Big mind, small mind

8 minute read

Like most of you I was raised in an individualistic culture. A culture where the highest achievable goal is to ‘reach our greatest potential’, whatever that means. As far as I can tell, it involves a lot of identifying ourselves with different concepts. We identify with our personal and professional accomplishments. We identify with how many sexual partners we have had, or how much we could satisfy them. We identify with money, the size of our house of the brand of our car. We identify with how tolerant, open-minded or kind we present ourselves to others, or how many friends we have. The thing is, we have no control over most of these things and they have little to do with us as a being.

Imagine a guy named Frank driving his car back from work. He is entangled in thoughts about his latest plastic bottle design, as suddenly George crosses the road. On the last moment Frank notices and barely manages to stop his car, squeaking tires and all, centimeters away from the zebra lane. This makes George upset and he understandably decides that the best course of action now is to smack a dent in Franks car. Now we would expect Frank himself to get upset in turn. We would expect him to get upset despite of the fact that the dent has no influence whatsoever on the functioning of the car. He would probably even go as far as to have the dent removed. This is because the dent is not simply an uneven surface in a random metal surface. It’s a dent in a car. It’s a dent in Frank’s car. I hope this example helps to illustrate how severe our identification problem is. We, as a society, think it is normal that we identify with a piece of metal to the extent that damaging this object (almost) feels as if we are being damaged ourselves.

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Frank is very upset about the dent in his car

We identify with everything around us. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is the only reason we ever feel pain or suffering. This is good news, since we can train ourselves to identify less strongly to… well… everything. Even if it might not be easy. And through this we could relieve ourselves from some part of live’s suffering. We can strive for the beautiful concept of equanimity.

“Who we think that we are is very, very small compared to who we actually are” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR)

But before I continue on equanimity, let’s take a closer look at this ‘self’ or ‘ego’. Buddhism teaches us that all things are in a constant state of flux: all is changing, and no permanent state exists by itself. I think this is very true. As I see it, what we refer to as a person or as a ‘self’ consists of 5 parts. Let’s call them the 5 factors of existence.

  1. The body,
  2. Sensory input,
  3. The mind with its thoughts,
  4. Focus and
  5. Awareness

The first three we all encountered when we were still in our diapers. We indulged in the irresistible temptation of putting our feet in out mouth (body), this tasted funny (sensory) and we pondered about if starting to cry in the middle of the night might gain us some more of that lovely attention (mind). The separate existence of focus and consciousness become clear when we remember the last time we read a few pages from a book without knowing what we just read (focus without awareness). Equally we all at times become aware that we just walked into a room with no idea what we are doing there (awareness without focus).

We should notice that the 5 factors are all temporal in nature. They all appear and disappear at irregular intervals and in interaction with each other. Think for example about how you can doze off and snap back to awareness. Or how you can hear a sound and the sound just disappears. It simply stops existing. And what about the body? One could claim that the body tends to conveniently last exactly one lifetime. But what is the body, if not a collection of organs made up from cells. Cells that die and are replaced again. You get a whole new skin every 2 to 4 weeks. In half a year your red blood cells are renewed. The liver functions for just a couple of years before it is completely replaced. And at a 10 year cycle your skeleton is truly the most permanent part of your body.

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Energy Flow #5 by Jonas Gerard

So if our true concept of self consists only of temporal factors. Factors that last considerably shorter than our lifetime. Is there anything left for us to identify with? The best thing I can come up with for our true self is the ever-changing aggregation of the 5 factors. A true state of consciousness is when the 5 come together. When we are aware of a purposeful focus on our thoughts, bodily sensations and senses. At these times I truly feel alive and the factors of coexistence co-exist. I like to think about this as the sensation illustrated in the painting above. So what if we stop relating to ourselves as ‘I’. What if we distance ourselves from our fixed sense of ego, and instead relate to ourselves as this dynamic and ungraspable co-existence?

“Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience. The self or ego is an illusory appearance within it. Look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear. What remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.” – Sam Harris, philosopher and famous atheist

In my previous blog I elaborated on how we are in need of a worthy goal in order to deal with life’s inevitable suffering. And the pursuit of a goal inevitably means action. Yet our mind doesn’t want to be steered. When we try to focus on something forcefully, we’ll encounter a number of obstacles that are well-known to those who tried meditation. Irritation, sleepiness, insecurity, anger, restlessness. So when we decide for ourselves that we want to wake up and astride for a more conscious lifestyle, simply trying harder will not work.

Here we can start using the fact that our ego is nothing more than an illusion. We have all had ample opportunity to learn how to relate to other people in our lives. We have befriend other people, negotiated with them and motivated them to do a variety of things for us over the years. We can harvest these delicate social skills and direct them to our own being. This is to engage with yourself in conversation. As Jordan Peterson so critically asks, “Do you ask yourself what you want? Do you negotiate fairly with yourself? Or are you a tyrant, with yourself as slave?”. Instead, we should treat ourselves like someone we’re responsible for helping.

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The Burning Man by Alexander Milov, sculpture on Burning Man festival

It is interesting how from this line of thinking it appears that there are in fact two people. One with a clear intention and awareness, and one delicate kid we need to take care not to upset. This seperation into two minds is observed in different disciplines. They are called the fast and the slow mind in neurobiology for example. In meditation practice the two are known as big mind and small mind. One mind that observes, and the other that spontaneously and with little restraint responds to whatever sensation comes by. Through training the mind consistently with meditation we can attempt to create a bit of room between these two different minds.

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. ” – Jordan Peterson

The goal of meditation is simply to observe the mind and all sensations as they are in this very moment. To be with that what is and accept its ever-changing nature. Through regular practice we can try to get used to the state of mind of observing without judgement. To observe without judgement is to live in a state of equanimity. In this state of mind, feelings of happiness and feelings of pain simply become two different and interesting sensations worth observing. We can strive to get more accustomed to observing our thoughts and recognizing it when we are identifying with them. We can habituate ourself to observe our own actions and emotions throughout the day. Maybe this way we will even be able to identify just a little bit less with the thinking mind at times. We can become aware of the true greatness of our being.

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The big observing mind and the small thinking mind

I realize there are some discrepancies in this text. I am beading a lot of concepts and thoughts together, some of which probably unjustly so. It is very challenging indeed to pluck apart my own psyche and write it down. This is since it will always be my small, thinking mind doing the writing. More than once in this text I convinced myself I was writing from a place of consciousness, only to wake up to a startle and finding myself in a new, more true state of consciousness. The thing is, since our thinking and observing mind are psychically connected there is really no way of separating them. We love categorizing things and giving them names like ‘big mind’ and ‘small mind’. In reality there is really never any black or white, only that complex and intertwined gray.

3 thoughts on “Big mind, small mind

  1. Excellent article! This one made me think about lot of stuff. And dichotomy of our minds does indeed ring a bell. Well keep up with all good articles, and good luck for the next one!

    Liked by 1 person

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