Sacred geometry

Mindfulness of Mind States

Date5th November 2005
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2005


So in the first two days of the retreat, there was some talk and instruction about the first foundation of mindfulness: the mindfulness of the body -- so paying attention to the breath, and paying attention to the body sensations, and the breath being one of the fundamental rhythms of the body. And then yesterday Catherine spoke about the second foundation of mindfulness: vedanā, or feeling-tone. So today I'd like to speak a little bit about the third foundation of mindfulness, which is mindfulness of the mind, of mind states. So this is the third area where the Buddha recommended that we give a really caring attention and investigation.

For many people, it's not immediately obvious what exactly a mind state is. It might sound a bit of a funny word, so first of all, what is it? A mind state, the idea of mind states, includes the concept of emotions, which is something that we're all quite clear about what that means. Some of the more obvious emotions, like fear, or anger, or joy, or love -- these are all emotions, and emotions are a part, or a subset, of mind states. Emotions and moods are part of mind states.

A little less obvious emotions or mind states, things like boredom or interest -- so those two are mind states. The mind is bored, the mind is interested, or the mind is peaceful or agitated. These are all mind states, a little, sometimes, less obvious than the more really fully blown emotions. It can get a little bit more subtle still. So things like, is the mind dull, or is it bright at any given time? It's not something that we live with forever. It's just, at any given time, is the mind dull, or is it bright? Is the mind spacious? Does it feel quite expansive? Or does the mind feel constricted, shrunken in on itself? Is the mind energized? There's a feeling of aliveness and energy in the mind. Or is it a sort of depressed energy in the mind, very low-level energy? So at any given moment of our life, really, everyone -- we all have a mind state. Right now, everyone in this room has a mind state. There's a mind state going on. It's actually moving. It moves quite quickly. So right now, the mind -- each of the minds in this room -- is in a certain state.

The reason that the Buddha gave such emphasis to this is quite clear: we struggle a lot. This is something we struggle with a lot. A lot of our suffering in life is actually caught up in our mind state. We're troubled by the state of our mind a lot. Our mind doesn't seem to behave, and we struggle with it. So to bring attention and to bring investigation, a real care into that investigation, is really important if we want to move towards freedom.

The first step is actually just becoming familiar with what it means and what the different states of mind are -- what it is to have a mind that has mind states. It's bringing mindfulness in, bringing the capacity to notice the different aspects of a mind state. Every time there's a mind state, it will have some physical manifestation. It will have some way that it plays out and expresses itself in the body. So sometimes this is clearer with the more fully blown emotions. But when there's fear, for example, there are certain strong sensations often in the body. Or anger, or love, too, expresses itself in the body. The body feels a certain way. Joy.

So the first step is really to look at how the body is manifesting. What are the sensations in the body that are expressive of this mind state? This includes manifestations in temperature. For instance, something like anger is quite heated. We're hot with anger. We can actually feel that heat in the body. We can feel it in different parts of the body. Some mind states are accompanied by a very light feeling in the body. The body feels very airy and light. Some mind states very -- a sort of heaviness, a sort of thickness in the body. So this is all just to be noticed, just to become familiar with and to become intimate with.

And we might ask, where is the manifestation in the body? So for instance, with fear, again, the manifestation is often -- there are often butterflies in the tummy. It's something right there. Or love is often, you know, warmth or expansiveness in the chest. Oftentimes mind states and emotions are manifested in the face. If you just tune into what's going on in the face, around the mouth, often we can find quite a strong correlation there.

So what are the body sensations, and where are they? And just to really explore this, to be open to exploring and becoming familiar with all that movement. All the body sensations that accompany a mind state will actually have a vedanā-tone to them, a feeling-tone. So when there's love, when there's that wish for kindness, that sort of flow of warmth outwards, that's actually a very pleasant feeling. So the vedanā, the feeling-tone of the body sensation is actually very pleasant, and just to notice that. Fear is almost inevitably unpleasant. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to have in the body. Anger, too, is very uncomfortable in its heat. So just to really check out the different aspects, the different pieces of each mind state. Notice the body sensations.

You can notice, too, the thoughts. Many mind states are accompanied by a whole hoard or constellation of thoughts. So, to notice: what kind of thoughts are with this? If there's boredom, what kind of thoughts are with the boredom? If there's anger or irritability, what kind of thoughts with that? Similarly with joy or love. And again, the thoughts will have a vedanā-tone. They will have a feeling-tone. Some thoughts are just really unpleasant thoughts to be thinking: "I'm an idiot, I'm worthless" is never a pleasant thought. It's a very painful thought. Generally, "You're an idiot" is also a pretty painful thought. [laughs] Just to notice these little aspects of the body and the thought, and the vedanā.

When one's working with thought in meditation, it's really, really important to be anchored in the body, to really have a strong sense of the mindfulness being established well and firmly in the body as a reference point. Thought is so quick and slippery and seductive that it comes, and we're off. So to be able to actually work with thought, notice the vedanā of thought, and notice the thought come and go, actually we need to be really rooted in the body. And this will give our attention, our mindfulness, some real power and stability when we're working with thought. Instead of the thought overpowering the mind, the mindfulness can, in a sense, accommodate and be more powerful than the thought. And that's extremely important.

Okay. So there's noticing the body sensations and their vedanā, the thoughts and their vedanā. There's also something that's a little bit harder to put into words: it's something you might call the 'climate' or the 'texture' of the mind. So to notice this too. When there's dullness, say, a mind state of dullness, it's generally quite a contracted mind state. This is what we do when we fall asleep: the mind kind of shrinks in on itself. So that's the texture of the mind: it's kind of small. Or if it's just a little over-energized, a little like this radio static, just playing through the mind, that's part of the texture of the mind. These are all things we can become intimate with and know that this is going on. Fear also tends to shrink the mind.

Some of those textures and climates of mind are actually unpleasant. The automatic reaction will be to react to them. When there's fear and the mind shrinks ... I don't know if you've ever ... I used to be a jazz musician years ago, and in my beginning stages of my career, I would feel quite a lot of performance anxiety. Sometimes I would be up there on stage, and it would feel like my mind was about the size of a pea. And so that feeling of shrinking is actually very unpleasant. And what happens with the unpleasantness of it is that we react to it. And this tends to spiral the whole mind state. So it's very important to be aware of the climate and the texture of the mind.

Another sort of crucial aspect of mind states is their effect on perception. Some of this is fairly obvious, but when we're irritable, generally -- or angry or depressed -- the world doesn't look like a very nice place, and people don't seem that great, and we don't seem that great. Our whole perception is kind of grey, heavy, dark. And then sometimes the heart opens, and there's a real tenderness or warmth, and the whole world actually seems soft, seems very lovely, beautiful, and luminous, even. So this is the effect of the mind state on the perception. And this is really, really to be noticed, because if we believe that our perceptions are giving us some inherent take on what the world is, and what reality is, and what we are, and what other people are, then that's actually a misunderstanding. Perception always comes out of the mind state, and to notice that relationship.

The mind state will also have an effect on the vedanā, on the feeling-tone of sense contact. What does that mean? It means, if we're irritable and you stub your toe or something, it's magnified by, you know, a hundred times or whatever. Or you're sitting, and there's a pain in the knee, and there's irritability. The actual unpleasantness of the sense contact is actually stronger. This is all to be noticed, because this is part of how suffering builds up. When we don't notice these things, we don't notice the way the whole black mass of suffering is snowballing.

So there are the body sensations, the thoughts, the climate or texture of the mind, the effect on perceptions. Very important to notice is our relationship to mind states. Some mind states we very much appreciate, and we really love them. And some mind states we really have a difficult time with. And to notice that relationship. What's my relationship to the mind state? We can actually feel that relationship in the body. And this is also one of the reasons why being anchored in the body is really important. When there's a wish to push away a mind state, push away fear, or push away irritability, there's actually a kind of physical contraction in the body. You can actually feel it. Sometimes it's quite subtle: it's almost like the body is just cramping up a little bit. You can actually tune into that sense in the body as a way of telling us, "What's my relationship with this?"

And of course, sometimes we notice that relationship in thought, in thought about the mind state. Sometimes that thought is about self-belief: "I'm a crappy meditator," or "I'm a spiritual failure," or whatever it is. "I'm a loser," or something like that. "Because I have a mind state, it means I'm useless or something, because I have a certain mind state." So to be very, very conscientious around the kinds of self-beliefs that arise in relationship to having any mind state. Or there's a little run of calmness and the self-belief is, "Ah! Very soon to be a Buddha!" Just to be aware of what the conclusions are that we're making about ourselves because of mind states. There's so, so, so much suffering involved in that, these beliefs, and what we tell ourselves about ourselves based on what the mind is doing at any time. So to bring a real care and vigilance around that.

We also have views about the mind state itself and what it might mean. Sometimes, for instance, there can be a view that if there are a lot of miserable mind states, that's actually a purification process happening. This is actually quite common for this view to be around in spiritual circles, that what meditation is is just to sit there, do nothing, and let all the old karma, all the accumulations, come up and out. Generally they'll be miserable, and so the more misery, the better you're doing. [laughter]

It's quite a common view, unfortunately. The Buddha never, ever said that -- never, not once. In fact, he came across a person who was practising that way, and he basically ridiculed him. Just to be wary of what the assumptions are about the whole process. Am I assuming that I'm emptying out through sitting here, emptying out this life and 10,000 lives before, and what a long process that's going to be? Is that really what this is about? And perhaps even more importantly, if I have a view like that, is it a neutral view? Is it a neutral view, or does having a view like that actually have an effect on what's going on, in terms of a kind of self-perpetuating belief? So if I believe that, that tends to be what happens and what seems to be what's going on. If I think it's just endless purification, it may be that ... [19:01, audio cuts out] ... One's own questioning in quite a self-responsible and strong way.

The Buddha, when he talked about these four foundations of mindfulness, he keeps using these strange phrases. He talks about the body, and he says, "See the body in the body." He talks about feelings, and he says, "See the feelings in the feelings." And he talks about the mind, and he says, "See the mind in the mind."[1] And what on earth does that mean -- "See the mind in the mind"? What it means is exactly this: don't see self-belief in the mind. The mind is depressed -- it means what? It means the mind is depressed. It doesn't mean, "I'm a failure." It doesn't mean, "I'm a loser." It doesn't mean, "I'm a completely depressed person." See the mind in the mind; don't see self in the mind. And to be very careful with that. And don't see other assumptions in the mind. It's just, that's what the mind is doing. That's how it is right now. It's just the mind in the mind.

Similarly, with the body, instead of thinking about the body in terms of the sense of self-worth -- "It's attractive" or "It's not attractive," or "It's ageing" or "It's not ageing," or "I'm healthy" or "not" -- it's just the body in the body. It takes away so much of the unnecessary suffering that we dump on top of body and mind. So just see the mind in the mind. It doesn't mean anything about ourselves.

[20:50] There's this movement to notice, to really come close to mind states, to become familiar and intimate with all the different mind states that we can have as human beings. And that's a central part of what it is to be mindful. And there are, in a way, three other avenues along which mindfulness can travel with mind states.

(1) The first is that when we're dealing, usually, with difficult mind states, when there's grief, or anger, or fear, something that's really difficult, part of what we're doing here is slowly developing the capacity to accommodate those difficult mind states. So sometimes, some things like grief or memories coming up from the past that are difficult, that bring difficult emotions. Part of what we're doing (it's a very important part) is we're actually, over time, developing the capacity to accommodate what's difficult. We're, in a way, enlarging our container, so that the difficult mind states, the difficult emotions can actually be held by the larger container of mindfulness. And we can develop that container with practice, with time.

When we do this, when we develop the capacity to accommodate, there's a real potential for healing that comes. It's so important, that what's difficult, instead of overwhelming us, we are literally then holding it, the way we might hold a child. And in that holding, there can be healing that comes. That process -- to be able to learn to accommodate -- in doing that, we are developing qualities of courage, because it's not easy. A lot of mind states we have -- fear, anger, grief -- they are not easy. They're quite scary to face. So we're developing the courage, slowly, to be able to accommodate them. We're developing openness. And we're developing confidence, which is really crucial.

So there's a sense of, over time, that one just becomes, one feels capable of handling, working with, accommodating, really, anything that comes up in the realm of mind and emotion. That instead of us being afraid of ourselves, we actually feel a certain really authentic, rooted confidence, that we're okay. We can work with our mind states. We can work with our lives. That confidence is a really, really important thing. I don't think it's that common in this world. I think there's a lot of movement of fear, away from ourselves, away from our mind states. So we're developing confidence, and we're developing the inner resources to be able to accommodate that way, so that we can be with these difficult mind states in a self-nurturing way, in a way that's really helpful.

This isn't easy, okay? It's just not easy for anyone, really, this journey. And really at any time, it's just not easy. It's not an easy thing. It takes kindness. It needs kindness. That process of learning to accommodate what's difficult needs our kindness. And it needs patience. We need to be patient, especially with old patterns. We really need to know that it can, but it's probably not something that will ... [snaps fingers] just change like that. It needs interest as well. We need to actually be interested in the process. That quality of interest is really a powerful factor. And it needs compassion. These difficult mind states often -- well, they are suffering for our self. So it needs to be touched with compassion, aware that they're difficult, and that when they're around, it's suffering for us. It's not easy, but these are the qualities that we need to reflect on bringing into this work.

And when we're working with difficult mind states, it's not the case that we have to sort of roll up the sleeves and get stuck in there and hang on to them: "It's you or me. One of us is, you know ... Fight to the death," and we have to stay with it. It's a gradual process. So there's nothing great about being overwhelmed and run down by a persistently difficult mind state. You can work with it, and then when it's time to gather in the troops and get some reinforcements, get some rest, get some time away from it, then we leave it and come back to the breath, if possible, or a mettā practice, if possible, some loving-kindness, something that's restful, easing, healing. And if even that's not possible, then a walk in nature. And we use nature, the openness to nature, or something like that, for that kind of restorative, healing effect. And then, when it's time to work again, then we can face it again.

Sometimes we can get quite skilled at psychologically talking around our difficult mind states and emotions. We can get quite sophisticated with that, but I wonder ... Maybe sometimes there's more power in just sitting and opening quietly to what's difficult than all the talking that we do about and around and on top of. It's just, quietly, I'm facing and opening. And this is what the Buddha would call a "noble movement," that we're willing to be with what is, and we're willing to open fully to life, so in its lovely aspects and its difficult aspects. That willingness to open is something very noble, very ennobling.

So there's noticing and becoming familiar with the different mind states, and then there's this, what we're doing: just developing the capacity to accommodate. If we're working on samatha, on developing calm, or developing mettā (loving-kindness), or one of the other brahmavihāras, then we have to modify the usual approach, because the usual vipassanā approach would be just to let come what comes, and to develop this openness to its coming and its going, and be with it. If we're working on samatha or mettā, on developing calm, we're actually working on developing certain mind states. So the usual thing that we hear about "Don't get attached to whatever mind state" -- actually, we have to put that aside. And it's okay to get attached to mind states if you're working with samatha and mettā. It's fine. It's completely a good thing. As several of my teachers said to me, worry about that later. You're developing. If you're working on calmness, on concentration, on mettā, just develop that. And it will, it does have periods when it's nice, and enjoy that.

So don't worry about the attachment there. It's a slightly different emphasis. But to be conscious of what you're doing, when you're doing it. So now I'm developing samatha, and I'm working on developing a mind state. Just to know that that's what's going on. And then if you're actually working on doing both -- I'm developing calm, and I'm developing a more open awareness, the vipassanā -- then just to be aware when you're doing what you're doing. That's all. It's not this cardinal rule of "Don't get attached to mind states."

(2) The Buddha put huge emphasis on Right Effort, so what that means is cultivating beautiful mind states. Huge, huge emphasis -- cultivating what's beautiful and learning to let go of what's not so helpful.[2] We understand over time -- it's actually a huge investigation -- we understand what's beautiful and what's not beautiful here in terms of mind states. Mind states that lead to happiness, that lead to our happiness and the happiness of others, are worth cultivating. So love, calmness, equanimity, patience, compassion, concentration -- these are all beautiful mind states that are really worth investing in, worth developing. Anger, irritability, impatience, agitation, disinterest ... [laughs] These are not so helpful to us. They bring suffering for us and for other people. And we need to be clear about that and get clear about that. It's quite a process just to be clear about what actually helps and what doesn't. And then to actually gradually begin to empower what's helpful, and to let go of what's not.

And we can ask, actually, in any moment, what does the mind state actually need right now? So if, for instance, I find I'm feeling a bit tired and dull, then the mind state might be a bit shrunken. It might be that I need to pay attention to space more. Actually expand the mind, literally, by paying attention to physical space, by paying attention to light. Or it may need a bit more of an injection of energy, an injection of effort. So we can actually see: "Oh, that's the mind state. What could it possibly need?"

Or if there's a haranguing voice of self-judgment, maybe it's time for some mettā, for some kindness practice. When there's calmness around, when there's love around, when there's a sense of expansiveness around, really to actually explore that, to let oneself explore that. How does it feel when there's love around? How does the body feel when there's kindness around? There's a certain warmth flowing in the body, a certain ease in the body, openness. When there's a sense of expansiveness around, just to really get familiar with that. That getting familiar with it actually begins to nourish that mind state.

When there is a beautiful mind state, an enjoyable mind state, to actually really let ourselves enjoy it. Sometimes we get the impression that we're not supposed to enjoy these things. [laughs] To really appreciate it, feel, let it wash us. Let it nourish us. It's very important. We can actually tune into the pleasantness of it as a way of letting it establish. So if there's a feeling of love or calmness, sometimes there's, in the body, a current of pleasant feeling. And you can actually just, very lightly, without snatching at it, just lightly allow the mind to rest and enjoy and be with that pleasant feeling, if it's there. If there's unpleasant feeling, can there be space around that? Can there be non-reactivity around that? That space and non-reactivity is actually what we might call a 'helpful' mind state. Non-reactivity and space are really helpful.

So there's this capacity that we're developing to accommodate what's difficult in our mind states, in our emotions. There's the slightly different emphasis when we're developing samatha or mettā, of actually looking at what's helpful and really cultivating that, and learning how to cultivate that over time.

(3) A third way that mindfulness might go is actually looking at the mind states from what we might call a 'Dharma perspective.' So what do I mean by that? Actually to try and look at it in a way that brings insight in a very direct way. The most obvious one is to direct the attention to the changing nature of mind states, so that's what we're noticing. We're letting the changing nature, the impermanence, really imprint itself on consciousness in a very deliberate way. We can see mind states changing over the course of the day. We wake up grumpy, and by the time we have breakfast or tea, it's probably not quite the same. [laughs] A little bit.

Generally in the course of the day, there's quite a lot of shifting of mind states. So to puncture the myth that it's this massive block of whatever it might be. On a closer level, on a micro level, really getting in there and seeing, literally, is a mind state the same five seconds after we first note that it's a mind state? If I say "sadness," does it stay sadness? Just really close, look at the micro-fluctuations in it. It's like holding up a big cloth and beginning, when we look closely, to see it's got lots of holes in it. It takes away the sense of solidity that a mind state has, an emotion has, which is part of the problem that we have with it. It tends to feel so solid, so all-encompassing, so unchanging. Begin to actually see, really look closely, it's really changing quite a lot. There are lots of holes in it.

Sometimes when the mind state feels particularly difficult, and it's very difficult to work with, it can be helpful just to have the faith that it will pass: "This too will pass." And just to remind ourselves of that. We've never, ever in our lives had a mind state that lasts forever. We just haven't. It's impossible. And actually, sometimes, it is very difficult. We can just remind ourselves, "This will pass. It is impermanent." And there can just be enough there, sometimes, to keep us going.

So we see the impermanence of it. We can see the changing nature. Looking into how it's supported, how the mind state is supported by different factors. This is really important. It's often overlooked. So what does that mean? It means a mind state is often supported by our reactions to it, as I said a little bit before. If there's fear, when there's fear around, we're often afraid of fear itself. There's fear of fear. And to notice that's going on. It's very, very common. And actually, the fear of the fear is part of what keeps the whole fear going. It's part of the actual constellation and the engine of the fear. To really see, how is this thing being supported? Or if there's a sense of contraction, and it just feels uncomfortable, if there's a feeling of aversion to the contraction, that's partly what's keeping the whole thing going. To really look not just at the thing, but all the constellation of other factors that are supporting this. That is really, really important.

Or as I mentioned before, we may think, "I shouldn't be having this mind state. I've been meditating for days!" Or you know ... [laughs] Whatever it is -- "Years! Decades! I shouldn't have this mind state." That thought is not a neutral thing. It's something that is influencing the mind state. So just to see what is helping build this whole structure.

We may also see -- it's a little hard to describe, but in a way, sometimes it's really necessary in meditation to pay very close attention to what's going on. For instance, if there's sadness, we feel pain in the heart area. And it's very skilful, can be very skilful, to really let the attention, in a very soft way, go into that feeling, the physical manifestation of sadness, and just touch that with mindfulness and explore that, in quite a 'micro' way, actually very close to it. That's what we might call 'microscopic attention.'

On the other extreme, we might have awareness, a sense of awareness being quite large, being actually very large. So we cultivate a very spacious awareness. And this is something that we can do deliberately. The awareness seems to encompass the body, seems to encompass the room, beyond to the sky, even. Within that spacious awareness, the sadness is there, little area of sadness in the middle of a vast awareness. With practice, it can be quite skilful to move between these two ways of using attention: quite a microscopic way and quite an expansive way. Can be very skilful, and actually to see: how does each way of using attention, how does that affect what's going on? How does it affect a sense of fear, or a sense of sadness, sense of anger? So the way we use attention is also not a neutral thing. The way we use mindfulness is not a neutral thing.

Lastly, we might want to explore, instead of just an emphasis on mindfulness all the time -- mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness, being aware -- what if we explore the power of kindness? What if we let go a little bit of the agenda of a sort of precision of awareness, and actually just explore: what is the effect of kindness on this mind state, on this emotion? So that can be, as I mentioned briefly before, just a sense of actually either holding ourselves with that emotion, with that grief, with that anger, whatever it is, or actually even holding the emotion itself, or bathing it in kindness, as if the awareness is just imbuing it with kindness. Whatever works for you. But finding some way to actually bring a lot of kindness in, and actually really touch, hold what's going on in kindness. Really let that be the emphasis. And seeing, what effect does that have? Because again, kindness and its absence are not neutral factors. Actually there is no such thing as a neutral factor. There's no such thing. So to really see -- and it's extremely skilful -- what is it to bring kindness to this? And if there's resistance, that's okay. You can bring kindness to the resistance.

Sometimes, in working with meditation, we're actually called very strongly to a mind state. It's really ... there's no way of escaping it. It's very strong, and that's what's going on. And then we know: this is what's going on. I'm being called by a mind state, and we bring a care and attention, bring a way of working with it, to it. Sometimes we might just be sitting there, and it's all trundling along, fairly okay, with the breath, with whatever, and we might just want to say, "What's the mind state now?" Just pop that question in, and actually begin to explore it. It can be quite a whole new dimension that opens up for people, for their exploration of the mind, exploration of consciousness.

So that's a lot of information. It doesn't matter. Just putting it out there. Take what feels like it speaks to you, what feels like it's alive, what feels like it's helpful right now. Let the rest go. It's not important. No one's expected to take in all the instructions just in the course of the retreat. There's lots of stuff. There are just different ways of working, and really just let go of what doesn't feel appropriate right now.

Shall we have a quiet minute together?

  1. E.g. DN 22, MN 10. ↩︎

  2. E.g. DN 22, SN 45:8. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry