On spirituality and mind

THE FAR-EASTERN WESTERNER

By ANDREW CRENSHAW

Spirituality, for some, is an off-putting word and/or concept because of its association to religion, yet in the basic sense, the two ideas are very different. Religion is more society-based and focused on soul development (where the soul is going), whereas spirituality is more individual-based and focused on the nature of the soul (on better understanding the non-physical part of self—the ‘spirit,’ as it exists now). Spirituality is self-help in the ‘truest’ sense because it works to find one’s ‘truest’ self. Religion is more philosophy, whereas spirituality is more science, and its methodologies, like medicine, work the same for a Christian as they would for a Muslim or for anyone else.

Spirituality (to boil it down) holds 3 fundamental precepts for living: non-judgment, non-resistance, and non-attachment. These are not rigid guidelines to follow but more-so styles to adopt—pathways to cultivate as part of your general attitude or disposition, with the aim to bring you into a more balanced (psychological, physical and emotional) state of being. All 3 precepts relate to thought and how the mind seeks to control the way that you perceive life. Noticing (and ultimately changing) these thought patterns can yield immense benefit: on the surface by stopping you from being overly reactive to people and situations which, going deeper, makes you less overwhelmed by the external world, and finally (and most importantly), frees you from psychological fear.

In case you missed it: The Far-Eastern Westerner “On meditation.”

Observing your mind can be fascinating work, and if you watch it closely, you will notice that it mostly exists in past and future, and that when it takes us to those places, it is often not a happy trip. The past is regularly about regret (something I missed, something I didn’t do) or, even with a happy memory, gives a sense of longing (thinking of a better time—like when my grandmother was alive, when my brother was little and cute and we were so close, etc.) The future projection can be similarly negative, often with fear and anxiety (what if I can’t do it? what if it goes wrong?), and even a beautiful dream for the future makes us sad now because the dream implies that something needs to improve (I’ll be more complete once I’m married, or I’ll be more stable when I get the job, etc.)

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that mind is not naturally bad; it is a tool that, like any tool, can be used to build or destroy. The problem is that mind isn’t just any tool; it is the most complex, most dynamic tool known to exist and very much has a life of its own. The reason why it likes to give us sad and scary things to think about is because negative emotional responses most grab our attention, most keep us thinking, and ultimately, most feed and strengthen the mind’s power. I look at my mind like a shark (something beautiful, something powerful, something dangerous—something cold-blooded) because (like a shark) it constantly feeds and must constantly move, and if it stops swimming, it will die.

This is where the notion of ‘conscious-consciousness’ comes in. It is easy to notice our basic consciousness (our awareness of ourselves and the world around us), but it is harder to always pay attention to what our consciousness is doing—noticing when you are in a negative or positive thought pattern, asking yourself why you really want something or don’t want something, etc. Linguists refer to this distinction as ‘cognitive’ and ‘meta-cognitive;’ cognitive is solving problems (figuring things out), whereas meta-cognitive is looking at how you solve problems and then being able to pick the best strategy for a given problem. Basically, it boils down to understanding your individual mind and knowing how to use it most efficiently and effectively.

I like to think of ‘consciousness’ as the child and ‘conscious-consciousness’ as the parent. My consciousness is my past, my family and friends, my ego, my society, my culture—everything that makes me the individual I am, while my ‘conscious-consciousness’ is my awareness right now—the one making the decision, the one noticing what’s happening around me and inside my heart and mind (ideally at the same time), and most importantly, the one holding the intention of who and what I want to be (how I think about myself), what I want to do and where I want to go (my future).

We all need our society and our ego, just like children need parents—to protect us, to teach us how to fit in and maneuver in the world, but at some point the child grows up and tells its parents “no” and says “I have decided to do it another way.” It’s the same with consciousness; there is a very natural growth and development. At some point the conscious-consciousness (the awareness, the parent) must take leadership and begin guiding the basic consciousness (the mind, the child) into following its intentions. If the child is the leader (what the Chinese call “the false master”), chaos will naturally ensue.

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Next time on The Far-Eastern Westerner, Mr. Crenshaw will delve further into the 3 fundamental precepts. Stay tuned!

Andrew Crenshaw lived in Taiwan for 7 years, studying traditional medicine, language, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Professionally, he has taught composition, TESOL and general-education English at National Taiwan University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Taipei University of the Arts, University of Louisville, Jefferson Community and Technical College, and Western Kentucky University. He is currently working for Jefferson County Public Schools in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

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