The Absorbing Mind
“Meditation has helped to open my eyes, to open my ears, and to open my heart. When I find myself listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, or to Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony for Double Orchestra, now I can really feel what the composers were trying to say. I can experience what they were feeling. I can hear their thoughts. The music is alive and I am alive with it. Each note rings clear. I can truly taste [their] brilliance.” (Quote from the interview transcript of a senior manager who participated in a recent randomized controlled trial that we conducted examining the effects of meditation on work-related wellbeing and job performance.)
More and more countries are making it a legal requirement for cigarette packets to display a health warning. The warnings usually contain words to the effect that “Smoking can seriously damage your health”. People are becoming increasingly aware that our health is directly influenced by the types of food and non-food substances that we inhale or ingest. The idea behind placing warnings on cigarette packets, and behind including detailed nutritional information on the labels of food packaging, is to help consumers make a health-informed decision about what products they buy. If there is reliable evidence that certain products can have a beneficial or adverse effect on a person’s health, then without taking things too far, it makes sense that people should be able to access this information at the point of sale.
Interestingly, however, similar types of warnings and/or “nutritional information” are not currently displayed on the vast majority of magazines, newspapers, books, television shows, films, and computer games that are readily available for purchase from big-name supermarkets, high street stores, and online retailers. We would argue that when (for example) people read a magazine, watch a television show, or play a computer game, they are effectively “ingesting” these products into their system. When we mentally consume such products, and subject to how much intelligence we apply when so doing, we are basically allowing the newspaper journalist or the film maker to pour a part of their mind into ours. Depending upon that writer’s intentions and on their levels of spiritual awareness, this may or may not be a good thing.
When guiding a specific form of meditation, we sometimes ask people to visualize themselves as a body made of rainbow light, and to then see themselves seated at the centre of all universes. As the meditation progresses, we invite people to visualize and experience this rainbow body as being connected by golden threads to all sentient beings. One of the reasons for suggesting that people make this practice, is to try and help them appreciate just how connected we are with all other sentient beings, and how each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions influences those beings. It might be difficult to comprehend or accept that every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds directly touches every single life form and phenomenon throughout the entire ‘multidimensional multiverse’. However, even if this is difficult to accept, most people don’t have any difficulty in understanding that the words they utter can directly affect the behaviour and wellbeing of others. For example, in our post entitled ‘Forgive them Father’, we discussed how just a few venomous whispers by some of the high priests was all it took for the people to work themselves into a state of anger and rage and consent to the public crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
As each second goes by, an unimaginable variety of stimuli and phenomena, including the thoughts, words, and intentions of others, are constantly bombarding and being absorbed by our minds. Given the extent to which these “ingestible products” can influence our wellbeing, we wonder how people in (for example) the newspaper industry would react if it became a legal requirement for certain newspapers to print the following statement on their front page: “Warning: Reading this can Seriously Damage your Health”. Perhaps then, people might be more selective about the type of materials they read, and perhaps the newspapers would take greater care not to use words that water the seeds of fear, hatred, and ignorance in people’s hearts and minds.
It seems fairly obvious that other peoples’ written and spoken words can directly affect our mood and wellbeing, and there is plenty of evidence from clinical and neuroimaging studies that supports this view. However, there is also evidence indicating that our state of wellbeing is also influenced by more subtle factors such as the passive ambient rhythm or energy of the environment in which we find ourselves. A good example of this relates to a research project that our team is currently planning where we will be exploring the relationship between meditation and nature (we are joined in this project by Professor Carol Morris of Nottingham University who is a Human Geographer and an expert in how human beings interact with their physical environment). Research conducted in this study area (generally referred to as the study of Ecopsychology), indicates that certain “natural” and/or man-made environments are much more conducive to wellbeing than others. This accords well with the Buddhist view that the mind has the capacity to absorb its external physical and social environment. Although we personally feel that psychology still has a lot of progress to make in order to fully appreciate the strength of the connection between mind and environment, it seems that a growing number of psychologists would agree that our general levels of wellbeing are heavily influenced not only by psychosocial factors, but also by the physical environment that we are exposed to.
When we visit a Buddhist monastery or a meditation practice centre, it is really easy to tell how diligently people are practicing. If people are practicing well, then almost immediately upon entering and before even meeting anybody, one is engulfed by an air of awareness, deep calm, and gentleness. However, where monasteries or practice centres exist just for making money or where they have forgotten about the Buddhadharma, then all you encounter is a stale smell of mindlessness and selfishness. Have you ever wondered what type of atmosphere and subtle ambient rhythm is present in your own home? Is it an environment that is conducive to spiritual growth? Are people considerate and are they gentle with one another? Do the people who live there think before they speak? Do they avoid petty bickering and forcing their opinions onto each other? Do they move through the house with joy and awareness? Are things sensibly orderly and is there a good level of basic cleanliness? Have you created a living environment where you can be happy?
Fortunately, although we are continuously exposed to other people’s minds, and to the background “energy” of any given environment, there are strategies that we can use to help buffer and regulate how these stimuli affect us. One of the best strategies that we know of is to cultivate mindfulness. We definitely shouldn’t become complacent and have the view that because we are mindfulness practitioners, it doesn’t matter what type of materials we read, who we spend our time with, or that we are above having to keep our home environment clean and tidy. However, cultivating mindfulness means that we become increasingly more aware of the various different “products” that we are continuously mentally (and physically) ingesting. Although we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) block certain stimuli from entering our field of awareness, what we can do is make an assessment of their “nutritional value”. By being fully aware of what we consume with our minds, we essentially empower ourselves to make a choice as to which words and products we allow to penetrate and nourish our being, and which stimuli should be allowed to simply pass us by. As we discussed in our post titled ‘Do we really exist?’, this means that relative to the normal person who does not practice awareness, the meditation practitioner is somebody who is fully in control of their spiritual development and the ‘self’ that they are creating.
From the meditation practitioner’s perspective, it’s not just with respect to incoming words and stimuli where we need to apply awareness, but also with respect to the type of products and stimuli that we send in other peoples’ direction. Indeed, given the extent to which our thoughts, words, and actions can influence other peoples’ minds and wellbeing, it is important that we ensure our speech, writing, and general behaviour is infused with wisdom and awareness. In this respect, it is useful to remember that the human being is a creator. The difference between the everyday person and the realized being is that the latter is fully aware of their inherent creative potency. The realized being is like a master artist who uses the tools of insight, compassion, and skilful means to create a dynamic masterpiece of interwoven mind and matter upon the canvas of all-pervasive emptiness.
Each of our thoughts, words, and actions dictate who we are now and who we will be in the future. Those same thoughts, words, and deeds also influence who others will be in the future. Therefore, the next time you write something or create a product for other peoples’ minds, perhaps you might like to consider how your “mental food” will affect the wellbeing of the consumers. It should be reasonably easy to tell where somebody is writing with awareness because their words should be easily absorbed and should be alive with wisdom. Such words should effortlessly fly off the page and talk to you directly. Reading mindful words should leave us feeling spiritually nourished, calmer, and with a clearer perspective. Mindful words should help us to stop and be, to let go a little, and to feel bathed and refreshed by that person’s compassion and awareness. Mindful words should help us to remember that we were born, that we are currently living, but that in the future we will die. Upon reading words written in awareness, we should, if we really want to, be able to just unwind, take a few conscious breaths in and out, and start to allow the mind to relax into its natural state. Perhaps we could say that words written with mindfulness provide us with all five of our ‘spiritual five a day’.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
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Wolsko, C., & Lindberg, K. (2013). Experiencing connection with nature: The matrix of psychological well-being, mindfulness, and outdoor recreation. Ecopsychology, 5, 80-91.
Acknowledgment: This post was used as a platform for developing themes, insights, and elucidations to be included in an expanded article written for the Mindfulness in Practice section of the journal Mindfulness.