Everyone has a “mind,” but how do we define what the mind is and what it does? Maybe we think of it as the voice in our head, the narration of effort and intention as we concentrate on a task, the thoughts and memories we have while we wait to fall asleep, maybe it’s our dedicated cognition, feeling, emotion, or just our sensory perception.
Rather than form a perfect definition of mind, what we really need instead is a workable framework for what the mind does and does not do well (also because it’s near impossible to agree on a definition). A ‘close-enough’ framework, or analogy, can help us understand how to focus the mind’s many functions, avoid distractions, and feel emotion with understanding and awareness.
So let’s build a cabin with the river.
Our cabin is situated on a low hill overlooking a bend in a flowing river. The cabin will have the standard elements we would consider to be part of any cabin: foundation, walls, roof, floor, cooking space, outhouse, no wifi yet. We have a basic set of tools to design and assemble the cabin, but all the materials will come from the river.
The river changes every day, responds to larger weather trends, and some days runs wide, deep and slow, and sometimes runs fickly or is filled with soot. Our cabin site is never entirely safe from flood, so the river is never out of view as we build. The river flows with everything we need, but buried amongst the things we may need is other detritus, waterlogged materials, and potential hazards. We must venture into the river to get what we need, discard the things we cannot use and return to shore to keep building. Sometimes, a boat will come with other supplies and other cabin builders.
As we build, we must maintain our overall goals for the cabin: the foundation must be secure and maintain sufficient drainage, the walls must be square and plumb, floor level, and roof water tight.
As it should be perfectly obvious by now, the river is meant as an analogy to our mind, the images that arise in it, and its various wanderings. The river provides, but also distracts. It can captivate us with its inherent brilliance in providing supplies to build the cabin that we never would have considered (creativity), it can run dry as we fail to recover (sleep), and it can flood with far too much material for us to begin to focus (mental illness). All of which impacts our ability to build for, better or worse.
The cabin refers to human pursuit, goals, and the things we deem meaningful and important. We have limited resources for these things, and limited time to put them together. Deep down we know that we must build a sound cabin to be able to reflect on a life of purpose, but we also know that a flood may come, the cabin will decay, and thus we wonder how we can protect and defend our homestead, so back to the river we focus.
The struggle is deciding when to build, what to build, and how to watch the river for something we may need. It must be said that the river is captivating, yet most of what it brings downstream is nothing more than distraction. If we spend too much time watching the river, the cabin will never be built, if we focus entirely on cabin building, we will run out of what we need to build the cabin from the river. If we build a cabin with a floor and roof, we may feel satiated enough to stop building the rest of the cabin that we had hoped to build. And if we wait for the perfect materials from the river, we will not build anything.
Where there is struggle, there is opportunity for skill.
The skill of cabin building is learning to label and identify what comes from the river that is useful, inventorying accordingly, planning our cabin and executing a well-considered blueprint. It starts by noticing when we’re spending too much time looking at the river and not building the cabin. Less often, we need to focus on the river for new materials.
Sometimes, it feels like we can control the river. To a degree, we can — we can divert water for irrigation, build pools, etc., but for the sake of the analogy, assume that the river’s flow is baked into our conscious flow of images of what’s around us our focus on internal dialogue. The message is not that we should try to change the river itself, but to change our awareness and acceptance of the river, its natural fluctuations, and also its ability to bring us things we need when we know what to look for.
So for any given moment, we can ask: am I watching the river or am I building the cabin? If I am watching the river, am I primed to see what I actually need or am I focused on the leaves, twigs and rocks that I cannot use? If I am tired of cabin building, what could I use from the river to help me replenish? Or do I need to change how I am thinking about the river and cabin building itself altogether?
Building a cabin is hard. We may look at other cabins around us and wish ours was similarly developed, or we may pity those whose cabins have not taken shape. But we really don’t know what’s underneath other people’s cabins unless we know their process intimately. The only thing we have to count on is our desire to gain skill in cabin building and our own evaluation of what a good job looks like. Only we know when our foundation is secure, the roof doesn’t leak, and when we truly have built the cabin we sought to build. Sadly, our cabin may be near to other bad cabins, and being near good or bad cabins can affect us, but the upkeep of our cabin is in the end ours alone.
The cabin then represents a non-fungible, personal accomplishment. One’s cabin can be grand and feature ridden, but also then probably ridden with issues and complexity. If this is your thing, go for it but accept that you are probably neglecting contentedness and may be prone to river watching for more exotic supplies. Humble cabins are also great — tightly assembled and sound under foot. In this case, the desire to keep building may not be strong, but if we are content with our cabin, the work is mostly done. In all cases, however, the most important thing to remember is that every cabin will decay without attention; no cabin lasts forever.