helping people find their way

The Power of the Mind

Largely throughout the 20th century, Western culture has discovered the power of the mind on an unprecedented scale. These days we are confronted with some extreme versions of this. On the one hand, there is the increasingly widespread phenomenon of a cultural malaise called depression and anxiety. One line of research into these conditions has uncovered that they are characterised by a state of being at the mercy of our minds, ie. our feelings are created by unhelpful, and usually entrenched unconscious thought patterns. At the other end of the spectrum there are ever more proliferating extreme versions of how we can limitlessly influence and direct the mind in order to get whatever we want, usually promoted by new-age inspired motivational speakers of various kinds.

Mental Illness: Being overwhelmed by the Mind

Depression has become a prominent issue within our culture, and research tells us that 1 in 4 Australians will experience an episode in their lifetime. There are a number of different ways of thinking about it but one prominent way is that it is characterised by negative thinking patterns that people usually don’t feel in control of or are even particularly aware of. It is as if their minds are running away with them in directions they cannot foresee or direct, even though experience eventually tells them where they tend to end up.
Without necessarily being aware of it, many people who go to see therapists are stuck in such negative thinking patterns. They tend to manifest as a pull towards negative evaluations, attributions, and interpretations of situations and experiences, self, others, and the future. Examples are things like “she ignored me because she doesn’t like me”, “I probably haven’t heard from him because of the comment I made”, “this proves that I’m a failure anyway”, nobody loves me or cares about me”, “given what’s just happened I will never be able to be happy again”, “I am all alone”, “I hate my body. The benefit of psychological interventions is that they identify, consciously engage with, question and challenge these usually unconscious patterns, which can provide a way forward and out of such patterns. This knowledge has arisen from a professional, and hence public dedication to the very personal and private psychological concerns, which many people wouldn’t normally discuss with others.

Positive Thinking: Being in Control of our Minds

On the other hand of the spectrum is what appears to be an unbridled optimism about what we are able to achieve if we only want to and have the right kind of mindset, particularly promoted in the domains of new-age motivational speakers and happiness consultants who aim to instil a belief that there are no limits to what we can achieve if only we approach things with the right, positive kind of attitude.  They often highlight how we are unconsciously programmed to create obstacles for ourselves, usually based on conclusions we have drawn from significant past experiences. In a similar fashion, with some conscious effort we can programme our minds to be positive, thus enabling us to get what we want. The movie ‘Limitless’ depicts this attitude in an engaging way and has an interesting take on it in that it poses the question of the cost of living in this belief system.

The Power of the Mind

Both of these phenomena seem to be grounded in the same principle: The power of the mind. One significant difference between the two is that in the case of depression it is an involuntary process whilst the ‘reach your potential’, new-age scenario is a voluntary and intentionally directed one. In the depression scenario the mind runs away with people in directions that they hadn’t intended, whereas in the new-age scenario, an acknowledgement of the power of the mind  – partly based on the results of research into the negative states and effects of the mind – leads to recommendations to consciously manipulate the mind by harnessing its hidden power. In other words, in the one scenario there is a lack of control whereas in the other there appears to be too much control.
It is tempting to speculate that the two fit into one another like two pieces of a puzzle, where one begets the other. It probably is no accident that these two phenomena have become so prominent at the same time.
Both of these phenomena draw on the discovery that the mind is an entity that has the power to manipulate our experience and that can be manipulated to create certain kinds of experiences. This knowledge is of course also extensively exploited in advertising and other commercially profitable ways.

Mindfulness: Circumventing the Mind

More recently, another approach has pushed its way into the limelight: Buddhist inspired meditation and mindfulness practices. They acknowledge the power of the mind as well, but, for people who are steeped in a Western psychological paradigm, in a novel kind of way: Simply observing the mind rather than being identified with or trying to manipulate its contents. What such observation teaches us is that the mind is an entity in and of itself, with its own will and rhythms, which most of us are not in control of. It does things, which we don’t necessarily want it to do. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as ‘monkey mind’. By being mindful, ie.  standing back and observing the mind’s activity, we can become aware of its movements and patterns without being identified with them. These practices try to circumvent the mind altogether. Rather than being a victim to its power or making use of its power, they suggest that the mind is an independent entity, which distracts us from what is essential to living. By being mindful we discover something beyond our minds, which creates an intriguing experience and question: What is the reflective awareness, which observes our mind – given that we normally experience our minds as being this observing awareness? In other words, what is it that observes our minds?? From this perspective the mind is a distraction to something much more fundamental which tends to be out of sight for most people most of the time: The existence of an awareness or ‘observing self,’ a background reality which is said to be more real than the one we are usually immersed in and attached to. Rather than being run by our minds we need to simply observe it in a somewhat detached kind of way. We can access this reality by engaging in regular meditation practices during which we simply observe and disidentify from our minds and merge with our observing self.
It is as if therapists had observed their clients’ minds and then moved to teaching clients to observe their own minds.

A Misunderstanding: Attachment and Involvement

Of course we wouldn’t be human beings if we hadn’t put a certain kind of twist to mindfulness practice. This twist focuses on the notion of non-attachment. Some people have a tendency to interpret this in extreme ways, ie. in such a way that nothing is meant to touch us, a detachment from life, where the meditation practice becomes a kind of refuge from life and the world and its entanglements that we all get into at times. This can occasionally lead to a sense of alienation and disconnection, sometimes also mixed in with an air of superior spiritual prowess.
It seems to me that this is based on a misunderstanding and most likely a certain kind of personality based predisposition. Non-attachment is not the same as non-involvement. Non-attachment really is a way of being in life, which is engaged but not engrossed or totally identified.
Spiritual attachment is more about being identified with our experience in a way, which is unhelpful and emotionally demanding.
This can manifest in the juxtaposition and occasionally the dilemma of ‘being’ and ‘doing’: Living is not a meditation practice for most people (although it is for very advanced practitioners), and regularly demands actions from us. Withdrawal from the world in the form of immersing ourselves in meditation, going on retreats, joining monasteries or ashrams makes non-attachment easier as it takes out a lot of distractions that everyday life presents. However, the ultimate art of non-attachment is to participate in life without being identified with its events or the effects they have on us. When we’re engaged in life we run into situations where it’s not always obvious what the right thing to do is. Should we ‘be’ or ‘do’, go with the flow or do we need to act? Being internally detached is not the same as not being involved.
This is encapsulated in the Zen story of a monk walking along with a disciple. The disciple notices that someone is drowning in the distance and points this out to the monk. The disciple comments that it must be their fate. The monk replies how do you know it’s not your fate to go and help this man?!

So whilst depression and extreme, new-age inspired positive thinking can be too identified with issues, the cult of non-attachment and mindfulness can lead to not enough engagement. As with anything, the path in the middle is probably the one to be trodden, although often we have to experience the extremes before we can come to such a middle ground.

The Story of our Time?

Extremes usually tell us something about what is going on, and there does seem to be something going on in our culture at large, especially given the current widespread manifestations of this discovery. Being overwhelmed by the power of the mind, and exploiting the power of our minds for our personal gratification are extreme positions that tell a story about our culture and our values. It is a story of victims and heroes. Whilst on the surface they seem to be unrelated, they do appear to be just 2 sides of the same coin, where we can’t have one without the other. They may be mirror images of one another, where one begets the other. However, rather than choosing between one or the other (and for most people this would be an easy choice!) we may have to switch to another perspective altogether. Is mindfulness the way forward and out of this juxtaposition? I think it depends on how we relate to it as anything has the potential to be objectified, and this can already be seen in regards to mindfulness practices.

The moral of the story is that we are surrounded these days by insights into  psychological processes which are utilised in a variety of ways. They require our discrimination.  What appears to be happening is that we are treating the power of the mind like children who have just discovered an exciting new toy. One question, which doesn’t seem to get asked, and which is implied in the movie ‘Limitless’ is how should we relate to this relatively new discovery? The movie poses an issue, which rarely gets considered: What are the costs of running with the benefits of the discovery that we can heal and influence our minds in supposedly limitless ways? And do we need to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of doing so?
There sometimes is a worshipping and idealisation of the mind and its power – to heal or to personally progress – which lacks a reflective assessment and evaluation of their respective merits.
How do we give the power of the mind its rightful place?