Friday, February 16, 2018

System Administrator of the Mind

When the city is emptied of people, the mind is freer to reflect, as it happens every year during major festive holidays. It is Chinese New Year again and it is one of the best times of the year to remain in the city. There's a certain nostalgic languor in its sunlit, car-free streets, redolent of quieter and simpler times.

I've made many reflections during Chinese New Year celebrations in the past about the nature of Chinese people and their culture. It is an admirable culture that is resolutely forward-looking, progressive and materially expansive. I am Chinese, and to some degree I am either genetically or culturally-driven by its social values and ethos. However I see these Chinese impulses in me as another "module" in my mind, in line with modern neuro-psychological models of the mind. At times, this Chinese mental module occupies a dominant position, and on other occasions, depending on the task at hand, its influence gets diminished by other equally strong modular traits which rule my brain in a kind of "separation of powers" governance model.

We experience and interact with the world with our minds. The mind is all we've got. The mind is our window to the world and this window is far from transparent--it shades and colours our perception of reality. Our genetic and cultural programming always influence how we view the world. It is therefore important for us to be aware of the intermediary filters that preprocess the flow of information between us and the world.

We must be cognizant of the fact that all human views have biases, because of our built-in cultural lenses. That by itself is not a sin, but to be completely ignorant of it, is. If we are all prisoners of our cultural biases, how then do we factor them out in our daily interactions with the world?

It is easy for us to point out the mistakes of others but when it comes to examining our own faults and biases, we hit a conundrum: it is like trying to see the spots and blemishes on our spectacles while we are wearing it. And this is where the practice of meditation comes in.

Meditation is that specific training devised for us to train our minds to see its own contents and processes more clearly. The way I explain it to my IT-literate friends is that meditation is like typing the command "ps -ef" on a Unix operating system. It will list down all the processes that are currently running on the time-shared multitasking system. The interesting thing is that, the "ps -ef" command itself, will also show up as another process that is running in the system.

All system administrators are also skilled with using the "kill" command to terminate any processes that are no longer serving any purpose and could be hogging system resources. "Kill" is another process. It takes another process to kill other processes. All processes have their own specific powers.

In meditation, we introduce a process (a thought): observe the breath and try to kill other processes that try to compete with it for system resources. ideally, there should be one process running, but the mind being what it is will continually trigger new processes into the system. You as the meditator, just have to kill them as the arises and allow only that single process which you intended to run. That's all there is to meditation. It takes skill and practice to be a good system administrator of our own minds.

When we have gained a certain amount of "mindfulness" as meditators like to call it, we are better at knowing what are the processes that are currently occupying our minds and decide whether they are appropriate for the moment. This skill alone makes us better and happier people because we are no longer slaves to our thoughts, but instead masters--or in Unix parlance, the "root user".

All biases, prejudices and impulses are mental processes introduced by the many modules in our mind. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes they are detrimental to our personality and mental health. Allowing them to hog system resources can result in bigotry, selfishness and other ugly personality traits. Processes are just tools. Use the right too for the right occasion and use housekeeping tools like 'ps -ef' and 'kill' to keep things in check.

Now you see how the mind works? I started with a reflection on Chinese New Year and the characteristic of Chinese culture and I ended up talking about the 'kill' command on the Unix operating system! Unix is a great operating system, or which its core--the kernel--is simple and robust. It's richness comes from its huge repertoire of commands, which are simple application utilities, written by different people and bundled together in its various distributions over the years. One of the many commands is "wall" - (abbreviation of 'write-all') which can be used by the system administrator to send a broadcast message to all users in the system. Example:

$ wall 'Gong Xi Fa Cai!'

Broadcast message from kenny@Tangerine (pts/0) (Fri Feb 16 12:50:39 2018):

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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