The Mind

April 19, 2012  •  2 Comments

I have called my new website "A Still Mind," so I thought it best to begin the blog by explaning the meaning of the title. First, we'll explore what appears to be the more concrete part. What is the mind? We often take the mind for granted and don't think about it much. If pressed to define your mind, you might point to your head and say something about your brain. But even the latest neuroscience quickly runs into difficulty if it tries to equate the mind and the brain, or locate the mind in the brain. FMRI and other technologies can give us a glimpse into how the brain operates. We can see that when a person is experiencing a particular memory, for example, neurons in the brain fire in a certain pattern. But we don't understand how the neurons or their firing patterns store memories or represent experiences. We don't know how neurons firing in one part of the brain can be a thought, while neurons firing in another part of the brain can be a feeling, while neurons firing in a third part of the brain coordinate the movements that enable one to walk.

The difficulties don't end there. No one has been able to explain how the brain can create consciousness. Scientists generally take it as a given that the brain creates consciousness, but there is no evidence that consciousness can arise from matter, nor is there any explanation for a mechanism by which matter could generate consciousness. It's hard to even pin down what consciousness is. Brain research is also showing that we can't identify any part of the brain that is "in charge. The brain is more like an orchestra that plays without a conductor. Each section plays its own part, and the sections together play in harmony, but no one is directing or coordinating the action. The best we can say is that there seems to be some connection between the mind and the operations of the brain, but we can't point to the brain--or any part of the brain--and say "this is the mind."

What we can do is take a different approach. Think of the mind not as an entity, but as a function. So what is the function of the mind? The mind thinks. The mind plans. The mind compares and judges, likes and dislikes. It solves problems and makes decisions. It remembers and experiences. The mind also creates identity; it collects thoughts and feelings and experiences, finds patterns in them, and generates a sense of self. Perhaps most significantly, the mind knows. The mind has the quality of cognizance--a sense of knowing, understanding, and awareness. The mind is conscious.

Seeing the mind as a function opens up many new possibilities for investigating and understanding ourselves and our relationships to others and the world. It's impossible to locate the mind or determine its form, color, or substance. The mind simply does not have these qualities. But through meditation--practices of observation and paying attention--it is very possible to understand how the mind functions. With practice, you can see thoughts and feelings, almost as though they were written on a blackboard. You can notice when the mind grasps onto things it likes and pushes away things it dislikes. You can watch the mind judging and planning and problem-soving and believing. And you can directly experience the knowing quality of mind, which lies beneath thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Observing all of these functions of the mind also allows you to understand how the mind forms an identity--a sense of self. Meditation is, in part, a process for self-discovery and self-understanding. Some would consider engaging in self-understanding to be self-indulgent or a waste of time. But what is the point in doing anything else if you don't know who it is who is thinking, feeling, accomplishing, and experiencing?

What makes all of this possible is the knowing quality of the mind. By examining the knowing, we can experience and understand stillness, which will the be topic of the next blog post . . .

 


Comments

2.A Still Mind
John, this is a brilliant teaching. A challenging one, to be sure, but it rings true--that the mind, which identifies other things, does not itself have a fixed identity. And it's a great reminder about how we become attached to ideas about things, all the while believing our ideas to be reality. Of all the things I've read by Kenpo Karthar Rinpoche, this now is easily my favorite quote.
1.John Mader(non-registered)
The view of mind as function appeals to me--more verb than noun. You might enjoy this from Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.

Because everything is a function of the mind, phenomena are not things in themselves, but are what the mind is and how the mind relates to them. Acknowledging that phenomena are mental projections, we can achieve greater renunciation for there really is no point in getting attached to a situation that is not what it seems to be. Going further, we can actually look into our own mind and examine it. This is a fluid situation. We have identified the quality of knowing, but we cannot locate or label that quality. We cannot give our consciousness a fixed shape or color, for the nature of mind itself is insubstantial. That which identifies, relates to, and labels other things does not itself possess a fixed identity. This step-by-step method--examining the perceiver in relation to the perceived--can help us to realize the unborn and insubstantial quality of all things. We are working toward unfolding the nature of everything, which is sunyata or emptiness.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche
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