Alchemy is happening right under our breath, in our bodies. Food and water turning into bone, muscle, and other bodily cells and tissues is nothing short of a miracle. Nature guides the body in this process of transmutation of energy. Just as nutrition from organic matter helps the body grow, sensory impulses fees the mind’s growth. The mind is a significant storehouse of energy, which gets distributed amongst countless thoughts. To realize the mind’s potential, we would first need to gather a sufficient quantity of the mind’s energy and then transform it by directing it towards our goals and aspirations—an “alchemical” process we can control.
Willpower is central to how we use the mind’s energy. We can think of willpower as the nerve center of the mind. If the will is weak, the mind’s energy flows in many different directions, and we are swept away by our thoughts. The inner restlessness we experience reflects the struggle to stay afloat in a sea of thoughts. To overcome mental restlessness, we seek external distractions, which degrades the mind’s extraordinary potential.
The mind throws many irresistible impulses at us. As long as we take the bait, the mind leaves us alone. But at the slightest hint of resistance on our part, the mind fights back. A classic example is the difficulties encountered when we try our hand at meditation. As soon as we sit with our eyes closed, trying to remain present and focused, the mind begins to shower a continual volley of thoughts at us. Such distracting thoughts, pleasant or unpleasant, will not let us sit for a few minutes with our eyes closed. The flood of thoughts becomes like a dam about to burst, and it forces us to open our eyes.
As a general rule, the mind creates obstacles to self-improvement. For example, compassion, kindness, love, or forgiveness are easy to conceptualize as thoughts but challenging to put into daily practice. It isn’t because they are hard to learn or because it takes a particular type of education to be loving, kind, compassionate, or forgiving. These virtues come naturally, but the mind puts up roadblocks. The mind uses two familiar words: ‘but’ and ‘if.’ The conditions the mind adds—”I will be kind, but…, or I will be compassionate if….” makes it difficult to practice these virtues selflessly.
I often wonder why the mind, which has extraordinary potential, fights hard to turn us into limited impulse-driven beings. Perhaps, it is because we take for granted anything that comes easy. We value results that come through struggle and hard work.
We cannot overpower the mind through brute force. The mind will not yield. Paradoxically, forcing it to bend to our will may strengthen the mind. However, the mind will yield to a gentler force—watchful awareness.
Watchful awareness isn’t pretending the mind does not exist or running away from it—the mind comes with us wherever we go. It involves acknowledging every thought that comes to steal our attention but not engaging with its contents.
Like clouds that cannot remain in the sky forever, thoughts have a limited lifespan in our conscious mind. As we maintain a state of conscious watchfulness, thoughts will eventually thin out and disappear as if pushed aside by an unknown force. To sustain a state of watchful awareness takes willpower.
Watchful awareness is a way-stop and not the end goal. It isn’t a passive process, as it requires us to be alert and engaged, guarding against the tendency to give in to the mind. We may not be able to change the mind, but we can alter the relationship through a shift in attitude. A rock sitting on a river bed cannot stop the river’s flow, nor can the river flow through the stone. The river flows around the rock, and as it does so, it slowly abrades the rock’s rough edges and turns it into a smooth pebble.
Similarly, when we remain in a state of watchful awareness, allowing thoughts to move about without suppressing or rejecting them, we become impenetrable to them. Maintaining a non-reactive attitude as thoughts flow around us brings other benefits. Our rough edges, such as anger, impatience, jealousy, and envy, which are potential sources of friction in the mind, will eventually disappear.
Watchful awareness while creating a perceptible inner change also helps us extract energy from thoughts. This energy gets stored as the mind’s potential. Once we can master being non-reactive towards our thoughts, moving in the world and interacting with others becomes easy. No one can rub us the wrong way. Our non-reactive nature won’t allow them to get to us, and such an inner transformation is liberating. This inner alchemy of the mind frees us to pursue our dreams. We can use the energy stored in the mind to increase the likelihood of realizing our life goals.