Click here to access PDF of: MindLikeMirror
The shimmering reflections of consciousness
-Andrew OlendzkiWinter 2010
Andrew Olendzki is the senior scholar at the Integrated Dharma Institute and is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Wesleyan University.
“The mind is luminous, but is polluted by the toxins that are dumped into it.” This is a translation, updated for our times, of a well-known passage found in the early discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya 1.49). It has been interpreted by some people to suggest a transpersonal consciousness—a consciouness that is outside the consciousness arising each moment in a person’s experience—somehow outside the experience of sense object impinging upon a sense organ. But that is not the sense in the early Buddhist literature. Rather we find the image of a pool of water that, when still, can clearly reflect the nature of whatever impinges upon it. Consciousness is not a force larger than ourselves but a process taking place within ourselves. This process has no individualizing characteristics beyond the basic function of “knowing” an object. Mind is thus neither the source of light, like a shining sun, nor the reflected light of something greater, like the moon. Mind is instead a shimmering pool of contingent potential, capable of reflecting sun, moon, and any other object that happens to dance upon its surface. Its function is more important than its essence. The mind is influenced significantly by the qualities of what gets stirred into its naturally pristine waters.
The diversity of experience comes not from consciousness itself but from the other four aggregates (form, feeling, percepton, volition) in the mix. There is an apparently infinite array of physical and mental objects; the interpretation of these by means of the symbolic language of perception; their texturing with varying shades of pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones; and both the active intentions and passive dispositions that respond each moment to the impingement of these objects with the enactment of karma. In this sense, consciousness itself is like a mirror whose only function is to reflect whatever it encounters—the content of experience is provided by other mental processes. In particular it is the karma formations of the sankhara aggregate that color the experience of an object with mental states and emotional responses. Whenever we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think of an object, we do so with a particular attitude or emotion that gets stirred in like an additive to consciousness. These can be either wholesome or unwholesome— healthy or toxic—and can thus either clarify or contaminate the mind’s ability to know itself and its environment.
The image of polluted water is elaborated upon in the Numerical Discourses (Anguttara Nikaya 5.193). “Suppose there is a bowl of water,” says the sutta, going on to describe the water as impinged upon in some way by an external factor that pollutes its depths or agitates its surface. Under such circumstances, “If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would neither know nor see it as it really is.” The text goes through a list of mental states called the five hindrances, showing how each one of them can be seen to obscure the natural luminosity and reflective ability of the mind.
Sense desire, the subtle inclination of the mind toward alluring objects, is said to be like a bowl of water “mixed with lac, turmeric, blue or crimson dye.” The pellucid quality of the mind is ruined by dumping such distorting and obscuring substances into its clear waters.
Ill will, the equally subtle inclination of the mind away from all disturbing or unpleasing objects, is said to be like “water being heated over a fire, bubbling and boiling.” Even in English we refer to this sense of anger and hatred as fires that heat the mind up with destructive emotions. Boiling furiously, the mirroring potential of the mind is lost.
Sloth and torpor, those mental factors contributing to sluggishness, sleepiness, or laziness of mind, are likened to “water covered over with water plants and algae.” Such growths take root in indolence and a lack of diligence, and so encumber the mind that its surface becomes obscured.
Restlessness and remorse, their opposite qualities, are identified with “water stirred by the wind, rippling, swirling, churned into wavelets.” When the mind is agitated by gales of anxiety, hyperactivity, multitasking, or incessant internal chattering, it is no longer capable of seeing things as they are.
Doubt is the hindrance that causes us to lack confidence, questioning ourselves, our actions, our teachers, and almost everything else. It is said to be similar to “water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy, or placed in the dark.” Here too, the conditions for the mind’s natural reflectivity are hampered so much that it can no longer function.
Such a model of the mind encourages us always to take on the dual projects of tranquilization and purification. Meditation can be understood as an enterprise of quieting the mind, in order to allow its surface to settle into a reflective plane. But the quality of the water itself also needs attention. This involves, among other things, examining its depths for the presence of toxins, neutralizing these contaminants at every opportunity, and developing diligent moral habits to ensure that new pollutants are dumped into the mind as little as possible. Fortunately, the texts also offer a set of antidotes for each of these poisons, so pouring in such dispersants as non-attachment, lovingkindness, energy, tranquility, and confidence, is sure to have a wholesome, purifying effect.
It can be exceedingly difficult to entirely shut off the source of toxic influxes into the mind, especially those that flow in from the deepest reaches of the psyche. This is finally accomplished only by an arahant or a buddha. Yet there are plenty of ways in which we can stem the flow, working each moment to calm the waters, siphon out the debris, and catch glimpses of what the world looks like when the mind is able to let it all come and go without attachment, appropriation, or interference. Everything becomes clear and luminous when we settle the waters.
Wonderful indeed it is to tame the mind.
A challenge to subdue—ever swift, seizing whatever it desires.
A tamed mind brings happiness.
Adapted from: Limitless Thoughts
by Thanissaro Bhikhu
During loving kindness meditation, we radiate goodwill: goodwill for ourselves, goodwill for the people around us. And we can take this further. We can try to develop a contunal attitude that arises from the loving kindness meditation. Keeping in mind the wish for your own true happiness and wishing for the true happiness of the people around us. Loving Kindness is one of those thoughts that doesn’t need to have a limit. However much true happiness you gain, you’re not taking anything else away from anyone else. However much they gain, they’re not taking anything away from you. It’s good to be able to put the mind in an unlimited state by thinking of unlimited things like that.
The Buddha talks about greed, anger, and delusion as things that make a limit. As long as we allow greed, anger, and delusion to hold sway over our minds, we’re limiting ourselves. Then there’s a whole question of self identification: That too is a limit. The Buddha says that whatever you identify as your self, that’s a limit on you. We counteract these limited contactions with limitless thoughts of inclusion and loving kindness. In other words, while your mind is dwelling on the idea of goodwill for yourself, goodwill for other people, You are creating a wholesome state. You’re not creating any opening for the limitations of greed or anger to come in to the mind. That way you help to open things up, open up the windows in your head, let the air come in. That puts you in the right frame of mind for meditation, focusing on your object of meditation.
One may forget that what determines the pain and pleasure in the mind, the stress and ease in the mind, the sorrow and happiness in the mind, comes from our perceptions and interpretations. It doesn’t come from things. So as we’re meditating, we’re learning how to focus on our minds to see what we’re doing, to see where there are slips in our awareness, lapses in our mindfulness that allow us to do things that are not in our best interest. This is why meditation focuses so much on developing continual mindfulness and alertness. These are the two most helpful qualities in the mind. Mindfulness simply means keeping something in mind. Alertness means noticing what you’re doing, and what’s happening around you. We already have these qualities to a certain extent, but we’ve never fully developed them to see how far they can take us. So as we’re meditating, that’s what we’re doing: developing these two most helpful qualities in our mind. Keep the object of meditation in mind. And watch the minds movement. Alert sensitivity requires being fully present, and also being very open to noticing what’s coming in through your senses.
When you’re not really paying that much attention to the present moment, there are lots of distractions arising, and they fragment your attention. But the more fully you can immerse yourself in the object of meditation, the less room there is for unwholesome states to arise. The mind becomes more fully here so that you can observe it, so that you begin to watch it in action.
The Buddha’s approach to dealing with the untamed and distracted mind is not so much tracing things back to what you did as a child, as is done in psychotherapy. BUddha tells you to focus more on looking at your habitual patterns as they arise, as they keep coming back again and again and again. You don’t have to ask, “What happened when I was a child, why did this happen?” You just have to look at what you’re doing, to see the unnecessary suffering you’re causing yourself. Or you can keep an eye out for any lack of openness and honesty in the mind: What’s that doing to the mind? Do you want to do that? Do you continue wanting to do that as you see the stress that it’s causing?
Sometimes this may seem threatening, opening up these unwholesome patterns of behavior, but as meditating, staying with the object of meditation, making it very comfortable, you’re also developing an attitude of gentleness, being gentle, not forcing it too much, just allowing yourself to feel really good and uplifted. The gentler you are inmeditation, the more collected the mind gets. The more collected the mind is, the more you can really look into what’s going on, with a gentleness that doesn’t scare these things away, and a clarity that doesn’t get swayed by distraction. That way you don’t have to be afraid of the things that get come up. You don’t have to rejectl. You can acknowledge, yes, there is that the mind.
The world tells us that things that are happening and other people are on the other side of the world are the most important thing going on. But you don’t have to believe that, because your world is being shaped by your what you pay attention to right now. You want to understand this process of attention and intentions. What does it mean for the mind to act? What’s the difference between a simple event in the mind, the appearance of a feeling, and an action, the intention? How are intentions formed? What goes into that process? What kind of perceptions, what kind of questions do you ask yourself? What kind of connection in the mind and the body drives your decisions? Often you’ll catch yourself doing something, and you’ll say, “Wait a minute, what did that come from?” The decision seemed to be made by itself, and little tiny things triggered it. That’s what you’ve got to look into, so that you can be more sensitive and actually see the trigger. Often the trigger, on closer inspection, will seem have to produced an over sized response. Why on earth did that trigger spark that intention,
spark that action?
This is probably one of the scariest things about our own minds: Our minds are shaping our lives, and yet we don’t know how and why they’re doing it. As meditators, we’re putting ourselves in a better position to see the how and the why, and gain more insight about and more control over those actions. But before you can see the movements of the mind, you have to be very still.
Cultivating this stillness in meditation is a very immediate way of showing goodwill to yourself and other—because it is both a wholesome and nurturing state to abide in and a way of developing skillful means to spread loving kindness in your daily life.
1. Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows one like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
2. Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows one like his never-departing shadow.
3. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.”
Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
4. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.”
Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.
5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal.
Click Here to Access PDF: lovingkindnesssutta_method
– The Buddha | Verses 1, 2 of 10
1. One who seeks to promote one’s welfare,
Who seeks good and has obtained peace,
Should be able, honest and upright,
Gentle in speech, meek and not proud.
2. Contented, one ought to be easy to support,
Not over-busy, and simple in living.
Tranquil in senses, let one be prudent,
And not brazen, nor fawning on families.
3. Also, one must refrain from any action
That gives the wise reason to reprove.
Then let one cultivate the thought:
May all beings be happy!
May they be joyous and live in safety.
Traditional Method of Lovingkindness Practice
– Acharya Buddharakkhita
1. Sit down in a comfortable posture in a quiet place — a meditation room, a quietplave, nature, or any other place providing privacy and silence. Keeping the eyes closed, repeat the word “metta” a few times and mentally conjure up its significance — love as the opposite of hatred, resentment, malevolence, impatience, pride and arrogance, and as a profound feeling of good will, sympathy and kindness promoting the happiness and well-being of others.
2. Now visualize your own face in a happy and radiant mood. Visualize seeing your face in the mirror, and recall yourself in a happy mood. Wrap yourself in this uplifted mood during meditation. A person in an uplifted mood cannot become angry or harbor negative thoughts and feelings. Having visualized yourself in a happy frame of mind, now charge yourself with the thought;
“May I be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may I live happily.”
As you suffuse yourself in this way with the positive thought-force of love, you become like a filled vessel, its contents ready to overflow in all directions.
3. Next, visualize your meditation teacher, or choose some other person who has been helpful to you or a person you admire. See that perspn in a happy frame of mind and project the thought: “May this person be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may he live happily.”
Then think of other people who are to be revered, and who are also living — role models, teachers, parents and elders, and intensely radiate towards each one of them the thought of metta:
“May they be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
The visualization must be clear and the thought-radiation must be “willed” in a focused heart felt way. If the visualization is hurried or the wishing is performed in a perfunctory or mechanical way, the practice will be of little diluted, for then it will be merely an intellectual exercise of thinking about metta. One must clearly understand that to think about metta is one thing, and to do metta, to actively project the will-force of loving-kindness, is quite another.
4. Having radiated thoughts of metta in the order already mentioned — oneself, the meditation teacher and other revered persons — one should now visualize, one by one, one’s dear ones perhaps beginning with the members of one’s family if that is appropriate, suffusing each one with abundant rays of loving-kindness.
5. Next, one should visualize neutral people, people for whom one has neither like nor dislike, such as one’s neighbors, colleagues in one’s place of work, bare acquaintances, and so on.
6. Having radiated loving thoughts on those in the neutral circle, one should now visualize persons for whom one has dislike, hostility or prejudice, even those with whom one may have had a temporary misunderstanding. As one visualizes disliked persons, to each one mentally repeat:
“I have no hostility towards him/her, may he/she also not have any hostility towards me. May he/she be happy!”
Thus, as one visualizes the persons of the different circles, one “breaks the barrier” caused by likes and dislikes, attachment and hatred. When one is able to regard an enemy without ill-will and with the same amount of goodwill that one has for a very dear friend, metta then acquires a sublime impartiality, elevating the mind upward and outward as if in a spiral movement of ever-widening circles until it becomes all-embracing.
Visualization: “calling to mind” or visualizing certain objects, such as a person, a certain area or a direction or a category of beings. In other words it means imagining the people towards whom thoughts of love are to be projected or spread.
Radiation: The projection of certain thoughts promoting the well-being of those persons towards whom one’s mind is directed.
A metta-thought is a powerful thought-force. It can actually effect what has been willed. For wishing well-being is willing and thus is creative action. In fact, all that humans have created in different fields is the result of what we have willed, whether it is a city or a hydro-electric project, a rocket going to the moon, a weapon of destruction, or an artistic or literary masterpiece.
Radiation of thoughts of metta, too, is the development of a willpower that can effect whatever is willed. It is not a rare experience to see diseases cured or misfortunes warded off, even from a great distance, by the application of the thought-force of metta. But this thought-force has to be generated from the heart in an authentic, intentional and focused way.
It is only when one is free from hostility, affliction and distress that one “lives happily,” and can conduct oneself with ease and happiness. Thus all these terms are interconnected.
The order of these visualizations, one after the other, by taking the path of least resistance, in a graduated sequence, progressively the circle widens as does the mind itself. One must start the meditation on metta by visualizing oneself, and thereafter a person for whom one has reverence, then one’s dear ones, then neutral people, then hostile persons. As one radiates thoughts of love in this order, the mind breaks all barriers between oneself, a revered one, a dear one, a neutral one and a hostile one. Everyone comes to be looked upon as accessable and included in the healing wish of loving-kindness.
In the Visuddhimagga, Acariya Buddhaghosa gives a very apt analogy for the breaking of the barriers:
“Suppose bandits were to come to the meditator who is sitting in a place with a respected, a dear, a neutral, and a hostile or wicked person and demand, ‘Friend, we want one of you for the purpose of offering human sacrifice.’ If the meditator were to think, ‘Let him take this one or that one,’ he has not broken down the barriers. And even if he were to think, ‘Let none of these be taken, but let them take me,’ even then he has not broken down the barriers since he seeks his own harm, and metta meditation signifies the well-being of all. But when he does not see the need for anyone to be given to the bandits and impartially projects the thought of love towards all, including the bandits, it is then that he would break down the barriers.”
Metta Sutta (continued)
– The Buddha | Verses 4, 10 of 10
4. Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,
5. Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!
6. Let none deceive or decry
Let none wish others harm
In resentment or in hate.
7. Just as with one’s own life
A parent shields from hurt
a child, an only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.
8. Cultivate an all-embracing mind of love
For all throughout the universe,
In all its height, depth and breadth —
Love that is untroubled
And beyond hatred or enmity.
9. As you stand, walk, sit or lie,
So long as you are awake,
Pursue this awareness with gratitude,
An infinite good will toward the entire world
10. Holding no more to wrong beliefs,
With virtue and endowed with insight,
And freed from sense appetites,
Freed from duality of birth and death,
one is not, to this world, born again.