Our life is what our thoughts make it.
— Marcus Aurelius 161-180 AD
All day long we think and we change our minds a million times. There is a little voice in our head constantly talking to us, telling us what to do and what to watch out for. It even tells us what we are capable of doing and what we should definitely stay away from.
As I think about the statement, I realize it’s truth but also it’s falsehood. Human beings are physical bodies and we relate to the world through the use of our senses. We have a mind that has hardwired and automated our responses to our surroundings, a process that starts in utero and continue throughout life. In fact, early childhood experiences etch pathways into our mind that can indeed determine the path our life takes if we not careful making the statement a reality.
An experience is just that. An event. It is value neutral. Think of a cup of hot coffee. The valence we give to a hot cup of coffee is dependent upon our previous experience with it. Do we like cups? Or do we prefer mugs? Do we like coffee? Do we like hot beverages? Did we ever have an experience of getting burned from a hot beverage? Based on our previous experience the hot cup of coffee can either be a delight or thing to avoid.
There are 10 billion neurons, give or take a few billion, in the cerebrum, the thinking part of our brain. Each neuron typically fires from around 1 to 30 times a second. In any given second hundreds of trillions of neurons are firing in our brain. Every sensory experience in our surrounding is processed by the neurons, given a valence, based on previous experience, and then generating a response. All this work is done for predominantly one reason alone. The survival of the organism.
Unwitnessed and unmodulated drive to survive, our mind can push us into a life of fear. Alarm bells go off at the least possible thing. We are afraid of the food we eat. We fear the traffic, the weather, foreigners, love… Living in fear is not really living but more like waiting for the next shoe to drop. And then our times up and the end approaches unleashing the ultimate fear- the fear of death.
The ticket out is space! No I’m not putting us all on rocketships to Mars.
Victor Frankel said that between stimulus and response there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.
Between our out-breath and in-breath is that space. In that space resides a subtle life energy. It is a silent witness to our responses and our life. Some call it our essence. It is that, which permeates our cells and gives them life. And when it separates from the body and mind we die.
This energy has a personality of its own. Observe children at play. Their young minds have not learned to control them fully and so they are moved by their energy. They are playful, fearless and awed by bugs and rainbows. They are full of joy. As we grow older our mind takes over more and more control of our responses. Coming from a place of fear we ignore our subtle life energy and end up losing our joy for life. We allow it to emerge only sporadically, as when we gaze upon a baby or look at fireworks. And then are surprised at how it moves us.
That space can easily be accessed through meditation. Meditation is not rocket science. It is merely the act of breathing as we watch our breath. Who is watching us? As we befriend our energy, we can allow the narrow space allocated to our energy by our mind to widen. With time our responses become modulated and more appropriate to the actual stimulus. We start experiencing joy, reminiscent of our childhood. We no longer live in fear. And then one day we wake up and realize we are not really our mind. We are something so much more. And we find ourselves joyful and alive again.
“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” — Thich Nhat Hanh