Hi, I’m Arjun Khemani
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- Big Mind, small mind (#101)
A popular idea in the Zen tradition—Big Mind, small mind—sets out to explain two different, and extreme perspectives of looking at the world.
One is looking at everything from the cosmic scale, aka the Big Picture, broad view mind-set.
Most astronauts undergo a profound cognitive shift when they observe the home planet from space for the very first time. It’s famously known as the overview effect. Looking at the whole of Earth in one view, is overwhelming usually, and makes many astronauts realize the pointlessness of many important things. National borders, wars and conflicts, politics, news, money—they all seem meaningless. You see the Earth as one small, pale blue dot. No problems look too big. No place looks very vast, but empty space. Earth is just a small planet viewed from the darkness of nothingness.
This is the Big Mind. When you have a big-picture, Big Mind perspective, mostly everything seems so small and of little significance. You tend not to get too caught up in the everyday obstacles and competitiveness that life brings forth. You don’t take stuff seriously, and mostly eliminate any small regrets or negativities which may creep up into your mind.
And the other extreme is looking through the nitty-gritty details of everything. Having a small mind view makes you prone on checking anything within your hands distance as important. That all things are extremely, extremely significant and you need to pay a lot of attention to basically everything. And you ought to take an infinite things a lot more seriously is the way of the small mind.
One is at the mountain-top, with a high feeling that nothing matters. And the other is tightly engrossed in believing everything matters. The Big Mind avoids detail at all cost, for the small mind—detail is vital for survival.
Note: a common tendency may be to get the terms Big Mind / small mind mixed up with an open mind / a narrow or fixed mind. But they are not the same. For, that (on the open or narrow extreme) is in link to acceptance and negligence. And this (Big Mind, Small Mind) is on perspective.
These two minds are extreme extremes. The fact is you cannot live a great life with having a perspective on either end of the spectrum forever. It mustn’t be a choice, it’s a decision of combination.
Just try thinking about what might happen if you try living with a complete-fixed perspective based on either end of the spectrum.
When you live every second, thinking and believing spiritedly that most things in the world are trivial, viewing the world through the Big Mind lens, you’re actually putting yourself in a very dangerous place—a spot you don’t want to be in. Having this mental-model makes you overlook any detail, and that isn’t usually always good. For instance some detail is really essential for survival. If you think about it not only do you put yourself in danger, but the world around you too falls into a big danger loop. We can’t just not take anything seriously. Well, we can … but it’s futile. If you take nothing seriously, you may not take yourself seriously. And that could again mean serious danger.
On the other end, taking everything quite seriously, always being caught up in the smallest of literal trivialities and being so engrossed into detail as to not having the skill of setting back and looking at the world from a certain distance, is also a very foolish thing to do. Sometimes, generally, we delve into a task so deep and get engrossed so much into the detail and perfection of it, that we come back to our senses much later, assessing, “what in the world did I even do the last 3 hours?”
That’s a pretty lousy feeling. Imagine staying in that sort of tiny little bubble all your life. Not getting any chance to take some steps back, judging the world from a distance, looking at the big picture.
So. Either of the two extremes is not a good place we want to be in. But it’s important we get a realization of when we want to be looking at things from a distance, a bigger perspective, the Big Mind view, or when we really want to take a look at some serious detail and perceive the world with a small mind view.
It’s not easy to do. We will get stuck sometimes for;
– not caring enough, or caring too much.
– Avoiding the important detail, or getting too preoccupied with it.
– Steering away from constructive negativities and criticisms, or becoming overwhelmed with all the bad noise reaching our ears.
But, if we first accept the two extremes of the mind perceiving the whole world, I think we’ll be better understanding of the times we really want to dig in or when we want to be looking at the big picture. Because forever being on either extreme is not a good choice.
An idea from the Zen tradition—Big Mind, small mind is the two extreme ways we perceive the world.
– Big Mind looks at things from the bigger picture. It looks from a distance, not worrying too much about detail. Big Mind believes a certain many things to be trivial and of little significance. It hates negativities, rather thinks most of them to be pointless.
– small mind, the opposite, likes detail. It gets stuck and engrossed into the little things, seldom getting opportunities to look at the world from a distance and questioning the meaning and purpose of things.
Both extremes are not a good place to be at.
To really understand the world, it’s significant to know when to use the Big Mind, and when to turn to the small mind. Using our tendency for Big Mind and small mind thinking at proper intervals will be wise.
- Radio Headspace: Big Mind Small Mind (Spotify Podcast)
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