Mind, Space, Body and Ego

Ramana Maharishi, a famous yogi from a century ago, contemplating mind and body in dream and waking life…

Article 28 Mind, Space, Body and Ego

We have the visible world of form and the invisible, formless world, posited earlier as two sides of any given reality, which just so happens to be what’s behind basic yin-yang theory. In more immediate human terms we have body and mind, with speech being a third, intermediate principle.

So body is the aspect that has form, appears solid, dense, ‘real,’ quantifiable, measurable, visible, tangible and forth; and mind is the aspect that is formless, appears shapeless, weightless, measureless, invisible, intangible. So in physical terms we cannot say exactly where and how large mind is, but we do know it is something real. It is just both real and formless.

Being formless, mind lacks specific location. Sure, it seems to us that our minds exist somewhere inside our body. Most of us might point to our head if asked where it is, imagining it to be somewhere in the brain. Some cultures would point to their chest, since for them the mind is located in the heart. In traditional daoist medical theory, there are eighteen mind-chambers in the chest area and every major organ has different minds (or ‘spirits’/ ‘shens’) in them, plus different types of mind attached to various senses. In other words, they don’t really have a one-mind theory positing that there is one core place where the mind dwells, sort of like a Little Me homunculus inside the larger body Me. Of course one can argue about all this forever – as Asian contemplatives have for millennia BTW – but there is no getting away from the simple fact that you can slice and dice the physical body all you like, but you will never find a precise, definable physical location where mind is found, i.e. a place in the body where you can say ‘here it is’ or ‘here it isn’t.’

For example: put your hand out in front of you and point your index finger at something and then curl that finger, then keep pointing and curling the finger. Now consider: is mind in the finger? Or is mind not in the finger? If it is in the finger, is it in all the finger? Or just the part that is pointing and curling? Or is it in the whole body? Or is it just in the brain which is sending signals to the finger and the finger itself has no mind in it at all?

Honestly, we can’t really answer any of those questions in any precise, verifiable way. I think most of us would agree, though, that the mind is expressing itself via the finger and the separation between mind and body – if there is one at all – cannot be pinpointed in terms of location exactly. Mind and finger are one, but mind is the formless aspect of the finger, whereas the physical finger is the form aspect. (And the speech aspect is the qualities of expression involved, the way the finger is moving and pointing, what sort of feeling, intention or whatever it is expressing and communicating.)

So mind is not local per se but it seems like each of us has our own unique, individual mind. Maybe we can just accept this as yet another basic two-sided aspect of reality, a personal example of form and formlessness being simultaneous, symbiotic elements of our existence.

Speaking of mind’s location, I once spent the night with a Tibetan lama who had only recently moved to the United States. We were up in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains just chit-chatting before going to sleep. He was still learning English as he gradually eased his way into working in a translation committee bringing old texts into modern English. I asked him how he liked America and he said he was enjoying being in an entirely different culture. For example, he explained, ‘in order to learn English I started watching movies on television at Robin’s house in Boulder; not only did it help my English but a strange thing happened: after watching it for a few weeks for the first time in my life I experienced thoughts in my head! Amazing! For us Tibetans, we experience thoughts and feelings in our hearts, not our heads, and I never understood why so many Americans point to their heads when they explain what they are thinking, or believe that mind is in the brain; I just couldn’t understand it. But now that I’ve watched some TV, I can think in my head too and understand why you believe your minds are in your brains!”

This story shows that our almost universal assumption in the West that mind is found in the brain might not be as slam dunk a proposition as most of us assume. Indeed, although it seems an established fact, actually it is just something we imagine, not anything we can definitively prove.

That said, we are left with an interesting conundrum: if mind is non-local, formless, shapeless and so forth, how is it we seemingly have MY mind, which is seemingly attached to MY body?

Aye, there’s the rub! This sense of being ‘me’ with ‘my body’ and ‘my mind’ is called ‘ego’ in Buddhist jargon. Ego is not necessarily an enemy to be conquered (though holding onto it obsessively is the root of many evils) but it does need to be examined carefully especially given that, like the mind, we cannot precisely locate or measure it and therefore must acknowledge that it might be something as much imagined or deduced as physically extant.

So mind lacks definable location but it seems like I have my own mind, my ego. This raises some questions, like:

  • So what or where is ego anyway?
  • What is the difference between the yin-yang two-sides nature of reality and the self vs other duality experienced by an individual person’s mind convinced that he/she/it exists within the container known as ‘me?’

Good questions…

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