSHO Learning to Silence the Mind
[4] dharmawisdom.org
[5] Thích Nhất Hạnh The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
[6] Holzel, Lazar, et al. How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective.
[7] Dr. Daniel Amen The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans

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