The Heart of Mind States

My practice has brought me to the contemplation of mind states recently, which is one of the primary practices in the famous Satipatthana Sutta. The section on the investigation of the mind tells us to look for certain mind states, and in doing so I found a lot of useful insights into the nature of who we think we are, why we get stressed, and what we can do about it.

I’ve  looked at the feeling tone of the mind in meditation before but not specifically the mind states that are suggested in the Satipatthana Sutta, just whatever colour or mood happened to be in the mind at that time. But I decided to see what would happen if I were to follow the Satipatthana instructions more closely and observe only the mind state, and only the particular mind states given and nothing else.

It was a line in Bhikkhu Analayo’s book on the sutta [1] that gave me a new way to try working with these mind states. He explained how the texts say that the feeling of lust or desire is like being on fire, the feeling of anger or aversion is like being controlled by an opponent, and the feeling of delusion is like being trapped in a net. So I decided to just look for these three mind states – lust or desire, anger or aversion, and delusion – by paying attention to how it felt.

 Looking for these feelings helped me to make a lot more sense out of my experience, especially when the nature of my thoughts wasn’t conclusive – instead of delving into the content of my thoughts I just needed to focus on what it felt like and that was much easier to understand. The more I worked at this feeling level, the clearer each mind state became to me. That lust/desire mind state was expansive, it would spread out like a fire coming up with idea after idea about how to get more pleasant feelings. The aversive mind state was very powerful and difficult to resist, it was like either being grabbed and pushed into or away from something, or like being absolutely bolted to the ground and no amount of force could move me. The delusion mind state was like thrashing and struggling to get out, creating endless streams of confused thoughts about ‘why doesn’t this work? ‘what should I do?’ ‘do this or do that?’

Pretty  quickly I saw a clear connection between mind states and thought activity; when the mind state was calm and concentrated there was little in the way of thinking going on, but when the mind state was one of craving or aversion there were truck loads of thoughts being churned out. As I observed more, I could tell the difference between the tone of those thoughts too; desire thoughts had an excited, inquisitive air about them, always wondering what delightful thing I could find next, whereas aversive thoughts were really absolut -, all or nothing, it has to be like this, there are no other options.

This gave me a useful insight: while many people prefer to meditate in the morning because their mind is quieter, I ‘ve always found my mind was very busy from the moment I opened my eyes. But because I had been watching mind states, I realised that actually I was waking up with a mind state of desire which was creating the mental activity. There were thoughts there, but  it wasn’t really anything to do with thinking at all, it was just about desire, just about wanting something that I didn’t currently have.

This certainly helped to explain a lot for me about why focusing my attention on trying to get thoughts to quieten down never really worked long term, or even medium term. The thought activity was merely symptomatic of my mind state, and the only way to change it would be to change the mind state, not to control the thoughts.

Watching mind states of aversion was also very revealing for me, not least because I realised just how much aversion I experienced in any one day – it was  an almost constant stream of ‘I can’ts’ ‘I won’ts’ and ‘I don’t want tos’. And the resistance, like pushing against an immovable barrier all the time, was using up so much of my energy. From my post More Than Less Than Same you might remember I was talking about how the conceit “I am” can manifest as the idea that “I can’t do this”, so I already had my eye on those kind of negative responses as being conceits. But with the extra dimension of mind state included I could see that it was the aversive mind state that supported the arising of the conceit, the sense of ‘I am’ – or in this case ‘I can’t’. This had a profound impact on me because I could clearly see that those negative responses were not me; the sense of ‘I am’ was coming after the mind state had been established so they were not coming from ‘me’,  ‘me’ was coming from them. No matter how personal and real they felt to me, they were just aversive mind states.

This then opened up a big insight for me, that what we often mistake to be our ‘self’ is often just a mind state. Whatever is going on in the mind we often take to be our ‘self , our personality, history, and opinions being expressed. The way we talk about it in English shows how connected we feel to our mind states – I am angry, I am sad, I am happy, etc. and if we don’t investigate it in meditation then it is very easy to just take that as read – “I” am my mind state, or my mind state is a reflection of me.

The mind state is such an immersive experience it is very easy to believe that there is nothing else other than how we feel in that moment, so it is understandable that if we are looking for a self then we would naturally assume that it must be somewhere in there. But if we can take a step back and see what is happening as a mind state, then it is much clearer to see that the mind state is just another transient experience, and the fact that we can observe it arriving and leaving means that we are not it, otherwise this wouldn’t be possible.

Putting these  experiences together uncovered something else for me: watching and interacting with our thoughts is just a distraction from what is causing them – the mind states. Thoughts and thinking are a bit of a red herring in this sense and this is borne out by the fact that thinking about thoughts rarely does anything to improve our negative state of mind. [2]

When our mind starts spinning stories about that person who has annoyed us, and why they are so arrogant, bad at their job, wasting your time, should be doing it like this, how you would never do it that way, etc. all of these kinds of thoughts are just taking you away from understanding how they came to be there in the first place. What actually happened was a sense contact – perhaps as you read  an email from said person – created an unpleasant feeling, which then hit your bored/grumpy/irritated mind state and that allowed  the sense ‘I am’ to pop up and a string of thoughts, ideas, and opinions to be generated. Or the same email created a neutral feeling but when it got to your sour mind state that transformed it into an annoyed response.

Compare this to how you might have responded to the same scenario if, for example, you had just returned from a two-week meditation retreat and were as calm and collected as you have ever been in your life. Do you think there is anything anyone could say to you that would even raise a tiny spark of annoyance? Probably not, well not for the first day or two. And why not? Because you would have that lovely, expansive, generous, patient, understanding mind state that retreats are so good for developing.

When we experience any feeling, either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, how we then react to that will be influenced by our mind state. If  a pleasant feeling meets a craving mind state, then that will make us grasp at it, want to keep it, want more of it, and set our minds off working out where, when, and how we can get it. If an unpleasant feeling meets an aversive mind state our reaction will be to push it away, to get rid of it, to want to destroy it and the things that cause it, and to think about ways that we can make sure it never happens again.

Last week I wrote about how a neutral feeling can either cause us suffering because we want it to be different, or it can cause us happiness because we accept it as it is, and one of the big factors in that difference is  whether it meets a wholesome mind state or an unwholesome one. If we experience neutral feeling with a craving, wanting mind state then that is going to spark off a lot of ideas about what we could be doing instead that would be more interesting. But if that neutral feeling finds us in a calm, centred mind state, then it will not create a chain of thoughts, nor will we try to change it in any way. Everything will be fine just the way it is, and that contentment is where the happy feeling will come from.

Likewise if a pleasant feeling meets a wholesome mind state like concentration, then it doesn’t create extra mental work because we don’t try to grab hold of it and squeeze every last bit of pleasure out of it. We just experience that it is there, and then experience that it isn’t. Similarly if an unpleasant feeling is met with a stable mind state, then we don’t feel like we need to push it away, we just bear with it until it has ended.

So I can understand how something like the practice of the Brahmaviharas is specifically aimed at learning how to cultivate wholesome mind states because these will support the development of our practice. The Brahmaviharas are metta (loving kindness) karuna (compassion) mudita (joy at others’ happiness) and uppekha (equanimity). These are the mind states that will both best support us during meditation to develop insight, and to help us to be less unsettled by what we encounter out in the world. [3] They create calm, irritation-free mind states that make it less likely that our minds will go off on a run of thoughts, and make us less likely to speak or act in  hasty, unskilful ways.

I have already found treating mind states as not my self has a lot of power to allow me to let go of difficult and stressful feelings, especially when I am dealing with strong feelings of aversion. When I listen to the thoughts about ‘I can’t’, ‘I won’t’, or ‘I don’t want to’ then I have all the negativity towards myself to deal with, but I also have those feelings of resistance to deal with too; it can be very heavy weather sometimes trying to persuade, cajole, and force myself to do something I just don’t want to.  But when I recognise the experience as being just an aversive mind state then I know I can just drop it; it isn’t me, it isn’t anything to do with me, it is just the colour of the mind  at that moment. Those difficult tasks suddenly become much easier when I realise the part of me saying ‘I don’t want to’ doesn’t have to be listened to.

Our mind states are not self because they are just reactions to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, influenced by our latent tendencies to anger, desire, etc. They arise in response to a feeling, and they eventually cease, whereas our self (if there is one) would presumably have to exist continuously.

Think about it this way, if you treat your mind states as “you” then your sense of yourself can be incredibly confusing at times, why are your reactions to things so different? One day you are fine with something, but the next day it makes you furious. Or you find yourself experiencing a constant torrent of one mind state after another, one minute happy, the next sad, the next joyous, the next flat, and so on. Or perhaps you have been practicing mindfulness and meditation for years, and you are largely calm and generous to all beings, except when you have to go to your parents for Christmas dinner and experience all kinds of anger, resentment, and opinions that you just can’t account for.

I remember hearing the German nun Ajahn Cittipala talking about what motivated her to start practicing and she recounted a story about a time when she experienced the constant change of her emotions, one minute she was crying, the next laughing, up and down like this over and over, and this made her stop and wonder who she really was. Was she the sad person or the happy one? How could a person change so much in such a short space of time?

If you understand this as mind states then it  can make a bit more sense: the conditions come together in any one moment to bring up a mind state of anger, desire, delusion, or calm, kindness, and wisdom, and that is what you experience. Then the conditions change, and the mind state changes too. It isn’t you; it is just the conditions – and reactions to them – in that moment. You, if there is such a thing, is not a part of this process – only the feelings and the reactions are.

But does this mean that we are at the mercy of our mind states though, always having our experience dictated by the endlessly changing conditions that come together in any one moment? If we believe that we are our mind states, which how we usually experience it, then yes, we are absolutely at the mercy of them. But if we treat our mind states as just mind states then we can understand that the problem isn’t ‘out there’ with whatever it is that the world is throwing at us, it is ‘in here’, in these mind states. What is causing us the stress isn’t the world, it is the mind state, that is what we are really trying to change. We put our focus on changing the thing that is outside of us, thinking that is what makes us feel better but really it is when the mind state inside of us changes that we feel the relief.

Even then it isn’t the mind states themselves that are the problem, it is identifying with them that is. When we start learning to meditate, we often think that we need our environment to be quiet to allow us to sit, or we need to not have any pain in our back or knees, or we need our mind to not have any thoughts in it so we can concentrate, but over time we learn that this isn’t the case. What we need instead is to learn how to not be influenced or overwhelmed by these things when they happen,  and in time we learn that we can (sometimes) maintain our calm centre regardless of what comes up.

How do we do this? It’s all to do with the citta. Mind state in Pali is expressed by the word citta, [1] which is often translated into English either as mind or as heart because it is talking about mental processes but more  the emotional aspect of the mind than about thoughts or cognitive processes.

This isn’t the sentimental heart as we understand it though, the seat of emotions in contrast to the logical mind. But this heart isn’t just our mind states, it is also the place where the reaction to our mind states is registered.

Ajahn Chah famously would often talk about the practice as training the heart, and we can understand this as training the citta to not be disturbed by any mind states, thoughts or feelings that might unsettle it. But until it is trained, we are endlessly reactive:

“The nature of our heart is such that whenever it clings and grasps there is agitation and confusion. First it might wander over there, then it might wander over here. When we come to observe this agitation, we might think that it’s impossible to train the heart and so we suffer accordingly.” [4]

 But when our practice is well developed the heart will be untroubled by the world, not because there is nothing left to trouble it but because it is free from that reactivity. This is the idea being expressed in this verse from Ajahn Mun’s Ballad of Liberation From the Khandhas:

“What gains total release from the five khandhas?”

“The heart, of course, & the heart alone.

It doesn’t grasp or get entangled.

No more poison of possessiveness,

no more delusion

it stands alone. [5]

Even when unwholesome mind states are there, we can still learn to remain calm in the face of them. Both Ajahn Ajahn Chah,  and Ajahn Dun, another well respected teacher in the Thai Forest tradition, still experienced anger but didn’t react to it. Ajahn Dun said that though it was there he didn’t accept it, and Ajahn Chah said that while he had anger he didn’t use it. [6] Ajahn Amaro talks about this as being like someone trying to deliver a parcel, but there is no one there to sign for it so it goes back to the sender:

“This is the way in which great beings completely end ignorance. The feeling of aversion and negativity can be there, but there’s no place for it to land, there’s nothing for it to hang on to. The feeling of aversion or anger arrives at the door, but there’s nobody to sign for it. There’s no place for it to land, so it does not give rise to any kind of unwholesome action or speech, or anything negative.” [6]

So we are not necessarily trying to get rid of these mind states, although obviously life will be a lot easier for us if we do, what we are trying to develop is this state of unreactivity and non-identification with them. Yes, anger can be there, but we don’t need to do anything to it, it is just a mind state, and it will change again in a heartbeat if we don’t pick it up and fan its flames. Aversion can be there but if we don’t take it to be me then we can just ignore it and get on with whatever it is that our mind says we don’t want to do.

I’ll end with a powerful point Nyanaponika Thera makes that treating our experience as mind states opens up for us. When we  can see that what we are reacting to isn’t anything in the world out there but simply to the state our own mind is currently in, then really there is nothing out there to be scared of:

“When, in everything that befalls us we only meet ourselves, why should we fear?” [3]

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

References

1.      Anālayo. Satipaṭṭhāna: The direct path to realization. Birmingham: Windhorse; 2003.

2.     Kalyanamitta.blog. Thinking About Thinking Too Much. 2021. https://kalyanamitta.home.blog/2021/01/31/thinking-about-thinking-too-much/.

3.     Nyanaponika Thera. The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel006.html. Accessed 5 Jul 2021.

4.     Ajahn Chah. Bodhinyana: A Collection of Dhamma Talks: The Training of the Heart. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/bodhinyana.html#training. Accessed 7 Jul 2021.

5.     Ajahn Mun trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Ballad of Liberation from the Khandhas. 15/05/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/mun/ballad.html. Accessed 5 Jul 2021.

6.     Ajahn Amaro. The Breakthrough: Buddhist Meditation as a Means of Liberation. 1st ed. Hertfordshire: Amaravati Publications; 2017.

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