Monday, July 10, 2017


I found myself engaged in this discussion a couple of nights ago, on a hot night out on our balcony overlooking the city of Hollywood. My friend was arguing, essentially, that forces beyond our personal control govern our lives and that any control we might think we have over them is illusory. I understood it as a rationalist, deterministic, reductive argument with which I profoundly disagreed.

I may not be doing justice to her thinking, but it seemed to me that my friend's argument relied heavily on her understanding of the human brain--and the minimal control we can exercise over the way in which it processes causes and effects. We humans have remarkably little knowledge about the workings of consciousness, she argued, and the incessant stream of messages sent out from the brain to control our actions is emitted for the most part without our active supervision or intervention. Free will and choice, by extension, are therefore nothing but the illusions with which we seek to reassure ourselves about our meaningful existence in the world.

For myself, I see the human mind as infinitely greater and more powerful than the human brain. The analogy I like to use is that of a car driving along a highway. The brain is the engine under the car's hood. Mind is not only the whole car, it's also the road ahead and the road behind, and the entire landscape, so far as the eye can see. And more, it's greater yet, reaching far beyond the puny range of vision, way beyond the horizon and out into the universe. It's that great.

Obviously, we have no more comprehensive understanding of mind than we do of the functions of the brain. In fact, even less. If we watch carefully enough, however, we can gain occasional tiny insights into the functioning of mind. Beyond the reach of such insights lies the great mystery that embraces consciousness itself, and the vast, immeasurable realm of the unconscious mind. The watching, as I understand it, is the work of meditation. In order to free ourselves from the ultimate tyranny of chaos that my friend imagines, we work bit by bit to gain insight into the cause of the reactive patterns that can control our actions without our knowledge or permission. Once spotted and identified, those patterns can be slowly disempowered.

In a later conversation, for unimportant reasons, my friend and I grew angry with each other. I become rude and boorish. Then, the next morning, in meditation, I found the space in which I could safely watch the anger arise and identify its source in my emotional resistance to anything that feels like an attack--the kind of attack I too often experienced as a youngster in boys' boarding school, when impotent rage was the only response of which I was capable. Observing the source of the reactive pattern, I was able to diminish by just a little its power to control me.

And so it goes...

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