I was climbing in a gym recently and noticed a climber getting very frustrated because he couldn’t make it through the crux of a route. He climbed into the crux using the same sequence each time, fell and got frustrated. That incident made me think of how the mind can blind us from doing effective mental training.
Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In order to examine our lives, we need to examine the mind, to make sure it supports examination. The word “examine” means to observe, inquire or investigate. The mind has intelligence that supports examination and ignorance that hinders it.
We need to find ways to use the mind’s intelligence and avoid its ignorance. The mind’s intelligence is its ability to solve problems. The mind takes in new information and modifies its current knowledge with this new information. Modifying helps us see a broader perspective. We see our current level of knowledge and a modified version of it.
The mind’s ignorance is its tendency to validate its current knowledge. The mind looks for old information to validate its current perspective. Validating keeps our perspective narrow. We’re blinded by our current level of knowledge and ignore other alternatives.
Solving problems is a forward progression: we have a current level of knowledge, we seek new information, and we blend the new information with our current level of knowledge to solve the problem. This forward progression supports the modifying intelligence of the mind. We’re moving forward from the comfort zone (the known) into the stress zone (the unknown), which shifts us toward learning.
The ignorance of the mind has a backward progression: we know our current level of knowledge, seek old information that supports it, eliminate new information that doesn’t support it, and maintain a narrow perspective of knowledge. This backward progression won’t solve the problem and supports the validating ignorance of the mind. We’re moving backward from the stress zone (the unknown) into the comfort zone (the known), which shifts us away from learning.
If we’re on a challenging route, then we need to solve the problem of the challenge. Problem solving requires us to modify our current level of knowledge by blending it with new information contained within the challenge. We need to experiment with new sequences to modify our current level of knowledge. If we validate what we’ve done in the past, doing the same sequence over and over again, then we’re only working with old information. We’ll get frustrated, be blind to the new information and not solve the problem.
The Zen master Takuan Soho (1573–1645) said “It is the very mind itself, that leads the mind astray.” In order to utilize the mind’s intelligent “modifying” ability and avoid its ignorant “validating” tendency, we need to do mental training from a perspective outside of the mind itself. Otherwise, we’ll get lost in its ignorance and we’ll be led astray.
That outside perspective is called the observer. We observe the mind think. The observer perspective allows us to take a step back from the thinking activity within the mind. From the observer perspective we see that we have a mind that thinks for us. The thinking mind isn’t our essence. Then, we can think to utilize the mind’s modifying intelligence. We can also recognize when the mind is blinding us, when we’re falling victim to the mind’s ignorant tendency to validate.
One of the greatest limitations of the mind is that, even when we’re reading about the mind’s ignorance, as we’re doing now, we think it doesn’t apply to us. This is a protective measure of the mind. Therefore, it’s important to understand that we all fall victim of the mind’s ignorance. We’re never finished with improving the mind’s intelligent modifying ability. So, the task here is to acknowledge that it’s happening to us, now, and to do something tangible each moment to deal with it. The simple mantra “modify don’t validate” can help.
By operating from the perspective of the observer, we’re effective in examining the mind. We’re able to observe, inquire, and investigate its current level of knowledge and solve the problems we face in climbing and life. Only from the perspective of the observer can we do effective mental training.
Practice Tip: Modified Reading
When we read a book, we tend to “read for agreement.” We seek information that we agree with as the author expresses ideas. Or, we “read for disagreement.” We seek information that we disagree with. We take a validating approach to reading. The mind’s thinking is: if the author is saying something I agree with, it’s valuable; if I disagree with it, it’s not valuable.
Instead, we need to “read for observation.” We begin from the perspective that we don’t know. This keeps us open to new information. Then, as we read, we notice information that the mind agrees or disagrees with. From the perspective of the observer we can examine the mind’s ignorant, validating tendency and shift to utilizing its intelligent, modifying ability. Only then can we utilize ideas that the author expresses.