The man who views the world at 50 the same he did at 20 has wasted thirty years of his life—this wisdom comes from Muhammad Ali, one of the most celebrated sports figures of the 20th century. Raised in the segregated South, Cassius Clay (his actual name) told police officer, Joe Martin, that he planned to beat up the thief who stole his bike. Joe said he should first learn to fight. And that’s how changes happen. You hear something, learn something that resonates deeply, and you act on it.
Change is enormously difficult and why sometimes we call it “to grow up.” Telling someone to “grow up” is rarely—possibly never—well received. But if we hold on to our old ways, refusing to question what is, we end up children in grown-up bodies.
The first time I gave serious thought to the quality of my food was after Dr. Boutt wrote three prescriptions for me that I hung on the bulletin board in my study. Instead of running out for the pharmaceutical fixes, I left them hanging like new decor. Pills for the rest of my life, was hard to swallow. I was peeved at Dr. Boutt for acting like this was no big deal. But it wasn’t him who caused the problems. Leaving the prescriptions in plain sight, a reminder of what was at stake, I dove into a deep pool of information on the leading causes of chronic illness. Months later, health improved, I knew first hand that we have the power to heal our body of high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. by eating nutrition-rich food. Eager to share, I sent books and articles I’d found helpful to anyone who wanted to learn and sometimes even those who didn’t.
After reading Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, diet dropped from the top rung to the second rung on my health ladder. Lack of sleep was responsible for a host of problems, some that I was dealing with. But in time, both would be demoted. Yes, nutritious food and sleep mattered, but there was something I’d ignored that was even more important, my mind.
Most of us are good at taking care of ourselves and the stuff we own. While in quarantine, I posted on FB. “When this is over, we are going to need a haircut.” Dozens agreed. We get annual flu shots, hire people to take care of our lawn, and check our bank balance to make sure we have enough money. In other words, we are very good at taking care of the external stuff. But how is it that we spend so much time on externals and little or no time taking care of our mind, the spiritual part of us? Shouldn’t we pay attention to the part of us that determines our moods, interactions and affects every part of our life’s journey?
Most of our pain and anguish stems from not knowing or taking care of our mind, our spirit. It’s not from lack of food or sleep, or living far from loved ones. Instead, it’s ignoring our spiritual needs. It’s acting like the externals are what matters most, and in this, we are wrong. Spiritual in this context is not about being religious. It’s about taking care of our minds. The human mind is powerful and a far bigger influence on our overall health than broccoli or deep sleep.
Our mind makes us a unique species. We can think, be self-conscious, confident, and make connections between the past and present. We can love ourselves or hate ourselves. Human minds are a force like thunderstorms and earthquakes that can play havoc. How our mind behaves depends on how well we treat and understand it. After a “perfect” day of biking twenty miles and eight hours of quality sleep, an unruly mind can undo it all in a heartbeat.
Ancient muses and monks figured out that the human mind’s normal state is turmoil. They referred to it as “monkey mind.” After my friend, Pat, bought, on my suggestion, The Power of Now, a Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, she said, “What on earth is he talking about?” After discussing the book with her, although she quit after the first three chapters, two things were clear. First, Pat thought the book was about finding some divine revelation. That reading Tolle’s book would be a form of immersion baptism, head and all, then to arise cleansed of her sins. Second, Pat had not discovered her monkey mind so Tolle’s book did not make sense to her.
How is it that we don’t know we have a monkey mind? The why is that the monkey mind has been ruling us. It’s the boss who decides what you think and how you react. Since we were children, we have been enslaved by this monkey mind, which is unconsciousness itself. So taking care of the mind begins with discovering this truth, the monkey mind is not you. It’s an imposter pretending to be you. When we act from unconsciousness, we are more likely to act in ways that hurt us. It was when I snapped at a quite elderly woman whose dog had jumped on me, leaving mud sliding down my pants. Looking at her distraught face while frantically trying to control the dog, Edith, was your snapping at her worth it?
Moments of consciousness vary from person to person. But there is one that mothers share, giving birth. Do you recall the first time you held your baby? Moms describe it as love so great that their hearts physically hurt. Or you may enter this state listening to Gregorian Chants or walking in nature. It’s a state of bliss.
Our three mind states are unconsciousness (monkey mind), awareness, and consciousness. It’s in the awareness space between unconsciousness and consciousness where we take care of our mind—mind the mind. In this gap of reflection (meditation), we go inside and pay attention to what’s happening. We discover repetitive and counter-productive thoughts we’ve carried for years. Perhaps it’s a belief system, anger, or insecurity. I think of these thoughts as mental garbage filled with old emotions, greed, fear, etc., I need to clear out.
Change is easier said than done. We can’t just rise above, transcend our thoughts, our worries. Well, we can, but not by tossing up our arms and singing, “just let it go.” We can work on it by looking into our mind, to the depths of our thoughts and emotions. If we do that, we find that most of our thoughts have no validity. They are like bubbles that pop when you touch them. There is no essence in bubbles. Just air. And this is true for almost all of the thoughts that create conflict and keep us up at night. Knowing this, we can choose to let go of the mental constructs and take a deep cleansing breath.
Can we stop believing the thoughts that keep pestering and festering our minds? Minding our mind is to become aware and accept that our thoughts are a mirage. Pay attention to the thoughts that come to you. Do they add value to your life? Are they real? A famous Tibetan master said that not finding was the great finding. When you stop believing your mind or reduce what you believe, you open up for more peace and more love. Inner peace, the goal of minding our mind, arises in exact proportion to how much we can let go of— that which never is or was.