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Big mind, small mind

5 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. 

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. At 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 Frank’s car. 

Now we expect Frank himself to get upset in turn. 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 Frank’s car. 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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We identify with everything around us. And this causes a lot of our everyday pain and suffering. Luckily, we can train ourselves to identify less strongly to… well… everything. 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’. 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 our 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. Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 21.58.25.png

So if our true concept of self consists only of temporal factors. Is there anything left for us to identify with? The way I see it, we can only identify with our consciousness. 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. 

“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 our life. And the pursuit of a goal inevitably means action. Yet our mind doesn’t want to be steered. When we decide for ourselves that we want to wake up and strive for a more conscious lifestyle, simply trying harder will not work. 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.


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 separation 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

We can strive to get more accustomed to observing our thoughts and recognizing it when we are identifying with them. We can habituate ourselves to observe our own actions and emotions throughout the day. 


4 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!

  2. Pingback: Dreaming our way into reality – Meet Jeroen Beekman

  3. Pingback: The 2 ways to approach your monkey mind – Meet Jeroen Beekman

  4. I enjoy reading an article that will make men and women think. Also, many thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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