It is amazing how we human beings end up taking so many paradoxical stances.
In the 1960s our government was hammering the population to adopt family planning; nowadays it is asking us to have more children! China adopted the one child policy decades ago, and now it has scrapped it off. A century ago, tens of thousands of soldiers died due to lack of antibiotics; today excess of same is playing havoc with our health. Maybe these are social undertakings, and hence are compounded by many factors.
Similarly, after millennia of struggling to discover language and the script to express ourselves and to convey information, we are now challenging ourselves with the opposite scenario: how about forgetting temporarily our everyday mental activities and thinking processes so as to draw a void in our mind and be alone with our inner selves, far away from the maddening crowd?
Let’s speculate: if at its birth a Mauritian baby X emigrated to Mongolia, he would grow up learning Mongolian and adopting a nomadic and Mongolian philosophy of life. If instead he went to the Inuit people in Alaska then he would be talking their language, and learn to feed on fish and seal. If we had sent him to Zululand he would be talking an African language and adopting their culture. But as he is still in Mauritius he now knows Creole, some English and French words and most probably an Eastern dialect. He has a philosophy of his own, consistent with a Mauritian way of life. Baby X’s life, future personality and self will depend on his geographical and cultural environment.
Our Inner Core
Now suppose we were that baby X, we will inevitably ask ourselves: is it possible that what we are is just an artificial self, an embellished ego, completely constructed from our cultural environment? And one good day we will ask – what is our true self? Suppose we could temporarily suspend the language circuit in our head, our knowledge and all that we have learned from our parents, and tone down our emotions and reactions – then what is it that is left behind? Could we make our mind a blank, so as to experience that inner core lying at the very centre of our being?
But some smart one may frown and object: were not our very early ancestors devoid of language, script and knowledge? Why did they not turn their gaze inwards to discover their true self? What prevented them from doing so?
We may find ourselves nonplussed, until we discover the answer: we have taken for granted that our ancestors’ life was all pleasure and rest, with no worries. But the opposite was true; theirs was dominated by a potent deterrent: fear. Fear of the unknown, of going hungry, fear of impending danger lurking at every corner of the forest, of being killed and eaten by beasts or enemies. They had no time to think, most probably because the mental apparatus for doing so was either primitive, immature or simply absent.
So we are back to square one; the coming of language, communication and script – an extremely slow process — played a significant role in the laying down of more sophisticated neural brain circuits which would generate all sorts of ideas, beliefs, sophisticated memory and knowledge. Perhaps with it emerged concurrently a conception of the self and of the ego, backed by a genetic blueprint. The more such ideas, beliefs and knowledge were generated, the more veneer they laid on that ego. Finally we, in modern days, discover that this mental evolution has helped us to understand others better, while paradoxically the same mental activities have become an intricate impediment to our self-discovery, compounded by our narcissistic desire to present a different, polished and romantic facet of ourselves to society.
So the call nowadays is for us to divest our being of all superfluous beliefs and knowledge that are clogging our inner ‘true’ core.
Many techniques have been advised to achieve that state, and the major one to emerge has been meditation.
It is a process where the individual is expected to control his inner forces, to rein them in to silence, to forget everything and attempt to concentrate on the void, allowing the mind to dissolve into nothingness. In fact it is a state reached where one feels part and parcel of the universe, and the mind is completely detached. However, that state can be reached by training and by learning: stop thinking and concentrating. Thinking of nothing is itself a tough job!
Divesting us temporarily of those accumulated thoughts, beliefs, feelings and knowledge will silence our envy, our worries about the world, comfort and self-attention and perhaps tone down our social self as well. Making the mind blank, that is, putting it in sleeping mode even while staying awake, so as to reach that wordless contemplation with no words or ideas clinging to it. We gradually turn our gaze inwards and feel at peace with ourselves. Medically it has been proved to be beneficial in helping to reduce stress and prolonging life.
Anyone who has seen ‘Bella Vita’, an Italian picture, will remember the enigma: “What thing vanishes the moment it is mentioned?” Silence. One can experience the same uncanny feeling when we mention “Wordless Contemplation”. Asking someone to contemplate without laying any emphasis on any conception is making use of words and language to convey what is to be experienced!
Alun Anderson, a book critic, tells us how Vyvyan Evans in his works “The Crucible of Language” and “The Language Myth” (a bestseller) supports the view that ‘interactional intelligence, symbolic thought, gestures, words and then grammar can appear step by step’ and that ‘our bodies are central to how our knowledge is represented in the mind’; pure disembodied reason does not exist, hence the concept of an ‘embodied cognition’.
The classic analyses of the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson had “argued that everyday language reveals abstract thoughts to be structured metaphorically in terms of bodily experiences, with ‘conceptual metaphors’ linking conceptual ideas with concrete ones.” Evans is of the view that ‘our minds possess many concepts rooted in our perceptual bodily experiences — and independent of language – [although language provides a window to explore them]’.
So we discover how our mind, body and language can interact, sometimes mutually and at other times independently. Can we detach our mind from language or are we slaves to language and thinking?
Possibly the only way out of this dilemma is to discover the meditation process by oneself; this presupposes some self-analysis and being enthralled by the search for self knowledge. Some people believe that we need a guru to reach that stage, but others think differently: get rid of the guru and seek for oneself.
We generally distinguish an intelligent person from a moron by his ideas, his capacity to use his mental and verbal prowess to solve problems. Yet we believe that this very intelligent one is the one to go for meditation – the very one whose mind is overloaded with ideas and thoughts! However, we may be wrong: there may be some individuals or cultures where intelligence and language have no such hold; as soon as one is of age, under the guidance of a guru he sets out to look inwards, bypassing the language trap temporarily.
Silence is golden. The more people in a nation meditate the less social problems and friction should crop up, because meditation seems to sharpen one’s awareness. Self-awareness implies a lot of accommodation and tolerance for other human beings, and thus hence toning down conflicts. As Stanley Milgram, a psychologist noted (1974), “It may be that we are puppets – puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.”
This discourse would inevitably remind us of the teaching of Gautama. He was of the view that it is pointless to go on analyzing and discussing what happiness is all about, all being just a mental activity that impedes further the very happiness we are yearning for. “Just be happy”, he says. May be wordless contemplation demands a similar approach and strategy.
* Published in print edition on 10 June 2016