7 Shifting Focus to Mental Activity

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The naturally occurring internal resources that allow for balanced sensitivity – joy, focus, warmth, understanding, self-control, and a feeling of inspiration – are all factors of mind and heart. To work effectively with these factors requires a powerful conceptual framework. It must be broad enough to include all relevant aspects of mind and heart and to make comprehensible the approaches used for treating each. The Buddhist presentation of mind provides such a framework.

Integrating Mind and Heart

Most Western systems of metaphysics sharply divide between mind and heart. The former deals with rational thinking, while the latter accounts for emotions and feelings. Buddhism, in contrast, groups these three facets under the rubric of one term and includes with them sense perception, imagination, dreaming, sleep, and unconsciousness. By default, Western languages translate the term as "mind."

Viewing mind and heart as two facets of the same phenomenon brings fewer obstacles in integrating understanding and warmth. Any program for balancing sensitivity needs to take this point seriously. A dualistic view of mind and heart contributes significantly to alienation from logical processes or from emotions and feelings. This is especially true if we regard one of them as trustworthy or good and the other as suspicious or evil.

Mind Is Not Some Physical Entity in Our Head

Mind has no form. It is not a material organ found somewhere in the brain. Nor is it reducible to something physical, like the nervous system or the electrochemical processes that describe neurological functions. Mind is also not merely an abstract metaphysical entity that is the fancy of philosophers. From the Buddhist point of view, the phenomenon translated as "mind" is not an entity at all. Rather, the word "mind" refers to the mental activity – both conscious and unconscious – that occurs based on an individual's brain, nervous system, and the physiological processes of the two.

Further, the term "mind" does not refer to the agent of mental activity. Nor does the word refer to a tool that we use to comprehend a sight, to think a thought, or to feel an emotion. The word "mind" denotes only mental activity itself, such as seeing, thinking, or feeling something. It even includes subtle mental activity while asleep.

When we regard our mind as a "thing" inside us, we often project a fixed identity onto it. We imagine, for example, that our mind is incapable of feeling anything or of handling the emotions that overwhelm it. Identifying with our mind, we judge ourselves as inadequate or we make excuses. We insist that others accept us because this is the way that we are. If, instead, we view our mind as mental activity, we are more open to the fact that, with a change of circumstances, our experiences change. As we recognize and enhance the positive factors that already accompany our mental activity, we naturally become more balanced in our sensitivity.

When we take this approach, we see that sensitivity does not depend on the competence or worthiness of ourselves as a person. Nor is it the activity of some fixed entity in our head. Therefore, blaming our mind or ourselves for being insensitive or hypersensitive is pointless. Without self-recrimination, we need simply to adjust the attentiveness and responsiveness that accompany our mental activity during any event.

Mind as the Ever-changing Experience of Things

Mental activity always involves an object. We do not just see. If we see, we see a sight. If we think, we think a thought. Moreover, the objects of our mental activity are always changing. One moment we are seeing the wall and the next we are seeing the sight of a loved one. Even if we stare at the wall, our focus constantly shifts very slightly. In any particular moment, the seeing and the sight do not exist independently of each other. Therefore, when we see something different, our experience of seeing a sight has also changed.

An experience, then, does not have merely emotional contents. We cannot experience a mood, for example, without perceiving some object at the same time. Thus, we cannot feel depressed without simultaneously seeing the wall or thinking about something either verbally or otherwise. Even if our depression is not about anything conscious and we shut our eyes and do not think any verbal thoughts, still we perceive darkness while being depressed. Intellectually, we can distinguish a mood from the objects perceived while in that mood, but we always experience the two together.

Furthermore, a mood is not a monolithic mental entity. It consists of a cluster of factors, such as feelings, emotions, attention, interest, and so on. As the objects we experience change each moment, each of these mental factors also naturally changes – and not all at the same time or rate. Therefore, a mood never remains static.

Confusion about these points often makes us insensitive to the present moment. Before encountering someone, we might imagine that our state of mind would remain the same as it had been until then. Alternatively, we might expect our experience to repeat previous ones with the person. For example, suppose our interaction with colleagues at work was difficult this morning. We became upset at the slightest things they said. Concluding that we are having a bad day, we might assume that the rest of it would undoubtedly be the same.

This does not have to be the case. When we see our family in the evening, we are having a new experience, with fresh mental activity involving different objects. If we are mindful of this fact, we can let go of what we conceived as our previous mood and become calm, warm, and understanding.

Individuality of Experience

Minds are individual. My experience of seeing a sight is never the same as yours. This is because the sight of someone's face that we see depends on the angle and distance from which we look. What we see from the right side at two feet away is different from what someone thirty feet away simultaneously sees from the left. If we each took a picture at the same moment, the two photos would not be the same. Yet, each would be an accurate semblance of the face.

Comprehending this point convinces us that each person's experience makes sense within its own context. This is true regarding not only what people see or hear, but also how they interpret it. Appreciating this fact helps us to overcome the insensitivity of imagining that only what we see or think is correct. Such insight is the bedrock upon which to build a lasting form of conflict resolution.

Suppose, for example, we bought a complex entertainment system for the house. When our partner came home, we offered to go through the instruction book together. Our partner took the suggestion as an insult and furiously accused us of not trusting him or her. We, on the other hand, simply had wanted the intimacy and joy of sharing the experience. Taking our partner's hypersensitive response as a personal rejection, we concluded that he or she does not love us anymore.

To resolve this misunderstanding, both of us need to recall the example of two people looking at the same face from different perspectives. Each sees something different and yet each sees something correct. We need to acknowledge the validity of each other's experience of the conversation and accept the background and reasons for the other's response. Once we dispel the arrogant belief that only our experience of the event is correct, we can regain our composure.

Mind as an Unbroken Continuum

Each person's mind, or mental activity, has unbroken continuity. One experience follows another, forming an orderly continuum obeying the laws of cause and effect. Reflecting on this fact, we realize that our lack of sensitivity in some situations and oversensitive outbursts in others have both immediate and continuing effects. Shock waves from them unsettle our own and others' minds. We are responsible for our attitudes and behavior. Denying that they matter does not prevent them from creating problems.

Buddhism explains that mental activity continues uninterruptedly not only in this lifetime, but without beginning or end. Whether or not we believe in past and future lives, we gain stronger motivation to balance our sensitivity when we consider an undeniable fact. The effects of our behavior carry on not only into old age, but also into future generations. If we do not respond sensitively to our children, for example, we affect their psychological makeup. This, in turn, plays an important role in how they will raise their future families. We need to think carefully about our emotional legacy. If we do not wish to burden future generations with psychological fallout from our behavior, we need to work on our problems now.

General Definition of Mind

Training in Tibetan Buddhist logic involves studying ways of knowing (lorig). The literature on this topic defines mind as "mere clarity and awareness." Just as mind is not an entity, however, neither is clarity or awareness. Characterizing each moment of our life's experience, they are facets of mental activity regarding an object.

"Clarity" refers to the mental activity of producing a mental object. Here, it has nothing to do with sharpness of focus. Describing this mental activity from a Western point of view, we would say that in each moment our mind creates a mental object. From a Buddhist point of view, we would simply say that each moment of our experience entails the arising or appearing of such an object. Mental objects include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile or physical sensations, dreams, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

To avoid misunderstanding, we must differentiate between someone's face and the sight of that face. What we see is a sight – an image on our retina – not actually the face itself. Our mind gives rise only to the sight of someone's face. It does this by relying on visual consciousness, that person's face, and the sensory cells of our eyes. Our mind does not produce the face itself. Sights exist only within the context of being seen by a mind, whereas objects, such as our face, exist whether or not anybody sees them. The pimple on our nose does not disappear when we cover it with cream or do not look in the mirror. The only thing that vanishes is our experience of seeing the sight of it.

"Awareness," the second word of the definition of mind, is the mental activity of engaging with a mental object in some way or another. Experiencing something necessarily entails either seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, physically feeling, dreaming, thinking, or emotionally feeling it. This is the case whether or not that mental engagement is conscious or with understanding. Moreover, producing a mental object and engaging with it are two facets of the same activity. They occur simultaneously, not consecutively. A thought does not arise before we think it.

The word "mere" in the definition implies that producing an appearance of something and engaging with it are all that are necessary for mental activity. Neither focus nor comprehension is required, although these and other mental factors may be present.

"Mere" also excludes not just the necessity, but the existence of a concrete, findable mind or agent "in here" that is making a sight arise or doing the seeing of it. "Mere," however, does not negate the fact that, conventionally speaking, our mind, not our nose, produces and engages with appearances. Moreover, we, not anybody else, see or think them. The mind and person involved, however, are neither concrete nor findable "things" in our head. If we imagine they are, we soon project onto them a fixed identity as, for example, inherently insensitive or overemotional. Consequently, we do not even try to change our personality. We feel that we and everyone else must learn to live with it.

Further, when we conceive of ourselves as a concrete "boss" inside our head who must always be in control, we may create other problems for ourselves. For instance, when we act insensitively or overreact, we may hurl allegations and insults at this chief. We may think that the boss should have been in control, but was not. Switching sides and identifying with the boss, we may then feel guilty. On the other hand, we may be afraid that if no boss were in control, the only alternative would be that our mental activity is out of control. This understanding is also mistaken. "Mere" does not exclude the fact that mental factors of discrimination and self-control can always accompany our thoughts and our feelings.

Significance of the Definition of Mind for Sensitivity Issues

Understanding the definition of mind is crucial for balancing our sensitivity. It enables us to see that regulating the factors that accompany our mental activity changes our personality and experience of life. Consider what happens when we encounter somebody. The framework of our experience is the simultaneous arising of his or her image and the seeing of it. Certain mental factors always accompany each moment of experience, such as some level of attention and interest. If we wish to improve our sensitivity, we need to adjust them. Other factors are optional. We can see someone either with or without the filter of preconceptions and moral judgments. The choice is ours. Still other factors are totally absent, such as a concrete "me" that is looking out our eyes and around whom we crystallize self-consciousness, insecurity, or paranoia.

When we understand these points concerning our mental activity, we can apply them to handle difficult situations with emotional balance. Consider the misunderstanding with our partner over learning to use the sound equipment. He or she accused us unjustly. We can avoid overreacting if we experience hearing these words as the mere arising and engaging with a sound. Recognizing what we experience as merely the mental activity of the moment, we simply go on with the next moment of experience.

Thinking like this does not mean that we ignore our partner's words, with either a blank expression on our face or an idiotic benevolent grin. We understand their meaning perfectly well. Nevertheless, by not identifying ourselves – the one who hears the sounds – as a concrete entity inside us, we avoid taking the words personally. Moreover, by not inflating the words out of proportion, we do not take what we hear as showing our partner's true feelings toward us. Thus, we do not take offence or become defensive or aggressive. We remain sensitive to what is causing him or her upset and we respond in a calm, patient, and understanding manner. If we can do this when a four-year-old says, "I hate you," after we have denied him or her candy before mealtime, we can do the same with our partner.

Exercise 7: Shifting Focus to Mental Activity

The Kagyu style of mahamudra meditation suggests the next exercise. We begin by relaxing our body and mind of any physical, mental, or emotional tension we may have. We do this through paying particular attention to our posture, by using the breathing method of letting go, and by applying the images of worry and tension being like writing on water and swells on the ocean.

Keeping our eyes opened, we look slowly around the room and listen carefully to whatever noises there might be. We try to notice the mechanism that automatically occurs each moment of seeing and hearing. The baseline is the simultaneous arising of sights or sounds and engaging with them. Aimed at an object, such as the clock or its ticking, our mental activity simultaneously produces and perceives the mental objects that constitute what we directly experience. In other words, producing an appearance of something and perceiving it are two facets of the same activity. Once we have recognized what is happening whenever we see, hear, or think about something, we try to accompany our moment-to-moment mental activity with a clear understanding of the mechanism involved.

Verbalizing our understanding is not necessary. We are perfectly able to understand something without saying anything in our mind. Consider seeing a traffic light turn red, understanding the significance, and applying the brakes. We can easily do this without verbalizing that the light is red and we need to stop.

First, we try to look and listen while understanding that we are simultaneously producing and perceiving appearances of objects. Then, we try to look and listen while feeling that this process is happening. Lastly, we alternate realization and feeling, and then try to combine the two. To do this, we need to understand what feeling means in this context.

The English word "feeling" has many meanings. These include a physical sensation, an emotion, a level of happiness or sadness, a level of sensitivity, and an aesthetic sense. A feeling may also be an imagined experience, an urge to do something, an intuition, an impression, an opinion, or a sense of identity or reality. We may feel hungry, angry, happy, sensitive, or creative. We may try to feel what it is like to fly, or we may feel like eating. We may also feel that something wonderful will happen, that we are at an important point in our life, that something is not right, or that we are talented. Here, we are using the word "feeling" to mean a sense of reality.

We can appreciate the difference between understanding something and feeling that it is happening through the analogy of flying in an airplane. Often during a flight, we are unaware that we are flying. Nevertheless, we can experience the journey with an understanding that we are traveling through the air at high speed. We may also feel that we are speeding in a plane. Here, we do not mean feeling the physical sensation of flying, but feeling the reality of what is happening. We can similarly feel, as we look and listen, that our mental activity is producing and engaging with the audiovisual impressions that we perceive.

Keeping our mental activity unself-conscious is crucial here. This means not conceiving of a concrete, findable "me" or mind inside our head that is the passive observer or active controller of our mental activity. Viewing our experience from the perspective of the removed observer can reinforce a habit of insensitivity. Alienated from our feelings, we may find difficulty responding to what we observe. On the other hand, if we view our mental activity as a controller or boss, we may strengthen our tendency to overreact. This occurs due to overintense involvement with what is happening and the anxious struggle to manipulate it, arising out of self-importance and insecurity.

Therefore, we try to experience each moment with an understanding that our mental activity is occurring without a concrete "me" or a concrete mind. Then, we try to look and listen without feeling self-conscious. Lastly, we try to combine both realization and a feeling of no concrete "me" with looking and listening.

In shifting our focus from mind to unself-conscious mental activity, we must also be careful not to deny the conventional existence of our mind or of ourselves. Otherwise, we may face the danger of no longer taking responsibility for what we think, feel, say, or do. We might act in this way because we feel that there is no one accountable or that our experience is out of control. To prevent this from happening, we now try to look and listen while understanding our reality. Although we do not exist as a concrete boss in our head, we are still accountable for what we experience and how we experience it. After trying to look and listen with this understanding for a few minutes, we try to look and listen while feeling accountable. Then, we try to combine both realization and a feeling of accountability with our mental activity as it continues.

Next, we try to notice and focus on the fact that each moment of our experience has different contents, which continually change, like a flowing stream. These contents consist not only of various sights, sounds, or thoughts, but also of diverse emotions and different levels of interest, attention, and so forth. First, we try to add this understanding to our ongoing mental activity of seeing and hearing. Then, we try to look and listen while feeling the flowing change. Lastly, we try to combine both realization and a feeling of continual change with our moment-to-moment experience.

We then try to observe that what we experience is particular to ourselves alone. It depends on our physical and mental perspectives. If we are practicing in a group, for instance, and someone coughs, each of us experiences hearing the sound differently. Some hear it with annoyance as an interruption to their concentration, while others hear it with concern that someone might be sick. If our leg starts to hurt, we may similarly experience either irritation or gentle regard. First, we try to look and listen while understanding that our experience is particular to us. Then, as we look and listen, we try to feel the individuality of our experience, like feeling the uniqueness of ourselves as a person. In the end, we try to experience simultaneous realization and feeling of distinctness as our mental activity continues.

Next, we think how our mental activity forms a continuum and that what we perceive, think, and feel now will affect our future experiences. If we are insensitive to others or to ourselves, or if we overreact to inconvenience, we will continue to experience unhappiness. If we wish to avoid unpleasant experiences, we need to develop a better understanding of life. First, we try to supplement our seeing, hearing, and thinking with the understanding that we will experience the effects of our mental activity. Then, we try to accompany our looking and listening with a feeling for this, like the feeling of certainty we have that we will be happy when we come home and see our loved ones. Lastly, we try to combine joint realization and feeling of cause and effect with our ongoing mental activity.

The final step is to try to understand and feel all these points together as we look around the room and listen. To start the process, our workshop leader or we may repeat slowly, one by one, the eight key phrases:

  • "producing and perceiving appearances,"
  • "no observer,"
  • "no controller,"
  • "and yet accountable for what I experience,"
  • "changing appearances,"
  • "changing mental factors,"
  • "particular to myself alone,"
  • "I experience the effects of my mental activity."

With each phrase, we try to look and listen with joint understanding and a feeling for reality.

We begin to integrate the points into our deep awareness network by alternating two phrases that condense three aspects, "producing and perceiving appearances" and "no self-consciousness." Then, we add a third phrase, "accountable." One by one, we add the condensed key phrases:

  • "flowing change,"
  • "particular to me," and finally
  • "I experience the effects."

Repeating these phrases too often may distract our attention. It may also cause our practice to become more intellectual than experiential. Hearing or repeating the phrases should merely remind us of our understanding and feeling, and help us to maintain our focus. The main point is to remain fresh in the experience of each moment's mental activity, with mindfulness, alertness, and increasingly more understanding and feeling for the reality of what is happening.

During the second phase of the exercise, we sit in a circle with our group and focus on one or on several persons, whichever is more comfortable. To provide an obviously changing object of focus, each of us needs to move our head or to shift position from time to time and occasionally to change facial expression. We do this while following the previous procedure to try to add increasingly more understanding and feeling for reality to our mental activity of seeing one or more persons. Then we repeat the procedure while facing a partner.

During the third phase, we follow the same procedure while looking at ourselves in a mirror, occasionally moving our head and changing expression. From time to time, we also look away or close our eyes to add variety to the experience. Throughout the process, we focus not only on what we see, but also on our emotions, feelings, and any seeming lack of them that we might experience. Lastly, we repeat the procedure as we alternate looking at the series of photos of ourselves and closing our eyes.

Outline of Exercise 7: Shifting Focus to Mental Activity

I. While looking around the room

  • Relax physical tension by sitting with your back straight and your shoulders down
  • Release mental and emotional stress by imagining them leaving with the breath, or simultaneously arising and disappearing like writing on water, or passing like swells on the ocean
  • Look slowly around the room and listen to whatever noises there might be
    • Recognize the mechanism of your mental activity: simultaneous production and perception of the sights, sounds, and thoughts of your experience
    • Look and listen with an understanding of this mechanism, with a feeling for it, and then with joint realization and feeling
  • Note that mental activity occurs without a concrete "me" or a concrete mind passively observing or actively controlling it
    • Look and listen with an understanding of this absence, with a feeling of no self-consciousness, and then with both
  • Note that although you do not exist as a concrete boss in your head, you are still accountable for what you experience
    • Look and listen with an understanding of your accountability, with a feeling of it, and then with both
  • Note that the contents of your experience change each moment – both the appearances your mental activity produces and the mental factors that accompany your perception of them
    • Look and listen with an understanding of flowing change, with a feeling of it, and then with both
  • Note that what you experience is particular to yourself alone
    • Look and listen with an understanding of the individuality of your experience, with a feeling of it, and then with both
  • Note that your mental activity forms a continuum and that what you perceive, think, and feel now will affect your future experiences
    • Look and listen with an understanding that you will experience the effects of your mental activity, with a feeling of this, and then with both
  • Repeat several times the sequence of looking and listening with a joint understanding and feeling for each point, one at a time, by using the key phrases
    • "producing and perceiving appearances"
    • "no observer"
    • "no controller"
    • "and yet accountable for what I experience"
    • "changing appearances"
    • "changing mental factors"
    • "particular to myself alone"
    • "I experience the effects of my mental activity"
  • Look and listen with a joint understanding and feeling for an increasingly larger number of these points simultaneously, by using first two, then three, four, five, and finally all six key phrases
    • "producing and perceiving appearances"
    • "no self-consciousness"
    • "accountable"
    • "flowing change"
    • "particular to me"
    • "I experience the effects"

II. While focusing on someone in person

(1) Repeat the procedure while sitting in a circle with a group and focusing on one or on several persons, whichever is more comfortable, being sure that each person moves his or her head or shifts position from time to time and occasionally changes facial expression

(2) Repeat the procedure while facing a partner

III. While focusing on yourself

(1) Repeat the procedure while looking in a mirror, also being sure to move your head and change your expression from time to time, and then occasionally looking away or closing your eyes

(2) Repeat the procedure, alternately looking at a series of photos of yourself and closing your eyes