Maintaining a mindful state can be challenging, given all the possible events and situations that have the potential to lead our attention away from the present moment and into the future or past. Even with a solid meditative practice, such as yoga, sitting meditation, playing music, or gardening, mindfulness practitioners are challenged in each moment to remain attentive to the here and now. This is normal and not something to seek to change, for it is the natural state of an active mind to want to do the work of the mind. One of the keys to achieving a higher level of mindfulness is through an understanding and acceptance of the function of the mind.
Everyone is raised with the knowledge that they indeed have a mind. We all know this and we talk about our minds, what they do, how they work, what they are capable of, etc. There have been, and will continue to be, discussions about how the mind processes various types of sensory input and which types of thinking (analytical or creative) take up the 'space' of the mind (which 'side' is used, etc.). While all this might be useful on various levels and at various times, there's something that most people have never been taught, which, when you consider how much we tend to identify with our minds, appears to be a glaring oversight.
Most of us have never been taught how to use our minds.
Using the mind, in this sense, is not referring to the process of thinking, such as in critical or analytical thought processes. It's considering the mind as a tool for thinking, learning about its strengths and weaknesses, and making adjustments in our own thought processes that account for those weaknesses. In other words, we can learn to use our minds to better serve our needs and not get too caught up in the processes of thought that tend to cause confusion and anxiety.
The Roles of the Mind.
The first step in developing the Thoughtfulness Practice of "Functional Mind" is to come to understand the mind not as the self, but as a tool the self may use. Any tool has design and functionality, and while some tools may be used for multiple purposes, there is a range where its functionality is high and applications where it is low or altogether ineffective.
With the "my mind is a tool" concept in place, let us consider three primary functions of the mind. Granted there are many more, but these three will serve our purposes.
1. The Mind Identifies
One of the main roles of the mind is to identify "things" based on the data that is collected through the sense. When we move through the world, the mind is busy categorizing the "stuff" in the environment. It's scanning the visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile landscape for patterns, shapes, sounds, smells, and textures that will inform us as to exactly "where we are" and "what is around us." This is useful and necessary information for us to navigate, find what we need, and avoid dangers.
When we are born, our "identification system" has almost no way of categorizing anything. We're basically helpless and have to rely on others to keep us safe, fed, and comfortable. We eventually learn to identify things through repetition, language, and finding commonalities between new and previous experiences.
The identification process takes most of us only a few micro seconds in many cases. We don't need to think about wether something is a tree or not, unless it's part of an abstract painting, combined with other things, or a version of a tree that we've never seen before. The identification process happens through what could be thought of as a flow chart, moving from general to specific. When something enters into our senses, our mind begins the identification process, starting with general categories and moving to more specific ones. It might take this form: Object, large, big on top, straight on bottom, branches and leaves, trunk, [Tree], small green leaves, complex branches, acorns on ground [Oak Tree], very large for oak = very old, [Very Old Oak Tree.]
The more details we can process, the more specific our thinking becomes. The more specific our thinking, the greater the potential for cross-referencing it with other data. I'll discuss this in more detail in another article. For the purposes of the current discussion, al that really matters is that we acknowledge the mind's ability to function as an identifier, one that uses a process of progressive categorization, based on prior knowledge and experience.
2. The Mind Associates
Believe it or not, one of the functions of your mind that sets you apart from just about every other animal on the earth, is its ability to make associations. As a tool, your mind makes connections (associations) between just about everything it experiences. An association is made between two or more things when the mind finds similarities, commonalities, and even differences between them. Because people tend to connect two things through making associations (in their mind), such as between races, gender, age groups, sexual orientation, etc., we have developed certain laws that forbid the practice of acting on those associations in certain situations, such as in the workplace or public institutions. Such is the power of the mind to connect two things that might be related in only the most distant of ways.
If we were to create a visual representation of this process, we would call it a 'mind map.' Mind maps have been used and developed to help facilitate the creative process and demonstrate just how many connections the mind can create between a central concept (the starting point) and anything else that could possibly be associated with that concept through finding commonalities. For example, if my central idea is an apple, I could associate that with pie, teachers, computers, the garden of Eden, worms, bobbing, etc. It's easy to continue from their to all sorts of other areas, creating a vast web of bridges between what could quickly include hundreds or even thousands of items and concepts.
It is the associative process that is at the core of understanding the mind as a tool.
Becoming aware of this process is the first step. Using this function of the mind to serve your needs is the second. Not allowing this process to get out of hand and create confusion, conflict, and anxiety is the ultimate goal. For now, let us understand that this process is happening.
3. The Mind Stores and Retrieves.
Of course, when we think about the mind, we think about memory. Our ability to store and recall information is also what sets humans apart from many other life forms. It's not a unique feature, for it could be argued that virtually all manifestations (things) are capable of maintaining some form of memory, whether it be a fossil inside a rock, marks on the bark of a tree, or a thought, an emotion, or even a feeling in the mind/body. Our minds are vast storage areas where the estimated 100 billion* neurons store and maintain the data collected throughout our lives.
Studies have shown that, although most people believe that their memories (stored data) are accurate, this is often not the case. This could be partially due to the fact that every experience is a personal one and that it's very difficult to agree on what happens exactly. Changing memories can also be due to loss or misplacement of data. And, because the mind makes associations between things that it identifies, it will continue to work with stored data, creating new relationships between the things and concepts that exist in its memory banks. This phenomenon, of the mind working in the background, leads to what some call "Aha moments," where a puzzle is suddenly solved, seemingly without conscious effort.
What's importnat to understand when thinking of the mind as a storage tool, is that it is not 100% reliable in all cases. There are instances where data is lost, corrupted, changed, and associated with other data to the point where the original experience or idea is all but lost. Understanding the limits of memory is another key to using the mind as a functional tool.
Within the Thoughtfulness Practice, the practitioner acknowledges the mind as a functional tool, understanding that its main roles are to identify, associate, and store data. To the extent that these functions serve the person and allow him/her to lead a happy productive life, the mind serves its purpose. When these functions are allowed to drive the person's life, unmonitored, unregulated, and without awareness, they can lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and conflict.
One of the goals of the Thoughtfulness Practice is to provide ways for the person to use the mind as a tool, taking advantage of its strengths, while at the same time, understanding its functionality, limitations, and weaknesses.
* retrieved on 7-21-2011 from: http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2002/AniciaNdabahaliye2.shtml