Popping My Stack

By Rev. Jon Turner

The human mind is very complex.  Over the past 200 years, many different conceptual models have been proposed as a way to think about and understand how the mind works.  These are not to be taken as literally true but merely as tools that help provide a language that we can use when discussing how we think.

Sigmund Freud suggested three structures or aspects of the mind.  They were the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego. This has caused some confusion in Buddhism because the term “Ego” is also used but not as Freud intended it.  Later three alternative synonyms were developed. The Id would be renamed as the Child, the Ego as the Adult and the Super Ego as the Parent. These alternatives are easier to understand and don’t confuse the term “Ego”.

The Child is the aspect of the mind that wants to play and have immediate feedback.  It is fun and precocious. It is where spontaneity lives. But it is also mischievous and can get us into trouble.  Perhaps this is the mind that dominates in our youth. It is this mind that expresses itself when we are acting childlike or childishly.  Creativity is likely here as well.

The Adult is the aspect of the mind that is rational and logical.  It is where well thought out decisions are made. It is evidence based.  Traditionally, we think of this type of thinking as becoming more dominant in our late twenties and thirties.  The Adult is mature and scientific. It is not swayed by emotions.

The Parent is where morals and ethical thinking is done.  This is where we determine “right” from “wrong”. Perhaps we can say that our absolute truths reside here.  Somethings must and mustn’t be done. Also we may teach and give advice from this mind. Perhaps we also mentor and guide others from here.

All three of these minds are necessary and complement one another.  When any of the three become too dominant then we can get ourselves into trouble.  Either too childish, too rational or too judgmental can cause us and those around us difficulties.  Each of us may emphasize one of the three but still maintain a healthy balance between them. They are also situational.  In some instances, one is required over the other two.

Other models have also been proposed.  For example, the Conscious and Unconscious mind.  In which, one is known and the other hidden. There is also the Left Brain, Right Brain model.  The left hemisphere is the logical side and the right hemisphere is the creative side. All three of these models share some basic traits.  Each supposes a CEO that is in charge at any given time. For example, Child, Adult, Parent or Conscious, Unconscious or Left Brain, Right Brain.  

Recently, however, a new model has been proposed in which no CEO exists.  That is no permanent self mediating our thoughts. Instead the mind is conceptualized as many, many different processes all running at once and somewhat independently.  Part of the brain may be weighing profit and loss, while another is analyzing risk while another is choosing between fight or flight. This model works well with our biological history since different areas of the human mind were developed at different points during our evolution.  Some reptilian while others mammalian.

There are also emotional modules determining anger and joy.  In this model, emotions are merely another way of thinking. We have logical thinking and emotional thinking.  In other words, it is all just thinking. This fits quite nicely with Buddhist thought. Being aware of our emotions is equally important with being aware of our thoughts.

So rather than a CEO that over sees our mind, it is better to think of it as a boardroom where motions are made and voting takes place.  Much like our OCBC board meetings. There are many constituencies working to come to some sort of conclusion. It seems a little haphazard but in the end consensus is reached.

This model is very attractive to me.  First, I have a computer science background and polling multiple processes for conclusions feels right to me.  It also resonates with my experiences with Buddhism. For example, when I mediate, I have never been able to find my CEO that I assumed existed.  I had been seeking my Adult, Conscious, Left Brain but was never able to find it. I have never thought about thinking about something and then thought about it.  The best I can do is realize that I am thinking about Starbucks and then the next second about my foot that is falling asleep.

Shinran often refers to himself as the foolish, ordinary person.  He states that we can realize insight without having to remove our blind passions.  I have always thought that he experienced the flow of his mind during his practice. The CEO had eluded him, not because he was a failure at practice but because he had succeeded.  He could not find it because it wasn’t there. Instead he found thoughts and ideas flowing through his mind all influenced by his emotions. It is a paradox, but being aware of this lack of control gives one control.  

It is also why our board meetings are so successful even though it is a group of individuals being polled in order to pass a motion and then moving forward.  

In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner