Mind-awareness: promoting mental health

Whether we look from a spiritual, medical, philosophical or scientific perspective there is across the board acceptance that happiness is primarily a function of our mental state.

Spiritually this has been understood for thousands of years throughout many traditions. Medically it is becoming more and more recognised as the major factor in both the onset of and recovery from chronic disease. Philosophically, great minds from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein all recognised the extent to which an external world only exists in dependence on our minds. Scientifically, developments within the quantum field in particular are saying the exact same thing.

The logic behind this always comes down to the indisputable truth that our minds are responsible for a huge part, many would argue the major part, of the world we experience. Indeed how can we even talk about an objective world separate from our minds since such a world can only be known through the medium of our minds.

Even on a sensory level, how many of us are aware that there is a blind spot in our vision, that 70%-80% of our visual field is in black and white? On a daily basis, none of us are, as our brains fill this in. Optical illusions show us the extent to which our senses are not just observing an objective world but in many ways creating such a world. Conceptually the extent of this mental fabrication is even greater. Think about how memories change over time, how our impressions of people can be completely wrong despite being strongly believed in, how the way we envision a place we are about to visit rarely conforms to how it actual appears.

The most important result of this mental fabrication is that it is the primary source of our inner happiness or suffering. We can see that even when alone with no particular sensory input we can create hellish suffering or heavenly bliss just through our thoughts. We are in many senses controlled by these thoughts and the scenarios they create.

Where does happiness lie?

Are we all looking for happiness? When presented with this question many people respond with a ‘no', they are looking for fulfilment or meaning or achievements in their lives. While not incorrect the essential meaning is the same: we are searching for peace, joy, contentment whichever words we use to describe that.

When we examine the nature of our minds we can see there are two distinct ways in which we experience the world; through our senses, the five doorways to sight, smell, taste, sound and touch being the first. Then what is referred to as our mental consciousness ,our internal world of thoughts, emotions and feelings.

Which of these two ways is more relevant to our happiness? One of the biggest problems in our modern world is the over emphasis on sensory satisfaction. We look for happiness in the next food, sound, experience, person or possession. Indeed our society especially our media and advertisers push us to look in this way all the time. The problem with this is that none of these external sources of ‘happiness' will last. They are by nature impermanent and changing all the time. It is impossible therefore that any of these can produce long-term happiness since they themselves simply don't last. Add to this the fact that our suffering rarely comes from these external sources but rather from the way we react or interpret them. What we see, hear, touch is far less the cause of our problems than the way we relate to these things through our mental consciousness.

Clearly then if we want to both create more long lasting genuine happiness and reduce our tendencies toward suffering we need to work on the level of this internal mental experiences. There it is that we can find long term happiness that doesn't depend on transient, unreliable external phenomena.

From that point of view happiness can be seen to be much more a result of what we bring to the world rather than what we take from it.

How do we begin to cultivate this inner joy?

Awareness is the fundamental basis to mental health. This refers to awareness both to our ‘external' reality and our internal mental states and involves the development of attention. As William James stated, ‘for the moment what we attend to is reality'. We can therefore begin to control this ‘reality' and the happiness or suffering it induces by controlling what we attend to.

This mental development ideally requires a threefold process. Initially we need to listen; this may be from teachers, books, videos. Then we need time to contemplate and understand the truth or not of what we have heard. Finally we must integrate this understanding into our minds, for ‘words alone will not suffice'. Here is where the practice of some form of meditation becomes important.  

Practically, a simple calm abiding meditation practice such as focusing on the breathing, done regularly, will bring this awareness into our minds. Even a small amount of this type of samatha practice, 10-15 minutes, ideally daily, will suffice.  We must view this technique as a marathon rather than a sprint.

There is an important precursor to this though; to enable this meditative integration we must learn to relax. Not in a spaced out sense but with ability to quiet the obsessive thinking within our minds. If we approach meditation with our normal goal orientated, results driven, wound up, tense, ego-driven mind it will simply not work. Hence we find morality or living a wholesome virtuous life as a foundation for Samadhi or meditation practice, since it by nature lets the mind relax. We first need to let go.

What are the benefits of this awareness?

Through developing this awareness we can see at least three substantial benefits:

An ability to live more in the present moment. These days mindfulness is a well-known term to express this mind set. In the present moment only are we alive, from this moment's viewpoint there is no past or future. Hence anxiety which is predominantly focused on the future cannot arise and worry mainly reflecting on the past cannot arise. The present moment is indeed beautiful and exhilarating! Why do people jump from airplanes, engage in extreme sports? Because it brings them forcefully into this present moment.

A degree of control over our thoughts. A lovely analogy here is that of a dog and lion. If you throw a stick for a dog it will always chase the stick. It is said, though that if you throw a stick for a lion instead of looking at where the stick goes it will look to where the stick came from. In other words you will only get to throw a stick for a lion once. In the same way an unaware mind, like the dog, will chase after thoughts and become a slave to them. We identify and become these thoughts and thereby let them control our destiny, run our lives and define our emotional reality. When we learn to create some distance and perspective on our thoughts they become much less controlling and in many cases we can actually choose which ones we follow and let go of those we don't need.

Some space within our minds. An untrained mind will tend to react in habitual ways to triggers that come into our lives. More often than not these triggers will be negative and produce harmful results through responses, physically, verbally or mentally. With the development of awareness we learn the capacity to take a step back when faced with life's challenges. This space allows us to consider our reactions and choose wiser ones which lead to more positive outcomes for ourselves, others and the situation.  

In conclusion we should come to realise that the above benefits and the state of mind which enables them is not something unattainable, pie in the sky or only the domain of mystics. This is something relatively easily obtained within a fraction of the time we spend on the other meaningless activities we engage in daily. Countless individuals over thousands of years and thousands of people in this present time have achieved this awareness in their minds and experienced the immense benefit this brings to one's life and well-being. Don't wait you also can achieve the same.

Author: Tenzin Josh, can be reached at 8MinistryOfMind8@gmail.com

Series Editor: Ezree Ebrahim, Head Business Development (Healthcare), Absolute Health Group. For Further information, please contact: ezree.ebrahim@akesisoncology.com

About the Author: Tenzin Josh

Tenzin Josh has over 30 years' experience combining Western psychology and Tibetan language monastic curriculum. He spent 15 years in the monkhood with the Dalai Lama in the Indian Himalayas.

He has been the leader of over 100 retreats and training to bring lifetime transformation to mentality and lifestyle through individual and group sessions.