Shooting arrows at the clouds: When we make the mind our enemy

Our impressive mental faculty is capable of achievements that deserve to be treasured and celebrated — technological, philosophical, and artistic, to name just a few areas. But this same mental force also makes possible our war machines, elaborate cruelties, and both suicidal self-loathing and destructive narcissism. It should tell us something that we watch our dog plop down for a nap in the sun and feel envy for the simple contentment she radiates. Is it even possible to exist with a human mind and experience deep, durable peace and contentment?

The fact that so many of us leap from one spiritual self-help book to another, repeating our resolutions to meditate day after day, and year after year, testifies both to our desperation and our hope. We may feel sporadic motivation to master techniques that promise to tame, control, or even annihilate the mind. For many of us, simple coexistence with our own minds is an incredible grind, if not an acute misery. We plow through the days and thrash our way through the night at the mercy of a clever, insistent, mentalized voice. It is not just any voice, but one that has likely accompanied us for as long as we can remember, in some cases so tightly wrapped around our deepest sense of self that we believe this voice speaks from who we essentially are.

This internal voice is often obsessed with our surface level physical and psychological concerns, many of which are supposedly necessary for our bodily and emotional continuation. It nudges us to pursue this or control that, and then chides us for having done this or thought that even if we followed its previous instructions to the letter. This mental voice focuses almost entirely on past and future notions of what we want and don’t want, arguing that our very survival depends on attaining this or that item or circumstance, and avoiding that person or situation over there. Despite the fact that this voice is often indisputably neurotic, it is generally accepted as normal. Even as we turn to drugs, frenzied activity, or therapy to mitigate the volume of its nagging, we may still accept, not only that it is our inevitable companion, but that it sits at the heart of our most fundamental identity.

It’s not that the mentalized voice is continually and obviously negative, of course, for it is also capable of elaborate flattery and aggrandizement, assuring us from time to time of our own merit, cleverness, or moral and spiritual superiority. If the voice were incessantly and obviously cruel, shrill, and haranguing, then we would probably see through it more quickly or, perhaps, jump off a cliff. But because it intersperses its litany of our stupidities, failure, and lack with endless diatribes about others’ failures and lack in comparison to us — it is a master weaver of victim tales — we are likely to become addicted to the pendulum swing of its hypnotic back and forth cadence, feeling alternately shitty and awesome about who we think we are.

Of course, it is pretty obvious that our mind is not merely an abusive neurotic. There is clearly a productive and helpful aspect of it that helps us work our way through recipes, find mistakes on our tax forms, and invent computers. It also assists us in recognizing and responding to that hurt look on our friend’s face, composing an appropriate condolence card, and writing a poem that touches hearts the hearts of millions. As so many spiritual teachers have noted: “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” It is neither wise or necessary, then, to vilify the mind or to try to beat it into submission. As it happens, the aspects of the mind that are problematic are not so much a threat to be eradicated as an illusion to be dispelled.

Once I am able to step back a bit so that I can observe my flow of thoughts, whether I regard these thoughts as positive or negative, then a space has opened up from which it is clear, if only for a moment, that these thoughts cannot be who I am. I am not “a thing that thinks,” as Descartes put it, but the consciousness that is capable of observing the thinking that occurs. And so long as this gap is maintained between me and my thoughts, nor can I be seduced by the illusion that I am at odds with my mind, that it is an unruly roommate to be ejected or a foe to be vanquished. With mental activity viewed from the perspective of conscious awareness, it is evident that it is no more necessary or possible to fight against thoughts than to shoot arrows at the passing clouds.

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