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Because these phenomena that we call “reality” can only be known and experienced by mind, what is more fundamental to our existence than mind? But what is mind? What does it do? Where is it located? We are not dealing with some explanation or theory, but looking inward directly at our immediate experience. Just look inward and observe what we sense and feel. What do we find? Where is this mind? Is this mind something material, a mechanism or an entity or a substance? Or is the mind immaterial and insubstantial? If it is something, an entity or a mechanism, then where is it located? If it is a thing, it must have a location. Is it a little black box inside of us like the scientists say? Just look for this mind. Does it have a color or a shape? Is mind made out of something? If so, what is this mind stuff? Is it just the gray matter in the brain? Or is the mind just electro-chemical activity occurring in the brain and in the nervous system? Is the mind located inside the head, in our brain? Do we see our brain? Do we experience it directly? Electro-chemical activity—these are just words, but is that what we experience? Look at what we experience. Experience is always the touchstone. “Brain activity” is a concept and a theory, at best some readings on dials and graphs on a machine in a hospital ward. But is that us?
What is it we actually experience? Can mind and consciousness operate and exist independently of the brain? Is it inside or outside the body? Is it inside the body or out there in space? Is it anywhere at all? Is the mind one and whole or is it made up of many parts? Where do we experience it? Where do we feel it? Is it everywhere or nowhere? Don’t answer with a concept or a theory-- just look! Is this mind you?
What is this mind? Is it our thoughts and ideas? Is it our feelings and our emotions? Is it our sensations? Is this mind a thing or a substance? Or is it a process, a process with constantly changing contents like a stream of water? Is it cognition or a thought process? Or is it awareness? What is mind and what is consciousness? What is consciousness and what are the contents of consciousness? Just observe and find out for yourself! Mind is not a substance or a stuff; it is not a thing, an entity, or a mechanism-- It is a process. It is a stream of constantly changing events occurring in varying degrees of consciousness. At times this consciousness is bright and focused, at other times dull and diffused, at yet other times subliminal, almost unconscious. What we conventionally call “our mind” is this individual stream of consciousness. This is what the Buddha discovered sitting beneath the tree and meditating.
When we look for the mind, what do we find? Where is it located? Thoughts fill our mind. Thoughts are events that arise in this stream of consciousness. But where are these thoughts located? Where do they come from? Where do they stay? Where do they go? Just look and observe. Is there one mind or many? What do we find? Do we find anything at all?
Yet there is always consciousness and awareness present. Here there is a process in operation rather than an entity or a substance. The mind is insubstantial, but this does not mean that the mind does not exist. When we look inside of ourselves and just observe, we find that there is only a stream of consciousness (T. shes-rgyud, S. vijnana-santana). The Buddha introduced this term long before William James did some hundred years ago. When we say “my mind”, this refers not to a thing or a vestment. Yet this stream of consciousness has a continuity and an individuality. Our stream of consciousness is separate from those of other people. There are individual streams of consciousness and individual mental processes. We are not all One Mind. If we were, as soon as one of us realized something, all of us would simultaneously realize it.
This stream of consciousness and its contents constitutes the Primary Level of our experience. Here we find our basic operating system, and it is both automatic and voluntarily. The other programs of perception, ego identification, and conceptualization all operate on top of this, on what we may call Levels 2, 3, and 4. The elementary events that occur in this stream of consciousness are called phenomena or dharmas. They are what we actually experience at the Base Level. But what we call reality is something constructed by complicated secondary and tertiary mental processes operating above the Base Level. Indeed, these very processes construct for us what we call “reality”, that is to say, our conventional common-sense everyday notions of what constitutes reality. But that is not what we actually experience. Our perceptions of reality are conceptual constructions. Thus, we live in our conceptual constructions of reality and not in reality itself. Thoughts and conceptual constructions all take time to form, even if that time is only a fraction of a second. Therefore, when our conscious dwells in them, we are living in the past and not in the present in terms of what we actually experience here and now.