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OBSERVING THE MIND
But how can we observe the mind? In the Buddhist tradition, there are methods provided for this. All what we know, we know through the mind. So, in order to discover ourselves we must begin with the mind and what we experience directly through the mind. Meditation is a key means for exploring the mind.
The future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, studied meditation under two different teachers. Practicing these methods he came to realize various altered states of consciousness, even cosmic consciousness or what is called mystical experience. Then he realized that these states did not represent liberation from Samsara. They were conditioned states of consciousness and therefore impermanent. He sought to discover a state beyond time and causality. He sat beneath the tree of knowledge, guarded by the serpent, and shortly before dawn he discovered this, the great secret. His eye of wisdom had penetrated into the nature of reality. But with the Buddha, the view of reality, spirituality, and human existence was radically different from the conventional views and from our common sense. Discerning the nature of reality, he spoke not of reality as substance, but as process. He spoke not of a thing or entity called “mind”, but of a stream of consciousness. And to speak about experience, he had to develop a process language. Instead of speaking about a self as a substance (atman), he spoke of the five skandhas, or five interactive processes involved in every event in consciousness. Thus, we may speak here of processes and the mind-stream as against substances and entities. All we actually know is this stream of consciousness and its contents. The world that we perceive out there is a conceptual construction, not an immediate experience. The Buddha made this quite clear.
Is this an objective material world we perceive outside of ourselves? Matter is an abstract concept, not experience. This fact has been rediscovered in contemporary physics. Where is this matter? It is a combination we make from the senses of sight and touch. With modern science, we can analyze material reality into molecules, these into atoms, these into subatomic particles, these into quarks, and these into superstrings. But superstrings have only one dimension; they are just vibrations in space. So, what is left of hard solid matter? What is there out there in the world? We find only empty space and incessant energy.
Similarly, the Buddhist teachings speak of the insubstantiality of all phenomena (shunyata) and the illusionary nature of all phenomena (mayavada). But the illusion we naively call “the real world” is not something passive like mistaking a rope for a snake in the evening twilight. It is something energetic and dynamic. This energy manifests as processes. We can discover the mind as process through the practice of meditation. As we have said, usually our mental processes are occurring very rapidly, often in terms of mere fractions of a second. So, how can we discover what we actually experience? Not what we think we experience, which represents judgments and concepts, but what we actually experience at the Primary Level. We have to slow down the processes of the mind and then observe.
There are two principal aspects to Buddhist meditation practice whereby we can do this. First, there is shamatha, the process of slowing down the mind and calming the mind by way of focusing attention on a single object of meditation. This process calms the mind so that it is no longer agitated and distracted by extraneous thoughts. Second, there is vipashyana, the process of higher insight where we observe the workings of the mind with clarity. But first we place the mind in a calm state before we can develop clarity in terms of introspection or looking within. Through this calm state, combined with higher insight, we can discover consciousness at the Base Level or Primary Level of immediate experience instead of being entangled in networks of thoughts and preconceptions.