The Ten Mental Factors That Accompany Each Moment of Experience

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Having a Quiet Mind and Caring Attitude

In the development of balanced sensitivity, there are many different variables involved in overcoming the extremes of being either insensitive or oversensitive regarding ourselves and others. This has to do with how we pay attention to situations, how we respond to them, and the effects of our own behavior. 

Whether in terms of paying attention or responding, for both of these we need to have a quiet mind and a caring attitude. We need to be able to pay attention, and accordingly, we have to quiet our minds of all sorts of distraction, comments, judgments, preconceptions, and irrelevant emotions like fear and nervousness. All of that has to be quieted down in order to pay attention, and also to respond in an appropriate way with our actions and emotional feeling. Obviously, when we’re thinking about something else or we’re really nervous or frightened, then it’s very hard to pay attention and thereby very hard to respond in any sort of balanced, fitting manner.

The same is true in terms of the caring attitude. A caring attitude means to respect the other person, understanding that they are a human being with feelings just like we have. They are affected by what we do. Their feelings get hurt, just as our feelings get hurt, and so on. Clearly, if we don’t care about the other person or what their situation is or how they feel or anything, we certainly don’t pay attention to them, and even if we do notice them, we don’t bother to respond.

These are the two wings, this quiet mind and the caring attitude, for the entire training of balanced sensitivity.

Distancing Ourselves from the Content of Our Mental Activity

We need to somehow disengage ourselves, in a sense, from the content of our experience, and from the mental activity, in order to be able to develop this balanced sensitivity. This has to be understood in a proper way, as it can be a little bit misleading.

It’s not very easy to be of help to anybody if we are always getting angry with them and always clinging and demanding things, being selfish and so on. Therefore, we need to be able to get a little bit of distance from that level and quiet down to a deeper level. At this deeper level, we can access the basic ingredients that we all have for responding and paying attention in a balanced way. This means that we need to pay attention to the basic mental activity that’s going on rather than the content of that activity.

On the most basic level, that mental activity is the arising of a mental hologram of something that we see, as in a sight, a sound, a smell, or even an emotion. There’s a mental hologram and there’s some sort of mental engagement with it. In fact, that’s the same activity just described in two ways. It’s not, for instance, that a thought arises and then we think it. The arising of a thought and thinking of the thought is the same thing. There’s no separate “me” that is observing, controlling, or making it happen. There’s no little mind like a machine with this “me” playing at the keyboard making thoughts arise or making seeing happen. It just happens.

Of course, we are the person thinking and seeing. It’s not somebody else, and it’s not that there is no one at all. However, even when we think, “What should I do now?” or “What do people think of me?” all that’s happening is a thought arising that has as its content the mental sound of these words. There’s no little “me” sitting in our head in some sort of room that is now thinking this, pressing some buttons and then the thought comes up. Nevertheless, when we think of ourselves in terms of this little being, like some alien sitting in our head, then, of course, this becomes an object of intense worry and insecurity. What are people going to think of this little “me?” How do we make that “me” secure and make people like “me?” 

We become preoccupied with something that is really quite a fiction. Science, of course, would agree with that. We can’t find some little “me” sitting somewhere in our head or, if we view it in the Tibetan way, located in our heart. There’s nobody sitting back there looking out through our eyes. Nevertheless, when thinking “What do people think of me?” it’s not somebody else thinking it. Conventionally, of course, we are doing that. We are responsible for what we think, do, and say.

How to Communicate with Others in a Sensitive Way

Of course, when these mental holograms are arising, we also need to check if they are a deceptive or accurate appearance in order to be able to respond appropriately. To do this, we can work with some of the basic features of this mental activity. However, in working with them, once again, it’s very important to not conceive of some little “me” sitting in our head and here are all these components of our mental activity and we’re adjusting the knobs and the buttons. It’s not a separate dualistic thing of a “me” who now is going to be the controller and adjust what’s happening. 

If we were to get into that very dualistic way of working with this type of material, we become what we call a control freak, and it really becomes very artificial. It’s not natural in any way whatsoever. Please, don’t conceive of it like social networking or using handheld devices and so on. It is not that there’s “me” over here, and we’re going to communicate by pressing these buttons and keys, to some “you” as an appearance or name on a screen. It’s not like that. We need human-to-human contact if we’re going to really be sensitive to others and not have this distance that this illusion of a “me” behind a computer console gives us. That’s actually very important to realize.

Many people are really into this whole phenomenon of virtual communication with others through Facebook, email, text messaging, or whatever. It’s very interesting to really look within ourselves: How are we communicating with others? How is our concept of communication and being sensitive to others altered especially when we can turn off our machine when we don’t feel like communicating? Are we really sensitive to somebody when it’s just with abbreviated little words in an SMS message?

It might be quite helpful to take a minute or two and observe within ourselves. Maybe some of us are not into this type of communication at all, but so many of us are. What is our attitude? How do we experience communicating in this way? Has this really become our concept of communication and dealing with others? Because of the influence of using this type of media, has it altered our manner of communicating when we’re with somebody in person? 

In addition, how well are we paying attention to somebody when we’re always concerned about what’s coming up on our Facebook page or in our text messages? How deep and meaningful is our response when it’s limited to thumbs ups and “likes?” Is all that we want in our communication from others is to collect a certain number of “likes” and have more likes on our page than someone else?

Let’s take a moment to reflect on our own personal situation. A particular instruction might be to examine how many times during the day we look at our email or Facebook page. How often do we check text messages and how quickly do we respond, regardless of whom we’re with and what we’re doing? Do we care at all that we’re interrupting what the other person is doing when we send a message? Do we care at all? Does that even enter our minds to think about that? Looking at the screen of the computer or whatever is like looking in the looking glass. Basically, it’s seeing ourselves and we seem to become so important that we can interrupt anybody with whatever we want to say.

Take a moment, please, to reflect.

I think that the conclusion that we can come to is that real human-to-human communication requires a directness, an actual involvement, and a commitment to engaging with another person. It’s not about having this safeguard that if we don’t feel like dealing with someone, we just shut off our machine.

The First Five Mental Factors

When we’re dealing with this mental activity, viewing our experience in terms of mental activity one moment after another moment after another moment, then if we analyze, we find that in each moment of experience there are many components involved. These components are what we call the mental factors. According to Buddhist analysis, there are ten of them that are functioning all the time. When we can learn to identify these, and to recognize them in our experience moment to moment when we’re dealing with others or just dealing with ourselves, then we can also notice whether each of these is in balance. Are they working in harmony with each other, or is something out of balance that needs to be corrected?

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that we’re not doing this as a separate me” that’s observing and making this judgment like the schoolteacher or policeman or policewoman, demanding “You have to do this, and you have to do that,” and then we make the changes. We just do it. 

Let’s have a simple example or demonstration: Please, turn your head to a wall. Now, how exactly did we do that? Was there a feeling of a separate “me” inside that decided and then pulled some strings like a puppet and turned our head? I doubt that that was how we experienced it. We just did it, turned our heads.

Let’s say we notice that we’re not really paying attention to what this person is saying, and our thoughts are just: “Oh, I really want to get out of here. I wish they would stop talking.” How do we change that? We just stop. We just do it. We just pay more attention. It’s not as though there’s a “me” that has to turn the dial on the attention machine as if there were one “me” that’s the controller and another “me” that has to be controlled and makes the third “me” pay more attention. It’s not like that. We just do it.

Does this make sense? Can you relate to that? It sounds very simple, but actually it’s not so easy, especially when we are very afflicted by worry. “What should I do? Will I do it right? I don’t want to make a mistake.” Then, it feels as though there’s a “me” who has to manipulate and control, doesn’t it? When we experience things in that way, through all this type of worry, then it’s not a very happy state of mind, is it? It’s a very unpleasant state of mind.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not careful. Of course, we’re careful! But we don’t have to experience being careful in this dualistic, controller type of way. We just do it. This is the art, the way in which we work with these mental factors. We just do it. Pay more attention or have more interest in the other person. We just do it, without this commentary going on about how boring what they’re saying may be. Even if it’s boring, it doesn’t matter. If this other person considers it important enough to say what they’re saying, then we take interest.

Now let’s go through these ten mental factors. This is not the traditional order of them but a slightly modified order that helps with this training practice.

Urges

So first we have an urge (sems-pa). An urge is the mental factor that, while focused on an object, draws our consciousness and its accompanying other mental factors to engage in some action toward or with that object in the next moment. It can be described as being a little bit like a magnet or a locomotive. We have an urge to scratch our head. We have an urge to look in this direction. We have an urge to shift our position on the chair. Just like a magnet, it draws us in the direction of the next moment of doing something. We can see this clearly when we’re interacting with somebody. We might have an urge to just run away and tell them to shut up or whatever. However, we might control that urge, or we can direct it to have an urge to sit still and patiently listen to what they’re saying. In some Buddhist systems, this urge is identified with karma.

Distinguishing                                                                                                                                               

Then, we have distinguishing (‘du-shes). This is involved with how we deal with a sense field. We have a sense field of vision or of hearing, for example, and we need to be able to distinguish certain features within that sense field. If we were to think of the visual sense field as a huge mass of pixels of colors or, a little bit grosser, of colored shapes, then we need to be able to distinguish a feature in order to put these pixels and these colored shapes together into some sort of item; otherwise, we can’t deal with it. We don’t necessarily have to give it a name. That’s conceptual. We don’t have to necessarily give it a meaning. That’s also conceptual. 

There is distinguishing in conceptual thought, when we distinguish that it fits into this or that name or this category. However, if we are dealing with someone, we certainly need to be able to distinguish their head from the background, don’t we? Otherwise, it’s meaningless. Or, if there’s a whole crowd of people, in order to address one person, we have to distinguish the colored shapes that make up their head, the visual image of their head, from the other people around them. We don’t put it together in weird ways, do we?

However, we can also distinguish on a much more refined level in terms of the expression on a face or how someone is holding their body. We aren’t giving a name to it but just distinguishing it as an item, which obviously then gives us more information in terms of how to relate to the person. Are they looking bored? Are they looking stressed? Are they looking sick? Are they looking tired? That’s distinguishing it into a category. First, though, we just have to distinguish the expression on their face. We need to distinguish the sound of their voice from the sound of the traffic in the street, certainly. We need to try to distinguish the tone of voice because that gives us a lot of information about their emotional state, their level of stress or their level of self-confidence, doesn’t it? That’s communicated very much in the way in which they speak, isn’t it? We need to distinguish that from everything else.

The urge brings us to look at the sight of the person or listen to the sound of their voice and then, within the sense field, we distinguish certain features.

Attention

The next factor is attention (yid-la byed-pa). How much attention are we going to pay to what we perceive? To pay attention is to engage with a specific object within a specific sense field or engage with a specific emotional state or thought. It causes us to focus or to consider this object in a certain way. We could pay attention to it carefully or pay attention to it in a relaxed manner. All of these mental factors can vary like on a scale from a little to a lot. It could be that we pay a lot of attention or don’t pay very much attention.

How do we engage with this object? Then, other mental factors come in. Do we engage in a very critical, judgmental way? Do we engage in a very open way? All of this describes how we pay attention to the object.

Contacting Awareness

After that, we have a little bit difficult factor called contacting awareness (reg-pa). That’s usually translated as contact, but we’re not talking about physical contact. We’re talking about a mental factor. The way it’s defined is that it differentiates whether the object of cognition is pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. This serves as the foundation for experiencing that object with a feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral.

We can distinguish somebody from somebody else and differentiate that as a pleasant object. Consequently, we feel happy seeing this object, this person. Another example is hearing some words and we differentiate them as pleasant words or unpleasant words. With unpleasant words, we might feel unhappy. Or, if with just talking, blah blah blah, it’s neutral and we don’t feel either super happy or unhappy. 

This is interesting, actually, if we think about it. We’re not talking about being judgmental here. Think about it. When we see somebody, is it pleasant to see them or is it unpleasant to see them? It could be the same person. Sometimes it’s pleasant to see them, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes then, on the basis of that, we’re happy to see them or we’re unhappy to see them. From the Buddhist point of view, we would describe this in terms of a karmic situation. However, also we could expand that and say it’s affected by many causal factors, and that somehow when we come into contact with this person, this object or these words, it’s pleasant. When we’re busy or we had a good meal or whatever, that’s going to affect how we come into contact with an experience, isn’t it?

There are many variables that might affect how we come into contact with somebody. Do we come into contact in a pleasant or an unpleasant way, or a nice or not very nice way? Is it pleasant to see our child, let’s say, or unpleasant? We could be very busy, and our child comes in and bothers us, making a big fuss or whatever. Then, it’s unpleasant. However, that’s affected by the fact that we’re very busy and preoccupied with something else. Basically, we’re thinking about me, me, me, and we don’t want to be interrupted. Whereas if we took more interest in the child, then it’s no longer unpleasant to see the child. It’s pleasant to see the child because we care about the child.

All these things interact with each other. They network with each other. If we were more interested in someone, then we would distinguish and pay attention to the expression on their face and tone of their voice, wouldn’t we? It would help us to be able to respond in an appropriate way. Because one of the ways that the mental activity works is that it takes in information. We need to take in more information. The information is there and we just have to distinguish it and pay attention to it.

Feeling Some Level of Happiness or Unhappiness

We have contacting awareness, and we next we have feeling (tshor-ba). Feeling refers to feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. It doesn’t have to be dramatic happiness and unhappiness. It could be a very low level and usually it is. It’s happening all the time, all of these things.

For example, we’re looking at this painting on the wall, and it is a pleasant contacting awareness, and we’re happy to look at it. A few moments later it’s no longer very pleasant, and we’re not so happy to continue looking at it. It’s not that we’re really sad and unhappy, but we are dissatisfied enough so that the urge comes to move our head and to look at another painting.

Another example might be when we are listening to someone talking, and it’s a pleasant contacting awareness, and we’re happy to listen. It’s okay, and we feel comfortable. Happiness can also be the dimension of just feeling comfortable. However, when it’s no longer very pleasant, then we’re unhappy, and then the urge comes to look away or to verbally think something else, and then we’re no longer paying attention. Instead of distinguishing a meaning to the sounds that are coming out of the person’s mouth, it’s become sort of noise in the background. We are distinguishing how we feel and we’re feeling bored, tired and restless. We make this distinction, at least in English, when we hear someone’s words, but we’re really not listening to them.

Recognizing These Five Factors 

These are the first five mental factors. First, the urge brings us to engage in some activity with an object like a magnet. Of course, there could be willpower or we could decide to look at an object. Decision is another aspect and it adds certainty to what we’re doing. However, even when we have willpower to do something, it’s still not a separate “me” sitting in our head making the decision. It’s just part of each moment. To review, there is the urge, the distinguishing, the attention or engaging with the object, contacting awareness whether pleasant or unpleasant, and feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. We have the first five listed, and let’s get a little bit of experience and familiarity with what we’re talking about.

Notice that when we look at something, it’s pleasant, we’re satisfied, it’s okay to look at it, but then there’s the urge to look at something else and then something else. There’s always an urge going on that causes a change in what we perceive. 

Look around the room, please, and don’t just swivel your head around. Look at something, and then notice when you no longer feel like looking at it, and then you look at something else. It just happens naturally, doesn’t it?

When you’re tired of looking at something and you look at something else, do you distinguish it from the wall? 

There are paintings in this room, in which we can distinguish one color from another, and we put it into items. There’s a lotus and there’s a Buddha. We do that even before we give it a name. We don’t have to give it a name in our head because we know that it’s a lotus. First, we put it together as an item, and then conceptually it fits in the category of lotus. All of that’s nonverbal and this distinguishing is going on all the time.

We can pay close attention or not very much attention at all. There’s even a type of attention in which we don’t want to look at something anymore. After that, an urge comes up to look at something else. When we stay looking at it, on some level we could say that it’s pleasant and we’re happy to look at it. We’re comfortable. It feels okay to look at it. Then, it’s no longer so comfortable; it’s not so pleasant, and then we look at something else.

It’s even more interesting when we apply this to listening to somebody or being with somebody. While we’re listening to what I’m saying now and what the translator is saying, is there an urge to listen, or is there an urge to do something else? While we’re sitting and listening, there can be urges to do something else, whether it’s to shift our position, whether it’s to scratch our head, to think about something else or to take notes. 

Are we distinguishing just the sound of the words and giving them some meaning? Our attention could be distracted and we’re listening to the traffic noise. What are we paying attention to? Are we paying attention to the sound of the words, or are we paying attention to the feeling in our knees beginning to hurt? What are we paying attention to? It changes all the time, doesn’t it? There might be a sensation at the back of our head that itches and we want to scratch it, and the urge comes up to scratch. 

Is it pleasant listening to the sound of my voice or the sound of the translator’s voice? Is there a feeling of happiness and being comfortable or not very comfortable? When we don’t understand English, for example, is it the same type of experience listening to English as it is to listen to the translator speaking in the language that is understood?

It’s very interesting. What is pleasant? What’s unpleasant? Somebody could have a very unpleasant voice, the sound of their voice, and it’s not very pleasurable to listen to them, but we’re very interested. Some translators speak in a very boring way, with no expression, and it’s not very pleasant to listen to them. Actually, they can be really boring to listen to, but if we’re really interested because we want to know what was being said, then it’s still pleasant. 

These factors can fit together in many different ways. Because we’re more interested, it will override the fact that it’s not so pleasant to listen to a voice. This falls into the sphere of attention. How do we pay attention to something? Do we pay attention to it as being important or being unimportant? Someone might have a monotonous and boring voice but if we regard their words as important, then we pay attention to the meaning of what they’re saying and easily disregard as irrelevant our feelings about their voice.

That’s one type of situation. Listening to a translation is not something we do all the time. However, we interact with people all the time, hopefully, unless we live totally isolated by ourselves. Sometimes, the way that others are talking can be really quite unpleasant. There are some people that are always repeating themselves, for example, or they speak so softly we really have to strain in order to listen to them. Or their voice is so loud that we feel blasted away. In this type of situation, what do we consider important or unimportant? Is it the tone of the voice, the fact that they’re repeating themselves constantly, or the problem that they’re facing that they want to discuss? 

Again, how do we pay attention? What are we distinguishing as the main focus of our attention? All these things are variables and they can change. That’s the whole essence or purpose of this type of training, to see that in each moment of our experience there are all these factors and we’ve only covered five of the ten so far. All of them interact with each other, affect each other, and they can be changed. Each one is a variable. They can be adjusted in a way which will optimize our healthy, beneficial interaction with somebody, or what I call “balanced sensitivity.”

Additionally, we need to be sensitive not only to the other person but to ourselves. We need to gain a balance and this is very important to bear in mind when we are adjusting these mental factors. We can also distinguish that we’re really tired, for example, and that’s pretty unpleasant and not a very happy type of feeling. We can ignore that, we can try not to pay attention to being so tired, but sometimes it becomes really strong, especially if we’re trying to keep our mouth shut and yawn without opening our mouth and so on, and it becomes very unpleasant. Sometimes, we have to be sensitive to ourselves in that situation. The other person is talking about all their problems and difficulties, and we need to explain that we’re really tired and that it’s become very difficult to listen. Of course, we apologize, and we can express that we really wish we could listen, but we are really exhausted and it’s hard to pay attention. We need a little break, or to talk more tomorrow. Otherwise, we’re really not paying attention to the other person. If we’re really honest about it, then usually most people will respond favorably to that and say okay.

So now we have these first five mental factors. Let’s take a moment again to digest them. To review the list: we have urges, distinguishing, attention, contacting awareness, and feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. What we need to do in order to recognize these things is just analyze right now, this moment.

What is making up our experience of this moment? 

What is the urge? 

What do we feel like doing? 

What are we distinguishing? Are we distinguishing our mood, or what’s on the wall, or distinguishing a sound? What are we distinguishing? 

What kind of attention are we paying to it and to everything else? 

Is it pleasant? Is it unpleasant? Do we feel some low level of being comfortable, happy, uncomfortable, or unhappy? What’s going on right now?

Actually, when we analyze like this, it becomes quite clear that there is no separate “me” from all of this. Is there a “me” that has no feeling of pleasure, no distinguishing, no urge? A “me” that is just blank, which then somehow connects to feeling happy or unhappy, or connects with distinguishing, or has an urge to do something? A “me” that, when we view it on its own, it exists completely separately from all of this, with nothing? When we analyze, it’s quite impossible for there to exist that kind of “me.”

Still, we feel happy. It’s not somebody else feeling happy, and it’s not just happiness. Of course, we feel happy, but it’s not a “me” that exists separately totally unconnected to happiness or unhappiness and then sort of comes into the room and connects with a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. This has huge consequences in terms of our emotional life, especially if we are obsessed with this quest for happiness, as if there were a “me” totally dissociated from feeling happy or unhappy, and now wants to connect with feeling happy. That can make us really worried and very upset. Most certainly, we want to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy. However, just simply do what is essential to be happy. 

In many ways, a computer analogy is very helpful. Sometimes we just have to reboot. This mood that we’re in, or this whole obsession with me, me, me, is like the program that is not functioning properly. Underlying everything we are experiencing, there is a very subtle level of mind that provided the continuity of our experience. To reboot, we go to this very subtle level and then reboot in a different mood. Just start again fresh. When we train ourselves, we can do that. We can reboot at any time, and we can do it quite quickly. It’s not so exotic.

We really need this ability when in an interaction with someone and we’re getting all excited, stressed or nervous. Our shoulders are up and our voice is very loud and we realize: “Error. Error. Something is malfunctioning.” Then we reboot. “Phew, okay!” We calm ourselves down. We put our shoulders down, and so on. It only takes a microsecond to do that once we’re trained. Once we’re calmer, we can speak in a much more relaxed tone. That’s how we deal with it. We just do it.

This is what we develop once we start working with these mental factors and realize that our mood, our state of mind, all these things can all be changed. We don’t have to do that as a controller.  We just do it, and we’re perfectly capable of doing it.

The Next Five Mental Factors 

Let’s go through the next five mental factors. 

Interest

The first in this next five factors is interest, or regard (mos-pa). Regard is a difficult word, but that’s the actual translation of the word. It’s not the Tibetan or Sanskrit word for interest, but it’s mostly equivalent to interest. Regard has to do with taking an object to have some level of good qualities. That’s the definition. When we regard something as having some level of good qualities, often we call this object interesting. When something is interesting, then we have interest in it, and then we would pay attention to it. If we regard it as not having very many good qualities, it’s not very interesting. Interest is actually a variable of whether we can distinguish good qualities in something.

For example, we’re in an interaction with somebody and they’re talking in a way that’s really boring, repeating themselves, and so on. We’ve distinguished that we’re feeling pretty bored, and we have an urge to just walk out of the room. We have no interest in what they’re saying. This means that we don’t regard what they’re saying as having any good qualities, or as being interesting. What are we distinguishing here? To distinguish the tone of their voice and the fact that they’re repeating themselves is probably not very interesting. However, when we distinguish their emotional state, what they’re trying to communicate, and in addition, we care about the person, then we’re distinguishing good qualities, and consequently, we have interest.

The whole variable of taking interest is connected with being able to distinguish a certain aspect that has good qualities, qualities that we consider important and care about. We can observe this very easily when we go to a store. For example, we see a beautiful dress or coat, and we distinguish the good quality of the material, the cut, the design and so on. However, if we have a limited amount of money, then the design is not the main thing that’s interesting. What is of interest is the good quality of the price. Is it a good price or not? “This is on sale. That’s good quality. That’s really interesting.” That’s what we’re distinguishing. That’s what we’re paying attention to. The factor that it’s not in our favorite color is acceptable and we can make do with that.

To review, interest is a factor of what we are distinguishing as being good quality, and what variable to us is important. Things are more or less important because of many factors such as, using our example, how much money we have, and whether or not we are concerned about fashion. Many things affect what we consider important. When we don’t have much time, and we can’t really shop for an hour, the first thing that we see, if it’s okay, we will buy it. It’s interesting what choice we make if the store is going to close in five minutes or if we have a lot of time to shop. Quite a different variable, isn’t it? Therefore, what we consider important and how much attention we pay to things, and so on, is dependent on so many causes and conditions.

Mindfulness

The next factor is usually translated as mindfulness (dran-pa). That’s a difficult term. I call it the mental glue. It is the mental activity of keeping a hold on an object once our attention focuses on it. Remember, with attention we engage with the object, and now mindfulness holds it there and doesn’t let go. It helps us not to let go while, of course, our mind wanders all the time. It’s mindfulness that we want to work with to hold onto that object and keep our attention engaged with it.

Often, we really have to work with that to keep our attention held on what the person is saying. We need this mental glue not to start thinking about something else, especially when we notice the urge to think about something else or comment, “This is really stupid,” “This is really boring,” or whatever. Then, there’s a type of attention that brings it back. We bring our attention back, and then we hold onto it with mindfulness.

All these are a big spectrum. Mindfulness can be a lot of mindfulness, a really steady hold, or a very weak hold. It could be too intense, as if we’re on top of the person. That also is a fault, isn’t it? It has to be in balance, not too tight and not too relaxed.

The factor of attention goes with this. What are we paying attention to in terms of that mindfulness? Often, people who are oversensitive are really paying attention. They’re really intensely listening, waiting for the other person to say something that they will find insulting or hurtful and so on. That’s a very unbalanced type of mindfulness.

Concentration 

Next, there’s the mental factor concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin). Concentration is mentally fixating on the object, or in other words, staying on the object. Mindfulness is the hold on the object, and the concentration is remaining on the object. We could be remaining on the object, our attention stays there, but the hold is very weak. These are two variables that are there.

This happens to everybody. For example, we’re watching TV or a movie, and we’re nodding off to sleep, but we really want to watch the program because it’s really very interesting. We’re really trying to hold on. In this case, the mindfulness is strong, but we can’t remain with it. The concentration isn’t there, so we’re constantly nodding off. These are two different variables here, two different mental factors.

Discrimination 

Then, the next one is discrimination or discriminating awareness (shes-rab). Discrimination adds certainty about what we distinguish. That’s its definition. This is what’s usually translated as wisdom. This translation can be quite misleading. We distinguish a feature and distinguish that it’s this and not that. Discrimination decides very decisively between two alternatives. It is this and it’s definitely not that. This is what I’m going to do, not that. This is beneficial and not harmful.

Now, of course, we can be completely certain about something and be totally incorrect. What we discriminate doesn’t necessarily have to be correct. For example, we have an interaction with somebody, and we distinguish the tone of their voice and the expression on their face and so on. There’s decisiveness about what this is. We are certain that they’re upset. We’re convinced that they are emotionally upset, whereas in fact, it could be that they have a headache or an upset stomach, and it’s just a physical thing. It’s not emotional at all. Even worse, we could discriminate that they’re upset with us, something that we did, whereas it could be they’re upset about something totally different. They dropped a glass during the day. The glass broke, and they’re upset and it’s nothing to do with us. 

However, in order to know what to do, to make the decision of what to do, how to respond, and how to interpret what we perceive, we have this discriminating awareness. It adds certainty to what we distinguish. It’s happening all the time. I mean, it’s really quite amazing. We look at these colored shapes of the wall, and we distinguish by putting together a certain set of colored shapes, and then conceptually we put them in the category of “door.” We’re really certain about distinguishing that it’s a door, and we walk through the doorway. We could be wrong; we could smack into the wall! It’s amazing how we need to have that certainty in order to walk through the door. Should we call that wisdom? Even a cow can do that. It can walk through the door of a barn. It doesn’t smack into the wall, does it?

Participant: Sometimes it’s a glass wall.

If it were glass, then although the cow can distinguish from the wall the empty space between the opened door of the barn can discriminate it with certainty non-conceptually when it looks at the barn, it might not have the proper conceptual framework to fit what it sees in, like a bird that smacks into a window. They  don’t have the concept of a glass window. In this case, this is incorrect discrimination and incorrect consideration. Their certainty that it is an open space is incorrect and they take it to mind or consider it incorrectly as an open space. Sometimes that happens to us as well with glass.

Intention 

Then, the last factor of these five is intention (‘dun-pa). Intention is the wish or intent to do a specific action toward or with a specific object. An urge, however, draws us to do it, not the intention on its own.  The intention could be, for instance, the wish to have some specific object. We’ve distinguished the object from others and discriminated it so that now we are certain that this is what we want. There is the intention to have it, or to do something with it, or to achieve some desired goal. We distinguish a certain physical feeling. We discriminate it with certainty and fit it into the correct conceptual category of what it is. For example, let’s say it is hunger. What follows is the intention to achieve some goal, perhaps to get to the refrigerator and open the door and take something to eat. It’s very simple. We have this all the time.

How These Ten Factors Are Involved When Dealing with Ourselves and Others

All of these mental factors are involved in our interactions with others and how we deal with ourselves. We need to be able to distinguish how we feel and have some discrimination of what it actually is, a bit of certainty, and the intention of how we’re going to deal with it.

For example, of all the physical sensations that we’re experiencing, the sensation of the chair underneath us, the sensation of our clothing on us, the sensation of the temperature of the room, within all of that we are distinguishing that our shoulders are up. How we’re holding our shoulders, that’s what we distinguish. That’s a physical sensation. There’s tension in the muscles. Next, we add certainty, that the muscles in our shoulders are tense. They’re up. Following that, comes the intention to put them down, to relax. 

It’s very useful to work with these mental factors. What are we going to pay attention to? What do we consider interesting? It’s interesting what our muscles are doing, what it feels like when there is stress in our muscles. Why is it interesting? It’s a quality that is important because it makes us feel stressed. Therefore, we put them down.

To briefly repeat our second set of five mental factors, we have interest, mindfulness, concentration, discrimination and intention. That makes ten.

Concluding Remarks

In our next session, we’ll answer some questions about these factors. That is always the best way to start a new session after lunch because everybody is sleepy, including me, so it becomes a little bit more interesting. What’s interesting about these mental factors? What’s the good quality of them? Well, it gives the audience a chance to say something and to participate. I’m curious about this and enjoy hearing what other people are thinking. That’s a good quality, to care about what other people are thinking, what they have to say, and what the answer might be. That will cause us to pay a little bit more attention to the questions and answers rather than paying attention to the sleepiness that we still feel from having eaten and the room being hot because it’s a sunny summer day.

These mental factors are involved with every single moment of our experience and if we were aware of that, then we could mold situations in such a way that they would optimize the experience. Once again, although it might feel as though there’s a separate “me” sitting in the room in our head figuring out, “How can I keep people’s interest on a hot day right after lunch?,” it’s not like that. There’s just the thinking process that’s occurring. Thoughts are coming up about what to do and how to handle things. Decisions are made and we just do it. It’s not that there’s a separate “me” totally dissociated from being here and being involved with this lecture and then deciding to act in one way or another. Although it might feel like that, that’s what is deceptive. 

Let’s end here, and we’ll continue in the next session.

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