Mind is the human being's highest developed instrument, but it is an instrument of ignorance incapable of seeing the infinite potentials all around us, incapable of knowing our own inner potentials, unable to foresee what the future will bring the very next moment. How then can we best utilize the powers of mind for our inner growth and outer accomplishment?
We all know instances in our own lives, in the lives of people we know well or in the wider world around us of phenomenal accomplishment that exceeded our wildest expectations. In 1984, India's annual software exports were less than $12 million. Who could have imagined at the time, let alone predicted, that they would grow 1000-fold in a mere 20 years? Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, was honest enough to confess that as recently as 1995 - less than 12 months before the Internet and World Wide Web exploded into global prominence - he never believed or imagined that it would amount to anything very significant. When Tom Watson, founder of IBM, was asked about the future of the computer in the late 1940s, he said it would never have widespread application. IBM's team of strategic thinkers estimated that total worldwide demand would not exceed five computers a year! If the phenomenal accomplishments associated with the computer, the Internet and India's software industry were not the result of visionary foresight and planning, how then were they accomplished? Certainly mind played a crucial role in their development, yet all the while failed to see the potential of what it was creating.
On the other hand, we know instances in which careful forethought and meticulous planning have led to remarkable achievements that few believed possible at the time of their conception. In 1961, when US President John F. Kennedy announced America's goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him back again before 1970, such a feat was still in the realm of science fiction. Landing on the moon within nine years may have seemed a reasonable objective, but the technology simply did not exist at the time for relaunching a vehicle from the moon's surface to bring the astronauts back home. Yet the well-planned and finely coordinated efforts of more than 45,000 organizations enabled America to accomplish that feat six months ahead of schedule. When C. Subramaniam, India's Food Minister, stood before Parliament in 1966 and announced the Government's goal of achieving food self-sufficiency within five years, he was laughed at by the skeptical politicians and vehemently opposed by ‘informed' scientists. The very idea seemed absurd at a time when India was heavily dependent on food imports and food aid to avoid widespread famine. Yet within five years of launching Green Revolution, the country increased its food grain production by 50 percent and did become self-sufficient. Bill Clinton says he had a clear goal from early childhood to become President of the USA and he did achieve it. A great many people have more modest life goals that still seem like wild dreams to those around them and yet through meticulous planning and execution they are able to reach them. We see here mind's power of imagination to formulate a goal and accomplish it.
Yet often we have the contrary experience. We all have had the experience of instances in which our minds simply refuse to believe that a thing is possible until after it has been accomplished. In fact, there are times when even after we manage to accomplish something that seemed impossible to us when we began, the very thought of repeating or exceeding that achievement seems equally impossible! These are times when the mind refuses to believe even after the fact. A company averaging sales of Rs 60 million a month a few years ago raised its monthly turnover through systematic planning and effort to an average of Rs 82.5 million. When top management proposed a goal of raising it the following year to Rs 100 million, there was widespread consensus that it was simply not possible. Yet the very next month, revenues exceeded Rs 117.5 million, a full 30% higher than the company's previous record performance. How is it that no one could perceive and believe in this potential even a few days before it was achieved? When mind bases itself on past experience, it is often unable to even imagine what the future holds.
Most of us are also familiar with another kind of experience. These are instances in which we imagine a high goal, plan for it and yet our plans never mature into results. Countless inventors have conceived of ingenious devices that they could never translate into actualities. Entrepreneurs with a crystal clear vision of an infinite market potential unfolding before their eyes often find their vision turning into a cloudy mist of disappointed hopes. As the proverb says, the best laid plans often go awry. For the past forty years, India's leaders have been aware of the enormous economic benefits of linking the country's rivers into a Grand Canal system, yet this great conception has remained on paper. Why is it that so many of mind's wonderful ideas and visionary conceptions do not get translated into reality?
Mind plays a central part in human accomplishment. Yet, we are faced with an apparent contradiction. There are occasions when our best laid plans are executed to perfection. There are others in which the results achieved far exceed or even contradict our own convictions and deeper beliefs. There are still others in which our plans never materialize at all and the opportunity we so much believed in seems to vanish in thin air. All of us can find instances of these contrary experiences in our own lives. It may be planning a dinner party or a wedding, preparing for an exam or joining a course, landing a job or applying for bank loan, opening a new store or launching a new product. There are instances in which a clear mental conception becomes the seed for magnificent accomplishment. There are instances in which accomplishment far exceeds the expectations of the most visionary and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. There are still others in which the mental conception remains a mere idea and never acquires life and physical reality.
What lessons can we draw about the mystery of accomplishment from this confusing morass of experience? Accomplishment is a complex phenomenon that depends on a great many factors, such as knowledge, skill, organization and the supporting environment. Here we focus on one central issue -- the true and proper role of mental foresight, goals and planning in the process of human accomplishment. When is mental conception an aid and support to accomplishment and when is it a bar? What is it that fundamentally determines whether our conception gets translated into reality?
To answer these questions, we have to first be clear about some basic characteristics of the human mind. Sri Aurobindo explains that the mind in an instrument of Ignorance. Its chief characteristic is that it does not know. Our surface mind is ignorant of our own greater personality and inner being behind the surface. It is ignorant of the entire world beyond its immediate experience which it regards as the ‘not-self'. It has no direct knowledge of either the past or the future, even just a few seconds before or after. It can have direct knowledge only of what is occurring in the present moment. Mind can experience external events in the present by processing the data received by our senses. This is only a partially direct knowledge, since mind it to rely on the senses for its observations. The only truly direct experience I can have is of myself. I can direct my mind inwardly to concentrate on myself and have direct knowledge of the fact that "I am. I think. I feel." Going deeper still within, I can directly experience the silent witness Self behind.
So much for the present. When it comes to the past, I cannot know anything directly. I can only have a more or less vague recollection of what has occurred in the past by calling up memories of past events in the form of thoughts, feelings and sensations. When it comes to the future, I cannot directly know anything at all. I have to resort to the faculty of imagination to try to envision what is yet to happen. How then do we plan for the future? In most cases when mind thinks of the future, it draws on its past experience and imagines a continuation or very gradual change from what it has already known in the past. That means mind is not very good at anticipating rapid or radical changes which are a normal part of life. Mind is conservative. It believes in the past and has faith in the status quo. That is why even after the Wright Brothers had successfully flown an airplane at Kitty Hawk, professors of physics in American universities where telling their students that manned flight was a physical impossibility.
Think back in your own life and try to recall instances in which you were unable to anticipate or even conceive of the results you were going to actually achieved just a short while later. A team of researchers prepared a development strategy with the potential of creating millions of jobs in the country, never dreaming that anyone would take their work seriously. Yet within weeks of completing their work, they were given an opportunity to present their ideas to the Prime Minister and their strategy was formally adopted by the government - an unbelievable result beyond their wildest expectations. If someone were to tell you that the potential exists for you to be earning 10 times your present income within 12 or 24 months, most of us would find that difficult to believe because we base our future expectations so heavily on our past achievements. Yet, such dramatic achievements are occurring around us all the time. Perhaps, there have already been occasions when our income rose very rapidly, yet we find it difficult to believe it could happen again. Two young men who had spent years doing unpaid social service suddenly found themselves earning the equivalent of Rs 40,000 per day without their even seeking it.
If mind is so ignorant, why is it that so many great achievements start with a high and clear mental conception? Why is it that self-help books and management training gurus all emphasize the importance of formulating clear goals of what you want to achieve and developing plans for how to achieve them? The human mind in its origin is a delegate of what Sri Aurobindo terms the Supermind. The Supermind possesses total knowledge of all that is, was and will be, past, present and future. It also possesses the capacity to create or accomplish anything it wills. Whatever Supermind conceives, it has the power to accomplish.
Our minds also possess these two fundamental powers: a capacity to know and a capacity to will; only in us these capacities are severely limited. But although mind is ignorant, that does not mean it is without power. What we know or think we know does exert a real power over what we achieve. During the 16th Century, European explorers tried to find an Eastern sea route from Europe to Asia by sailing South around Africa. However, there was a strong belief at the time that the earth ends about midway down the Western coast of Africa, so for decades no ship was willing to make the attempt. That's an example of mind's ignorance which effectively limited human accomplishment for decades. In fact, our minds act in a similar manner all the time. Like the superstitious Europeans of old we think we know what the future has to offer when in truth we do not know what will happen the next moment. An inexperienced consultant trembled with anxiety and disbelief when his boss instructed him to approach one of the largest companies for an assignment, and was shocked when he came away from the meeting with a contract in spite of disbelief. Our memory of earlier events becomes a bar to future accomplishment. Here we are using the power of mind negatively to prevent greater accomplishment. We can also use the power of mental imagination positively to conceive of higher goals and plan how to achieve them. However, the human imagination is often very limited and unable to foresee all the possibilities that are actually waiting round the corner, so it is better not to depend on it entirely. To know we do not know and cannot know with our minds is a great and valuable knowledge.
Just because we can imagine something, does not mean we will achieve it. Just because we cannot imagine something, does not mean we cannot achieve it. The real motive power for our accomplishment comes from the will. Will generates the energy for accomplishment. Mind may give us the knowledge of what is possible for us to achieve, but without the will to achieve it, results will be very disappointing. On the other hand, even if we lack the knowledge of what is possible, if we have the will to achieve the maximum possible and exhaust all our efforts to excel, we are capable of achieving results far beyond our expectations. When we possess both the knowledge of what is possible and the will to achieve it, then our achievements can exceed our wildest expectations.
Faith is the power that can extend our accomplishment beyond the limits set by mind's ignorance. Faith, according to Sri Aurobindo, is in reality a greater power of knowledge. An ardent faith implies a determined will to realize that which one believes in. The human will is a delegate of the Divine Will. The human aspiration to exceed is the aspiration of the Divine within us. That is why Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita, "You can become whatever you believe you can become."
Spiritually, all creation is creation out of ‘nothing' in the sense that the Divine manifests truths and powers of its own being out of its own infinite unmanifest potential, which appears to the mind as non-existent because it has not yet manifested. The Divine creates by an act of self-conception. It conceives that which it wills to manifest. Mind too creates out of apparent nothingness, bringing forth hidden potentialities into life by the power of will and determination. Mind conceives. Will achieves.
This article was originally published in | Consecration Magazine, Vol.2, Issue 3, July-Aug 2005, pg.9,