Talk given April 7, 2018 – Clarity and 3 Mechanisms of Mind that Help and Obscure – Tim Burnett (c) 2018

April 2018 Weekend Retreat: Clarity of Mind talk


Talk Recording “Clarity of Mind”


Talk Notes

Our minds are amazing. Somehow the streams of information coming at us constantly from all 5 senses and all of the thinking that’s bubbling up the time is woven together by the mind into some kind of narrative of “me” that actually makes some kind of sense.


Sometimes of course the sense-making breaks down and we get deeply tangled up and confused, which is upsetting. We don’t like that.


Other times strong emotions take over the system and we’re too angry and depressed or agitated about something to think straight. We dont like that either.


But the amazing thing to me is not that the mind gets tangled, confused, and upset sometimes.


The amazing thing is that it isn’t that way all the time! The amazing thing is that the mind can actually be okay most of the time. A little jittery maybe, a little edgy maybe, we don’t have a lot of confidence in the stability of the mind in our day to day life I don’t think – not that we think about all of this all that much – but don’t you think that just below the surface there’s this anxious energy about the very real possibility of losing it at any moment – perhaps this is part of why we get so involved in busy-ness, so we don’t worry about all of this “under the hood” stuff because we’re so focussed on what needs to happen out there. Taking care of business. So much to do. No time to break down so it’s better if there’s no time for anything, no time for time especially.


Of we notice anxiety. Anxiety is a national and universal epidemic. But I wonder if we understand anxiety. Maybe we think anxiety is about whatever object it attaches to. We think we’re anxious about being social or anxious about work or our future, anxious about the state of the world. That might all be true but I wonder if the root of anxiety is a deeper anxiety. An anxiety about the nature of our own mind – a fear that our minds are unstable, dangerous places best kept in some way at arm’s length. Which is pretty impossible so we are a living Catch-22 in some ways.


This simplified way of life we live on retreat has many advantages and one of them is we have a little more of a chance to explore these kinds of deeper patterns.


Not so that we can figure them out or fix them exactly either.


There’s a deeply attitudinal thing how we relate to all of this. Do we fear the mind’s collapse or celebrate the mind’s ability to integrate and keep it all together? Or both?


One thing that coming here does of course is we are renouncing our too-busy strategy for at least these few days.


And a “few” days sounds a bit diminutive, these few days are amazing days. Full days. Days full of possibility. Full of moments. In Buddhist psychology there say there are 84 moments in the length of time of a finger snap. [snap!] How many thousands and millions of moments are there in a few days? A lot.


So for these gazillion minutes we have a valuable opportunity to study the mind. To learn about how it works.


This kind of study is a different kind of study than our usual kinds of studies. We won’t be so much learning how A leads to B and taking notes on how C interferes with D due to process E as described by philospher F but doubted by scientific study G. That kind of study is an outside- looking-in kind of study. That can be useful but it can only show us the surfaces of things. And it’s still holding this whole delightful catastrophe of me at arm’s length.


Let’s drop that kind of study at retreat. Instead let’s study the mind from the inside out. Let’s inhabit the mind with curiosity and openness and willingness and kindness. WIth honesty. Let’s dive into the mind without turning away or distracting ourelves so much and see what we see. Not as a scientist with a clip board but as an explorer with a backpack full of supplies eager to discover new country and willing to be surprised and willing to be in this for the long haul.


First we may pass through a region of busy busy busy thoughts. Maybe it will seem like we’re walking in place for a long time there. A cavalcade of thoughts, memories, random snatches of imagery, waves of emotion. We kind of know this thought-tempest is down there but in our busy days we like to skip across the surface of these waters. Now it’s time to settle into it. Immerse ourselves in our own mind. Let these busy thoughts swirl around us like the moist winds of this lovely Spring storm.


This exploration-study isn’t one where we need to categorize and organize everything we find either. Mindfulness often gets talked about in science language – sometimes I say that in mindfulness you’re the scientist and the experiment, seeing what is, seeing what leads to what but that has a clinical, dividing things up into this and that quality to it that isn’t what we want at retreat. I don’t talk that way so much anymore I notice. I don’t know if the separation of subject and observer that’s so central to science is what we want here.


Explorer is a better model I think. The explorer is interested in what she sees but doesn’t need to take samples of everything. He notices and observes but doesn’t need shoot and stuff the animals to take them back to England, you know? Notice but keep moving, how knows what’s around the next corner.


My Zen teacher used to say “get interested in your own mind, but don’t get TOO interested.”


And you might notice that this morning we didn’t talk much about the mind but about the body. And there are very good reasons for this.


Firstly it’s a somewhat foolish artifact of concept and language that we have the idea of a mind over here and a body over there. It doesn’t even make sense in the material world: if we assume the mind is a kind of emmination of the brain and nervous system we know the nervous system is part of what? The body? And like every body system the nervous system is incredibly and intricately interconnected with all of the other systems of the body. We wouldn’t be able to keep our hearts beating and our breath flowing if that wasn’t true. We do have the one giant nexus of nervous system in the brain so we think: well, the brain is a separate organ so that’s where the mind is. The brain is separate and thus the mind is some kind of separate special quality that’s different from the “the body” which seems to be every else but the brain.


Neuroscience and philosphy, on a good day when they’re talking to each other, say “not so fast.” The brain may be a big concentration of these specialized communication cells – neurons and their supporting glial cells and so on – 100 billion of them, an incomprehensible number – but there are lots of neurons in other parts of the body too. 50 to 100 million or so neurons in our digestive system. Trust your gut has a deeply biological meaning it turns out. It’s funny how the comparing mind is like “yeah 100 million neurons it a lot but 100 billion is more! The brain wins! Consciousness must be from the brain. And the “neural correlates” of most thought processes do show up in our brain – you think about something or see something or start moving your fingers and more or less consistent parts of the brain get active – but that doesn’t mean that our mind is exactly our brain. Lots of super educated scientists seem to forget the maxim from statistics 101 that correlation does not imply causation. When it comes right down to it no one really knows what the mind is. And yet here we live right in the middle of the darn thing.


So part of our project of investigating the mind and this path towards clarity of mind is about allowing the body to come back together in our conception of who and what this all is. That’s why we spend some much time on body awareness. To heal a deep a separation we’ve made with our culture, language and concepts. How could a person who’s split herself in two ever really heal?


So we settle into our body – and experience the sensations of our breathing as a super helpful and continuous reminder of the body’s presence in our awareness. And from that settling stance we open our attention to what the mind is up to.


Our study of clarity of mind is firstly a study of obscurations of mind. What blocks clarity? What is clarity anyway? Let’s set that slippery question aside for a moment.


One pattern of mind that interferes with clarity is time traveling. We know this pattern – at least it’s super obvious when it’s in it’s cruder forms – the amazing ability of the mind to travel to the future and the past. To focus on what’s coming later. To remember the past. Useful qualities to be sure. We need to imagine our alternate futures to make decisions. We need to think about the past to learn from what happened.


And yet so over used and so easily canted towards the negative. There may be an evolutionary bias in our thinking in general towards the negative – better to be a little nervous and edgy and alive than content relaxed and in the belly of a predator. I’m increasingly suspicious of this simple “it’s from evolution” storylines for our complex minds but that does make sense. And in any case in test after test people do respond more quickly and powerfully to negative information and I do deeply believe the maxim that “what you practice grows stronger” so it’s pretty easy, natural even, to strengthen your minds ability to be worries, nervous and anxious. A little evolutionary or cultural nudge in that direction and then no support for paying much attention to the workings of the body/heart/mind and then 30 to 70 years of steady effort and you can end up with a pretty darn negative-leaning mind.


In time travel is where this negativity bias is so evident though isn’t it? Do we rehash and repeat to ourselves over and over our happy and successful memories? No we rehash the disasters and mistakes. Once or twice or ten times might be helpful for learning and setting intentions for next time, but surely 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 rehashings of our failings surely doesn’t help us. Just hurts us. They call that rumination – a deep root of depression – and it took me a while to notice where that word comes from: cows. Cows ruminating, chewing their cud. Which is a useful thing to do with hard to digest foods like grass if you’re a cow but is a toxic thing to do with your memories if you’re a human. And yet we do this. A lot. Time travelling to the past. Stuck in a loop. Over and over.


Anxiety seems to come in with future time travel. Of course we need to think through what we’re going to say or how’s it’s likely to be, but that too we over do in a truly impressive and stupendous way. We don’t notice the point of diminishing returns on planning and anticipating. And just like with time travel to the past we’ve been taught to do this, seen it modeled, had it rewarded in us “great job being so prepared” that we miss the point where it’s hurting not helping and we proceed to hurt ourselves with our anxious time travel to the disasters just around the bend. We end up living here too and the mind is deeply distrubed and churned up by all of this.


Our retreat is such an amazing place to explore and study time traveling. Notice when you’re not here, notice where you went – to the past? To the future? – notice the unreality of it all – and come back. Come back to where? Breath and body is a great start. Because unlike the mind, the breath doesn’t know how to time travel, sensations in the body are only occuring right now. The breath can’t say to itself “well if I take this breath in this way, I’d better be careful because some later breath might end up that way” – the breath can do this. Even breathing is a kind of conceptual generalization. Actually there’s only this present moment of breathing going on. Just this inhale, just this exhale. Where is your breath right now?


An important note here about breath awareness: some of us, often it’s those of us who’ve also experienced significant trauma might not find turning awareness towards the breath safe or helpful. If there’s a sense of distrubance or alarm when you focus on the breath try a few things. Experiment. Dont be rigid. Try firstly just holding that breath awareness so lightly. There may be a way that the awareness is acting like a straight jacket on the breath – too tight –