Change requires an inward and outward commitment to be more open and flexible
For many of us, the existence of an uncontrolled and often chaotic mind, along with its obsessive thought-spinning inner critic, is an existential predicament. When the effects of life experiences persist and affect mood, rational deliberation, and behavior, they disrupt the normal flow, joy, and unity of life. The disruptions obscure life’s natural wonder and the original and creative mind we had at birth. If unmanageable, the psychological snags become the basis for disorders, both autoimmune and emotional, heart problems, addictive behaviors, and suicidal ideation. If these negative ideations become a recurring issue, psychopathology is an inevitable consequence.
While many factors contribute to an uncontrolled mind, the root of the problem is fearful and chaotic thinking, especially one centered on ego-based rumination. One step in the solution is to transform negative incessant and obsessive chatter into a more positive form of creative thinking, one that is complex, multifaceted, multilayered, intricate, elaborate, embellished, flexible, and fluent. These are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Switching from one type of thinking to the other is as easy as breathing or as difficult as changing your mind. I have previously recommended one path with two parts to achieve this. The first part is self-parenting the mind, a necessary prerequisite to increase the likelihood of a true transformation. The second part is learning to be present and in the moment. Both parts provide the means for a return to the exquisite creative mind, the mind at birth, and associated with a joyful and creative life.
Knowledge of how to control mental chaos and transform the uncontrolled mind into the creative mind springs from wisdom accumulated over centuries, coupled with a modern understanding of the neuroscience behind these changes. For several reasons, not everyone is aware of or privy to this knowledge, nor has the time to search for it. My professional experience as a cognitive neuroscientist, and the objective knowledge I gained, did not by itself give me the expertise needed to propose solutions to this singular psychological problem affecting humanity. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, said that “The last function of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it.” What closed the circle for me was a spiritual crisis experienced during middle age. The outcome of the crisis made me come to grips with the notion that intellectual activity is only one of many ways to uncover the truth. And I set out to explore other avenues, mainly through contemplative practices. This provided the subjective experience I needed.
Nearly 30 years of practice and towards the end of my scientific career, I came to a critical insight — that “I am not my thoughts; I am more than ego-based thinking.” This understanding proved liberating and uncovered a mind I always had, but ego-based rumination had obscured. What I call the creative mind burst forth in an unprecedented and unexpected way, bringing extra curiosity and freshness I did not know I could experience again. The realization brought forth a bountiful source of energy that has produced and maintained a healthier and joyful life.
The creative mind in synchrony with nature is another description of a controlled mind, and it defines Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī. This 13th century poet and scholar is one of the greatest mystical poets of all time. He was born on the Eastern shores of the Persian Empire in 1207, in the city of Balkh in what is now Afghanistan. He is an example of someone who lived a natural state of creative living most of his life. A powerful, independent spirit, he shattered the status quo, the dated social norms, the primitive cultural taboos, the dusty dogmatic thinking and slave mentality of his time. In recent years, he became one of the most widely read poets in America, and talent-wise is on par with Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Mozart. But Jalāl ad-Dīn was also a messenger of truth. He ground his philosophy in love and a clear vision that allowed him to carry out his life journey free of ego, of guilt, fear, and shame.
More popularly known as Rumi, Jalāl ad-Dīn came into wealth, power, and the world of politics early on, becoming a member of high society. He was a charming, wealthy nobleman, genius theologian, law professor, and a brilliant scholar. Rumi met a wandering and wild holy man by the name of Shams-e Tabrizi in his late 30s. Shams was a blunt, antisocial, and powerful spiritual wanderer whose nickname “the Bird” suggested he could not stay in one place for too long. But meeting Shams transformed Rumi from a bookish, sober scholar into an impassioned seeker of universal truth and love. In a twist of fate, Rumi’s youngest son killed Shams as part of an honor killing. After that grim episode, Rumi fell into a deep depression. Out of this pain, Rumi’s Original Mind bloomed. And from this experience flowed verses of poetry, of an extraordinary quality, that talk of love and individuals not bound by cultural limitations. Rumi represents someone who, out of a state of pain and depression, found his natural state of creative living and natural spirituality.
From a personal perspective, my freedom from a similar mental prison became a unique and gratifying experience. I was fortunate that, through consistent questioning and practicing of mindfulness meditation, I recognized and saw through my created ego identity and saw it as a belief more than a reality. In the process of that discovery, I understood that ego-centered thoughts do not define me, that beyond the uncontrolled and chaotic mind was a bigger, calmer, and loving presence. This realization led to a lessening of my need to search for what I always felt was missing. Once the make-believe cloud of ego dissipated, what I encountered was self-evident and intellectual rationalization was unnecessary. It was as if the stormy clouds parted and the sun, which had always been there, shone through brightly. The experience was both rational and intuitive.
What became obvious was that setting aside my ruminating mind uncovered a more authentic sense of self. And this experience stared at me as if it had always been staring me in the face, but had been unrecognizable. This realization, as anyone who experiences it will tell you, is both comically funny (since a common response is, “Is this a joke?”) and infinitely “enlightening.” For me, the experience produced a lessening in my need to achieve in terms of my professional goals. The self-evident purpose of life became not to achieve anything per se but to enjoy the simple act of being present. Having studied to be a scientist, I always felt that doing and achieving were necessary for my career. Now that discernment was reversed. I saw scientific knowledge for the sake of knowledge and as having its own unique beauty without the need to make anything out of it. Accolades, grants, publications, and other aspects of my research work became secondary and much less important.
Along with this new motivation, I gained a growing confidence that this realization is not a temporary state or another creation of the mind that is soon forgotten. The change is a permanent awakening to and appreciation of life, to what is, with less of the distortion of ego- based thinking. This new reality has brought forth a sensitivity to the sacredness of things. I appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the objects in the world, while appreciating their role in the larger context of life. Unexpectedly, prayer and mindfulness have become my natural engagement and appreciation of this new sensibility.
The world of my senses did not vanish, nor did choirs of angels appear following this experience. There were interesting new experiences. I had a sense of rediscovering my childhood sense of curiosity. I saw things for what seemed like the first time and gained an appreciation of the wonder of the world in the smallest things. The dew on the grass in the morning and how each blade reflected light. The intricate details of the leaves and colors of flowers and the light on objects drew me to them. A hyper attentiveness and focused curiosity accompanied this sensitivity. But the sensitivity was not a negative, schizophrenic-like experience, in which my brain could not filter out irrelevant things and thus felt overwhelmed. Instead, there was a calmness and a joy to it, a genuine delight in the experience.
Another interesting change I experienced that connected me more with life was a natural increase in my social behavior. As an introvert most of my life, I found the unfoldment of an increase in empathy and concern for others quite remarkable. These changes in perspective and awareness do not mean I am no longer interested in doing my job, attending baseball games, making friends, or making love. Rather, the motivation for doing things has changed. The doing to achieve and get an outcome is no longer important, because the joy of being and doing is enough. Thus, an intrinsic joy in being able to do normal things, to see, feel, talk, walk, eat, etc., has come to the forefront. The experience is a natural flow, without the anxiety I felt formerly, and which I previously associated with doing life.
There is a wonderful paradox in all of this, since the desire to know the unknown motivated my paths in both science and spirituality. But the more I understood the nature of my being, the self-centered motivation to know and to do faded and disappeared. In its stead, I discovered an intense desire to let whatever exists unfold without interference, and to be content, without having to do anything to garner such contentment. Since childhood, I have felt an inner, energetic drive giving me the energy to excel, while parents, teachers, and others have channeled this energy in order for me to outdo others. This drive motivated my desire to learn and explore science, but it simultaneously facilitated my dissatisfaction, anxieties, discontentment, and fears.
In my old skin, I felt guilty about not being productive. Now, the driving energy still exists, but the sense of needing to do, and especially to achieve, does not. I am calm yet motivated to learn and explore, and do not experience the anxieties and fears that accompanied and drove my earlier life. For one, I am not guilty while resting. Instead, I am energized by rest and relaxation, by not-doing. As I write this, I recognize how “normal” all these descriptions sound, which is the whole point. This normal state exists if you do not live from the perspective of the obsessive, uncontrolled, and chaotic mind.
How these extraordinary changes came to me flowed from the simple idea and assumption that from birth there has existed an amazing mind that ego-based thinking had obscured. My efforts to undo this cloud of distortion involved reducing and eventually clearing, as much as I have been able to, of ego-based thinking. A controlled mind can respond to the environment and interact with life in remarkable, exquisite, and creative ways. As a newborn, you enter the world with exceptional talents and skills, and this mind takes you to heights of creativity in all areas of human performance. The accomplishment of the infant dazzles with beauty, emotion, and insight. You grow a brain, learn to crawl, walk, talk, deliberate, understand the world. All these are amazing feats of physiology, psychology, and bioengineering. The complexity in how this mind adapts, recovers, and survives the most challenging of circumstances that life presents is remarkable. The paradox of how this exquisite mind becomes the obsessed and negative uncontrolled mind of the adult makes little sense. Until now. That understanding helped me pierce the cloud of ego-based rumination and by focusing on the present moment, allowed me to access the original, creative mind that was always there.
Adapted from Controlling Mental Chaos: Harnessing the Power of the Creative Mind, by Jaime A. Pineda, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Rowman & Littlefield
Jaime A. Pineda, PhD is Professor of Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of many widely cited papers on animal and human cognitive and systems neuroscience, as well as two books of poetry on mind-brain relationships with an emphasis on spirituality, mysticism, environmentalism, and social activism. His new book is Controlling Mental Chaos: Harnessing the Power of the Creative Mind. Learn more at the-unencumbered-mind.com.