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Small – Broad – Vast Mind

small mind – B r o a d M i n d – V A S T M I N D

“The mind is not inside the body, the body, the mountain, everything, is inside the mind.”

When I first heard that quote, it blew my mind. But which mind? I seem to have two, and aspirations to a third. I think we all do.

Most often we are stuck in our small, narrow mind. It is the one that wants everything to be just a little bit different – when we are with others, we want to be alone; when we are alone, we want to be in company. We want to control the external world; a tweak here, an adjustment there, or a complete makeover.

The small mind is either grasping for what it thinks would make it happier, or rejecting what it currently is experiencing. When I’m enjoying a moment of relaxation, this small mind of mine starts chirping that I should be doing something more useful. When I’m feeling dispirited or depressed, my small mind catastrophizes, telling me that these feelings may never end. It is tricksy and troublesome, yet seems to be my default mode when I am not conscious, or aspiring to something more wholesome.

The small mind can sometimes acknowledge the needs of close family and friends, but is dominated by the imperative to ensure that the self feels safe and secure. This is often called the reptilian brain, with its mandate for survival. We need to eat, to protect ourselves, our families, and ensure the next generation of the species continues. Karen Armstrong calls this the four ‘F’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing and f** reproducing. The small mind has a role to play – it warns us when there is danger. However, once our basic needs are met, the small mind need no longer dominate. In fact, our narrow-minded approach to life is not of much benefit to our long-term happiness, or indeed, to the flourishing of society.

In the diagram above, the inner circle represents the sense of self, our ego-centric focus, while the outer circle is our scope of attention. With the smaller minds, our sense of self is solid, while the vast mind is still aware of the self, but it is more adaptable and less rigid. The scope of attention expands and expands, seeing all beings as equally important as ourselves. Our own difficulties feel much less problematic once we see them as part of our common human experience.

When the small, egocentric mind begins to quieten, we also realise that we suffer less. We can train it to stay present, to accept what is there, rather than longing for an imagined future, or regretting a past mistake. We slowly broaden the mind, through meeting others from different backgrounds, cultures, views. We read, we learn, we explore. A broader, open mind loves difference and the unpredictable nature of life. It flows more smoothly around obstacles, feels energised to change the things that cause harm, but is also able to accept the things it cannot change. The sense of self is still there, we do not disappear, but we seem to expand in our scope, our vision, or sphere of care and influence.

My broad mind is much more pleasant company than my small one. It loves others and is keen to learn about their joys and sorrows. It loves travel and adventure and is able to perceive beauty with vividness. It is appreciative and grateful for the life I have and it cries for the suffering of others and the potential destruction of the fragile planet that sustains human life. Sometimes, however, it gets subtly appropriated by the small mind. Elvis Costello’s lyrics “They say that travel broadens the mind, til you can’t get your head out of doors” provides a useful warning. Sometimes we feel we have learnt more than others, know better than others, and therefore have the right to judge others. Shunryu Suzuki also gave this warning, using the contrast of the ‘beginners/experts’ mind.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few… In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centred thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. We can really learn something.”

The ‘expert’s mind’ is just the small mind in disguise… So let’s go bigger, let’s aspire to greatness, vastness, and expansiveness.

Once in a while, we meet someone with a vast mind, or we read the words of those who are able to touch on the universal nature of humanity, and inspire us to look beneath our selfish needs with the promise that, although paradoxical, we will become much happier. We may even get glimpses of our own expansiveness when we are with them. This is why people travel across continents to meet with teachers like the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa or Desmond Tutu. When we are with them, we touch into a sense of timelessness, and the immeasurable qualities that they embody, such as love, compassion, joy and equanimity. We feel inspired to contribute towards projects or organisations, knowing that we may never see the results. A vast mind spans time zones and generations. Its sense of self is still present, but more as an acknowledgement of the embodied nature of the human mind, whilst able to tap into something much more spacious. A vast mind is a mind without boundaries – it is interconnected with all other minds, throughout space and time.

In 2010, I spent a few days in the company of the vast mind of Akong Rinpoche, when he was visiting South Africa. Despite his death three years ago, his 1000-year vision lives on in the projects he began in Scotland, Tibet, Africa and across Europe. A quiet man, born in a remote Tibetan village, who once worked as an orderly in a British hospital, he slowly inspired thousands of people to take part in his centres and projects. ( The Tara Rokpa Centre is one of his creations, as he was able to see that the air, land and water around Gauteng would soon become so polluted that it causes harm to residents. 250km from Johannesburg was far enough away to ensure a healthy environment where people could come for healing, for practice and to learn ways to preserve the environment.

Which mind do you choose to live from? Which mind will you cultivate? Coming to the end of a week where the US has elected someone with a remarkably small mind and an inversely proportional mouth, I felt it was time to remind myself about the three minds. We cannot change small-minded people, and even the idea that we can reveals our own small-mindedness… but we can work to expand our own scope of care and attention. We can take the wish to benefit all beings everywhere and focus that intention on the small daily acts of kindness and generosity. We can take a global and long-term vision, to inform our lives moment-by-moment. Not easy, of course, but I’m not sure we have a choice. Our small minds have got us into this mess…. It’s time for our vast minds to get us out of it.

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