Saturday, November 9, 2013

Improving the Receptivity and Clarity of the Human Mind

The summary of a talk given at a YMCA prayer meeting in Mukhathala, Kollam on Nov 9, 2013

When Jesus began his career, he became aware of a fundamental problem in human existence. He was telling people things that were of earth-shattering consequences. He was talking about the creation of a new way of life, a new human civilization. To use his own language, he talked about how our world can become heaven. Although he was talking about things of such importance, he noticed that only very few people really understood what he was talking about. Whatever he said didn't make sense to most of them. Only one in a hundred or perhaps one in a thousand had a slight understanding of what he was trying to say. Even his own close companions had a hard time understanding him. Imagine how you would have felt if you had been in Jesus' place! Jesus realized that he was not the first one to face this issue. He related his situation to that of Isaiah, a prophet who lived about 600 years before him. Isaiah had said:
 They have eyes, but they don't see;
 They have ears, but they don't hear.

Jesus said the story of the sower to explain this situation. The seeds fell on different kinds of fields, and the productivity of the fields depended on their receptivity. Jesus saw himself as a sower sowing ideas in human minds. The fields are human minds and the seeds are the ideas and information that can give birth to a new civilization. Some minds are not receptive to anything new; they are closed. Some minds, though open, are momentarily receptive, and so the seeds do not grow the roots and sprout. Some are receptive to new ideas, and they start growing, but the presence of negative thoughts and feelings like fears and worries do not let the ideas grow. Some minds are fully receptive, and the ideas grow and become fruitful.

Recently I tried to plant a vegetable garden in front of my home. I sowed some seeds and waited for a few days, but nothing happened. Then I discovered that all the seeds were eaten away by some hungry ants. This experience helped me relate to the sower. I think I have learned a fundamental issue about human existence from this story. I call it fundamental because this is the one thing that should not be ignored by anyone. Unless we solve this one issue, we can't move on successfully in our life. If we get a clear grasp of this one fundamental aspect, it can become the foundation of a new life for us.
Jesus continues to invite us to a new way of life, a new civilization, with a radically different perspective and attitude. There is no shortage to the seeds. Creative ideas come to us through all kinds of media-- print, visual, audio, digital. However the problem remains the same as in the time of Isaiah and Jesus. We have ears, but we don't hear. We have eyes, but we don't see. Jesus weeps for our generation as well.

A human mind is very much like a field. A field as such is neither good nor evil. The goodness or evilness of a field depends on what kind of trees and plants grow there. Unlike a farming field we see out there, a human mind is a field with the freedom to choose the seeds it needs. One may choose to grow useless and harmful thorny bushes, or one may choose to grow fruit trees. In the story of the sower, Jesus tells us about three different problems that prevents us from internalizing creative ideas and be fruitful.

First problem: Some people have their minds fully closed. They don't let any new idea in. They probably think that they already know whatever they need to know. Let me explain this idea using an illustration.
Let us imagine a manufacturing company in your place that doesn't run very well. They are going to close soon, and hundreds of people will lose their job. One day you come to the front gate of the company and tells the guard, "I am concerned about this company. I know why it is running at a loss, and also how to solve this problem. Let me talk to the manager." The guard tells him, "Our company is running fine. Even if it has some minor problem, we have enough experts here to take care of it; we don't need your help." You leave and the company continues in loss.

A lot of people are exactly like this company-- not open to anything new. How do I keep my mind open? When I hear something or read something, I need to be willing to understand it. When someone tells me something, I need to listen to him/her. I don't have to blindly believe whatever I hear. But I need to be willing to listen and try to understand it from the perspective of the speaker. I need to be free from prejudice. Also I need to be careful as much as possible from being misled by false information and destructive ideas.

Second Problem: Some people let creative ideas to their conscious minds, but do not do anything to let the ideas to their subconscious minds. My conscious mind is like the reception area of my mind. New thoughts have to pass this area and enter the subconscious mind in order to become fruitful. Let us imagine that a new thought comes to the reception area. If I don't take much interest in that thought and ignore it, it leaves just as it comes in. If I become enthusiastic about it, and think and talk and write about it, it comes into the subconscious mind, and eventually it gets reflected in my words and deeds. The more I welcome an idea, and the more enthusiastic I get about it, it stays with me and become fruitful.

Let us continue the above illustration. What if the guard had let you in? You then go to the reception area of the front office and asks for the manager. You explain to the manager how the company can turn around and become successful. The manager listens to you, and then goes inside to take care of other matters. You wait there for some more time, and leave, and the company continues in loss. What if the manager had taken you more seriously? The manager might arrange a meeting of the company executives with you. The manager might also hire you as a consultant. In this way the company is trying to put your ideas into practice.  

Third Problem: Some people let destructive ideas and useless thoughts overpower the creative ideas. Even if an idea gets inside my subconscious mind, it may not necessarily become fruitful. I have to keep my mind free from harmful and useless thoughts, feelings, and attitudes-- thorns and weeds. When we stop the mind from engaging in harmful and useless thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, we can make our mind free to engage in beneficial and useful thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Thoughts and feelings seem to have a life of their own, for they fly through my my mind nonstop. When they push into my mind, I often stand helpless not knowing what to do. It looks like the thoughts and feelings control me rather than I control them.

There is an indirect way to keep my mind in control. If I can control my attention, I will be able to control my thoughts and feelings as well. Attention is like the steering of a car. I can drive a car with the steering in my control. Attention is more like the mouse pointer in my computer screen. Although I have the option to go to a lot of links on a screen, I choose just one link at a time with my mouse pointer, and click there. A child beginning to use a mouse finds it hard to point to a specific link and click there. It takes some practice before he/she can effectively handle the mouse. The skill of paying attention can be developed by some practice. I need to consciously try to fix my attention on a point-- a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, or a feeling. If I do it regularly, I will slowly develop the ability to pay attention, and thus gain some control over my mind. Once I have some control over my mind, I will be able to stop harmful and useless thoughts and feelings, and free my mind for beneficial and useful thoughts and feelings.

Almost all religious traditions understand the importance of keeping the mind in control, and they all promote the attention-developing exercises in some form such as meditation, prayer, and worship. We need to consciously take part in such exercises. When we participate in a group prayer or worship, we need to take it as an opportunity to improve our power of attention. Traditional Christianity suggests prayer seven times a day. Islam suggests prayer five times a day. Hinduism suggests prayer at least two times a day. Buddhism stresses the importance of meditation. Traditional Christianity practices in its weekly Eucharist an intense group attention-enhancing exercise. The charismatic Christians practice intense concentration in their Praise and Worship sessions. Singing a hymn is an attention-enhancing exercise in almost all religious traditions.

An exercise, however useful it is, can become a useless act if someone does it without knowing the real purpose behind it. The attention-enhancing exercises turn to be mere dead rituals when they pass from generations to generations unless its meaning is consciously reinforced. Our parent-generation had prayer in the morning and evening. Also they attended the church worships regularly. However, they couldn't explain to us the real significance of prayer and worship, and we couldn't blindly accept any beliefs and rituals that didn't make sense to us. We also pray and worship, but not so regularly as our parent-generation. Also an exercise of the mind has become a lip exercise. Today we are passing on these rituals to our next generation without explaining the real significance, and guess what will happen?  

One can't take much responsibility for the minds of other people, but can take care of one's own mind. What kind of mind is mine? Am I receptive to new creative ideas and information? Am I willing to learn from others, or do I feel like I already know whatever I need to know? Do the creative ideas stay on the top of my mind, and get lost, or do I consciously internalize them? Is my mind free from fears and worries, so that the creative ideas can grow and become fruitful? Is my mind pure and clear? If my mind is not a good field for creative ideas, Jesus feels disappointed about me.

It is fundamental to keep our mind open and clean. We need to warmly welcome a new creative idea and become enthusiastic about it. In order to keep the mind free of destructive thoughts, we need to gain some control over our mind, which we can gain by attention-enhancing exercises. May God help us stay receptive to creative ideas and to develop our power of attention so that we may use our mind creatively!

1 comment:

Tony Daniel, Australia said...

A wonderful talk that everyone must read and understand.

I have heard on controlling our thoughts. Forgive me, it's a low level analogy and may not have direct implication to this article. Anyway it goes like this.

'Don't control your thoughts, let all thoughts flow freely. The useless thoughts will jostle for prominence and get stuck at the doorway, as would "selfish" people in a crowd. And when things are quieter the good ones will gain access, take root and flourish.' [Paraphrased]

Once again the article has to be studied carefully and applied in our lives. Thank you.