The Buddhist concept that explains why you keep doing the same thing over and over—and a practice that shows you how to stop.
– Ben Connelly (Zen Tradition)
How many times have you heard someone complain about the weather? Have you ever noticed yourself getting cranky with the same guy at work over and over? Have you known an addict who keeps returning to a drug that tears their life apart? Or perhaps you have known someone who has transformed their life positively and grown beyond their old habits. The Buddhist concept of “storehouse consciousness” (alaya vijnana) arose about 2,000 years ago to help explain why people return so often to the same emotional states and viewpoints. Two specific practices for working with it—awareness of the awesome power of the storehouse and mindfulness of emotion—can change our emotional and cognitive habits into more compassionate, joyful, and free responses, transforming our lives in the process.
The term “storehouse consciousness” refers to the unconscious level of experience where our habits are maintained and where they transform. In the Yogacara school of Buddhism, an Indian Mahayana tradition, practice is understood as the means by which we participate in this transformation, so that instead of being mere repeaters of our habits and conditioning we can be intentional participants in the way our habits are formed. Yogacara, or “yoga practice,” integrates Theravada and Mahayana practice and thought, using innovative concepts like the storehouse. Although Yogacara is almost extinct as a distinct school of Buddhism, it was and remains profoundly influential, particularly on the Tibetan and Zen Buddhist traditions.
Buddhist teachings put a lot of emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness of what is experienced through the six senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mind. Western thought would usually keep the mind in a separate category from the other five senses, but if we investigate our experience right now we can see that all six of these are just stuff that is happening, or “phenomena.” Right now you see black marks on white, and you experience those marks as having meaning. Perhaps you hear sounds: a purring cat, the wind in the pines, or passing traffic. There are sensations in the body—feet in contact with the floor and breath moving through the abdomen. Emotion is also present, perhaps as a calm that arises when you read Buddhist writing or as anxiety over life’s challenges. Maybe there are thoughts as you wonder how aware you are or as you drift from the meaning of these words to a pressing work-related concern. A deep intimacy with all of these is central to Buddhist practice and to transforming the storehouse. But the concept of the storehouse was created because deep awareness of the moment does not explain why we tend to keep having similar feelings and thoughts.
Conventionally we believe that we see true reality through the senses and then the mind figures out how to get what it wants out of it. Yogacara thought, however, says that human beings perceive a world that is determined by the habits of emotion, perception, and thought held in the storehouse, which would explain how the same piece of news brings up opposite responses in people of different political persuasions or how one person can joyfully jump in a puddle while another glumly trudges along in the rain. Think about how profoundly different our experience is of getting to work when we are in a calm, present, mindful state from those times when we are really angry or anxious about something. In one we notice the unique face of each passing stranger, the blue or gray of the sky, how our body moves, thoughts coming and going. But when intense emotion takes over we may not even notice that we are driving a car or walking down the street; we may arrive without any awareness of how we got where we are, as though sleepwalking. Our habits in the storehouse allowed us to travel and led us to be completely absorbed in thoughts about our problems, perhaps without any awareness of the powerful emotions that give rise to our obsessive thinking and our alienation from our own lives.
The conditioning that creates our habits is staggeringly vast. Think of all that had to happen for you to be able to interpret the letters in this word as having meaning. Seeing black marks and imputing meaning to them is a habit of mind that happens unconsciously. Millions of years of evolution, both physical and cultural, come into play so that you can understand each word. Our emotional habits, too, stem from untraceable conditions. The impulse to fight or run that we share with our animal relatives arose a very long time ago from infinitely distant conditions. Even Western psychology uses the technique of recalling childhood emotional states that still trigger our current emotional habits. Teachings on the storehouse consciousness emphasize remembering its vastness and unknowability. Rather than figuring out our past conditioning—focusing on abuse and harmful family patterns or looking at cultural biases and evolutionary tendencies—Yogacara focuses on deep mindfulness of what emotion is arising right now. (This is not to impugn other Western psychological practices, however, which are excellent and powerful as well.)
The storehouse, to quote many Yogacara texts, is like a flowing river. And as the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted, you can never step in the same river twice. The storehouse helps us understand how we have a sense of a continuous self: one of the most pervasive habits of consciousness is to divide the elements of experience into self and other, and construct the sense that this self continues, separate from what it believes is other, over time. However, the storehouse and the conditioning it holds is always utterly unique in every moment. It is not a continuous self. It is a central tenet of Buddhist thought that the idea of a lasting, separate self is an illusion, and many Yogacara teachings emphasize that we can become confused and think the storehouse is our self. Rather, the storehouse is like the river that runs through my hometown. I go and walk along the woody bottoms and I take it for granted as I walk that it’s the Mississippi, the very same river that Huck Finn plied, but sometimes as I sit in meditation on the sandy bank, it’s clearly just water as it is right now, with no name, no past, no future. The Mississippi’s flow forms its banks, its shape, and it is ever changing as it picks up sand here and dumps it there, and as rain fills it and it empties out in the Gulf. Our habits are similar: they have formed over geological time, but right now they are unique, and right now we have an amazing opportunity to consciously participate in how they flow.
We can practice to transform the storehouse so that our lives flow more joyfully, kindly, and peacefully, so that our energy is free to benefit everyone and everything around and within us. Being aware of the awesome power of the storehouse and being mindful of emotions are two powerful ways to engage in this transformation. The classic metaphor for how this transformation occurs is one of seeds, fruit, and cultivation. Any intentional, emotional, or cognitive impulse in us plants a seed in the storehouse that will cause a similar intention, emotion, or thought to arise in the future in the form of fruit. In each moment our experience is determined to a great extent by seeds from the past that are bearing fruit right now. In each moment, too, we can plant a seed intentionally that will create fruit in the future. We can plant seeds of mindfulness, of kindness, of humility, of energy, of trust, of letting go—an array of beneficial possibilities. If we are not attentive to planting these kinds of seeds, however, we will unconsciously plant more seeds like the ones that have borne fruit from our past. When we are angry, worried, or greedy, if we are not consciously involved in what kind of seeds we plant, we will probably just unconsciously plant more angry, worried, greedy seeds.
“We can practice to transform the storehouse so that our lives flow more joyfully, kindly, and peacefully, so that our energy is free to benefit everyone and everything around and within us.”
This article, my writing and your reading, has been one way of engaging in awareness of the awesome power of the storehouse, and in a moment I’ll give a specific practice to cultivate this awareness in your daily life. Although Buddhist practice often invites us to dive below verbal thought, it has always included focusing the mind on thoughts that are conducive to non-suffering. It is profoundly empowering to shift our focus from believing the story our mind creates about an external world to remembering that our storehouse consciousness itself is driving our view of the world and our feelings about it. We don’t have to view ourselves as victims of an external world or as victims of our conditioning. We receive the fruit of seeds of the past as our experience right now, and we can choose to do what is helpful right now: to plant beneficial seeds.
Nothing makes me more personally aware of the awesome power of the storehouse than my own experience of how different the world seems when I am calm and grounded in the feelings in my body versus when I’m swimming in thoughts driven by anger, shame, or despair. Yet there’s also a lot of science about how our perception is colored by our unconscious habits. A stereotyping and prejudice research laboratory at the University of Chicago, for example, conducted one well-known study in which college students and other residents of the community were briefly shown images of young men who were either armed or unarmed. Their task was to very quickly identify which people were holding guns and which were holding playing cards. They were much more likely to be wrong and think a person was holding a gun if the person in the photograph was black. Awareness of the awesome power of the storehouse can help us to be humble, compassionate, and motivated. We all arrive in this moment seeing and feeling the world in a way produced by infinite numbers of seeds. Each of us, right now, can participate in the process of our conditioning.
Cultivating Awareness of the Storehouse
Here is an easy practice you can use to cultivate awareness of the immense power of the storehouse. It takes a minute or two. Stop and take three mindful breaths and notice how you feel in your heart and your body. Then list ten things from the past that planted seeds in the storehouse and that were involved in creating your perception of this moment. Since everything is connected, anything that ever happened counts, but it’s good to focus on emotional states. Here’s an example: after lunch I stop and take three mindful breaths. Then I use my fingers to count to ten and say or think, “My perception of this moment depends on: loving my mom, the rainy road last night, the terror of war, white privilege, meditating this morning, my grumpy grandpa, watching baby birds, never feeling good enough when I was young, being afraid of the dark, worrying about work.” Then I move on. There’s no need to analyze; just let the seeds of remembering how much the past forms the present sink into the unconscious, the storehouse. Reminders that infinite seeds form our moments help us shed the habit of believing everything we think; they help us be patient with the slow road to liberation; and they help us focus on the ground of our deepest empowerment: the ability to transform our consciousness.
Mindfulness of Emotion
Mindfulness of emotions is powerful. This is the practice of focusing compassionate awareness on how we feel below the level of thought. Feelings profoundly influence how we see the world and how we act. In each moment we receive the fruit of our past emotional seeds in the form of experience. If we are aware of that fruit, its power will be exhausted in the light of mindfulness, and if we are aware in a compassionate, focused way, we plant seeds of compassionate focused awareness that lets things go and lets things be. Joyful feelings are free to arise without creating clinging, and painful states can arise without expressing themselves in harmful ways. We cultivate the ability to be here in our lives in a way that is available to whatever arises. We dissolve the emotional habits that drive the world’s suffering. Buddhism is, at its root, medicine for suffering, suffering that arises from patterns of mind. Mindfulness of emotion goes straight to the root of that suffering.
To practice mindfulness of emotion, it’s good to start with the awareness centered in the breath in the body. The body can help us tether awareness to the present moment. To be mindful of emotion, we dive below words, thoughts, and stories, even those about how we feel. You may find emotions located in the body: anxiety roiling in the stomach, shame burning across the chest, joy bubbling up along the spine. Emotion also dwells nowhere, just outside of reach—but not outside of perception. Feel it. Move toward it, draw loving awareness toward it, and seeds of the past will bear fruit and lose their power simply by being seen. This is not a practice about controlling or naming emotions; it’s about simply and compassionately feeling what’s here. It’s like sitting in meditation with the sound of a bird outside the window, just hearing it, not naming or judging it. We attend to our heart and let it be.
Sometimes it feels wonderful to offer this kind of intimacy to yourself, to see and be seen at this primal level. Sometimes your feelings may be very mild or almost imperceptible. That is fine: just see how you are. Sometimes it’s painful or even overwhelming. However you feel is okay. (If there is pain that’s too great to bear, however, it’s probably time to talk to your teacher or shift your practice to something less intense.) To simply sit with your own raw heart when you feel consumed by desire, anger, despair, fear, or shame takes courage, commitment, and support. Focusing mindfulness on emotions can plant many wonderful seeds: compassion, attention, concentration, and perhaps most important, courage—to face things we want to run from, to trust that we can be here with whatever happens, and to let go as we allow calm and joy to arise and pass away. We have an incredible opportunity in each moment to participate in the awesome power of the storehouse consciousness. We can offer something transformative to the world right now: compassionate awareness.