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Mindfulness (7): Knowing Our Own Minds

For a philosophy that systematically raises doubts about the reality of the individual soul, it is surprising that so much Buddhist literature consists of accounts of meetings between a teacher and a student. The Pali Nikayas are filled with thousands of pages of conversations between the Buddha and various disciples, kings, or Brahmin visitors; and the classical Zen koan is an encounter of two people, in which one of them suddenly “sees” or doesn’t see. We, the readers of these, are encountering the encounter, meeting the meeting of minds.

When two minds “meet,” the first thing that happens before anything is said is that one has to get the measure of the other: who am I dealing with, what kind of person, what kind of intelligence? This also applies to competitive tournaments — chess, fencing, wrestling, pingpong — where you find yourself facing someone you have never met before: you don’t have much time to figure out who you are dealing with and how you are going to beat him. The gauging of the other mind has to happen very quickly, and it demands powers of accurate intuition. Even if you are acquainted with the other person, you still don’t know how they are today; something big might have happened since yesterday. This is of course true with every interaction. In conversations, if neither interlocutor is good at guessing the state of the other person’s mind, the two of them are likely to talk at cross-purposes and fail to “meet” in any fruitful way. This is most true of teaching situations. A good teacher has to have a developed intuition for “where” her student is, and this “where” is not determined only by tests that give numerical scores for knowledge and skills. The more important conditions for learning have to do with disposition, attitude, and character: how distracted or agitated is the student today, is there anything else weighing on his mind, can he concentrate fully or think clearly, did he get enough sleep, is he hungry, is he angry, is he having girlfriend problems or serious issues in his home life, has he developed sufficient strength of character to pull himself together for today’s lesson? Such issues are significant conditions for learning or not learning, and if the teacher ignores them or has no capacity to notice them, very little learning will occur. Unfortunately, many educational systems today reduce success or failure to quantifiable results, and are completely ignorant of the more important, unquantifiable dimensions of the teacher’s art.

A skillful teacher therefore has to be minutely aware of the students’ “state of mind,” for want of a better phrase. In the Pali Discourses of the Buddha, my phrase “state of mind” translates citta, which is also rendered in different translations as “mind” or “consciousness.” Just as teaching requires mindfulness of citta, so does self-cultivation — which is the primary form of learning for adults, who should be mature enough to steer themselves. But we can only steer ourselves if we know “where” we are. Thus, an adult who decides to develop the characteristics of warrior nobility cannot simply decide to have integrity, courage, justice, wisdom, and invincible fighting skills. Each one of these is developed through baby steps, and before we embark on a program of training we first have to know where to begin and exactly how far away we are from our goals. For the same reasons, once we have begun, we need to be able to evaluate where we are at every step.

This is why the third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta is contemplating consciousness [citta] in consciousness.

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?”

In martial arts training, lapses in attention and malfunctions in thinking are manifested physically, making it easy for the opponent or the sensei to administer a sharp corrective. In meditation, we are mostly on our own, and when we are attempting to find our way through the confusion of our own thoughts and emotions — many of which are only dimly glimpsed — we need to be able to take our own measure. The Buddha, in the formulaic style favored by his Pali editors, gives us a checklist of things to examine, which I take to be not rigid prescriptions but strong recommendations, leaving us free to modify it appropriately for our own needs:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the state of consciousness become great, as the state become great; the state of consciousness not become great, as the state not become great; the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher; the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher; the quieted state of consciousness, as the quieted state; the state of consciousness not quieted, as the state not quieted; the freed state of consciousness as freed; and the unfreed state of consciousness, as unfreed.”

These are the kinds of consideration undertaken by any good teacher regarding her students — because there is no point giving them assignments that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared to do. What is particularly moving in texts like the Satipatthana is that we are expected to be able to do this ourselves. Indeed, no one else can do it for us. At almost every stage of the training, the student is asked to self-reflect and to review. If there is the will to progress, the capacity to evaluate and investigate can always be refined. Because our “state of mind” determines what we are capable of doing at any given time, we need to be aware, as we practice, of our current citta and how it might be changing. As with bodily phenomena and feelings, we notice that different states arise and then subside; they never stay the same, and they can be affected through training. It is a little bit like sailing a boat on a vast, dark ocean: we cannot necessarily change the ocean at any given time, but we can become minutely aware of winds and waters, and learn to navigate with skill to our destination.

This ideal is very difficult to achieve, because citta is a subtler, more pervasive object of contemplation that either body or feelings. If you remember a time when you spent hours trying to reason with someone consumed with anger, you will also remember feeling frustrated and hopeless because your interlocutor was so submerged in anger that there was no way he could hear anything else: calm reasoning was futile. The problem with citta is that we identify with our mind-states, we believe them, we see through them. This is why some translators render citta as “consciousness”: our citta is nothing less than how we see things at any moment, and consciousness is always manifest in the form of some citta. We never find pure consciousness without citta, just as we never find it without body or without feelings. Thus, your angry interlocutor had consciousness with anger, and you had a dismayed state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, to use the Buddha’s formula. At the time of your argument, you couldn’t realize that your angry interlocutor was equally frustrated with your inability to see the full justice of his fury. Citta is of the nature of passion, in that we are largely passive to it — and when we are deep in passion, it is very hard to see our own citta objectively. We identify with our passions. This is why when we are challenged in our citta, we tend to get angry or defensive — because it is we feel that it is we ourselves who are being attacked. To be mindful of our own citta, as a skilled teacher is mindful of the citta of her student, is to have attained a very high order of mindfulness. At this point the philosophical dualist would still say, Is the consciousness of citta the same kind of thing as citta, or is it not necessarily transcendent to it? The Buddha would reply, Can you point to it independently of the citta it is conscious of? The observing consciousness is still citta, still conditioned — and it will change, conditioned by its next set of determinants.

The contemplation of citta reaches very deeply into the question of who we are. Now, when we get the Buddha’s reflective refrain — which by this time we know by heart — we hear some new insights:

“Thus he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness externally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in consciousness. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Consciousness exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

States of mind have originations and dissolutions. Like corporeal sensations and the vedanas, nothing stays still from one moment to another; only the practice of careful, focused contemplation will teach us to be sensitive to even the minutest flickerings of change. Consciousness exists: this is how it is, there is no other way for consciousness to be, no place to go for it to become permanent. The Buddha’s matter-of-fact approach is especially valuable in this kind of meditation, for we are prone to take its objects personally and become upset and resistant. For example, if we find in ourselves a citta of laziness and if we happen to be the kind of person who flees laziness at all cost, our immediate reaction will tend to be disgust with ourselves and the desire to change — which of course is another citta, so we would be automatically flying from one state to another. The Buddha tells us just to contemplate, not to struggle; let it be, find it interesting, and let it pass — because it will pass. We contemplate not for the sake of fixing ourselves or to make ourselves perfect, but to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance. Knowing that states of citta are as fleeting and insubstantial as bodily motions and feelings — insubstantial in the sense that there is no unchanging substance underlying them to give them fixity and solidity — the bhikkhu does not cling to citta as a refuge that transcends all change.

One practical benefit to this way of engaging with states of mind is that in accepting the various states as they our in our own beings, we become generally more relaxed and understanding when they manifest themselves in other people: the perceived stupidity and obstinacy of the other party is no more identified with them as our wisdom and righteousness are identified with us. Thus the advanced practitioner lives, contemplating citta in citta, internally and externally.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: