Home' Nova National : September 2009 Contents 14
© NOVA SEPTEMBER 2009
We can learn from the
Buddha how to cultivate a
clear and conscious mind,
says Eric Harrison. Consciousness is a peculiar thing.
During the day, our minds are
awake and conscious. The lights
are on and we feel in control. At night, the
lights go out. We are asleep and oblivious,
and so out of control we don't even notice
it is happening.
Furthermore, consciousness is not just
an on-off mechanism: it seems to operate
by a dimmer switch. Sometimes our
minds are bright and clear, and capable
of tackling any problem. At other times
we can feel so dull and foggy that doing
the dishes is a major challenge. What is
more, someone else seems to have their
hand on the dimmer switch. We usually
have little control over how bright or dull
our mind feels on a particular day, or at a
To make matters worse, our satisfaction
in life seems to ultimately depend, not on
what we do or own, but on how bright
or dull our minds are. A bright mind can
find pleasure in anything. In fact, it is its
own pleasure. A dull mind, on the other
hand, is always struggling to get a grip on
anything. It is a common misery of old age
to be wealthy but unable to enjoy it.
For this reason, "cultivating the mind"
is often regarded as the only reliable source
of happiness. Philosophers, religious
teachers a nd holistic writers understand
it differently, but they do agree on one
thing: a mind trained to be as clear, lucid
and intelligent as possible is an immense
asset. We can't depend forever on the
vagaries of wealth or prestige or health or
the affections of others if we want to be
Cultivating the mind all comes down to
choosing where to direct our attention. All
day long, we make thousands of choices
about what to do and what to think about.
Some decisions drag us down and others
refresh us. Sometimes we consciously
choose our thoughts a nd actions. At other
times, they choose us. Virtually none of
those choices, however, is effect-neutral.
In fact, we can safely make most of our
daily choices on automatic pilot. We don't
necessarily decide to get dressed and go to
work, we just do it. Our daily routines and
responses are usually quite healthy, and
don't require more conscious thought.
But many situations are ambiguous, and
we need to give them more attention for
good outcomes. We can choose to do what
is good for us, and resist the alternatives,
or we can chase distractions. We can
try to be as conscious and self directed
as possible, or we can puddle along in
a mental fog, reacting automatically to
stimuli and events while hoping for the
best.While we may agree that our quality of
mind is important, we tend to assume that
we are far more alert and in control than
we actually are. If I ask you, "Right now, are
you conscious?", you would undoubtedly
reply "Yes", and that would be the correct
answer. The question, as questions do,
would have brought you into full self
awareness at that moment.
But were you fully conscious a minute
or an hour ago? Can you remember
anything of what you were doing then?
And if you can, do you think that you were
fully conscious, monitoring what you were
doing as the master of your fate? Or were
you operating on automatic pilot with your
mind somewhere else?
In general, we assume we are more
conscious that we actually are, if only
because we don't notice the vast swathes of
time when we are operating automatically.
Nor, if semiconsciousness is the best we
ever manage, do we necessarily realise
how inferior that is to full consciousness.
Consciousness is always on a sliding
scale. In fact, it slides up and down
across many scales. We slide from sleep
to wakefulness back to sleep each day.
We can blink in and out of awareness
within seconds. Some days we are hyper
alert and some days we feel barely alive.
Occasionally, we have bursts of illumination
that outshine the heavens, and at other
times we are head down in a swamp.
Full human consciousness is also a
very late development in evolutiona ry
terms. A sea slug is smart enough to learn
and develop memories, but it is has far less
mental capacity than us. Similarly, there
are good reasons for arguing that a lizard
is less conscious than a cat, a cat is less
conscious than a monkey, and a monkey is
less conscious than a human. In fact, some
brain scientists regard neural complexity
alone, and the consequent need to choose
between options, as a prerequisite for full
The primitive forms of brain activity
and behaviour that we find in slugs and
monkeys still operate within us. That
automatic circuitry still supports our
uniquely human cleverness. It occupies
far more of the real estate in the back,
sides and centre of the brain than our
uniquely human outcrops in the frontal
lobes. Human consciousness developed
out of primeval unconsciousness, relies on
it and easily slides in and out of it.
Nor can we say that all human beings
are fully conscious. They just have the
capacity for it. A baby is fully alive, but it is
still less conscious than an adult. It takes
over 20 years for the brain, and all the
cognitive functions that depend on it, to
mature. Furthermore, some people fail to
develop completely -- prisons are full of
them -- and others lose whatever capacity
they achieve through drugs, illness or
A cat is definitely conscious. Humans,
though, have a kind of meta-consciousness:
we can be conscious and we know it. A cat
sees. I also see, but I know that I see, and
how I see, and how what I see affects me,
and how to change the quality of seeing.
A cat operates largely via a stimulus-
response arc. I have a much vaster array of
memories, associations, values and possible
responses to modulate my behaviour. This
higher order mental complexity gives me
choices that a cat does not have.
Our conscious thoughts emerge from,
and sink back into, a dense substrate of
semiautomatic and unconscious mental
processes. Brain scientists call these
"cognitive networks" and "action schemas"
(plans), and can link many of them to
uniquely interconnected groups of brain
cells and regions. When we think about x,
deliberately or automatically, the cognitive
network related to x gets excited and
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