The Mind in the Mirror

Last week I was exploring the possibility that many of us may inadvertently self-therapize in our meditation sessions by not realising that we are focusing on the contents of our thoughts instead of treating thoughts as merely another phenomenon in our sensory experience. This week I continue exploring the theme that this opens up, this time asking just why is it so hard to break out of our habit of ‘thinking about thinking’, why can’t we just leave our thoughts alone?

On some level being inside our heads can seem like our default setting, and it takes a lot of work to learn how to engage with the world in a way other than by using our mind and thinking. When we start to practice mindfulness this opens up the potential for us to see things differently because it allows us to see that there are other vantage points that we can take, such as observing everything from the level of awareness instead of thinking about it all. When we can view the world from awareness then we see that we don’t have to be thinking about things all the time, and we can have the very direct experience of still existing even without our thoughts.

Until we have made contact with these other perspectives then the only way we know how to interact with the world is through thoughts, so for beginner meditators it isn’t surprising that they would continue to treat thinking about their thoughts as the primary way to understand them. But this has an obvious downside as I said last week, it gets in the way of mastering the technique that would allow us to stop doing that, which is watching the thoughts from awareness and treating them as just mind objects.

Yet this is a mistake that doesn’t stop once we make contact with our ability to view the world from the position of awareness, experienced meditators can and do continue to interpret experience at the level of thought, and continue to use thoughts to make sense of the world.

The thinking process has an almost sticky quality, and hard as we try to put it down it always seems to remain exactly where it is. This can be a source of great puzzlement when we know that working at the level of thoughts is a source of suffering, but somehow we keep doing it. Ironically, the confusion that this thinking habit creates is a byproduct of trying to use thinking to make sense of everything, and we create a loop when we then try to think our way out of the confusion that our thoughts created which just creates more of the same confusion.

There are several  factors that might be at play in this issue of always going into our thoughts and always trying to use our thoughts to make sense of things.  Our sense of self hood is an important ingredient – we take interest in our thoughts because we believe that they were made by us, that ‘we’ are thinking them. When your sense of self is firmly in place, why would you disregard your thoughts? It wouldn’t make any sense to ignore yourself. But while close examination of phenomena can tell you that your thoughts are not you, that idea alone often does little  to change our own relationship to the thoughts that come up for us.  

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes that “sophisticated philosophical ideas” like emptiness similarly fall flat when we try to deploy them to help us to get up early on a cold morning to meditate or to resist the temptation of having a drink. He suggests that our bad habits and addictions are underpinned by what he calls a tactical error: “We’re attached to things and actions, not because of what we think they are, but because of what we think they can do for our happiness.”[1]

So sophisticated philosophical ideas like ‘not-self’ don’t always help us to change our relationship to thoughts because we don’t pay attention to what thoughts ‘are’ as much as we focus our attention onto what thoughts can do for us, and what we can do with them. When we think our thoughts have value, we focus on trying to realise the potential value from them instead of reminding ourselves of what they really are. In this regard Thanissaro Bhikkhu adds a pertinent point: “If we keep overestimating the pleasure and underestimating the pain they bring, we stay attached to them regardless of what, in an ultimate sense, we understand them to be.”[2]

This is a bind we get ourselves into, we focus on and welcome pleasant and interesting thoughts, but push away unpleasant and tedious thoughts, without ever taking a step back to see that the problem is to do with the thinking process itself. It’s something Ajahn Amaro talks about in Small Boat Great Mountain, our tendency to recognise the inherent emptiness in anything that causes us suffering but to embrace anything that makes us feel good as being ‘real’.[3] This aligns with what Thanissaro Bhikkhu says about our misjudgement of what the benefits and costs are to us and how it can perpetuate the habit of not seeing things as they really are.

When we treat good as real, and bad as an aberation of some kind, as something that wasn’t supposed to happen, then that sets up the belief that we just need to get it right and then the bad won’t happen anymore. That belief will block us from saying ‘hey wait, maybe it bad isn’t a mistake, maybe it is an unavoidable feature of the whole system’, because that’s where the problem really lies. Pleasant and unpleasant are not two separate things, they are two sides of the same coin – experience – so you literally cannot have one without the other.

If we apply this idea to our relationship to thoughts, then we can see how it could be contributing to us making that tactical error. By treating thoughts as something that has the potential to make us happy in some way, we are overlooking the Buddhist understanding that everything that is impermanent can ultimately only cause us unhappiness. Our minds are subjected to a constant stream of ever-changing thoughts, so if we are relying on our mind contents to bring us happiness then we are pretty much always going to be disappointed. If we can’t keep this fact in focus, then we will keep overstating the value of our thoughts and understating the suffering they bring us.

Where does the feeling of value come from though? Some of it can come from the pleasant feelings that thoughts have the potential to create, but I notice that for me a lot of that sense of value comes from the idea that what I am thinking about is an accurate reflection of reality, and I can get really stuck with this. When I’ve got something on my mind it can all feel very real and difficult to put down.

I’m sure most of us have had a time when we’ve had a problem and someone tells us not to think about it, and our first response is to want to bop them over the head with something heavy because it the last thing we want to hear at that moment. How can you not think about it? It’s a serious problem! To just ignore it would be reckless, it isn’t going to go away on its own. What am I going to do about it?? And you’re telling me to not think about it?!? %$£@*!!!

This feeling of realness can come from our sense that there is a ‘real’ world ‘out there’ that our senses feed back to us, and by definition that feedback is therefore also real. When we feel like our thoughts are caused by an objective world that is out there, then ignoring them seems like a grand act of denial,  like burying our head in the sand, and if our thoughts about the world were real then it certainly would be.

But the Buddha  tells us that what we consider to be the world isn’t ‘out there’ but it is instead ‘in here’. He says that within this fathom-long body with its perception and intellect lies the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.[4] This famous description isn’t an origin story about the creation of the world, but instead is telling us that what we think of as the world lies entirely within the boundaries of our physical and mental experience. Our thoughts are not a reflection of the world, rather our world is a reflection of our thoughts.

How is this the case?:

The Blessed One said: “And what is the origination of the world? Dependent on the eye & forms there arises eye-consciousness. The meeting of the three is contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. This is the origination of the world. (SN12.44)[5]

The easiest way to understand what this all means is to look at it from the perspective of our perceptions. All we can ever know about the world is whatever we become aware of through our senses, which in Buddhist teachings there are six of – sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and thought. There is no other method that we can have information about the world other than this, so while it is possible that there is an objective world ‘out there’ somewhere, all we can ever know about it is ‘in here’ based on the information given to us by our senses.

Psychologists have long known that our senses are actually incredibly unreliable, and that our mind has an enormous role to play in what we perceive. The snake and rope scenario is a classic one, you glance down into the long grass and you see a snake, but on closer inspection it was a rope. What we know is that this isn’t a case of mistaken identity, it was a choice that your mind made based on what was most relevant to you at that moment in time.

Our minds make all kinds of assumptions and short cuts based on what we are most likely to see, what would be most important for us to see, or even what we want to see. The visual image we think we have received from the outside world is actually a composite picture put together by our mind, which creates much of it with what seems to be the most likely thing to be there. Even the blind spot between our two eyes doesn’t show up in our visual picture, the mind just guesses what should be in that spot and creates a fill there. So whatever we see in the world ‘out there’ is dictated by what our mind is constructing  ‘in here’, so in that respect the world we see is a reflection of our own mind, in the sense that it is the picture and understanding that our mind has put together about it.

There are some schools of Buddhism that contend that there is no objective reality at all, and in fact everything in the universe exists only within our minds, but I tend to agree more with those who say that there is no way for us to actually know that because we cannot know anything beyond our senses, so to consider this can only be speculation. If there is an objective world or not we can never make contact with it to find out, so we just leave ourselves with an unanswerable question.

The basic tenet of Buddhist teaching is that we misperceive and misunderstand our world and our experiences, and it is by doing this that we create suffering for ourselves.  We see substance where there isn’t any, and that mistaken sense of substance creates the feeling of realness which is why we find it so hard to simply disregard our thoughts. The way that our mind makes something out of nothing is compared to a magic trick in the suttas, and like a magic trick once we see through the illusion, we can see things as they really are:

Suppose a magician or their apprentice was to perform a magic trick at the crossroads. And a person with good eyesight would see it and contemplate it, examining it carefully. And it would appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a magic trick? (SN22.95)[6]

The purpose of the insights that we develop through meditation and mindfulness is to show us what the world and everything in it really is, and in time to find that our ideas about it are hollow and insubstantial. Everything that we take to be the real, objective world is in fact just the experience of the five khandhas:

‘For such a long time I’ve been cheated, tricked, and deceived by this mind. For what I have been grasping is only form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness.” (MN75) [7]

It isn’t so much that the world comes into the mind, rather it is the mind that goes out and makes the world – which it then views as ‘the real world’. There is a phenomenon called infinite regression which is shown in the heading photograph above, and I think this is a useful metaphor for the mind and its sense of the world too.

With the mind in infinite regression what you are looking at is just the mind within the mind within the mind, and so on ad infinitum. You’re not seeing ‘reality’, whatever that might be, because all you see is the mind’s contents over and over again.

This is an utterly bewildering experience to try to contemplate, and it sometimes feels like your brain is going to melt if you try to think about it. Disconcerting as it can be as an experience, I find it is actually quite a useful one to call on at times because it is a pretty reliable way of disrupting a persistent train of thought – the thinking mind simply stops working because it doesn’t have any faculties to think about what is happening. This state of ‘don’t know mind’ is one that Zen cultivates as a quick way to short circuit your conceptual mind to help you to let go of thinking.

But these moments when the mind simply grinds to a halt also reveal something important. The fact that you can see the mind looping back into itself over and over again, and that you can notice the mind stopping, demonstrates to you that you are not the mind. If you were the mind you wouldn’t be able to observe it, and if you were the mind then you wouldn’t be able to notice that it had stopped – you would be unconscious. But both the moving mind and the static one can be observed – it can be seen by awareness.

So developing this experience of the different layers of perception is crucial  because it is the only way that we can really break out of this loop of the mind and its world endlessly reflecting back on each other. The realness or otherwise of the world or our thoughts can’t be changed by just putting new thoughts into the system, we need to actually participate in an experience that is outside of it and we do that by cultivating the ability to meet experience at the level of awareness.

This allows us to learn that we can and do have experiences that are not within the thinking mind. Meditation is about cultivating awareness, the ability to be a witness to all of the senses as their inputs arise and cease. This creates not just a space between these events and us, but it shows us that these things are not us. If all you know is the thinking mind then you can’t imagine what it means to stop thinking, and even for the moments when you do stop thinking you are still doing it from within the framework of the thinking mind. When you can situate your experience in awareness instead then there is no difficulty in the mind not having thoughts, because you don’t rely on them to mediate your experience. Without this experience it would seem to be extremely difficult to let go of your thoughts.

But as Thanissaro Bhikkhu has pointed out, even when we do know what things really are, we still have to work on the tendency to ignore that and focus on the short term gain of feeling good in the moment; if we are able to step outside of the mind and its workings then we are able to see when we are making that choice and do something different.

Photo by JuliusH Image In The Imac Computer – Free photo on Pixabay


[1] The Integrity of Emptiness”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/integrityofemptiness.html

[2] ibid.

[3] “Small Boat, Great Mountain”, by Amaro Bhikkhu. p145

[4] AN 4.45: Rohitassasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

[5] SN 12.44: Lokasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

[6] SN 22.95: Pheṇapiṇḍūpamasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

[7] MN 75: Māgaṇḍiyasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

One thought on “The Mind in the Mirror

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s