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But in terms of meditation practice, it is easier to begin with the body, assuming a comfortable meditation position. Through asana (positions) and yantra (movements) we can control the body and make it immobile. In this way also, our energy and breathing can be controlled and made immobile employing pranayama (rhythmic breathing) and kumbhaka (holding the breath). Our body and our energy are easier to control than is the mind and both of them influence the mind. But among them, mind is the most important and the most fundamental. Everything comes from mind. So, what can be more important than mind?
But what is mind? We tend to think in terms of dualities: mind vs. matter and spirit vs. nature. This brings to the fore many metaphysical questions where mind is opposed to matter and religious questions where Spirit is opposed to Nature. With meditation practice, however, we do not begin with philosophical conceptions and theories, scientific or otherwise, but with our immediate experience. Immediate experience is always the touchstone in Buddhism, not theory. Matter itself is an abstraction. We infer its existence, but we do not sense or experience matter directly. It is not a direct perception. It is inferred and conceptualized and abstracted from our sense experience, especially from our eye-hand coordination. It represents a combination of sight and touch. If we see it and can touch it, we think that it is something real. But actually our sense experience is the datum, not the abstract concept we call “matter”.
Similarly “mind” is an abstraction. What do we mean when we say “mind”? Or “I have a mind” or “Mr. Smith has a mind”? Does “mind” simply refer to the observed behavior of others? Do they act sentient and intelligent? In Tibetan, “sems” means mind and “sems-can” means a sentient being, that is to say, a living being that possesses a mind. A living thing or animal that moves in response to stimuli is inferred to have a mind. Trees and plants, although living things, do not do this and, so, they are said not to possess a mind (sems). Plants just like animals, however, possess life-force or vitality (srog).
The Cartesian dualism of mind and matter has dominated our Western thinking for over three hundred years. We are told by our culture that we have a material body and that this body is like a machine. But then, where is the mind? Is it the ghost in the machine? Matter is thought to be something solid, real, and mechanical. Our culture provides us with a mechanical model of reality and causality. This model or paradigm has been the basis of modern science for three centuries and we are told that this model represents an accurate description of an external objective reality. Indeed, the procedures of modern science have provided us with an impressive technology, but providing us with a definitive and exhaustive description of reality is quite a different matter. But is this mechanism what we actually experience? Are we just computers made of meat?
Buddhist philosophy is not afflicted with this radical dualism. Mind and matter are two sides of the same coin. Everything is part of a single continuous reality. But, of necessity, we may analyze out and abstract certain aspects of reality by way of our intellect. However, this does not make these distinct aspects separate realities or separate substances. Mind and matter are part of a single whole; they are not separate orders of being.
In Buddhist terms, mind and matter are only phenomena or events (dharmas) that occur in the stream of consciousness of the individual. There occur here both mental and material events. These elementary events can be observed and brought into view by way of meditation practice. Meditation practice can slow down the processes of mind, which normally occur very rapidly in only fractions of a second, so that we can observe the operation of discrete mental processes. This is like putting a motion picture projector into slow motion. Then through introspection or higher insight (vipashyana), we can observe at first hand how the mind works. The mental and physical events that occur in consciousness which comprise these processes can then be brought into view. This process of observation of the mind during meditation practice led to the development of Abhidharma psychology in the Buddhist tradition.