The Path to No Path

The Thinking Mind

The basic purpose of the thinking mind is to be a tool for survival. I read or heard somewhere a long time ago, that the three basic concerns of a living organism, when it meets another, are, in decreasing order of importance: Will it eat me? Can I eat it? Can I mate with it? Now, trial and error is not a very useful approach to answering these questions, particularly the first and most important question – my first error could well be my last, here. A much better strategy is to quickly analyse the situation and try to predict the future. This is where the mind excels.

The first thing I need to do to answer these questions is to be able to handle my sensory perceptions and make some sort of sense of them. I need to be able to recognise patterns in these perceptions and build up a working model of how the world works. If I get skilled enough at this, I gain the ability to recognise objects just by seeing a small part of them. I can easily figure out that there is a tiger in the bushes, just by seeing its tail flicking.

I categorise what I consider to be properties of these objects: if I see something with narrow vertical legs and a flat top, I recognise it as a table and I ‘know' that if I put my book on it, it will support my book (indeed, I will be very surprised if the book falls through the table top).

I experienced something similar when I lived for some time in Switzerland. The small town in which I lived was at an altitude of four thousand feet, surrounded on three sides by cliffs two thousand feet high.

One day, I went for a long walk, climbing a steep path winding up an almost vertical cliff, and then a more leisurely walk at an altitude of six thousand feet and upwards. There was a cable car which could have saved me the steep climb, but for the previous few months, all the time I had been in Switzerland, this cable car had been out of use, as it only operated in the winter (for skiers) and in the summer (for walkers). The cable car had only recently started operating again.

On my way back home, I felt tired and decided to use it to take me back down, for steep descents were always painful on my knees.

I got out of the cable car at the bottom. The small building housing the equipment was raised well above the ground. The exit led on to a platform area, perhaps ten feet square, and from the far side of the platform steps led maybe eight or ten feet down to the ground.

The floor of this platform was a grid of vertical strips of metal perhaps two inches apart, with the metal strips being quite narrow, so that at first glance I ignored them. This led to the illusion that I was about to step out onto empty space. I hesitated, frightened, wanting to back away.

Most of the other passengers were in front of me, walking as if unconcerned on this ‘empty space'. Then I saw a young boy, hesitating like me, also looking down. I tentatively stepped forward, the thinking mind having decided in the meantime that, contrary to appearances, the situation was safe.

As I walked the width of the platform, I ‘learned' experientially that it was indeed safe. From that time on, I never hesitated there again. The mind had learned that this object, in spite of its appearance, was something that could be walked on. This learning is of potentially great survival value. Who knows whether, the next time I was there, I might be fleeing from a lion, and that any hesitation could be fatal!

As well as learning the ‘static' properties of objects, the mind also learns connections between them. As a child, I learned that the smells of my mother's cooking meant that I would soon be able to eat. This leads to the development of the idea of time: past and future. I smelled this particular kind of smell in the past, and I recognise it. I predict that in the near future I will be eating.

So the thinking mind is a wonderful tool. It is extremely complex in the detail of its functioning, and very powerful in its ability to predict the future.

One day, I was standing in a car park. A friend of mine, standing twenty feet away, wanted to give me some keys, but he wanted to throw them to me rather than walk all the way over to me. He indicated his intention to throw them, but I remained with my arms hanging down at my side. I didn't see any need to raise my arm until it was necessary to do so.

He repeated his indication that he intended to throw the keys, and I called out to him to do so. Without any conscious thought, I raised my arm just at the correct moment, and caught the keys in my hand. Sounds simple enough, but just you try programming a robot to do this! The task is far more complex than it might appear, yet to the mind it is nothing.

As for the use of the mind in dealing with intellectual problems, such as designing a more efficient car engine, or calculating the motions of the planets, I shall have nothing to say, for this is not my concern. In fact, I am not even particularly interested in the low level functions of the mind, the way it creates structures to enable it to predict the future. My real concern with the thinking mind is to do with its conscious thought processes, what is called its internal dialogue.

I said earlier that the function of the mind is to answer the three basic questions, of: Will it eat me? Can I eat it? Can I mate with it?, in this order. Even more basically, the function of the mind is to be a survival tool. Unfortunately, we seem to be unaware of the fact that the mind is a tool, a highly skilled and useful servant, and instead we consider it to be who we are, thus making the mind our master. The mind, now as our master, tries to protect us from all possible or imagined dangers in life, and, in doing so, imprisons us.

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If you should wish to contact me about anything you have read here, especially if you feel strongly for or against what you have read, or if you feel that something is missing, I offer you an opportunity to share.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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