The Curious Mind, Episode 6: The Real - A chance for sustainable satisfaction
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In the fourth episode of the podcast I introduced a basic framework for the mind: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the Real. Today I would like to discuss a bit more the third element, the Real, and combine it with Buddhism and meditation.
If I can summarize very briefly the imaginary I would call it an immature distortion. It’s when I identify myself with my body, or with a car, or with money. It is a necessary step for children to develop, but if I continue to be occupied with my looks, or with the stuff that I have or with money – basically with images – then this is what we call superficial because grownups know that good looks or money alone don’t make us happy.
A more mature distortion is the symbolic. It’s when I use communication, relationships, and the possibilities of culture and society to be happy. This is more advanced and more resilient than just looks and objects.
But if I call even this a ‘distortion’ isn’t there anything more solid, something really reliable that I can build on and that guarantees my satisfaction in life? This is where the ‘real’ comes in, or more practically the practice of meditation. Now, if exclude all images (which is the imaginary) and all concepts (which is the symbolic), then what is left? What is the supposed ‘reality’ that I can reach?
In the end there seem to be two choices, the reality of science, and the reality of how the mind works. It is no secret that the reality of science is usually not making us really satisfied. Just because we find out that we can build bridges, develop flying cars, and split atoms doesn’t make us happy. We can identify with these things on an imaginary level, but the resulting satisfaction dissipates just as with other objects or concepts.
The other choice is to understand the reality of how the mind works. And here, because the mind understands something about itself, this is more sustainable – IF I don’t turn it into a concept.
To give you some examples: Normal people all have their small discomforts, anxieties and trigger points. Let’s take for example the idea that foreigners endanger my way of life. We know that to emphasize this idea has been traditionally a very simple way for politicians to create anxiety, resentment, and thus to get elected. Then one day I find out how politicians have been manipulated me with this trigger topic, and I decide not to be manipulated any more. As a consequence, instead of listening to my fear I rather ask myself: “what about it is true, and what is not?”. And I come to understand that some points are valid, some are complete nonsense, and some I don’t really know.
What is ultimately the releasing element here is that I became independent, understood that just following my fear was not a good choice because as a consequence I was manipulated by people who know how to manipulate emotions. So essentially, I understood something about the mind, namely: certain ideas lead to emotions, and emotions can lead me to do stupid things that are not good for me. And I learned to doubt the automatism, to doubt that emotions are automatically true. What is of course essential here is that I make this a living reality, I don’t reduce it to a concept, put it in a box in the attic and let it rot there. Making it a reality means that I have to apply again and again.
This is just one very small example for an understanding of the mind that leads to a more sustainable satisfaction. And these are the kinds of insights that can come up in meditation, either directly, or later on when I reflect on my experiences.
Let me go to a much more abstract example, one where Buddhist teachings and natural sciences are actually in agreement. The Buddhist statement is: all experience is impermanent. And I think it’s fair to say that neither in physics we find a truly static object nor in neuro-science. So, as a concept this is acceptable – but how are we to implement it as a reality? Is there a way of living where we can be truly independent from tragedy, illness, or a lottery win? Let me put aside the question if such a state is desirable at all – I’m pretty sure that most people would not like to give up their normal way of functioning. Still I think it’s clear that someone who keeps in mind that everything is impermanent would live a very peaceful life.
And I think that there are applications in everyday normal life. For example, when good things happen to know that they will not stay on their own – I have to make them continue. For example when I win money in a lottery, or gain the trust of my superior and get a promotion, or get to know someone I fall in love with. None of these things will stay positive just on their own. Quite on the contrary, I can be absolutely sure that they will change. And this puts me in the position of responsibility, to not be just dumb, and waste the good until it’s gone, but to ask myself what I can do to extend it. For example to put some of the money aside. To do my new job well. And to become a really good communicator and partner in the relationship.
The same is true in cases of tragedy: The bad feelings, the mourning, and the guilt will pass – if IIII don’t hold on to them. That is just in the nature of experiences. The worst thing that I can do is to prevent these bad feelings to go away – for example by reminding myself daily how bad I should feel, how miserable I am, how unfair I am treated etc. If I leave the thoughts and feelings alone, they must go away, it's just in their nature. And by seeing this I am again put in the responsible position, not just to let things happen on their own but to ask myself what I can do to move on and turn my life to a positive direction. If I have well implemented this understanding of how the mind works, I actually don’t have to do a lot of psychological work or apply strange techniques all the time – because ultimately those techniques are concepts and therefore belong to the realm of the symbolic. Not bad, but also not really reliable.
What is more reliable is to keep in mind the reality of the mind, that if I don’t artificially prolong negative states that they are bound to change. And again, this is something that can be directly experienced in meditation. And then it is not just a concept or just something that you hear in a podcast or read in a fancy book, but an observation that you can make yourself. And then it has the chance to become a reality – which belongs to the third aspect of the mind, the real.
So, I hope that I could make clear a little bit, what this aspect of the ‘real’ is – it’s not an image, not an ideal, and not a concept. It’s about a mind that realizes something about itself and is thus more grounded in reality – not a fantasy.
But I also have to admit that this was a quite simple discussion of the real. There is much more complexity and much more to discover which truly makes an impact on daily life and ones satisfaction. But I guess to discover is part of the journey, as they say.
Let me finish today with a Chinese tale that fits the topic and that I read in a book by Alan Watts:
One day, the only horse of a farmer ran away, and all the neighbors gathered in the evening and said 'that's too bad.' He said 'maybe.'
Next day, the horse came back and brought with it seven other wild horses. 'Wow!' everyone said, 'Aren't you lucky!' He said 'maybe.'
Some days later, his only son grappled with one of these wild horses and tried to tame it, and he got thrown off and broke his leg, damaging it permanently. And all the neighbors said 'oh, that's too bad that your only son broke his leg so badly.' The farmer said, 'maybe.'
After a few months, the conscription officers came around, gathering young men for the army, and they rejected his son because of his damaged leg. And again the neighbors came around and said 'Isn't that great! Your son \ won’t get killed in the war.' And the farmer said, 'maybe.'