Indian Psychology - Believing is Seeing
by Swami Veda Bharati
The mind's tendency to interpret events and situations according to its conditioning is the greatest source of conflict both within and without the individual.
Take away a being's mind, what is she? A clay pot body. Or even a rotting cabbage. Our mental essence is what we commonly use in all dimensions of life. Our relationships with other beings and objects are mental ones. We perceive them in the mind.
You, for instance, think you are looking at a piece of paper that is at some distance from your eyes, with symbols printed in black on white to be interpreted through your training in language. Let us examine the nature of this 'looking'.
The paper contains certain chemicals, as does the ink. Wavelengths of light touch this mixture of black and white and reflect back. The chemicals in the ink permit no reflection of the wavelengths. The chemicals on the surface of the paper reflect all wavelengths of the spectrum. If the ink were blue, then the chemicals in the ink would absorb all the wavelengths except the ones that are to be interpreted as blue. There is no real white, or black or blue - only wavelengths of light.
When this wavelength touches the retina, the message, in chemical and electrical signals, is passed on to the optic nerve. Here, it is divided and sent to the sectors that specialize in the shape of letters and others that specialize in linguistic interpretation.
What one sees is this reintegrated neuronal image in the brain, presented to the mind. It is a perception, and can easily be a misperception. There is no proof that the source of such an image exists outside us; the 'three-dimensional' external object is only our inference, anumana. Any object or design can be interpreted in a number of different ways. This possibility of multiple choices in interpreting visual experience is demonstrated in Kashmir Shaiva texts. It is also three-dimensionally presented in some rare sculptures. You look at an image one way, it is seen as a bull; look at it another way, it is perceived as an elephant.
There is a true anecdote of a passenger at Singapore airport on 12 September, 2001 - the day after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A passenger said to a colleague, "I am a bass guitarist". A fellow passenger immediately reported to the security forces that he had heard the said traveler say, "I am a Bosnian terrorist". The hapless passenger is said to have spent 24 hours in police custody.
Quite often while counseling, I hear complaints about a certain statement made by someone in a letter. I ask to see the letter. The quoted line is absent. When I point that out, the seeker of counsel is astonished. He has indeed read the line in that very letter!
This is not a deliberate lie. His mind reconstructs the event or the letter by taking the externally produced and presented information and mixing it in the vial of chemicals - fear, anger - already present in the mind and concocts a whole new event that did not take place. In modern psychology there are now numerous studies about false memory, and the part of the brain organ called amygdala, and a number of other organs guided by the hypothalamus, that play a part in this reconstruction. The speaker truly believes his own account. In the same way, when 10 witnesses report an accident, there are 10 different versions.
The mind's tendency to perceive what it wishes to is the source of much strife in the relationships and communication between families, nations and within each individual. Take the case of a small child who does not yet know what verbal language is. Say to this infant in a very soft voice, with a smile and a loving gleam in your eyes, "I hate you". She will want to sit on your lap. Say in a very harsh voice, "I love you". The child will cling to the mother for protection. All is a matter of perception and the mind's interpretation of external stimuli and events.
We perceive what we perceive, and interpret as we do, on the basis of our mental conditioning - adhi and upadhi. In ayurveda, adhis are mental diseases such as anger, jealousy and selfishness. Upadhis in Vedanta are different kinds of conditioning. Like colors in a lampshade, they tinge the event with their hue. Anger or amity can cause the crystalline purity of the buddhi to be colored by red anger or green friendship.
To a passionate young man a certain streamlined body frame is a desirable woman. To a hungry lion, it is food. To a master yogi it is a spiritual or mental being to be rescued from ignorance and led to enlightenment.
And it is in the very process of moving from ignorance to enlightenment, that human relations and communications get purified. When one of my meditation students asks me, "Swamiji, am I making spiritual progress? Is my meditation improving? Is it leading me closer to enlightenment?", I often reply, "Do not ask me; ask your wife/husband/child/mother-in-law/daughter-in-law/neighbor. Do they say that your emotions have purified, you are easier to get along with, you are gentler, less angry, less arrogant, less jealous, less possessive, softer of tone, humbler than you used to be? If so, you are making spiritual progress. If not, 12 hours of meditation a day behind closed doors is a mere escape from the need to reform yourself. It is not going to lead you to moksha." The first liberation is from the emotional negativity that distorts your relationships. Relationships are the test of spiritual progress.
It is for this reason that so much emphasis is placed in our traditions on the conquest of greed, anger and other such adhis. We suffer from these because of the way we have been
conditioned from our past life samskaras, by our parents and our own reaction to circumstances and people. However, the spirit is the natural and innate repository of freedom of will - svatantrya-shakti. One can begin to recondition oneself at any time for the better.
This re-conditioning is called chitta-prasadanam, making the ind-field a clear and pleasant place. This is discussed in detail in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1:33) as part of an aspiring yogi's training. In the Ramayana, the sage Bharadvaja shows Rama a clear mountain stream and says, "See, this stream, Rama, clear and pleasant (prasannam) like the mind of a noble man (sanmanushya-mano yatha)".
The whole urpose of Indian psychology is to make the mind-field clear and pleasant.