Department of Psychiatry, Cooper University Hospital, and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Camden, NJ, USA
….that whatever we experience – the whole (perception) of reality – depends on the conditions of our minds…. mind is the root of all sufferings, mind is root of all virtues…. The most important practice, therefore, is to discipline the mind…. (Buddha, sixth century BC, ancient India)
The mind has central importance in Yoga, more so in Buddhism which in general begins with the mind. The central philosophy of Yoga is the fact that the mind is the key to changing the nature of our experiences. The mind is the single most important factor in the practice of Yoga. Depending upon how one uses it, the mind can be one’s greatest enemy or greatest ally. The Yogic philosophies by and large constitute the various theories about the human mind in both structural and functional senses. Yoga is essentially the study of the mind through the instrumentality of one’s mind itself. Thus, the deep connections between Yoga and the mind cannot be overemphasized. We use the mind as the interpreting interface between the objects of perception and ourselves in order to experience those objects. Quite rightly, Buddhism focuses on the mind as the key to change the way we experience things and the way we relate to other people. In Buddha’s scheme, out of five aggregates that constitute the human experience, four are mental factors. Similarly, out of the 37 factors of enlightenment, the majority are mental factors (Santina 1997, p. 321). These illustrate the centrality of the mind in Buddhism. Buddha out it very clearly that the mind is the source of all our experiences; all things are created by the mind. The mind is the source of all virtues, and to obtain these virtues and qualities, one must discipline the mind. In recognition of the deep connections between Yoga and the mind, arose a particular school of Buddhism, the Mind Only school [Sans. Vijnanavada (‘Chitta matra’); doctrines of knowledge), otherwise known as the Yogacara school [English the school that affirms union of one’s achara/conduct with the practice of Yoga]. In the fourth century CE, this school arose as an independent and identifiable philosophical tradition in the northwest India (modern day Pakistan). Initially popularized by two famous Mahayana Buddhists, Asanga and his younger brother, Vasubandhu, this school is said to be the latest and final form of Buddhism as a religion and is based on an original central fact of Buddhism that the mind is the creator of all things (Bhattacharya and Tucci 1932).
2.2 Yoga and the Mind (Consciousness, [Sans. chitta]): Some Key Terms
In the vast literature on Yoga, one comes across some key terms (in either Sanskrit or Pali languages) repeatedly. Those are: mind (interchangeably used with consciousness), soul (interchangeably used with self, [Sans. purusha or master of the mind]), mind stuff [Sans. chitta, the material that constitutes the mind], the various fluctuations/transformations in the mind [Sans. vritti], tendencies/qualities of the mind [Sans. guna], engraved memories of past deeds [Sans. samskaras, smriti], etc. In order to understand the philosophies of Yoga and meditation as proposed originally, it is necessary to understand some of these key terms. Limitations of the English language in proper explanation of these Sanskrit or Pali terms are obvious.
Chitta (mind stuff or consciousness stuff):
Chitta is essentially the material the mind is made of. It is the structural aspect of the mind. Chitta is conceptualized as a universal medium through which consciousness functions on all the planes of the manifest universe; it is the medium through which the individual Soul [Sans. jivatma] materializes in the individual world, lives, and evolves in this world until it has perfected and unified with the Supreme Soul [Sans. Paramatma]. The closest English word for chitta is intellect [Sans. buddhi]. Buddha has described chittas as successive, discrete, evanescent, complex cognitive events which form the apparently continuous stream of consciousness; each of these complex units involves consciousness itself, as the basic awareness of an object, and a constellation of associated mental factors (Pali chetasika) exercising more specialized tasks in the act of cognition (Bodhi 2000, p. 88). So if the mental state is the chitta, the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions associated with that particular mental state are the chetasikas.
Vritti [Sans. vrit = to exist]:
Vrittis are temporary mental states (thoughts, feelings, impulses, etc.) that manifest in the medium of chitta or mind stuff. As mentioned in Chap. 1, Patanjali defines vrittis as the patterns or fluctuations of chitta. If we look at the mind, we find that vrittis or mental states (such as worry, happiness, and the like) appear and disappear every moment. They pass away and are replaced by new and different vrittis or mental states each moment.
Samskaras (engraved memories)
These are the deep impressions engraved in one’s memories from past experiences or past deeds [Sans. karma]. While the abode of vrittis is in the surface aspect of chitta, that of the samskaras is deeper. In that sense, samskaras are engraved memories. Being the superficial aspects of the chitta, the vrittis can be destroyed relatively easily, whereas samskaras are much deeper and need long practice of meditation for their annihilation. According to the Yoga Sutras, the samskaras burden the meditator’s mind, obscure his vision, and come in the way of obtaining a glimpse of the Reality. Hence, samskaras must be destroyed (burnt) completely, through the meditative insight [Sans. jnana; Pali nanna) to make the meditator’s mind (consciousness) pass into the realm of Reality.
Gunas [Sans. tendencies or the innate dispositions of chitta/mind; similar to the concept of temperament]
In contrast to the chitta (which is the structural material of the mind) and the vrittis (which are the functional aspects of the mind), gunas are the qualitative aspects of the mind. Chitta takes in the forces or qualities of gunas and projects them as vrittis (thoughts, feelings, etc.). The three basic dispositions of gunas are (a) tamas [Sans. inertia or darkness], rajas [Sans. activity or restlessness], and sattva [Sans. wisdom or balancing factor]. Chitta is always trying to get back to its natural, internal, and pure state (described as Soul/internal self which is the locus of one’s experience and essence of one’s existence), but the sense organs [Sans. indriyas] constantly draw it out and thus prevent the self–realization. Guna and vrittis are the terms of Yoga Sutras (Patanjalian) and conceptually similar to the Buddhist term chetasika (associated mental factors). In the Buddhist literature, chitta is considered a state of mind or the prime material that constitute one’s consciousness/mind, whereas chetasikas (like the gunas and vrittis) are the concomitants of chitta or the associated mental factors that color the chitta and give it its distinctive character (Bodhi 2000, p. 88).
Soul [Sans. Atman]
This denotes both the individual soul [Sans. jivatma, the contracted self) and the Supreme Soul [Sans. paramatma, the expanded or Universal Self]. As mentioned in Chap. 1, Samkhya (dualistic) philosophy considers that the individual soul consists of two entities: the purusha [Sans. real/true self, the Atman] and the prakriti [Sans. matter]. Prakriti is the primordial nature, the material substratum of the creation, and consists of the three gunas mentioned above. The highest Yogic philosophy asserts that the soul is pure and perfect; it is the highest grade of the mind; it is the basic/fundamental entity in our existence. Being fundamental, the soul is not reducible further and hence called simple [Sans. maula, means which is original], whereas the body and mind are compounds [Sans. gauna, means the derivative; possibly this term has originated from guna]. As mentioned in Chap. 1, Advaita Vedantic (nonduality) philosophy considers the soul (Universal Self or purusha) the same as the nondual Brahman. Vedanta further asserts that (mis)taking the prakriti as the purusha is an illusion or great mistake. When the power of discrimination has been attained, the person sees that everything in this world, mental and physical, is a compound and, as such, can’t be the purusha. When the purusha (Universal Self) realizes that being the fundamental entity in existence depends on nothing in this universe, when the purusha realizes that freedom or liberation is its very nature and that it doesn’t need anything to attain perfection, that very moment, the purusha becomes liberated from the conflicts or illusions created by prakriti and attains the state of liberation [Sans. mukti, kaivalya].
Awareness versus consciousness:
It is important to understand the difference between these two terms. Wheeler et al. (1997, p. 335) clarifies that awareness represents the general capacity that an individual possesses for particular kinds of mental representations and subjective experiences that are not directed at anything. Awareness is defined as the reflexive perception of the act of registering the presence of things in the environment which are actually registered in the individual’s sphere of knowledge. Awareness is not just the mere detection of things in the environment. For example, a camera or computer can detect light, movement, and objects that it is focused upon. However, the video camera is not aware of these things. Philosophers have argued that awareness requires an object to be aware of and a subject that is in fact aware. Therefore, the requirement for awareness is that there is something or someone who is actually aware. Awareness may be equivalent to the subjective experience such that there is a subject or individual who is able to have an experience of something else external to that individual. Consciousness, on the other hand, is described as our continuous stream of awareness of all the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. Consciousness is conceptualized as a constellation of attributes of the mind such as subjectivity, self-awareness, sentience, and the ability to perceive a relationship between oneself and one’s environment. Consciousness is related to awareness in that consciousness represents an awareness of the self as the object of awareness. Thus, awareness is more general and consciousness is subjective awareness or self-awareness which is more personalized. So one can see that in consciousness (self-awareness) the individual is both the subject and the object of the experience. In Yoga, consciousness is used in a sense that is different from the consciousness in the neurological sense. While consciousness might be derived from the neurological processes, Yogic philosophies consider it as a form of energy which constitutes the primary substantive part of the universe. In these traditions, consciousness is generally referred to the various grades of the human mind and the attending mental states (Sivananda 1994, p. 112, 131). This Yogic consciousness (Y-consciousness) includes the mind with its various grades of expression, from the lower/coarser (Sans. manasa) to higher/finer (Sans. buddhi) and to the highest/finest (Sans. Atman, soul) (Aurobindo 1999). Similarly, the various stages of samadhis are deemed the much higher levels of consciousness or mental states. These philosophies clarify that meditation is a process of purification (in Buddhist traditions, it is rightly called the Path of Purification [Pali Visuddhimagga], in which the meditator refines the consciousness/mind in order to be able to realize its subtle/finer expressions). Consciousness is also described interchangeably with self–awareness which is a special type of awareness where the object in focus is the self. The act of being self-aware encompasses the potential to observe the subjective neural representations of the self and to model internally an inferred representation of what others may think about the self (Beitman and Yue 2004). Meditation offers the opportunity to create and function within this self-reflective inner space that enhances one’s power of self-exploration and purifying one’s experiences with the meditative insights about the various levels of realities involved in these experiences.
2.3 Yogic Consciousness (Mind [Sans. chitta]) and Its Varieties as the Meditator Ascends in the Meditative Path
It is important to realize that the Yogic concept of consciousness is different from the intellectual consciousness used in traditional neurological sense (which is in the sense of wakefulness). Yogic consciousness, in general, refers to the mind with its various grades or levels of fineness or purity. Yogic consciousness is more all-encompassing and is always centered in the deep insights about Reality. In this sense, the three words that are used quite interchangeably in descriptions of the Yogic consciousness are pure awareness, true knowledge, and Reality. Sariputta, one of the foremost disciples of Buddha, applied an Abhidhammic type of analysis to the consciousness he had experienced as he progressed through the various stages of meditation. Within this objective scheme, consciousness is divided into four classes which are the various grades or qualities of consciousness (mind) as one ascends in the path of meditation (Santina 1997, p. 333–339):
The sense sphere consciousness (Pali kamavachara) or consciousness directed toward the world of sense desire
The form sphere consciousness (Pali rupavachara) or consciousness directed toward the sphere of forms
The formless sphere consciousness (Pali arupavachara) or consciousness directed toward the formless sphere
The transcendental direction of consciousness (Pali lokuttara) or the consciousness directed toward nibbana
The first three classes of consciousness are concerned with the world of conditioned things and are called worldly/mundane consciousness (Pali lokiya chitta), whereas the fourth class, also known as supramundane consciousness (Pali alokiya chitta), refers to the transcendental direction of consciousness. As one ascends in the meditative journey, there is a progressive unification and homogenization in the object of each consciousness: for example, the object of the consciousness of the sphere of sense desire is the most proliferated one; those of the formless types of consciousness are increasingly less proliferated, whereas the fourth type of consciousness is directed toward a transcendental (rather than concrete) type of object. See Chap. 4 for more descriptions.
2.4 Phenomenology of Human Experience and Role of the Mind (Consciousness) in Its Creation
Phenomenology is the study of the phenomena of the mind (Pali dhamma) or description of things as they are experienced by the individual: the study of things as they are known, as they appear from the perspectives of an independent observer. Buddha renounced the metaphysical aspects of the Vedas prevalent during his time (defined as study of absolute or first principles or otherwise called as ontology) and adopted the phenomenology instead. In meditative phenomenology (dhamma), the meditator (independent observer) objectively and in detached manner realizes the sequence in which the various phenomena of the mind arise in the awareness, rise to their peak, interact with each other to create an experience, and finally dissipate in one’s field of awareness. The distinctive features in the descriptions of the Abhidhamma which carries the sacred knowledge of the Buddha himself are precise definitions as well as elaborate concepts and systematizations about the nature of the human mind and human experiences. Studying these Abhidhammic texts, one can realize the importance of the phenomenological perspectives in the study of the human mind and its experiences. The in-depth descriptions about the various experiences including the meditative experience in those texts never fail to amaze their readers. In the West, thinkers like Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) proposed an investigative method called transcendental phenomenology and has argued for the importance of the phenomenological perspective in which the mind (subjective perspective) and the brain/body (objective perspective) work together to experience the world in a more profound manner (Welton 1999).
Emphasizing upon the key role of the mind as the creator of the experience, Buddha proposed that objects have no independent existence. Their existence is relative to causes and conditions of the object as well as the mind—most importantly, the mental (subjective) causes and conditions of ignorance, attachment, aversion, greed, anger, jealousy, and the like. Phenomena (dhamma), by their basic nature, are empty or neutral. It is our mind that colors these phenomena and how they affect us depends on how our minds take them and present them to us. In other words, this refers to how we relate these phenomena through our minds which in turn depends on the quality or grades of our minds. Depending on the (subjective) conditions of the mind, these empty or neutral phenomena become transformed into elaborate experiences, highly personalized narratives. The story about the experience of Elder Tissa (a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition) will further illustrate this point. One morning, Elder Tissa was roaming on the streets of a city in ancient India with the Buddha and the fellow monks while an extremely beautiful lady passed by. When he was asked what he saw, Elder Tissa in contrast to others replied that he saw just a heap of bones, nothing else! Of note, being motivated by Buddha’s prescriptions, Elder Tissa had cultivated a long practice of mindfulness meditation targeted specifically at controlling one’s sexual desires by seeing one’s body in elemental forms, i.e., flesh and bones rather than in terms of its physical beauty (this is similar to the Buddhist cemetery contemplation, another mindfulness method in which the meditator contemplates on the perishable nature of the human body and thus realizes the truth of impermanence). This story illustrates that the objects of our perception don’t have a stable or fixed form of appearance. What appears as an attractive woman to somebody appears as a heap of bones to another. In this sense, it is the mind itself which causes the stress by conditioning the mind and its experiences with other (dependent) parameters which make one’s experience conditioned to something else so that one can’t experience things in a liberated way.
2.5 Mind (Consciousness): A Bundle of Five Things (Aggregates)
The term mind refers to be constituted by the subjectively experienced functions that arise from the brain including our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memory, and will. While there are many aspects of the mind that are created by the brain, there are mind processes that exist beyond the brain, particularly the entities in the realm of consciousness and awareness. In constructing an experience about an object, the five fundamental things involved are thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions, memory, and will that create awareness or consciousness about the objects in our experience. In human experience, the mere awareness of an object cannot be called as a personal experience. In daily life, the various physical and mental factors work together to produce unique and personal or individualized experience about things. Buddha was not satisfied with a vague conception of human experience; rather, he delved into a thorough analysis of each experience in terms of its basic components. Aggregates or factors (Sans. skandha; Pali khanda, means a bundle or pile of things) are the basic components or factors of personal experience, and quite rightly their descriptions do have a central place in the Abhidhamma, the encyclopedic texts on the analytic psychology of Buddha. The five aggregates or factors that constitute our experience are: (1) aggregates of form or perception (Sans., Pali rupa) or physical world (internal and external), (2) aggregates of consciousness/awareness/conception (includes thoughts/cognition [Sans. samjna]), (3) aggregates of feelings or emotions (Pali vedana), (4) aggregates of sensations/perception (sensing or perceiving an object), and (5) aggregates of volition (impulses), mental formation, and memory (Sans. samskara). Memory (Sans. samskara, smriti), a key component in this five-component model of the mind, adds colors to our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions so that the experience is meaningfully constructed. These five aggregates, understandings of which are a major concept in the Abhidhamma, inform us that the mind which is creator of our experiences is nothing but a bundle (Pali khanda) of five things, as depicted in Fig. 2.1 (model of the mind and the meditator). We perceive the mind or experience in terms of these five contents (objects) of the mind without which we can’t perceive the mind. Being volatile in its existence, the mind always needs an anchor to hold on to; it needs certain media for it to be expressed and perceived by us. Just as we need a reflective surface to perceive the light, similarly we depend on the contents of the mind in order to perceive the mind and the experiences created by it. In the process of meditation, the role of the mindful meditator is to observe, by mindful detachment and mindful awareness, how these five aggregates of experience arise or originate in the field of awareness, and cocreate the human experience by their interdependent actions, how these experiences change constantly, in an ongoing manner to the point of their eventual dissipation in the field of awareness. It is important to realize that each of these aggregates that constitute the experience is in a state of flux or constant change, i.e., these are impermanent, and in reality, there is no reason to cling to them.
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