Mental Activity as Clear Light
Many Buddhist texts describe the nature of mind – in other words, the nature of mental activity – as "clear light." Clear light, however, is merely an analogy. It does not mean that we possess, literally, a light source deep inside, like a lightbulb in the recesses of our brain. Mind is neither a source nor an agent that shines a spotlight on objects, rendering them known. Nor is mind the spotlight itself. Rather, the term "clear light" implies that mental activity, by nature, is as clear as empty space. Like empty space, it allows for any mental object – not only a sight, but also a sound or a thought – to arise and be known, as if that object were something visible being illumined in the dark.
The term "clear," then, refers to an absence. In other words, by nature, mental activity is clear of various "stains" which do not adulterate it. There are two types of stains: fleeting and natural. The former can exist; the latter are imaginary.
Fleeting stains may be present but, since they pass, they are not inherent flaws. Some fleeting stains prevent liberation from suffering and obstruct the ability to help others. Examples are disturbing emotions and attitudes. Others, such as conceptual thoughts, do not create such problems. Some may even help to overcome them. Nevertheless, with the attainment of Buddhahood, mental activity continues without them.
Natural stains refer to concrete, findable features in mental activity that would cause it to exist in impossible ways. Such features include inherent flaws and omnipotence to change reality. When we deeply investigate the nature of mental activity, we can never find such features, despite our possible belief in them. Since natural stains are merely imaginary, mental activity is naturally without them.
Our mind operates on two levels. On the grosser level, our mental activity contains the fleeting stains of disturbing emotions and thoughts. On the subtler level, it is devoid of such stains. Both levels of mind, however, are naturally devoid of inherent flaws. This subtler level, also known as clear light or subtlest mind, underlies each moment of our experience. It provides the continuity of our mental activity.
Four Types of Clear Light Nature
Several aspects of mental activity are unadulterated by either fleeting or natural stains and are therefore as clear as empty space. Each of them accounts for the fact that mental objects can arise and be known. Consequently, mental activity has four types of clear light nature:
- its defining characteristic – merely producing mental objects and engaging with them,
- its self-void nature – its lack of existing in fantasized and impossible ways,
- its subtlest level – that which provides its continuity, and
- its other-void nature – its subtlest level being devoid of grosser levels of mental activity.
In other words, no matter how confused or preoccupied our mental activity may be,
- it still produces mental objects and engages with them and
- it still does not exist in impossible ways. Its subtlest level
- still provides its unbroken continuity and
- is undisturbed by the churning of its grosser levels.
All these aspects of mind's clear light nature allow it to know its objects despite the stains that might temporarily taint it.
Nothing Can Affect Mind's Fourfold Clear Light Nature
Mental activity does not exist or occur in impossible ways. Self-voidness theories explain that this is a permanent fact that is always the case. Nothing can affect its truth. The other-voidness position agrees and asserts the same regarding mind's other three clear light natures.
A level of mental activity
- with a structure of producing appearances and engaging with them,
- which provides continuity from one moment to the next, and
- which is devoid of grosser levels, is also permanent.
It is permanent in that its presence and functioning are always the case. This is true no matter what appearance mind produces and engages, and no matter what mental factors accompany that activity. Thus, by nature, mind is unadulterated by stains.
In short, although mental objects and factors are constantly changing, mind's clear light natures remain forever the same. From one point of view, disturbing emotions and thoughts affect our experiences. As these factors change, so do our experiences. From another point of view, the structure of our experiences never alters. The subtlest level of our mind is unaffected by disturbing emotions and thoughts because it is devoid of these grosser levels. Our basic mental activity of producing mental objects and engaging with them is also unaffected, although emotions and thoughts are part of it. This latter fact is significant for our discussion.
Relevance of Clear Light to Issues of Sensitivity
When we successfully develop balanced sensitivity, our mental activity of producing appearances and engaging with them is free of all stains. It becomes like clear light. In the terminology of mahamudra, we reach our "naturally unadulterated state" that was always the case. Our clear light activity has never existed with inherent flaws. It was never true that we could not feel anything or that we were too sensitive to deal with difficult situations. Our fears and self-centered attitudes were just passing phases that were not inherent, permanent parts of our personality. The conceptual framework we used for balancing our emotions was very useful, but we no longer need it. We automatically are fully attentive of others and of ourselves. Moreover, we spontaneously respond in a balanced manner without any conscious, deliberate thought.
Exercise 8: Appreciating the Clear Light Nature of Mental Activity
We begin the first phase of this exercise by choosing someone with whom we presently have or have previously had a volatile relationship. For example, we may choose a relative or friend whom we miss when we are apart, but who frequently annoys us when we are together. We place a photograph of the person before us, making sure to select an image with a neutral expression, not a smile. As we shall be working with a variety of feelings and thoughts toward the person, we need to focus on an image that is more easily open to different emotional responses.
First, we try to experience the fact that mind's clear light nature of producing and engaging with mental objects is never blocked or stained. Focusing on the sight of the person's face in the photo, we try to remain aware of the mental activity that is happening while seeing the image. That activity is simply the simultaneous creation of the appearance we perceive and the seeing of it. Then, recalling an upsetting incident that we had with the person, we try to generate a feeling of annoyance. We stop and observe whether our disturbing emotion prevents the mental activity that produces the sight of the face and our seeing of it.
We then look away from the photo and think of the person, by using a mental image, a feeling, or simply a name to represent him or her. We may keep our eyes either opened or closed, whichever is more comfortable. Again, we try to recall the incident and feel annoyed. Does our annoyance block the person's name or an image of his or her face from arising in our mind and our thinking of it? In fact, we cannot be consciously annoyed with the person without somehow thinking of him or her.
Next, we recall an upsetting situation that had nothing to do with the person and generate a feeling of annoyance, for instance with our work. We look at the photo in this state of mind and examine whether our emotion prevents our mental activity of producing and seeing the sight. Still feeling annoyed with work, we then try to think of the person. Although this may be difficult if we are extremely upset, nevertheless we can at least think of the person's name. In the end, personal experience leads us to conclude that no matter how disturbed our mind may be, it does not affect our moment-to-moment mental activity of producing appearances and engaging with them. We can still see and we can still think. Therefore, no matter how emotionally distraught we may be, we can still be aware of others' situations. Being upset, we might not pay much attention to their situation, but disturbing emotions do not incapacitate us from being able to see or think of it. We try to digest this realization.
Looking once more at the photograph, we consciously think a verbal thought about the person, such as "This is a human being." We investigate whether the thought prevents our mental activity from producing the sight of the face and our seeing of it. We then do the same while merely thinking of the person nonverbally. How can we think this person is a human being without thinking of the person? Next, we think something that has nothing to do with the person, such as "It is time for lunch." Can we simultaneously think that thought and see the photo? Can we think that thought while also picturing the person's face in our mind? Experience leads us to conclude that verbal thought also does not block our seeing or thinking of someone. We try to focus on this fact.
Again looking at the photo, we think, "I cannot relate to this person." Even if we believe this is true, is there some inherent flaw in our mental activity that prevents us from seeing what we see? We repeat the thought while merely thinking of the person and ask the same question. Through this process, we discover another crucial fact that allows us balanced sensitivity. Natural stains also do not obscure or obstruct our mind's clear light nature of merely producing appearances and perceiving them. No matter what we believe, we can be properly sensitive when we see or think of someone. Again, we try to let this realization sink in by focusing on the feeling and conviction that this is true.
Next, we try to experience that nothing can affect our mind's clear light nature of self-voidness – the fact that it does not exist in impossible ways. One impossible way would be that our mind could alter reality – not just our subjective experience of reality, but objective reality itself. When we believe that our mind has this power, we imagine that whatever we think of someone is true, simply because we think it is so. Such a belief underlies feeling that our opinion of someone is always correct. Thinking this makes us insensitive to the person's reality and often leads to overreaction based on belief in fantasy. In this exercise, let us examine this issue only on its most obvious level. We shall explore it in depth later.
First, we look at the photograph with fear and think, "This person is a monster." Do our feelings or thoughts make the person a monster? No, they do not. Someone may act like a monster, or we may merely think that the person acts like a monster. However, no one actually is a monster, because actual monsters do not exist. Repeating the procedure while merely thinking of the person, we conclude and try to focus on the fact that our mind cannot change reality. Our mental activity does not exist with this impossible power.
Then, we try to experience the fact that a subtle clear light level of mind underlies each moment of our experience and, being other-void, it is devoid of all stains. To do this, we investigate what provides the continuity of our experience of looking at or thinking of the face in the picture. We try to regard the sight and then the thought of the face with annoyance, longing, and finally with jealousy. Since none of these disturbing emotions last and each can be replaced with the next, the level of mental activity that provides continuity must be a subtler one that underlies all emotions. We try the same experiment with a variety of verbal thoughts about the person and reach the same conclusion. The level that provides continuity must underlie and be more fundamental than verbal thought too.
What remains of our mental activity now is merely seeing and thinking of an image of the face. We slowly alternate the two, closing our eyes when thinking of the person if we had not been doing this before. In both cases, there is an arising of an appearance and an engaging with it. The fundamental mental activity is the same. Thus, the common locus underlying all our experiences and providing their continuity is the mental activity of merely producing appearances and engaging with them. We try to focus for some minutes on that realization.
Lastly, we try to incorporate these insights into our moment-to-moment experience, by looking at the photo and using the key phrases:
- "producing and perceiving appearances,"
- "unaffected by emotions or thoughts,"
- "not inherently flawed,"
- "incapable of changing reality,"
- "always there."
First, we work with one realization at a time as we go through the sequence. Then, to expand our deep awareness network, we try to be aware of increasingly more points simultaneously, by working first with two phrases, then three, four, and finally all five. As with the previous exercise, we do not repeat the phrases more than once every few minutes. Otherwise, they become distracting. We then repeat the procedure while merely thinking of the person.
Next, we sit in a circle with a group and repeat the entire exercise two or three times. Each time, we alternate looking at a different person in the group and merely thinking of him or her for the entire sequence, but without focusing on someone who is simultaneously focusing on us. With someone we know fairly well, we can generate disturbing emotions by trying to remember incidents in which we might have been impatient with the person, felt superior or inferior, and so on. With people we do not know well or whom we do not know at all, we may try to recall an emotional incident from our life also during the first step. When we meet someone new, we can often be upset about something that happened with somebody else.
During the second part of this phase of the exercise, we repeat the procedure while facing a partner, alternately looking at the person and merely thinking of him or her while closing our eyes. When generating various emotions during the first step, we may either do the same as when sitting in a circle or use the nervousness and shyness we might feel now if we do not know the person.
During the third phase, we alternate looking at ourselves in a mirror and merely picturing our image or thinking our name. We follow the same steps as before. To generate a disturbing emotion during the first step, we try to recall feeling low self-esteem, self-hatred, or self-importance, and then try to feel these emotions again. Lastly, we repeat the procedure while looking at the series of photos of ourselves and then looking away and imagining ourselves at each of those periods in our life. When generating various emotions, we try to recall moments of feeling self-hatred or self-importance regarding ourselves as we were then.
Outline of Exercise 8: Appreciating the Clear Light Nature of Mental Activity
I. While focusing on someone with whom you have a volatile relationship
Choose a photo of the person having a neutral expression and look at it while understanding the mental activity that is occurring: the simultaneous production and perception of the sight of the person's face
Recall an upsetting incident that you had with the person and generate a feeling of annoyance
- Examine whether the disturbing emotion prevents the mental activity that produces the sight of the face and your seeing of it
- Look away from the photo and think of the person, by using a mental image, a feeling, or simply a name to represent him or her
- Again recall the incident, feel annoyed, and examine whether the emotion blocks the mere arising of a thought of the person and your thinking it
- Repeat the procedure by recalling an upsetting incident that had nothing to do with the person, by generating a feeling of annoyance, and by looking at the photo and then merely thinking of the person's name while being annoyed
- Conclude and focus on the fact that emotional upset does not affect your mental activity of producing appearances and perceiving them – no matter how distraught you are, you can still be aware of others' situations
Look at the photo and then merely think of the person nonverbally, while also thinking, "This person is a human being."
- Examine whether the thought prevents the mere arising of the sight of the face and your seeing of it, or the mere arising of a thought of the person and thinking it
- Repeat the procedure while thinking something that has nothing to do with the person, such as "It's time for lunch."
- Conclude and focus on the fact that thought also does not affect the basic mechanism of your mental activity – no matter how distracted you are, you can still be aware of others' situations
Look at the photo and then merely think of the person, while also thinking, "I can't relate to this person."
- Examine whether this thought creates an inherent flaw in your mental activity that prevents you from seeing or thinking of the person
- Conclude and focus on the fact that no matter what you think, your mental activity is not stained by natural flaws that prevent it from functioning – no matter what you believe, you can be properly sensitive
Look at the photo and then merely think of the person, while feeling fear and also thinking, "This person is a monster."
- Examine whether this projection makes the person into a monster
- Conclude and focus on the fact that neither your emotions nor your thoughts can change reality - your mental activity is devoid of existing with this impossible power
Look at the photo and then merely think of the person, first with a variety of emotions, and then with a variety of thoughts
- Examine what provides the continuity of experience
- Conclude and focus on the fact that the level of mental activity that provides continuity is more subtle than and underlies emotion and verbal thought
Alternate looking at the photo and, with eyes closed, thinking of the person
- Again, examine what provides the continuity of experience
- Conclude and focus on the fact that the level of mental activity that provides continuity is more subtle than and underlies seeing and thinking – the level of mental activity that merely produces appearances and perceives them is always there
First while looking at the photo and then while merely thinking of the person, repeat the sequence of understanding each point about mental activity, one at a time, by using the key phrases
- "producing and perceiving appearances"
- "unaffected by emotions or thoughts"
- "not inherently flawed"
- "incapable of changing reality"
- "always there"
First while looking at the photo and then while merely thinking of the person, add understanding of an increasingly larger number of these points simultaneously, by using first two, then three, four, and finally all five key phrases
II. While focusing on someone in person
(1) Repeat the procedure two or three times while sitting in a circle with a group and focusing on a different person each time for the entire sequence, but without focusing on someone who is simultaneously focusing on you
- When generating various emotions during the first step toward someone you do not know, recall an emotional incident involving someone from your life
(2) Repeat the procedure while facing a partner
- When generating various emotions during the first step toward someone you do not know, either do the same as when sitting in a circle or use the nervousness and shyness you might now be feeling
- When merely thinking of the person, simply close your eyes
III. While focusing on yourself
(1) Repeat the procedure while looking in a mirror and then merely thinking of yourself
When generating various emotions during the first step, recall moments of feeling low self-esteem, self-hatred, or self-importance
(2) Repeat the procedure while looking at photos of yourself spanning your life and then merely thinking of yourself as you were then
When generating various emotions during the first step, recall moments of feeling self-hatred or self-importance regarding yourself at those periods
[Revised chapter from Berzin, Alexander. Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1998. Order the first edition of this book directly from Shambhala Publications.]