Observing the mind

“But those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.” – Marcus Aurelius

This quote is from Marcus Aurelius’ journal. What is the Roman emperor trying to convey through this 2000 year old entry?

To decode this, let us put the evolution of our minds into perspective. First came two billion years of evolution. The brain emerged as a central unit for coordination for a number of automatic responses, and was walnut sized even in gigantic dinosaurs. Rodents appeared about 60 million years back and are smart enough to navigate mazes for treats. Throughout this period, living organisms were merely puppets of their brain.

The human brain in its present form is about 70,000 years old. The first documented knowledge of the brain as the seat of our intelligence and thinking is around 2500 years old. By labelling this part of our brain as our “mind”, we successfully separated our “self” from it. Up to this point, the mind had used the self as its instrument.

We now live in a world where several parts of the brain have names. We have moved from the world of jungles to that of armchairs. We discover free-will and realize that we have been running on auto-pilot for millions of years. Free-will is the power of the self to choose a response for a given stimulus. Therefore, free-will can be defined as the extent to which the self can use the mind as an instrument.

The wise Roman emperor realized that in order to be happy, we need to use our minds just as we use instruments. Any useful instrument needs to be calibrated, and to calibrate something is to observe its movements. This is what he conveys through his 2000 year old journal entry. We now have the luxury of plopping down on our armchairs and observing how the mind moves. We learn about its potential, and also its absurdities. Like how it responds to public speaking just as it would have to a saber-toothed tiger darting out from the bush.

And this process of observation this is what we call “meditation” – the befitting name for Marcus Aurelius’ ancient journal.



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