In a previous post I said:
For one thing, [that we are not only our physical body] flies in the face of modern, scientific, atheistic thinking that dominates intelligent discourse these days. In this way of thinking, everything that is important about what we “are” is explainable by our physical bodies. Our preferences, thoughts, and even moral center are now understood in terms of the brain and neuroscience. Isn’t that what we “are”? For the Buddha, none of these things are our true self.
Now, as tricky as it can sometimes seem to see why we are not our physical bodies, it is even a more delicate piece of surgery to see how we are not our minds. The strategy the Buddha took was to break down the functions of mind into 4 parts, and tackle them separately.
For the Buddha, as with the body, it all begins with the senses. Let’s take an example of touching a hot stove with bare hands. First, there is the sense impression of extreme heat. Next we calmly say to ourselves, “My good man! That is indeed hot! Let us now remove our hand ASAP!” Or something to that effect. The truth is, the understanding that we very much do not like the extreme heat we are feeling as our flesh begins to bubble is not something that we do. It is something that happens pretty much automatically. We are merely aware of that snap judgement. Notice that your reaction, your preference, is separate from the sense of extreme heat itself. There is nothing in the heat of the stove in and of itself that is unpleasant. In the right circumstance, a hot stove can be wonderful and useful. In Pali, this immediately registering of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is called vedanā. It is automatic, a function mind that we merely perceive. Not something we do. As with the body, vedanā is something experienced. Not something that is us.
Another aspect of mind that the Buddha identifies is the ability to identify something. The scenario to imagine here is seeing a familiar face. Recall what it can be like in that moment when you don’t quiiiiiiiite recognize them…and then you do. Whatever function that happens in that space between those two moments is saññā, the function the Buddha is talking about here. We are of course doing this all the time. It’s not always as dramatic as a face we don’t quite recognize. You’re doing it a dozen times a second as you read this post. Every word, every character, is a moment of recognition. But again notice that this is not something that you do. The mind does it in a way that is ultimately very mysterious. We experience this process, but it is not us.
The next aspect of mind is the decision making of the thinking mind. Thinking about stuff and deciding to do stuff. The Pali this aspect of mind is saṃskāra. Surely this is something “I” do! Of all of the aspects of mind, this has been the trickiest for me to wrap my head around. How could it be possible that I am not the thoughts I think? That I am not the choices I make?
It’s precisely here where meditation, even basic intro-to-Buddhism meditation can be so useful. How often have you sat down with the intention of following the breath, only to find it completely impossible? If that was your choice, your intention, why did it not happen? Well, because we are not really in charge of our minds in that way. You can just say, “Don’t think about chocolate! Don’t think about sex!” Much less simply, “Don’t think!” That realization that you are not your thoughts, not your decisions, is profound. Difficult. And extremely helpful!
As with the other aspects of mind and body, understanding that your thoughts and decisions are something that you experience rather than do is one of the key insights of the spiritual life. If you carefully watch, you can see thoughts slowly bubble up from…where? The same, amazingly, with decisions. As an artist, it is clear to me that I don’t decide what is going to happen next. Not really. At some level, I have to trust my mind to do its thing.
But does that mean that there is no room for free will? I’ll tackle that old bugaboo soon. Hang tight.
The last aspect of mind is consciousness. The Pali for this is viññāṇa. It is that faculty that is aware of everything else. And like the others, it isn’t something that we do, but rather something that we experience. Is consciousness real or imaginary? Like any other experience, those categories simply make no sense. We experience consciousness. That’s all there is to it.
Of course, experiencing consciousness by itself is not something that we normally do. We usually experience consciousness with the other factors. This is one of the primary functions of really deep meditation, of jhana. To see consciousness itself, stripped of all the other factors like thoughts, feelings, preferences, etc. It is only when you see this function directly as a function that you can deeply let go of it as an aspect of self. Or so says the Buddha.
Now, you may be asking, we seen these 4 aspects of mind, but all of them are based on awareness in order to experience them. I get it for the first three, but what exactly is aware of consciousness?
This question has inspired some heavy mouth breathing from some teachers, both ancient and modern. You hear answers like: the Big Mind™, Substrate Consciousness, Citta, etc. There’s even a lot of implication (or even outright belief) that these things represent our true self. You can almost hear the Buddha let out a heavy sigh and start back at the beginning. He just minutely showed how there is no aspect of mind that is our self. Now we’re inventing new aspects of mind to identify with? For shame.
The Buddha never talked about a Big Mind or Substrate consciousness. They are simply made up by later teachers to paper over the fact that they just can’t give up the idea of self. At least citta is a real Pali word. But it doesn’t mean any kind of uber-consciousness like that. It is just plain old mind.
So how is it that consciousness can perceive consciousness? Recursion. Just plain old hum drum, everyday recursion. Consciousness is aware of consciousness. So there goes the big mystery.
So that’s it. You aren’t your mind. Convinced? No? Then get your ass on the cushion and see for yourself!
For more on the Buddhist understanding of the nature of the self, check out my post No Self, No Buddha Nature.