I’ve been exposed to hundreds of different ideas, systems, and techniques in my decades of study of personal and spiritual growth—through the lenses of meditation, wisdom, philosophy, and psychology. In my effort to simplify things, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what the essence of it all is.
I knew that the essence had to be simple; otherwise, it would not be very practical. If we need to keep in mind a hundred different teachings, cultivate fifty different virtues, remember many mindset shifts, and follow twenty different methods, we will not get anywhere. What we will experience is overwhelm, accompanied by a sense of being behind and not being good enough.
Yes, human psychology is complex. Many different elements are needed for us to live well, relate well, achieve our goals, and transcend it all. But without a focal point, without a master key to understand it all, we are left in a state of confusion—and that is not helpful. For motivation and growth, clarity is king.
After years of self-reflection, I’ve come to understand that in personal and spiritual growth the master key is to cultivate the higher mind. This is the practice underlying all practices. Rightly understood, this is the summary of everything.
Meet Your Higher Mind
The best way to understand the higher mind is through the metaphor of the charioteer—which I adapted from the Upanishads.
The chariot is the body, the passenger inside it is the soul, the charioteer is the higher mind, the horses are the lower mind, and the reins are self-discipline.
NOTE: The soul and the higher mind are neither feminine nor masculine, so please don’t get confused by that.
A healthy and well-integrated individual is one in which all these elements work together harmoniously, each knowing their place and cooperating with the others. You move fast in life when the horses are healthy, the chariot is strong, and the charioteer is wise and in full command of the reins. Then the passenger will be happy.
The Charioteer (Higher Mind)
The charioteer, who is driving it all, is on a mission. It’s the part of us that has wisdom, self-awareness, and willpower; the part that thinks long-term, based on values and aspirations. Being the only one who can come into direct contact with the soul, the higher mind is a bridge between the lower mind and the spirit.
The charioteer is on a journey to fulfill a particular purpose for the passenger, and for that reason needs to keep the horses (lower mind) under control via the reins (self-discipline).
If the higher mind doesn’t hold on to the reins, the horses will run haphazardly. They will not go where the higher mind wants to go (aspirations). It will be a bumpy and frustrating journey—and the purpose of the passenger may not be fulfilled. The horses may even end up breaking the chariot.
The charioteer is the driver of life, the architect of our destiny. It is an extension of the passenger and is there to fulfill his vision. From time to time, the charioteer needs to turn inside and hear what the passenger has to say. We can call this intuition.
The Horses (Lower Mind)
The horses have their desires, fears, and impulses, and they are often not aligned with the charioteer’s goals. They represent our lower mind, which is considered the least developed part of us. The lower mind values comfort over purpose, distraction over focus, and instant gratification over long-term goals.
Left to their own devices, the horses will often
- move sideways (distractions)
- try to avoid the road (procrastination)
- stall because they think they cannot get to the destination (self-doubt)
- not feel like moving forward (lack of motivation)
- actively move backward to avoid perceived danger (fear)
- turn against each other (inner conflict of parts)
- turn against the charioteer (self-sabotage)
- give you plenty of good reasons for their behavior (rationalization, excuses)
Without the reins of self-discipline, the horses won’t take you where you want to go. Rather, they will run after green fields whenever they see them (instant gratification). The charioteer will feel powerless, and the chariot itself might break down. The passenger will not arrive at its destination.
The charioteer has a purpose in mind and the capacity to lead the horses to the destination. The horses, by themselves, will just live by the conditions of their existing environment, reacting to what arises in front of them at any given time.
Therefore it is better for the horses, and for all elements of our being, that they be skillfully guided by a higher principle—that is, the higher mind (charioteer).
The Chariot (Body)
It is said that the body is the temple of the soul, and this fits perfectly with this metaphor.
If the body is healthy and strong, the journey will be smoother. On the other hand, if we have not taken care of our chariot, we’ll be moving slowly and need to stop often for repairs. The horses may need to work extra hard, and might start rebelling against the charioteer.
The Reins (Self-Discipline)
The reins are how the higher mind controls the lower mind. If they are too tight, the lower mind will rebel; if they are too loose, the lower mind will run wild and get you into trouble. In a constant balancing act, the charioteer needs to keep the reins in hand, carefully managing the horses.
This is done in a spirit of love, not punishment. You need to love your horses and treat them well. Give them rest, good food, and space to play. But don’t forget that you are the leader. Know who you are, and act accordingly.
This is one of the things that is different about Mindful Self-Discipline: it’s not forceful. As I always say: awareness first, then willpower.
If you try to control your horses by acts of self-violence (such as repression), it will backfire. You might make some progress right now, but in the long term the horses will either rebel against you (eventually overpowering you), or will be too tired to do any further work (burnout).
The Passenger (Soul)
The soul is pure consciousness, the witness of everything. It’s inside the chariot because it has a journey to fulfill, but in essence it transcends it all.
Here is where the more spiritual aspect of this metaphor comes into play—to be potentially explored in future iterations of my work.
Some people believe that there is no soul—that the cart is empty and that the charioteer and the horses are a byproduct of the cart. Well, the metaphor works even in that case. For pragmatic reasons, what matters most is understanding the relationship between the charioteer and the horses.
The Higher Mind in Philosophy, Psychology, and Spirituality
I’ve adapted the charioteer metaphor from the Upanishads, who are perhaps the oldest reference to this concept. I say adapted because, in the original, the horses are the five senses, the reins are the lower mind, and self-discipline is part of the higher mind.
The original metaphor would require a lengthy explanation of Yoga Psychology for it to make sense to the modern reader—which defeats the purpose of simplicity. So I’ve bundled together the senses and lower mind as the horses, while the reins are self-discipline—an extension of the charioteer.
This concept is not exclusive to Hindu thought, though. We find a similar view in other philosophies, as well as in religion and science. Thinkers throughout the ages have acknowledged that at the core of the human journey there is this tension between the higher mind and the lower mind—however they might have called it
Plato divided the human spirit into two parts: the “rational soul”, responsible for reason and virtue, and the “appetitive soul”, associated with desires, emotions, and impulses.
The Stoics advocated for living in accordance with virtue, keeping disruptive emotions and desires under control, thus achieving a state of inner tranquility.
Many mystical traditions focused on attaining union with the Source by cultivating the higher aspects of our being, thus transcending the limitations of the lower self.
The father of modern psychology, William James, distinguished between the “stream of consciousness” (lower mind) and the “self” (higher mind), the latter being responsible for attention (awareness) and intention (willpower).
In neuroscience, the triune brain model maps the functioning of our mind across three main layers: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the evolved brain. The evolved brain or neocortex (higher mind) is responsible for long-term thinking, meta-awareness, and willpower.
In all these schools of thought, the idea is the same. The lower mind is more impulsive, conditioned, and focused on the short term. The higher mind is the nobler aspect of our nature. The lower mind reacts to the environment based on the loudest impulse in the moment; the higher mind responds to life based on values and aspirations.
The Journey, Simplified
The end goal of my work is to help you live your aspirations—however you define them.
In that journey, the lower mind will be your challenge. It lacks focus, discipline, and confidence. It procrastinates, gets distracted, and goes into unhelpful thought patterns. It gets stuck with negative emotions and oftentimes lacks clarity and motivation. It’s your conditioning.
The solution is to cultivate the higher mind:
- Develop your awareness and willpower (the two reins)
- Have a vision for who you want to be, and live inside out from it
- Know your values and aspirations, and shape your life around them
Integral personal growth requires us to develop all aspects of ourselves harmoniously. But for that, we need to operate more from the higher mind, cultivating its powers.
One goal, one challenge, one method. That’s the essence.
Now back to you…
How strong is your higher mind?
Is it holding on to the reins?
What will your life be like if you live more from the higher mind?