Food for thought

It’s that time of year where most of us are thinking about reigning back in the excesses of the festive season and considering some healthier options.

When I was young I heard on several occasions someone say, ‘You are what you eat.’ Of course, I didn’t pay much attention, it’s just a throw away comment after all. But as an adult, when I reflected on it I realised it’s literally true. The only things that your body can use to manufacture itself are the substances we take in, in food and liquids. So we literally ‘are what we eat’.

But what about our mind? Are we what we think? And what exactly are we ‘feeding’ our minds?

Let’s look first at what we might consider our minds to be. There is a strong tendency in our society to identify the mind with the self. In fact for some reading this, the idea that it might not be so might even seem absurd, but bear with me on this.

We know through meditation that it is possible to exist in a state of, ‘I’m not thinking, but I’m still present’. There can be clear, thought-free awareness and those who practice mindfulness and meditation actively participate in this state every day.

From this perspective then the mind is a tool. A beautiful and valuable tool, but a tool none the less. It’s important to appreciate its value but it’s also important to realise its limitations.

Supposing I hear a friend tell me about the great taste of the guava fruit. Now I’ve never eaten one but I want to know what it’s like. No matter how my friend describes it or how hard I think about it I’m not going to have the experience of the taste am I?

Imagine there’s a guy giving a talk about climbing Mount Everest and I’m interested in climbing so I go along to hear him. He starts by describing the range of mountains then moves on to the preparation. He talks about the gear you need and the nutrition, then describes the routes and the stages of the climb. A hand goes up and someone asks how long ago it was he climbed the mountain. The guy looks at the questioner: ‘Oh, I’ve never actually climbed Everest, but I’ve read lots of books on the subject.’

There’s an awkward silence from the audience. Another questioner asks, ‘Well how many mountains have you climbed?’ The guy responds, ‘I’ve never been climbing, but trust me I’ve read so many books I know everything there is to know about it.’

But can we know without doing? There’s a difference isn’t there, between knowing about something and direct knowledge of the thing itself. I can’t know the taste of the guava unless I’ve eaten the guava, I can’t be a mounaineer unless I’ve climbed a mountain and I can’t understand truth unless I’ve experienced truth.

So the mind has it’s limitations. It can help us plot a skillful path through this life, avoiding many obstacles and barriers and navigating challenges. But we can’t think of the truth, we can’t hold at-onement in our minds as a thought. It can only be experienced directly when the sense of personal self is surrendered and what is left is that which has always been.

When we see the mind in this way we realise it for what it is, a very useful tool for helping us in our lives but not an end in itself. In the same way, if someone buys me a bycycle as a gift it’s a really useful tool isn’t it? I can use it to get around much more quickly than on foot, it’ll help me to stay fit and healthy, I can even plan my holidays round it.

But I wouldn’t take it up to the bedroom with me at night or rest it on the dinner table when I’m eating. If I have to travel 300 miles to another city, it’s of no real use to me. It’s value lies in knowing how to use it skillfully and knowing when not to use it.

Suppose in your life you develop a relationship to your mind the way a healthy eater has a relationship to their body. Suppose you decide you will take in the information you need, when you need it and you won’t over-induldge in excessive stimulation. You need to go shopping so you consider where the best value goods can be bought; who sells the highest quality produce for the best price. You plan a journey and consider what mode of transport is best and who sells the cheapest tickets.

Using the mind in this way we’re taking in the information we require based on the recognition of a need. But for some it’s the other way round. They don’t have a specific need but they’re looking for something, some sense of fulfillment. This desire for something we think we’re lacking from an external source can leave us open and vulnerable and we rarely recognise that it’s so.

I remember teaching a lesson to a class some years ago and the lesson was on propaganda. We looked at how the media has been used in the past to create distorted images of individuals, groups or situations that could be used by political parties to influence public thought. It would be comforting to think that propoganda is a thing of the past.

When we engage with the media we should ask, who has supplied this content and what is their motivation for doing so? So much of what we see and hear is selling; selling us products, services, ideals, points of view. And we might be eating this up without really being aware of it.

We engage with the media so much, it’s so much part of our lives and we rarely consider what this ‘diet’ is feeding us. How much of what we see promotes fear and stress. How many films and television programmes are positive and full of joy? Look at the latest list of movies at the cinema and think about why we might want to sit and feel scared, or angry or shocked. What can we gain from this?

Like any poor diet we can get away with it up to a point but eventually we get to a stage where we’re left stressed out, full of fear and not coping all that well with life. We’ve fed our minds on junk and not done any ‘internal housekeeping’ for so long that we can even lose perspective on the things that really matter to us.

So perhaps this year, as well as thinking about what we eat, we might consider what we’re feeding our minds and our hearts. If this diet isn’t healthy then how can we expect to be?

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