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What Is the Mind?

what is the mind from the Buddhist perspective?

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If the mind is our thoughts, then what is it that observes those thoughts? What are we without thoughts? Do we ever truly see an object, or only its mental reconstruction? Though we are all convinced that we have one, science has no agreed definition for consciousness or mind. Even subjectively, the mind is elusive, difficult to pin to any specific mental experience.

This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. 

Today we’re talking about the mind. It’s possible to take on a variety of objects to meditate on. The breath is the best known object of meditation, and for many of us the only way we’ve heard of meditating. But you can take other objects as your point of focus in meditation practice, and one of my favorites is the mind itself.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, an intellectual understanding of the mind can lead to an experiential understanding of the mind. Thinking about the mind, reading about the mind, discussing the mind, and finally meditating on the mind can lead us to greater and greater insights into what our mind is. It’s a process that doesn’t require an answer, but continually asking the question over and over again can bring greater self-awareness, and a deepening sense of who we are beneath all of our thoughts and all the stimulation and all the entertainment and distraction and conflict we experience each day.

Most of us are probably familiar with some of the Western psychological views of the mind. There are different ways in Western psychology to divide up the mind. One is this division between thoughts and emotions. Another is the division between conscious and unconscious. We’ve also heard these terms ego, id, and super ego, Freudian approaches.

There’s something called the body-mind duality, which people don’t talk about as much in the West anymore because many believe that the mind is a side-effect of bodily processes.

Whether you think the mind is a side effect of the body, or interdependent with the body, it’s conventionally useful to think of mental processes as distinct from bodily processes, and to label our different mental states. 

The model we discuss today comes from a teaching the Buddha gave called “The Five Aggregates,” where these five parts to human experience include the body plus four other mental factors.

A useful factor to first talk about is “perception.” Sometimes this is also translated as discernment. In this way of analyzing the mind, perception means our ability to differentiate objects from one another, whether those objects appear through our senses, or through thoughts and imagination. 

So, for example, our ability to distinguish a rock from an orange, or to recognize one person from another. When you look at the universe from a scientific perspective, all that exists is merely a continuously varying field of electromagnetic energy. 

This isn’t saying anything far out or spiritual. It’s simply the scientific perspective. From a scientific perspective, there’s no color in nature. There’s no form, there’s no sound, there’s no scent, there’s no taste, and there’s no touch in the universe. All of these are mental phenomena that result from the interaction of our senses with colorless, tasteless, scentless, silent electromagnetic fields. 

Darwin and Newton both said this in their own language, very eloquently, hundreds of years ago, it’s something you can understand through common sense once you learn about the underpinnings of nature; that perception is a psychological phenomenon. Light itself is just the vibration of electromagnetic energy at different frequencies, and only when those vibrations come through our eye and enter our brain do we then elaborate these into colors.

There’s no red, there’s no orange, there’s no yellow, there’s no green, there’s no blue in the universe; they’re all purely psychological. Look around you right now. All of the colors in the room or car or city or nature around you exist only in your mind. The world is colorless as we understand it from the scientific perspective. 

There’s a famous Buddhist teaching called the Heart Sutra that talks about this very beautifully, but it requires no spiritual context to understand something that’s just true from a scientific perspective. It requires only an understanding of how our mind’s process of perception interprets the intrinsically invisible universe around us.

So that’s perception. It’s that ability of your mind to take the continuity of sense phenomena or mental phenomena and then divide them up and say, okay, that bit of electromagnetic vibration is Stephen, and that bit is Emily; that’s an orange and that’s a rock; that’s the pleasant voice of my partner, and that’s Alexa’s alarm; that sweet taste is chocolate and that tingle is hot chili pepper. This isn’t far out or spacey or new age. It’s just true from a scientific perspective. Perception.

A next factor we can discuss is “feeling” which is confusing because it doesn’t map to emotions as we usually understand them. In fact, there’s no clear mapping of the western term emotion to Tibetan because from this Buddhist model of the mind, all mental phenomena are seen as having both thought and feeling components; that you can’t have a feeling without some thought that it’s responding to. Also, the words heart and mind are conflated in the Buddhist psychological model. There’s a single word that means both of these at once. 

In this model, emotions don’t exist without being tied to some form of reasoning. “Feeling” in this case, is more simply defined as the apparent pleasantness or unpleasantness of an experience, these feelings typically leads us to want to repeat the pleasant experiences, and to avoid the unpleasant ones. And there’s a point in the middle, called “neutral” that is a third level of feeling, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

From this psychological view, everything that pops into our ordinary mind, whether it comes through our senses, our imagination, or reasoning, has an accompanying feeling, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In emotional terms, we feel happy, unhappy, or indifferent. 

I like this model, because it seems more fundamental than the more complex Western emotions. And also those Western emotions, other cultures don’t name and experience them in the same way. A famous example is the feeling of self-loathing, which was a foreign concept to Tibetans when they first encountered Western psychology, even though to us it feels natural. 

So in contrast to the more elaborated emotions that vary between cultures and models, this simpler model of feeling can seem more common-sensical, universal, and difficult to argue with: that for every mental experience we either like it, don’t like it, or feel indifferent.

So that is perception and feeling. Now, a third component of the mind is called intention or volition. This is the component of the mind that compels us to action. Sometimes I also like to think of this using the term will. It’s the part of your mind that drives you to act, that gets you up off the couch, that compels you to actions that might be in your best interest, the ones that produce happiness; or that compels you to actions that run counter to happiness, that get us into trouble. 

This component of the mind can be elaborated as a grab bag of many different states of mind, both tamed and unruly, that drive us to action; not necessarily a physical action, but a resolve, or a wish. This third aspect of mind is considered a constantly operating element of your cognition that you can come to know and discern and even tame.

The last factor that we can talk about is consciousness or awareness. Our consciousness is the stage of our mind, a kind of place where thoughts, feelings and other mental phenomena arise. At least sometimes, most of us are able to step back and notice our thoughts and feelings. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably someone who has this capacity of self-awareness, though there are many people who don’t.

So then who is it or what is it that observes our perceptions and feelings? From one perspective, finding a clear answer to this question isn’t important, and it might not even be possible. Or maybe there’s a momentary answer, but one that is always changing. 

Yet simply asking the question is a powerful way to meditate, and there are some structured ways of exploring the nature of mind by pointing the mind back at itself. In the next episode we’ll explore these qualities of the mind through meditation, but this week we first try to understand what the techniques are.

One way of looking at your awareness is to notice that there’s a temporal aspect to the mind. We can see how the mind changes from moment-to-moment, and how different thoughts, feelings, and perceptions seem to arise from somewhere, to take center stage in our mind, and then to diminish. 

As you look closely at your consciousness in this way, it might seem possible that you can divide these moments of consciousness into smaller and smaller moments of consciousness. 

I don’t know if you remember this lesson, but  it was quite profound for me when I finally got to calculus. Even though I was good at math, I was pretty bored with it until I got to calculus, the mathematical study of how things change. I found calculus quite profound because it shows you the boundary between the discrete, the things that happen instant-by-instant, point-by-point, and the continuous, where there’s no break between moments or things. 

In the beginning when you’re studying calculus, you prove this thing called an integral, which gives you the area under a curve, and you prove it by this technique, where you keep making thinner and thinner little rectangles under a curve and add them up. You shrink those rectangles down, eventually to infinitely small, and then there’s this snap, and it becomes a different type of math that Leibnitz and Newton invented, called calculus. 

And this meditation is exactly the same process. You try to slice and dice the moments of consciousness, and every moment of consciousness you see has a boundary against the past and a boundary against the future, so since it has two sides and a duration, you can slice this moment in the middle. But then that new slice also has a little bit that touches the past and a little bit that touches the future. 

You keep doing that and similar to calculus, but experientially rather than mathematically, there’s a moment where you break through in the meditation and you realize that maybe those boundaries have no meaning, that if you can slice a moment of consciousness forever, where did that past moment go? Where did the future moment come from? Where’s the next one coming from? Does an infinitely small slice of time have no duration, or is it a kind of ever-present “now?”

You may get to the point that you feel like there’s nothing but the present moment. That strangely, the process of reflecting on the boundary of the present moment against the past and the future can break you through to realizing those two don’t exist at all. That all there is is a present moment. 

Getting to this understanding doesn’t have to be so complex and intellectual, either. My family was talking about our favorite time of day during dinner the other night, and my eight-year-old daughter said, “My favorite time of the day is now, now, now, now, now, now…” 

I really love that. I think that’s a very good answer. 

What is the present moment? Does the present moment ever end? What we just described are different ways of asking this question. You could come up with 100 more on your own, they don’t have to come from calculus or Buddhist teachings. And your friends and family can give you ideas too. 

None of this is meant to say that our consciousness is actually the way that we’re describing it, or looking for it. But each of these techniques gives us a way of reasoning about our consciousness that might suddenly land us in this non-conceptual awareness of what consciousness itself is, awareness of awareness. 

If you ever find yourself in that non-conceptual state, just try to relax and let go. Wherever you were in the meditation, at the end or the beginning, you forget about it because the intellectual part is just a tool. 

However you get to this non-conceptual state, maybe just thinking about what your kid said that night, whatever gets you to that spot, if you find yourself there, just abandon all of the intellectual part and rest in that experience, pause the recording, close your eyes. Eventually your experience does degrade and then you can use one of these intellectual processes to build it back up again. 

So that’s a way to meditate on the temporal aspect of the mind. 

There can also appear to be a spatial aspect to the mind. As you experience perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, similarly to the temporal aspect of cognition, there also appears to be some spatial aspect to cognition; what appears to your mind manifests in some kind of mental space. The technique here is to let go of the object and probe that space itself, the space where the object arises.

And so you look at the space in your mind, open-mindedly, and think, does that space have a size? Does it have a color? Does it have a shape? Is it bright? Is it dark? Is it deep? Is it shallow? Does it remain the same or does it change?

And if you let yourself become aware of that space, it can be interesting to let objects then appear in the mind, while you stay aware of the spatial or the temporal aspects of the mind, and then notice how your awareness interacts with objects. 

On the spatial level, sometimes objects can seem to appear like a reflection; not necessarily a two-dimensional reflection, but a kind of three-dimensional reflection, as if the mind is like a holographic mirror that reconstitutes the objects that appear to it. 

Or on the temporal level, if you look at the mind, you can notice the appearance, then the rising strength, and then the diminishing thoughts and perceptions.

Then there are also moments when the mind empties, when you feel as if you’re thinking of nothing, or just in the gaps between thoughts and feelings and perceptions—that can be a very nice place to examine too; rest in the moments between thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, those gaps or moments of clarity without an object, when you can get to know the subtler aspect of yourself: What is the mind without thoughts? This subtler aspect of yourself is one that’s usually buried under stimulation, worries, plans, and so on. 

And then also in that state, you can probe the feeling component that might be associated with the reflection of an object. There can be a kind of taste or flavor, an emotional taste associated with that state. It can feel like a special sort of happiness, one that’s not afraid of losing things, and that’s also not striving for more. But that’s just content and joyful at the mere experience of being alive and aware. 

If you ever go on a meditation retreat, you can get into a state where you realize that you don’t really need anything to be happy. In fact, it’s helpful to have fewer things, less stimulation, less interaction, just time to go inward. 

And so this is the intellectual description of the experience of the mind’s four mental factors:  perception, feeling, volition, awareness. And then we looked at different methods for probing awareness: breaking down moments of consciousness into smaller and smaller slices until we break through to a kind of eternal present; and also looking at the space of awareness.

In our next episode, we’ll do a guided meditation to experience these states and go beyond simply talking about them.

Thanks for listening to this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. If you have any questions or feedback, please share it at skepticspath.org on this episode’s page, through the contact page, or on our Facebook page.

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Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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