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Brain, mind, and past lives || IIT Bombay (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
20 min
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Questioner (Q): I am a PHD bioscience student, and my question is about the brain and the mind. There are some studies that postulate that we carry memories from our past lives. If that is true, how and where are those memories stored?

Acharya Prashant (AP): No, we don’t carry any memories from our personal past lives. The memories that our bodies, our cells, and our DNA carry is the collective memory of entire humankind, the entire journey of evolution. So it is not as if you, the one who is speaking to me right now, the one who identifies with his name, his body, his face, his age, his place of birth, or his parents—that person does not have any particular past life. You have an infinite number of past lives, and that is not a linear thing; that is like a tree. That is like a large number of waves coalescing together and giving rise to several other small waves: none of the newly formed resultant waves can claim any of the previous and disappeared waves to be their past lives.

Everything is coming from everything else. The individuality that we believe in is a myth. It is because the ego likes to be identified with this particular body, with this particular birth, it seeks to project in the backward direction this particular birth and the consciousness related with it. Do you see what is going on?

We do not live integrated lives. We are not identified with everything; nobody can practically be. We all have strong identifications with this body, with this face, with the memories that you carry currently in this brain. Because you are strongly identified with this body, that is why you want to assume that this body has had a particular personal history in the past. Now, surely you do have a history, but that history is not particularly personal to you. What is your good name, please?

Q: I am Praveen, sir.

AP: So, Praveen has had no past life in particular. There was nobody ever in the past who died and took birth as Praveen today. If you want to understand where you are coming from, then you have to understand that you are the resultant of millions of lives and deaths. Every single creature that has ever been on this planet has contributed to the one you are.

So, if you want to talk of your past lives, then your past lives are just too numerous, just too immeasurable. They are so immeasurable that they will not leave any scope for your particular individual ego to relish. The ego loves private property, no? We all want to say this thing is mine (raising a mug) , right? Whereas, the thing with rebirth is that everything is yours; equally, everything belongs to everybody else as well. So, this is not just yours, this belongs to everybody. Similarly, there is nothing anywhere that is not yours; everything belongs to everybody. Any person who ever lived is present in your being in some way or the other.

So, that is where the brain is coming from. The brain is a product of the collective evolutionary journey. Then, you would ask, why are there differences in people’s brains? Just as there are differences in people’s color, height, and genders: it is a random thing. A wave arises in the sea, and every wave is a little different from every other wave. Do you want to assign a particular reason as to why a particular wave is the way it is? It is just the way it is; you could call it randomness. If you want to assign reasons, we said the reasons are so numerous that you would fail to list them.

I suppose the query has not been fully answered, because you also wanted to touch upon brain and mind, brain in the context of mind. So, what is it about the mind that you want to know?

Q: Sir, the brain is something which is very physical within my body.

AP: Yes.

Q: And it is said that the mind is something which carries thought.

AP: Mind carries thoughts, okay.

Q: And it has impressions of different experiences that we have.

AP: Brain too has them, yes.

Q: So, I am not able to understand what the difference between the two is. Are these two different entities?

AP: You see, the mind is a concept, but the brain is a fact. To begin with, this is the difference. The brain will exist irrespective of what you think about it, what you say about it. So, the brain will exist irrespective of your station in life, the time of the day, the state of your consciousness. Whether you are sleeping, whether you are agitated, whether you are comatose, or whether you are fully attentive, the brain is, just as this mug is. There are times when it will be hot, there are times when it will be cold, when it will be empty, when it will be full, clean or unclean—but it is. That’s the brain.

The mind is a concept. The mind exists in itself, and the mind can come and go: the mind can be easily laid to rest and it can disappear. The brain won’t disappear. Brain, you could say, in the human body is the physical seat of consciousness, which is the mind. But the mind is a flexible and fluid entity. It exists as long as there are impulses, thoughts or feelings; it exists only in activity, otherwise it is not there. The brain just is, like a piece of bread.

The mind is associated with ‘I’. Whatever is happening in the mind has ‘I’ at its center. This ‘I’, at some point one learns, is a bit of a fiction. Therefore, the mind really exists only as long as you want to believe in it and as long as you see some benefit in having it exist. In fact, the mind exists in a way it thinks its existence is beneficial to itself. That kind of flexibility the brain does not have. The brain cannot just suddenly change itself, though even the brain has a certain degree of elasticity and plasticity, and there are changes possible to it in the long run. But the mind is very fluid. It seeks information and then, based on its need to protect itself, it takes new identities, new forms.

A point may come where it realizes that there is no need for that kind of security, no need for identification with this and that, and then the mind just becomes still. That still mind you can also call as no-mind. The mind is still; the brain will keep functioning as per its biological nature, and the mind is just watching. The brain is working, the body is working, the world is in activity, and the mind is a watcher. The mind no more needs activity, the mind no more needs movement or identification. So, that is the difference between brain and mind.

Q: Does this mean that the mind exists until there is ‘I’, until there is ego?

AP: Yes, the mind is the very seat of consciousness. You cannot have anything mental going on, in the usual sense, without ‘I’ being at its center. Even if you are thinking about some geopolitical event happening in Europe or west Asia, if you will investigate carefully, you will find that there is self-interest involved there, your ‘I’ is still present there; otherwise you wouldn’t have been thinking about it. At least you would say, “I am interested in knowing about it and hence I am thinking about it or seeking information about it.”

So, the very movement of the mind is self-centered, centered on ‘I’, centered on the ego.

Q: You said that the mind is something which comes and goes. So, there is a certain stimulus that creates or leads the mind to come into action.

AP: Yes, obviously. The mind is so very dependent on surroundings and stimuli.

Q: And then there are thoughts because of which we are able to perceive the mind.

AP: Yes. You cannot know the mind if it is not in action. Thought is the action of the mind.

Q: What is the state of the mind when we are devoid of any thought, and what is the mind’s identity in that state? When the mind is completely absent, how would the person act? How does one achieve that state?

AP: You see, thought is both the lock and the key. Thought is not just the prison and its walls; thought is also the way, the equipment to get out of the prison. So, it is a bit too early to talk of a thoughtless state. If you become thoughtless in your current state, your imprisonment within your dualistic prison will become permanent.

So, thought has to be used, at least initially, to understand what is going on. Because who are we right now as we discuss all this? We are people who believe in our physical identities; we are people who live in our dualistic consciousness. I am talking to you, there are two; you are in front of a screen, there are so many others—all this is duality, and we believe in it. We actually have no other option but to believe in it. If we just say, “Oh, I don’t believe in it,” that would be hypocrisy, because we do. If I just go about saying “I am not” or Aham Brahmāsmi (I am Brahman), it would not only be untrue but actually dishonest.

So, because we live in this particular way, we have to use thought as a means to investigate what all this is about. Who are you? Who am I? What are these bondages? What is the world? What are temptations, fears, desires, and all these things? Only then you come to a point where you can talk of dropping even the method that you needed for liberation, because now you are already liberated.

The method for liberation is thought itself. It would not be very wise to drop your weapons before the war is won. It is only after you have won the war that you find that the weapon is needless.

Thought is a very important faculty available to you. But when you drive straight away into top-class spiritual literature, you find a lot of reference to thoughtlessness or nirvicāra state. That is obviously the ultimate state, but you cannot just wish or dream your way to that state. Given who you are—and that is the fact of your existence—you have to work your way to that state. And if you have to work your way to that state, thought is useful.

So, I would advise, instead of asking what is the thoughtless state or how to drop thought, you have to first ask yourself: is your thought, in the first place, sharp enough? Exercise more thought, think deeply. And the thing with deep and penetrating thought is that thought gets exhausted or fulfilled, and then you get a glimpse of what you can call as thoughtlessness.

Thoughtlessness, therefore, is not the absence of thought. Thoughtlessness is the fulfillment of the thought. Thoughtlessness is when thought is not needed anymore. You cannot randomly drop thought; people attempt to do that. If you just randomly drop thought, you just become unthoughtful, unthinking, and that is not a very nice thing to say about someone, “That fellow behaves in unthinking ways.”

Think, and think rightly. Think so sharply that the need for thought is brought down to zero at a point; there is nothing left to think. “I have come upon something that is beyond thought, and thought has been stunned. Thought has worked so hard it now wants to go to sleep. Thought has fulfilled its purpose.”

Right thought is needed, and that is classically called as ātma-vicāra (self-enquiry) or even just as vicāra . If you go to Ramana Maharshi, he will just say vicāra is needed. You begin by asking: “What is all this and to whom is all this? And if it is to me, what do I get by having it existent to me? Why must it exist for me at all? Surely, I have a stake somewhere in having it mean something to me, having it exist for me.”

And it is not easy to enquire this way; it requires a lot of attention, it requires hard work. It is a bit similar to solving a tough mathematical problem, in fact tougher than that because here the enquiry is inwards, and we are not accustomed to that. We have not had enough practice of that since our childhood. We know how to penetrate into things outside of us, but we have not been educated to look into our own minds and penetrate into our own intentions, desires, and the entire inner structure.

So, thought is very much needed. When thought has to sublimate, it will on its own; you don’t have to plan for it. Be a sharp thinker, be an inward thinker. Whenever you look at something, always think of that thing’s relation with yourself.

Nothing can exist for you if you don’t have a stake in it. This sounds unbelievable to begin with, but I invite you to investigate it.

Q: Does ‘having a stake’ imply attachment here?

AP: Of course, attachment and dependency, and that is how the mind exists—in a false sense of duality. Mind is some kind of a half ‘I’ seeking its counterpart, its missing half in a world that it projects on its own. The mind is seeking its own missing half. It is just that it is seeking at the wrong place; it is seeking there, in this, in that, and in that (points outwards at various objects in the room) . And whatever the mind looks at, forms a relationship with, it obviously has a stake in it. There would be attachment, fear, and greed—all the usual tendencies of the mind.

Q: So, the mind uses thought, to some extent, to retain itself, strengthen itself, and secure itself. But the same thought has to be used to help the mind resolve itself as well. And you said that if thought is used sharply, we might come to a state where the mind doesn’t retain itself. Still, it looks like we are kind of fighting with the mind. The mind wants to retain itself, but we are fighting with it so that it would not retain itself.

AP: The mind has an inner conflict. On the one hand, it wants to come to its end; on the other hand, it wants to exist to see its end, it wants to exist even in its end to enjoy the state after the end. That is just foolish, that is just unwise.

So, the mind has to be counseled; the sheer impossibility of fulfilling paradoxical conditions has to be counseled to the mind. That is where thought also comes into picture. You use thought a lot—and what I called as the fulfillment of the thought is nothing but a revelation of the inadequacy of thought.

Thought exists by promising that it can bring your inner loneliness and your sense of hollowness to an end. It says, “You have problems within? I can solve your problems.” Now, that promise is never deeply, fully tested by us. Because thought is making all these promises, the nice thing, probably, is to give thought a chance: “Alright, now that you are saying you can solve my problems, proceed. Show me how you can solve my problems,” and that is when you come to the limitations of the thought. And after that thought has nowhere to hide; it has to just raise its hands and surrender.

And then, that is a different way of being: a way of being in which you are not running after impossible promises. When you realize the fact of the body and the way it operates, you look at it as you sometimes look at, without attachment, an animal—its ways, its maneuvers, its desires; it comes into existence, it dies.

I was looking at a series of short videos, and all these videos involved leopards, lions, and tigers chasing wild beasts—deer, pigs, zebras, buffalos—and hunting them down. And the whole process was quite graphic, the recording was very vivid, and I read the comments there. Nobody seemed to mind that the deer’s life had been lost. Why? Because you realize it is a thing in Prakriti (physical nature); it happens. Yes, from where we look at it, it appears very gory, and you want to save the little animal from being killed. Our sympathies are with the loser. But I found it noticeable that hardly any of the comments to those videos talked of pity or anger towards the predator.

When you can look at your own life in the same way, that is when there is no need for self-defense or security. That is when one lives. That is when small petty concerns do not matter that much.

Q: You said that one must think up to the point where thought is exhausted or fulfilled. But when we do this in meditation, it is very difficult because at that time thoughts are continuously rushing in and never-ending. So, how to deal with this situation?

AP: No, thoughts have already ended, but they are just repeating themselves in a cycle. And that is when you should catch them; that is when you should know that your equipment is not serving you anymore.

Thought is great as long as it is making some progress. But if the challenge is big and important enough, thought very soon succumbs. But thought by its nature is not very honest; it won’t readily admit that it can’t help you anymore. So, what does it do? It starts running about in circles: You think of A, and that leads to a thought about B, and that leads to a thought about C, and that leads to, again, a thought about A, and then again B, and again C, and so on. Have you experienced this kind of cyclical thinking? When this starts happening, then it should be possible for you to just dismiss the whole movement of thought and say, “No, you are not helping me anymore.”

What do you do with a taxi driver who is taking you around in circles? Does it help you? Or when you write a computer program and some fault in the coding has resulted in a cyclical movement—line twenty says go to line fifty, and line fifty says go to line twenty, and the program is stuck in an endless iteration there. What do you do? You don’t allow it to continue, right? You say, “You are not serving any good purpose, so please stop. Have some honesty. You exist to serve me; I don’t exist to bear and tolerate you. You are my equipment, you are a means to an end; you are not the end itself.”

But that is the dishonesty of thought. It tells you it will take you to a particular end, and very shrewdly, very deceptively, it becomes itself the end. It keeps telling you, “Come, ride over me, I am taking you somewhere,” as if the end is a place separate from thought or different from thought. But if you are sharp enough, you will realize that thought very soon becomes its own purpose, its own end; it wants to endlessly continue.

The ‘I’-tendency that we have, on one hand, wants to come to an end, wants to sublimate, dissolve, become fulfilled. But on the other hand, it conspires against itself. In a superficial sense, it realizes it must reach the destination and end, but somewhere it is so afraid or ignorant that it doesn’t want to end; it wants to just endlessly continue.

The process of counseling the ego-tendency, or tricking it, or educating it, or working hard on it, is the process of spirituality. That is what you call as working upon yourself. When you are working upon yourself, you are essentially addressing your own inner dishonesties. You are asking yourself, “Why do I need to behave in self-defeating ways? Why do I need to believe in self-destructing concepts? Why do I need to be my own enemy?” That is what is a spiritual quest or enquiry or sādhana .

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