THE COARSE AND THE SUBTLE MIND

In INSIGHTS by Jason Espada0 Comments

For all my brilliant friends, artists and teachers.

This mind of ours is such an extraordinary thing. At times it can be exultant, inspired and incisive, and at other times it can be downcast, contracted, and as though in a dank prison. When it’s like this, nothing good reaches us, no matter how many great things are going on outside. We may like to think that we know what the mind is – we speak of it so casually, but how well do we really know this mind of ours? For some of us at times, our inner state can change, and moods can appear as if out of nowhere, but is it destined to be as random as that? What control can we have over our own experience? When it comes to the mind, I’m thinking now, some things should not be a complete mystery.

Although I’ve not heard it expressed in the way I’m going to say it here, perhaps the following will be useful to those on a spiritual path, as well as to anyone wanting more happiness and satisfaction in their lives. This mind of ours can be either more coarse, or more subtle. ‘Coarse’ here is meant as a physical analogy, and not in the moral sense. I’ll say more about that later. It becomes either more coarse or more subtle depending on how we use it. 

When we are fatigued, or agitated, or using drugs or drink, the mind gets so that it can only perceive in very general ways. The music has to be louder and more simple, movies more extreme, and thoughts dumbed down, made more rudimentary (think jingoism, advertising, or the appeals to our most elemental nature). Restlessness and dullness can get to be the main experiences remaining in a very coarse mind. People then look for stimulation in ever more extreme ways, louder, faster, anything to feel the least bit alive, and it takes more to feel anything at all. 

Frank Espada, Jason dancing on the tables. Valley Stream, Long Island, 1972.

For a dense mind, unfortunately, it can be a downward spiral. There are times when almost nothing can reach a person, of beauty, or subtlety, or vital nourishment. We all struggle against this loss of sense and vitality with everything we’ve got, but often without knowing what causes such states of deprivation. On some level, we all know there is more to life, and so if we can still hear it, our dissatisfaction is a messenger. I’ve watched this in myself, how there are times when beauty does not reach me. I know now that having a gross or more refined mind is what makes the difference.

Why aren’t we taught these things? Part of is surely is that we live in a consumer culture, where, as one teacher said, ‘they are not interested in your soul’. I would imagine that in other times and cultures, the inner life is treated differently, appreciated and fostered so that while here on this earth we can have the fullness of the experience of being alive. Without this, our lives are like flowers bound tightly that haven’t had a chance to open. At this point we can’t afford to wait for our culture to catch up and supports us. We each have to take responsibility for our inner life.

A more subtle mind is arrived at by taking care of ourselves wisely. In this case, we should know what causes give rise to more subtle, refined consciousness. Resting the mind well is part of it. Meditation can gather the mind and quiet it down. We can find rest that restores the body and mind in unique ways. Beyond this, the mind that is still and quiet for a time becomes clear and able to see and know more of our experience. Such things are what they call ‘self-revealing’ – we have to know them for ourselves. Having a more subtle mind then is like having a key that can open many doors. Whatever subject we study, we enter it more fully, and we are able to get at it’s meaning.

Frank Espada, “A Prayer for Martin Luther King”, New York, 1981.

A subtle mind can also receive essential nourishment from our natural world and relationships in a way that the mind in its more coarse state cannot. Well fed spiritually, we become strong, healthy and en-livened. This is universal. The joys that come from this also help us naturally to let go of lesser pleasures that only went so far. 

One of the keys to refining the mind is attention. The ways we divide our attention in 2017 have to be recognized. Multi-tasking sounds benign until you look at the effect it has on consciousness. To then supposedly “relax” by having a drink and binge watching a program, or by hours of gaming or amusing ourselves, often results in just more coarseness and dissatisfaction. Then it’s back to work again.

At the very least, we should have some experiential knowledge of our choices here as human beings. Then I would trust our innate intelligence to do the rest, to create a life of meaning and health in our relationships and community. We should all know that what we place our mind on will effect the mind. Our mind will take on that quality, and this will effect the mind itself. This is why the all the elevating arts and appreciating natural beauty and deep thinking are so important for us all. They mature our mind and heart. They help our awareness to be clear and deep. Absent this, our despair calls to us as from a distant mountaintop. It is a voice remembering. It is a mournful call that needs to be understood.

If we have fallen into crude misapprehensions about ourselves, each other and our world, if we are ginned up with fear and aggression, or despairing, at those times especially we need to know that the answer is not more of the same ways of using our mind personally and collectively that got us here. Whether or not we practice as part of a spiritual tradition, what we all need is the same. Because we all have a mind, no one is beyond getting clear and having the experience of more depth.

The word mindfulness has become common these days, but you may notice that it is used in a thoroughly generic way, as if it’s saying that every mind were the same. The fact is though that we could use our coarse mind all day long, for years on end without getting any degree of satisfaction or insight from it. On the other hand, the more subtle and refined states that this same mind can develop would lead anyone to a fuller experience, to greater enjoyment and understanding. So it isn’t just mindfulness, but cultivating attention in practice, and the more subtle mind that we should be aiming for. People studying philosophical and spiritual traditions especially should know this. The key to greater understanding is how we use the mind. With one kind of mind, the gross mind, not much result can come, no matter how much we study. With another, more refined mind, understanding and inner freedom can come about much more quickly.

When traditions speak of something in terms of it being ‘coarse’, in the moral sense of the word, they are pointing out how some actions and attitudes, such as vulgar thoughts, coarse-en the mind. For a time, they can make us dull, or stupid. This isn’t said as a judgement, or in a pejorative sense, but just as a plain statement for us look into, to see whether it’s true or not. Moral standards exist in every tradition to teach us the basis for greater fulfillment. If we have any trust in them, it can help to remember that traditions communicate our collective understanding. We would be wise to reflect on what they teach.

Frank Espada, Pacifica, California, 2010.

Contemplatives everywhere seek out quiet and solitude to cultivate the mind and heart. Universally, they make space, and take the necessary time to care for the mind and inner life, without distractions. Because they choose to live a certain way, they can touch the deeper truths of our being here. I had an image come to mind while walking last week, of carrying knowledge, as if it were in a trailer, knowledge of what we’ve learned and inherited. I saw that there are times when we can’t access that knowledge, and then it’s as though we are separated from it, and all the effort, all the inheritance, all the food and medicine for the journey, for a time, can be lost to us. And what a loss it is then! Surely, I thought, whatever else we may do, keeping in touch with our sources of knowledge and sustenance needs to be a priority. Whether or not we follow a spiritual tradition, whether we work or are retired, are single or in a family, our health and happiness, and that of our greater family depends on that.

About the Author
Jason Espada

Jason Espada

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Jason Espada is a writer and classical musician living in San Francisco; a steward of his father’s photography, and the founder of abuddhistlibrary.com. These days his focus is on the connection between spirituality and social action. His website. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Featured image: Frank Espada, Girl with 2 dogs, Fort Funston, California, 2009.
Other photos, by Frank Espada. Supplied by the author.

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