"It is mind which gives to things their quality, their foundation and their being". 1
But, to quote from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the mind is "The element, or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills and esp. reasons". 2
Or, "mind is a useful word ... its definition is elusive, to talk of understanding it (not just the word but the thing the word refers to) is to talk about an exercise in mental gymnastics that seems to fall outside of natural science"; 3 or "mind is the permanent possibility of experience". 4
Or, again "the seat of consciousness, thought, feeling and will || The intellect || Opinion ... || Desire, purpose ...|| Sanity ... || A person viewed as an intellect ... || Consciousness as an element in reality (contrasted with matter)".5
Now, how many of us in their heart (mind: in their heart, because "the heart, I understand, is, in the microcosm, the scene where the macrocosm's drama is enacted"; 6 this all-important word, heart, will be discussed further on) do agree with the definitions quoted above? And if we do agree with such definitions, to what extent do we agree with them?
Tao 7 that can be told of
Perhaps we will now have to face it: since man coined the word mind he has been baffled by it, that is, we are baffled by our own coinage of words which try to depict something that we cannot hold into our hands or cork into a bottle hence where is this word, or better, this concept, coming from? How do we explain or understand it or, still more important, how many people do explain this word, this concept, in the same way and are sure and positive in their explanation? How do we account for the fact that this word, mind, translated into any other existing language seemingly does not relate the exact counterpart of the English, or so far as I know, Latin, Italian, Chinese or Sanskrit word? As for Sanskrit, the word ‘manasa' is translated into English as "Mental faculty, mind, heart" 9 and, besides being the root of the Latin word mens from which the English word 'mind' derives, it also places the seat of consciousness, so as it can be found in several ancient religions or philosophies, in the heart!
concerning the hearth:
Possibly, the main fallacy concerning the word mind and its real or exact meaning lies in the fact that too vast a vocabulary has been built around our lack of understanding or, more clearly stated, our ignorance. This vocabulary includes words with undefined boundaries which are apt to intermingle easily or to be permissive as to their exact meaning and so no individual opinion as to the meaning of a word in this category can be bluntly dismissed apart from the normal accepted standards for recognized sanity. A sample of these words follows: mind - spirit - soul - psyche - ego - consciousness - awareness - intellect and, as this is just a sample it should suffice. Some of these words of cloudy meaning will be used in this writing and an effort will be made to define their boundaries and natural relations; they are: mind, psyche, consciousness and awareness while another one borrowed from a different field but very suitable for the task in hand will be introduced later on.
Modern science seems to be still divided insofar as mind is concerned between the Cartesian dualism and the more actual and preferred neuro-monism of the modern neurologists who have a strong tendency to identify mind and brain as a single un-splittable entity, this last view being an offspring of the latest discoveries in the neurological mapping of the functions of the cerebral cortex.
"The most obvious and persistent mistake we make is trying to 'locate' the mind. For example, Descartes located the mind, or 'rational soul' in the pineal gland, deep within the brain. Leonardo Da Vinci located it within the skull. Many modern neuroscientist do have a tendency to link mind and brain inextricably." 13
Whenever something is not easily explainable we freely allow ourselves the use of analogies to clarify a concept and our modern technical knowledge allows us the use of a very effective analogy when it comes to the workings of the brain or to the mind, for example: "The brain as a computer that's involved in all the other reactions of the body ..."14 and also for our purpose in this work this kind of analogy between the brain and the computer will be chosen in the quest for the meaning of the word mind.
Let us speak for a while about a computer, any good modern computer. We know that a computer, a man-built machine, can do quite many things that we cannot do or, at least, that we believe we will never be able to match or perform.
A computer works with a speed which is quite close to the speed of light because it is powered by electricity and that, we can agree, is a feat that our biological brain cannot outdo as our brain, or so-to-say biological computer, functions both by electrical as well as by chemical means and therefore it has to be thinking or reacting much more slowly. A computer, many people argue, is a machine in many respects just like our brain; however it is powered by the electricity supplied by a main, battery or power house while our brain is driven by the metabolic processes (which unlike a computer the brain itself regulates ) of our body. A computer is something that man has built thanks to his reasoning power, intelligence and intellect while our brain has been constructed by ... by ... well, not by a computer so far as we can tell, then by what?
Here we are completely at loss, or so we feel; after all mankind from his dawn and up to the present has always been conjecturing about his own origins just to get nowhere, apart from the evolutionary theory and the religious beliefs which, alas! are too many and, apart from the ethical core, do not really agree with one another insofar as our origins are concerned.
It surely is worth saying, concerning computers, that artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing extensively and it would not be very hard, given the proper hardware and software, to instruct a computer to discriminate between the palatability of zhigeenee with anjera (the national Eritrean food) and spaghetti with meatballs in tomato sauce or to discriminate between the molecular structure of LSD and cocaine's, but it is quite improbable that it would enjoy eating zhigeenee to the exclusion of spaghetti or become an LSD addict or rather go into a yogic or shamanic trance to experience the difference between peyote-induced trance and yogic or shamanic trance - perhaps creating the right atmosphere for itself with music from Beethoven rather than Chopin - finally ingesting Thorazine to free itself from hallucinations.
Theoretically a computer could be designed so as to be enabled to assemble another computer more powerful or intelligent than it itself is, and so on indefinitely, but I doubt that it would experience child-birth pangs or that the new born baby would cry if not properly milked although it could cry for a while in case of a power or system’s failure.
All this is said because, to the extent that analogies between the mind - or brain - and a computer will be used, it must be very clear that the real difference does not lay so much in capability as it lays in temporal and spatial experience, actual and inherited, as it is experience which gives us the unique peculiarity of "humaneness" - the ability to cry, to laugh, to rejoice or regret, to love or hate - in other words, the tangible expression of mind's plasticity, adaptability, evolutionary trend: "We are all so organized that we have active infantile and magical processes going on within us, at the same time that we are behaving adequately as mature adults. There is not the slightest possibility of eliminating all these irrational unconscious components; and if there were, we should loose all of our warmth, most of our ideals, and the greater part of our feeling and emotion. We would then be nothing but automatons, with receptors, internal hook-ups, and a fully predictable, measurable output. But we would not be human beings.".22
There is a frame of reference that allows evolutionary life of any and every living thing on the planet, so as we know it, and that is sense perception. To confine ourselves just to vertebrates, we can see with a few examples that a particular sense is prominent for the evolution and adaptability of any particular species: olfactory and auditory to wild animals, very high frequency auditory (ultrasonic) to bats, infrared vision to certain snakes, 15 visual to man: "... seeing is at the basis of knowing. Knowing is impossible without seeing; all knowledge has its origin in seeing". 16
All these senses, and even additional and better ones, could be mimicked by a computer and that would make of it nothing else than a super-machine, whether the supporters of AI like it or not, nothing more than that! "Will it be possible someday to create artificial ‘brains’ that have intellectual capabilities comparable – or even superior – to those of human beings?" 23 Truly indeed there are researches also in the field of biological computers and molecular electronics based on circuits of interconnected organic cells 17 or molecules 23 but so far it seems that they did not achieve noteworthy results; while remarkable progress has indeed been made in enhancing the power of computer-aided information and simulation by interconnected computers in neuron-like networks - and in a way that is quite symptomatic - but, connecting in that way one hundred or more billion microprocessors (that is to say as many microprocessors as the average number of neurons present in the adult human brain) seems still too far away from our capabilities, not to mention the size which that so-called brain would occupy compared with the shrunken three or so pounds of gray matter thriving within our skulls. As a limit is apparently being reached concerning size insofar as semiconductor technology applied to microprocessors is concerned in computers, science now is pushing towards optical fibers computers which will be still more powerful and much faster than the actual ones and indeed it is hard to visualize how the computer-world will be in a century hence, yet also hard to visualize is where the human mind will be at the same time as by now its evolution does not appear to be simply linear but rather logarithmic.
One more thing: beyond every "I", at the root of every thought, there is a human being and no two identical human beings can exist, which means that even if two identical thoughts can exist they cannot have the very same connotation for two different individuals, while we can have identical programs to feed to identical or system-different computers in accordance to which they would elaborate their algorithms to get identical results: "a program merely manipulates symbols, whereas a brain attaches meaning to them". 18
Notwithstanding this long downgrading of the computer as confronted to the human brain, a computer still represents the best available analogy which we can and will use in speaking of the brain or about the mind.
Now: when we push toward some intellectual action or process we usually say that we use our mind; when we plan we like to say that we have something into our mind and so on, however, let us try to work it out differently: are we using our mind or is MIND (the distinction between MIND, capital letters, and mind, small case letters, will be elucidated later on) using us? There is no easy answer to this scandalous question which puts us in the place of puppets being used by something we call MIND but tentatively something can be said: in electronics feedback circuits are extensively used so as to stabilize and reduce background noise between different sections of the circuit; that must be the sort of thing which happens when, as stated before, the brain is driven by the metabolic processes which it itself regulates (Homeostasis, the ensemble of regulations that maintains variables constant and direct the organism toward a goal and are performed by feedback mechanisms is a more proper term used for feedback when it is related to cybernetics or to a biological organism). Hence we can even dare say that there is a mutual use-exchange between ourselves and our mind, a sort of thing which might correspond to a feedback circuit but the point is now another: the feedback currents or voltages in an electronic circuit are usually weaker than the main circuit's currents or voltages so that now transferring once more the analogy to the mind the question arises as to who has the upper hand, is that me or "my" mind? By the way, the "my" between hyphens is not at all casual, sometime later on we will have to see also if this mind is really mine so much so as undoubtedly my brain appears to be. In this context, going back for a moment to the feedback circuits, could it not be that mind is just a sort of feedback circuit to MIND?
We do know that the brain acts in response to a given command generated within itself and by which it compels us, as a whole psychophysical entity, to action - that is - we respond to its dictates in accordance to our dictates to it (or through it: as it is phrased, there appears to be a sort of paradox in this exchange, yet, can we deny that apparently things work in such a wise?); a lot of chemical and electrical activity takes place within the brain in response to our commands, and sometimes chemical activity may even compel us to actions for which we never consciously issued a command to the brain and of which we never dreamt of - and this belongs to that most important field of study which is called neurochemistry which will be shortly considered later on.
There is always an hand programming a computer so as there is constantly and invariably some impulse acting on our brain; hence, what is this impulse and where is it coming from? We might as well say that this impulse is born out of our total life and evolutionary experience up to the present moment and out of the environment into which it is required to act at a determinate moment in response to given circumstances or stimuli, as "mental life is now recognized as a continuum ... psychic life is a continuity in the sense that at any given moment it is determined by all that has previously happened and is happening". 19
Taking this for granted, why do we experience such impulses? Where or which is the power house (mind) supplying the current (impulse) acting on the computer (brain) so that we can achieve a predetermined result? Do we have a mind, a single individual mind, or is mind a collective or universal something belonging to us by birth-right which we are empowered to use the more the more we know ourselves and the working of our brain? In this instance I am not trying to say that Jung's collective unconscious is the driving power of man or the mind-total, however that might be half-a-good hint: not the truth, yet not very far removed from it, because whatever Jung envisaged beyond the collective unconscious or whatever we can envision beyond it cannot be stated in plain words.
Let us suppose that there is something (whatever it may be is left open to psychological, philosophical, metaphysical or theological speculations according to the individual tastes) that we lovingly call mind and that it is not something belonging to us individually, ours so-to-say- (although the way that we can freely dispose of it makes us feel that is ours and, alas! we do not really like to be deprived of it) but something to which we can freely attain to and, of course, like the ocean's water surrounding the fish, it is all-pervading, subtle, very subtle, but perceivable - yes, perceivable. And, thanks to the fish, another analogy can be made here: personally I do not know if a fish in the ocean likes to drink salty water nor the awareness that it has of its own environment, but supposing that it wished to drink a glass of water, how could it ever empty it without getting out of its own environment?
All this may seem stupid but perhaps we are in the same position as the poor thirsty fish, we cannot quench our thirst of knowledge of the mind because there is apparently no way to see it from the outside in, there is no way to fully experience it so long as we are conscious of our own surroundings, of our being, of out tangibility and physical bondage and boundaries.
At this point we do not want to drive ourselves into some sort of mystical experience or deep yogic trance or an hypnotic state where we can dimly perceive something which we cannot bring back with us in our normal state of consciousness, that is to say: explainable and rational. What we should now wish to do is to increase our awareness while in a conscious or possibly super-conscious state. We do know, or at least it is commonly believed, that we use only a very small portion of our brain in our normally wake state while the use of the remaining larger portion - roughly about 90% - is mysteriously lost to our perception, to our awareness and this brings us to the question: how fully do we live our lives if such a small amount of brain is put into them? (By now we do have ample proof that even the complete removal of one of the brain’s hemispheres leaves much more brain within the skull than that which is normally thought to be needed!). What is the use of a computer which can go through the most subtle mathematical abstractions or solve the most abstruse formulas if owning it all that we can do is to use it for simple arithmetical operations plus perhaps, for a few endowed souls, extracting square roots or, for the lucky ones, checking their bank account?
Hence we need to know where we stand, how to improve our position, how to attain more deeply to the mind so that our computer (brain) can be more fully used; however, there is one condition that is imperative: we must be ripe for it. Every great spiritual teacher of ages past used to say "when the pupil is ready the master appears"; well, nowadays we have such a huge proliferation of great teachers and spiritual masters that just to play it safe, as it is quite manifest that the main cause of disorder within ourselves might be an outcome of the seeking of some fabulous reality promised by another, we might very well like to stand by our own good self and if it really is a good self that is indeed very auspicious, it means that we are on good terms and at ease with it and that possibly that is the real master hinted at by the old wise men of ages past. Surely there cannot be a greater teacher than maturity and balance, no better way to travel toward and into the mind's meanders in full awareness of what we are doing , hence ponder these small stories:
"The value of the past.
was sent by the King to investigate the lore of various kinds of Eastern
mystical teachers. They all recounted to him tales of the miracles and
the sayings of the founders and great teachers, all long dead, of their
Although we do not like to give ourselves easily away, let us accept this, even temporarily, as a necessary premise: the mind can be thought of as that thing which is thinking us; we belong to mind as the computer belongs to its constructor but with this all important difference: we can have much more access to discriminative knowledge of the mind than the computer to its constructor or than a painting can have of the painter who painted it ... it all looks as if it is a simple problem of dimensions: length , breadth, width, time ... first, second, third, fourth ... what about a fifth , a sixth ...?
Dimensions are here spoken of just to give some hints in a new direction; possibly after the third and surely after the forth they have been so badly misused by speculative thinking that we do not wish to add to this misery and spoil them any more and, even if we have to accept hyper-dimensions, none the less do we wish to classify mind as a dimension in any degree and, if we are tempted to do so, is it just one more dimension? is it the sum total of all dimensions? could it not be a state of utter lack of dimensions? Well, why not say that it is the origin, the mother of dimensions? In this way we are forced to deprive it of any spatial relation, or dimensionality in any degree while at the same time we can make it very useful by saying that we can attain to it without going through abstract steps and without compartmentalizing it.
Just a remark, an afterthought: speaking of mind as the mother of all dimensions brings to my mind (where else?!) the thought of all these major religious systems of the world which, in one way or another, have a "mother" in their iconography. How much of a coincidence can this be? But the word mother is not really suitable for the purpose, it brings with itself a strong emotional connotation common to all of us; it is still better to think of mind itself as the source of a down-stepping process which we can escalate not without consistent effort, that is to say that we can attain to it the more the more we can attain to it at the same time ridding ourselves of concepts of spatiality, time and boundary ... no way to hold it in our hands or to cork it into a bottle, it simply is because it is nowhere (this paradoxical statement is not a negation!) and not because we must by all means find a reason for our existence and the ways of our intellect.
It is not that we are shadowed in our thinking but we are the shadow itself.
Just imagine yourself as being the shadow of a three-dimensional object between a source of light and a far away world whereupon the shadow (yourself) of the three-dimensional object is projected. In this stance something becomes clear: the shadow is a bi-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional object resting upon a three-dimensional world; how can you comprehend the world upon which you are resting if you are inferior by a degree of dimension, how can you comprehend the object in the way if, due to your being inferior by a degree of dimension the object in the way cannot be perceived simply because the dimension that you lack does not allow the perception of the object in the way between you and the light source - while at the same time you can still have a sort of feeling of the world upon which you are resting even if its degree of dimensions is the same as that of the object which projects your shadow on the world and lastly, and this is the important point, is there a way through which you can have a feeling, even an extremely dim perception, of the existence of a light source beyond the object which is the cause of your shadow-existence if there is no way by which you can perceive the object because you lack an all-important dimension?
This stance is much more difficult than that of the picture trying to comprehend its own painter, there is no way through which we can comprehend a similar situation if we place ourselves in the position of the shadow and in a way that is our position with respect to the mind. Hence shortly a new scheme will be used which is not intended to underrate the word mind but to complement it so that all vague terms related to it will contribute to define it much more clearly and they themselves loose their own vagueness.
Notes to chapter 1
– The Dhammapada
- quoted in The Middle Way - Journal of the Buddhist Society, May 1976,
that can be spoken of
translate it still differently but perhaps these two are the best English
renderings of this inspired work attributed to Lao Tzu.