August 2007 Newsletter

The following articles are reproduced from the August 2007 Newsletter to members. Non-members may or may not be able to relate to the contents.

Some Aspects of Mind


By Radha Burnier

Reprinted from On the Watch-Tower in the June 2007 edition of The Theosophist


Some Aspects of Mind

Much has been said about thought, but merely listening to somebody else does not clarify our understanding, unless we ourselves go into the subject and find it to be of importance. In this context, perhaps it is also useful to consider briefly what Indian thought has had to say about the thinking process; it has said that what is called ‘mind’ cannot be equated with thought and the power of thinking, because there are several aspects to mind.


Perhaps some people are more confused than ever about what the different words which are connected with thought and mind really connote. These are brain, thought, mind, consciousness, intelligence and so on. A good deal of investigation called ‘consciousness research’ is going on, but much of it is based on neurological research, and the brain which they take as the object of investigation is only one small part of the whole picture.


From ancient times they have said in India: There is the great Mind of the universe — everywhere one can observe that Mind at work. But, when functioning through certain types of instruments, that Mind gets changed, limited, conditioned. So we can speak about different aspects of the mind. And the sages principally projected the concept of four ways in which it functions: (1) The thinking mind, (2) the reasoning mind (thinking is not always to be equated with reasoning, or at least with good reasoning), (3) the egotistic mind, and (4) the insightful or intuitive mind. They said that mind working through the physical body — that is, the brain — is the thinking mind, and thought is its product.


But this body of ours is penetrated by subtler matter varying in different degrees of subtlety, and the mind functioning through that subtle matter gets conditioned somewhat differently. That is, for example, noticeable when one says: ‘The atmosphere here is nice’ or ‘is not nice’. It is not the physical brain which feels the atmosphere. It is not just imaginary thinking, because many people are sensitive to atmosphere, and also to the emanations or vibrations coming from different persons. So they can become sensitive to vibrations, that is, the response of the mind through subtler matter which interpenetrates the physical body.


There is also a continual building up of the ego-sense, that is, the sense of being separate from the rest of life. When that idea or feeling arises, it ramifies in many different directions, and there is a constant process of building up that ego-sense. We think of everything in terms of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, that is, ahamkāra, or the egotistical mind. But, apart from all these aspects of the mind when it functions through the material brain and even through subtler matter, there is ‘mind’ in itself.


It is interesting that not long ago a distinguished scientist at Cambridge University, Prof. Conran Smith, wrote about intelligence developing through the process of evolution. It is not very clear what he means by ‘intelligence’, as this is a very difficult word. He is an evolutionary paleontologist, and a large section of his book contains references to the sources from which he has derived his theory. After having amassed a great deal of evidence, he says that throughout the millennia of evolution, in whatever part of the world that process has gone on, it has helped to bring out intelligence — from rudimentary intelligence to the great intelligence of the best of human beings — and perhaps there is no end to the unfolding of that intelligence.


One of the great follies of modern thinking is to imagine that evolution has come to a stop with the human being as he is. However foolish, violent, crude, selfish, and greedy the human being may be, we like to think that we are at the peak of evolution and there is nothing beyond. But that may not be true, because this movement of evolution has gone on for millennia, improving organisms: the nervous system has become more and more sensitive and different faculties have developed. There are, or were, creatures which had only the faculty of feeling, but later other faculties developed.


Prof. Smith says that all developments have converged to bring about the unfolding of intelligence. In fact the title of his book is Convergence. We can imagine how the great rivers of the world come into existence: from the top of mountains, small trickles flow down as the snow melts, and the trickles converge to become little streams. The little streams then converge to form small rivers, and many rivers join together to become huge rivers like the Amazon and other great rivers of the world. So this process of convergence in evolution, according to him, works in a similar way.


Mind working at different levels

We can see that, whether it is intelligence or mind, the vast mind of the universe working through various organisms — some very primitive and others more developed, which is evolution — functions in more and more ‘intelligent’ ways, for lack of a better word. We cannot say whether viruses and bacteria, for example, are able to think. I do not know about the latest scientific findings, but it is very difficult to imagine that such organisms can think.


Another eminent Professor, E. O. Wilson, teaching in the US, is a specialist in insect life, and has written a large volume on ants. He points out that the head of the ant is very small, so you can imagine how much brain it could contain. Perhaps the ant is not an intelligent creature in the normal sense of the word ‘intelligence’, but what is remarkable is that the colony of ants is very intelligent. At least some of the features of the thinking mind develop in the colony, and it appears that, to some extent, they have already developed in insects such as bees.


Prof. Wilson also says the colonies of ants perform remarkable engineering feats, for example, when they find a piece of food and have to bring it down an uneven surface. The ants also know they must keep their house scrupulously clean; not all human beings realize this! They gather all the rubbish, take it out, put it in orderly heaps, and so on. Bees also know how to separate pollen from honey. They put the honey in air-tight compartments or cells in their beehive. Each cell is sealed in a hexagonal shape, the best form to prevent any honey from leaking out. This means that some thinking and its results already exist at these lower levels of evolution.


Another scientist, Prof. Eric Laithwaite, mentions a different phenomenon in his book Designs in Nature. He says high voltage was being transmitted on a wire on which a spider was sitting. They thought that, as the current passed through, the poor little one would shrink and die, but nothing of the sort happened. Before the current came near where he (they called him Sammy) was sitting, the spider dropped a thread and descended to where he would not be hurt by the voltage. After the current had passed, he climbed up again and resumed his seat. They performed several experiments with him, for instance, increasing or decreasing the voltage, and the length of the thread that he let down varied each time to suit his own comfort. How did the spider know how far to descend? The Professor says that all that the brainy human being has been able to do is to produce very large volt metres to measure the voltage in such places, but this little spider had a volt metre in his tiny brain which seemed to work perfectly!


So Mind seems to be working in Nature, but it works in a limited way through different kinds of brains, whether it is the ant, bee or spider, or the larger animals like dogs, elephants, monkeys, dolphins, and, they say, even parrots. There are many extraordinarily intelligent creatures, some of them capable of thinking in a very modest way. Perhaps you have read about a lady who was studying gorillas and found a female baby gorilla and brought her up as if she were her daughter. She taught the deaf-and-dumb sign-language to that baby gorilla, who was able to learn about eight-hundred words over a period of time. When a visitor came, the gorilla was interested in jewellery and various other things. She looked at the ring the visitor was wearing, but she did not know the word for ‘ring’, so she said in her sign language: ‘Your finger bracelet is beautiful.’ The gorilla was clever enough to convert the words to say that! This is all printed in an interview between a journalist and the gorilla in an Australian magazine.


So there are various levels of intelligence. The elephant, for example, has extraordinary intelligence and memory, even what we may call a feeling of consideration for people he knows and so on. But when it comes to the human being, the mind working through the human brain seems to become much more capable. There is a big difference between the mind working through all these creatures, even the very intelligent animals, and that working through the human being. The thinking capacity has increased enormously. We may ask ourselves: How did it start? Perhaps we may begin with the human baby. How does it start to think? It has been suggested that it is through the ability to make connections. Some animals can make connections — the gorilla, for example. But the human capacity to relate one thing to another, which develops into reasoning, is enormously greater, at least in many human beings. So even within the human species there is a wide range of thinking capacity.


Human mind or intelligence?

Let us start with where intelligence might have begun. It has been suggested that it perhaps began with the human baby or with a whole community of people who were more or less in the ‘baby stage’ inwardly. The baby feels somewhat uncomfortable when it has nothing in its little stomach, and then it receives milk and feels a sense of pleasure. At some point it begins to connect the milk and the pleasure that the milk brings with the mother, or maybe later on a nurse who is the source of the milk. So the relationship between the mother and the source of pleasure is recognized by the baby, and that develops into highly sophisticated processes of thinking. But, as I said, infants and animals all do a certain amount of thinking, but it is not consistent. When the thinking becomes consistent, it develops into reasoning, connecting causes with effects. Then one has a mental image of the effect before it has taken place. Thus one may project what might happen if one produces certain causes.


A great number of human inventions are a result of this capacity to connect causes and effects. Reasoning, logical thinking, that is, the mathematics which is involved in present-day technology, could not have come into existence unless this thinking capacity had developed to a great extent. This is essentially the capacity to see different features, to analyse things. Scientists are now exploring matter, the galaxies, through analysing and comparing various things that they observe and their qualities and features, assessing them and inferring — which is the mental process where you do not actually wait until the effects have taken place. For instance, in teaching elementary logic, in India at least, they take the example of a statement like: ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire.’ We do not actually see the fire, but we make the connection between the smoke and the fire. So all this conceptualizing, logic, mathematics, and so on, has produced the modern world in its outer aspects. That is, all the comforts, modes of communication, travel, so many things we enjoy, are all the result of thinking. Society today is very different from what it was even one hundred years ago.


Further, this capacity of the human being is opening up new vistas of the whole mysterious universe. Many decades ago scientists like Sir James Jeans had already said that the universe is mysterious. And now they seem to be unravelling the mysteries of the minute world of subatomic particles as well as of the vast heavens, the galaxies. And they have come to the conclusion, without ever going there; that the same substances are there; that the laws that work in our galaxy, the Milky Way, are the same as those which are in force in other galaxies, and so forth. There seems to be a whole unified existence which contains materially all these galaxies and everything that is going on ‘out there’.


All the small mysteries — from the ant to the elephant to the human being — are increasing our knowledge of something of which we would otherwise have no knowledge — that is, of the totality of the universe. What is the origin of it all? When the reasoning and thinking mind is applied to such questions as ‘Is everything impermanent or is there something timeless, eternal?’ and ‘What is the relationship of this petty human being — who is so insecure, who may die at any moment — within this vast universe, where things go on not in terms of days or even years, but in terms of millennia?’, we enter then into the realm of philosophy.


So the human being has invented, or recognized, many different philosophies. This is also part of our world. That there are comforts, knowledge, philosophies, is largely due to man’s power to think, meaning all that we already mentioned: observing, reasoning, analysing, inferring, conceptualizing, creating a model of the universe, and so on. But there are by-products. We live at a relatively advanced stage of comfort and knowledge, but it is a very wicked world, if I may use such a word. Perhaps it is more wicked than it has ever been. What is the reason? It is also due to this thinking mind, which is capable not only of inventing good things, but also of planning and organizing methods of hurting others, of cruelty and destruction, greed, exploitation of the earth and all it contains, so that everything gets magnified. And therefore, side by side with the good things, there is also the development of evil. All kinds of horrible forms of warfare are being invented. It sounds almost like what ancient peoples would have said black magicians do.


All advancement increases power. They say ‘Knowledge is power’. So extending knowledge is giving a greater and greater illusion of power to the average human being. A large proportion of the destruction of Nature is also based on the sense of pride: meddling with Nature, genetic engineering, and the treatment of animals in laboratories. The whole world has now been informed about what is systematically done to prisoners or powerless people — sometimes the wife or the child at home, who has no means of livelihood. The flesh trade today is a highly organized, oppressive, cruel system, which has in its clasp numerous helpless women and children, because they have no resources of any kind.


Another thing we must notice is that the power of thinking, and all the different aspects of that power have developed so much that other faculties have been suppressed. We are supposed to be more advanced in evolution than the dog or the cat, but they say dogs can smell a hundred times more effectively than human beings. We might have had that ability in us, but it has been suppressed by the overwhelming advancement in thinking. There are a few human beings whose senses are highly developed. I once knew a Dutchman who lived in India, who could taste just a spoonful of tea and say which type of tea it was, out of about a hundred and fifty varieties! The expert musician hears far more than the average person does. But the average person has lost that sense of hearing which, again, dogs and other animals have. So our senses — hearing, tasting, even observing — all have diminished in power, while the mental capacity to think has gone on increasing.


As stated earlier, in ancient Indian thought, perhaps in all Eastern thought, they said this thinking capacity is only one aspect of the mind, which works everywhere in Nature, and surely in the human being also. But we have become completely lopsided. We have concentrated on the mind because it increases our enjoyments. Our ardour to do better thinking is so great that we ignore all the other possibilities in our consciousness and in our being.


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