The Mind That Inclines

Most of us would probably like to be in happy positive mind states all the time, but  the chances are that we usually feel that our mind state is something that is beyond our consistent control. The best of our intentions seems to not be enough to stop a sour or grasping mood from taking over our mind, and when we are in the midst of it, it can be a puzzle where this mind state has come from. Habit is the basic reason, the technical term for this in Buddhism is latent tendencies, and moving on from talking about mind states last week it is a natural progression to look at the latent tendencies because they are a key part of the process that takes us from receiving sensory information to ending up suffering. While this can be a bit of a technical subject, it can be one way that we start to gain a bit more control over our experiences.

Latent tendencies (anusaya in Pali) are our dormant inclinations to react in certain ways that lie quietly in the mind until they are stirred up by a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling, and they do largely arise simply out of habit. But our latent tendencies can be one of the major sources of our frustration with ourselves, especially when we find ourselves repeating the same basic misjudgements of reality over and over again and landing ourselves in a whole heap of dukkha because of it. We practice hard, we watch ourselves carefully and mindfully, and yet still we find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking exactly that thing we just swore we would never do again – sometimes within only a few seconds of making that vow.

Latent tendencies are related to our basic reactions to sensory stimuli and are a key element in the cognitive process starting with sense contact and what subsequently arises from that. When we understand the elements that come into play from each moment of sense contact and how they can lead to unwise and unskilful actions, then it becomes understandable why so many of the teachings in the Early Buddhist canon are focussed around this as being key to unlocking awakening.

The passage quoted below from the Chachakka Sutta has a very typical rendering of the Buddhist description of the process of cognition which starts from a sense organ – in this case the eye – and ends in some kind of suffering. This example also includes the actions of three of the latent tendencies – lust, aversion, and delusion and shows what their hand is in the suffering we end up experiencing: (The other main latent tendencies identified in the Pali texts are:  views, doubt, conceit, and passion for becoming.) [1]

“Monastics, in dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The conjunction of these three is contact. In dependence on contact there arises what is felt as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.

The underlying tendency to lust underlies one who, on being touched by pleasant feeling, delights in it, welcomes it, and persists in holding on to it.

The underlying tendency to aversion underlies one who, on being touched by painful feeling, sorrows, becomes miserable, is aggrieved, wails beating the breast, and becomes bewildered.

The underlying tendency to ignorance underlies one who, on being touched by neutral feeling, does not understand as it really is the arising, the passing away, the gratification, the disadvantage, and the release in regard to that feeling.” [1]

The Buddhist understanding of the cognitive process goes like this – eye plus forms plus eye consciousness leads to sense contact, which brings up a feeling of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling, which meets a latent tendency, and from that comes an unwholesome mind state, which leads to suffering. So you can see that our latent tendencies have a significant role in dictating how we will react to any sense contact in any given moment because without the latent tendency we would be much less likely to go on to develop the unwholesome mind state which in itself then goes on to create thoughts, ideas, and a whole lot of other problems for us.

But the latent tendencies pack a double whammy because they don’t just influence how we react to a feeling after a sense contact, they are also at work before the sense contact happens, as outlined in this sutta:

“Monastics, what one intends, what one plans, what one has an underlying tendency for, that becomes an object for the establishing of consciousness …

Monastics, if one does not intend and does not plan, yet one has an underlying tendency, then that becomes an object for the establishing of consciousness …”[1]

What this is describing is how latent tendencies are shaping our attention to go in certain directions before we become conscious of any particular sensory information. In the earlier passage from the Chachakka Sutta it says that dependent on eye and forms – forms meaning something for the eye to look at – eye consciousness arises. In basic terms this means that we only become conscious of what we are looking at at the point our eye and our conscious mind have made contact with each other. This might sound a little counterintuitive to our lived experience of cognition, where our experience of the senses feels more like we are always conscious of them and it is the changes in the world outside of us that are the cause of the changes to our experience.

But this isn’t the case, and this finds support in modern scientific understandings of cognition too which follow a model that isn’t dissimilar to the Buddhist one. We might think it is our neighbour turning on his lawnmower that causes us to hear it, but on some level what is happening is that our consciousness chose to tune in to it and that is why we hear it. In any one moment our sense organs are receiving thousands of pieces of sense data, so it is impossible for us to attend to every piece of information we receive. Our minds try to make the best of it by filtering out anything that seems irrelevant right now and foregrounding anything deemed to be particularly interesting or important – such as something potentially dangerous or potentially rewarding. Our latent tendencies intervene at this earlier point of cognition by pushing some things higher up our priority list than others, meaning that it is more likely that those things will be the ones we become conscious of.

If we have a latent tendency to lust –  and by lust I mean all kinds of wanting, not just sex – sensory information that stimulates desire will be given higher priority than other information. Likewise if we have a latent tendency to aversion then sensory information that we want to avoid will be much more on our radar than other information. Have you ever noticed when you are antsy in meditation how your mind can home in on an annoying sound, no matter how quiet, like a heat seeking missile? Or when you dislike someone that they do something that rankles you almost immediately? That may well be a latent tendency to aversion at work, sensitising your cognitive process to things that cause aversion and subsequently making it so much easier to find them. So the reason your consciousness picked up on your neighbour’s lawnmower might be because your latent tendency to aversion pushed it up the pecking order, not because it was particularly loud or important.

So having now made it more likely that we will make contact with the things that activate our latent tendencies, we therefore have our latent tendencies activated more often, which then reinforces that inclination of our consciousness to picking out those activating things.  So these habits find a way to not only sustain themselves but to increase their influence too every time they get activated. It is little wonder that we can feel so set in our ways sometimes when our habits are able to keep themselves going like this.

Our latent tendencies effectively steer our attention towards the things that stir them up, so even when we don’t intend or plan to find something pleasant to look at, for example, if we have a latent tendency to lust  this has already biased our attention in that direction and makes it more likely that we will find ourselves looking at a pleasing object – even when we were trying not to. Our intentions may be good, but like a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel our latent tendencies will keep pulling us off in the wrong direction regardless of how much we want our mind to steer straight.

There is a sutta where the Buddha points out that if all that were needed for us to be enlightened was an absence of fetters then a new born baby would be an arahant, but of course babies aren’t and this is because they too have latent tendencies – the only thing stopping them from arising is that babies don’t have yet have the faculties to allow them to develop. [2] The message of the sutta isn’t about child development though, the main point it is making is that we really need to be aware that if we don’t uproot our latent tendencies then we are always at risk of lapsing into our old, unwholesome ways. We shouldn’t assume that just because a particular unskilful behaviour hasn’t arisen in us recently that this means it is gone; Ajahn Chah used to famously send any monk who thought they had reached enlightenment to go home and spend time with their families because there is no environment more certain to root out any dormant unskilful reactions than that!

Of course having a shopping trolley that constantly veers to the left is only a trivial inconvenience, having a mind that inclines towards unwholesome and unhelpful sense contacts and reactions is a much more serious matter. If we couldn’t ever make a change to our latent tendencies then our practice would be a very long and effortful one, requiring constant vigilance and an abundance of dedication because we would spend every single moment pulling our mind straight again and again and again.

Now I don’t deny that practice can often be like this, especially in the beginning, but fortunately the latent tendencies don’t have to just to be tolerated –  they will respond to training and can eventually be eradicated. Indeed Bhikkhu Analayo summarises the whole purpose of the path to be the eradication of the influxes (asava), the uprooting of the latent tendencies, and the release from the fetters [3], so not only is it possible to do it, in his eyes it is the whole reason for everything that we do in the name of practice.

In his book about the Satipatthana Sutta [3] Bhikkhu Analayo suggests that mindfulness is the key practice that will help to undermine our latent tendencies. [3] He refines this in his later article about the latent tendencies where he feels that what makes mindfulness  the effective treatment is the reduction in reactivity that it allows:

“The key element in this respect appears to be a slowing down of mental reactivity. Instead of reacting on the spot, sufficient time is allowed for the complete picture of the situation to emerge, in particular for the crucial insight into the impermanent nature of all aspects of the present experience to have its full impact. From this more informed vantage point of observation, it becomes possible to diminish and eventually overcome the reactivity triggered by the underlying tendencies in relation to the three types of feeling.” [1]

This is echoed by Rodger Ricketts who similarly feels that the key to uprooting the latent tendencies lies in our ability to learn to respond rather than to react:

“A reaction is instant. It is driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices in the non-conscious mind. A reaction is based in the moment and does not take into consideration long-term consequences of what we do or say and we often regret it later. Instead, a response is based more on deliberations from the conscious mind. A response is more careful about the overall wellbeing of all, therefore, it better examines any long-term effects and is more congruent with our Buddhist core values. Instead of automatically reacting to the negativity of others, for example, we can choose a wholesome, virtuous and skillful response.” [4]

For Analayo the extra time that not reacting creates allows us to call on more perspectives and relevant information to give a more rounded, considered response than our habitual crude want/don’t want reaction which comes from a place of misunderstanding our experiences. For him this is carried out by drawing on the core teachings of impermanence,  not-self and dukkha. When we see that a reaction is impermanent then it loses its importance to us because it is transitory, or when we see the not-self in the feelings and reactions then we see that there is less reason to be so overwhelmed by them because they are not as personal as they initially seemed to be.

In his earlier writing Analayo suggested that another important use of mindfulness was the mindful consideration of what are called “ signs “ – distinguishing features by which we recognise something:

“In regard to the process of perception, this “sign” (nimitta) is related to the first evaluation of the raw sense data, because of which the object appears to be, for example, “beautiful”… or “irritating”…, which usually leads to subsequent evaluations and mental reactions. “ [3]

So as we first try to make sense of a piece of sensory data, we pick out signs that help us to evaluate whether it is of importance to us or not. The signs themselves are purely subjective, as the old saying goes ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, so all of these signs – or tags if you like- that we use are not based in some external reality, they all come from our subjective judgement. When we can discern the action these signs have in colouring our perceptions then we open up the possibility to see beyond them, to see only the seen in the seen and nothing else as the Buddha instructs Bahiya to do. [5]

These signs also relate to what sometimes gets unfortunately translated as the four perversions (vipallasa), like others I think it is better to describe them as the four distortions of perception [6]. Seeing the unbeautiful as beautiful, seeing the impermanent as permanent, seeing the not-self as self, and seeing the stressful as stressless are these four distortions, and while all of our signs are to some degree based on a mistaken understanding of the world, these four create the most significant problems for us when we are trying to escape from the clutches of  suffering. [7]

When our first evaluation of raw sense data has a distorted perception attached to it that object we perceive as “beautiful” may in fact not be beautiful at all. This would be an inconsequential error if we weren’t so inclined to cling to anything that brought up pleasant feelings in us, but we grasp onto anything that is in any way pleasing to our senses so mistaking the unbeautiful for the beautiful is something that creates a lot of extra stress in our lives. Advanced practices like contemplation of the foulness of the body, or the foulness of food are targeting this particular distorted perception of seeing only beauty in things that are not wholly beautiful, and thereby helping to loosen our blind attachment to them.

Looking at it from the level of signs might seem like a different approach to looking for the presence of impermanence, not-self, and dukkha in our sense experiences but really it is the same mechanism taken from a different angle. In the first we  are simply recognising the sense contacts and feelings as having the characteristic of impermanence or not-self etc. that we previously hadn’t seen, but in the second we are acknowledging where we made a mistake in seeing permanence, self, stresslessness, or beauty where it was none. I personally find this is second approach a really powerful practice because I find that when I see the delusion within my cognitive process the edifice falls incredibly quickly once I’ve seen through it.

When we look very deeply into our feelings and recognise that they were being held up by a distorted perception then all the feelings and thoughts and heat that was created can very suddenly crumble away to nothing, leaving us to wonder what all the fuss was about. It is reminiscent of the Satta Sutta when the Buddha describes how children demolish sandcastles when they are tired of them, and that we too should demolish our perceptions like sandcastles. [8]And this to me is what that slowing down of reactions does, it buys that time to investigate what deluded perception is holding up the whole chain of suffering, and once we find it, the illusion simply crumbles away to nothing.

So frustrating as our latent tendencies can be to us at times the key to unpicking them is to weaken our first impulse to react, and slow everything down long enough to bring some more relevant information into our evaluation. This might be by finding the three characteristics of impermanence, not-self, or dukkha, or it might be by finding what sign we have mistakenly attributed to something, or it might be simply recognising everything happening as part of a cognitive process that doesn’t have to inevitably end with us following our habitual ways of doing things. These practices might sound very technical, but the instantaneous relief that comes from a moment of clear insight that crumbles an uncomfortable mind state to nothing is a real taste of what liberation from suffering could mean, and if it could be as good as that then it is almost certainly worth the effort.

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

References

1.      Bhikkhu Analayo. The Underlying Tendencies. 16/07/2021. https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/the-underlying-tendencies/. Accessed 16 Jul 2021.

2.     Bhikkhu Bodhi. Mahāmālukyasutta MN 64. 30/06/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn64/en/bodhi. Accessed 16 Jul 2021.

3.     Bhikkhu Analayo. Satipatthana // Satipaṭṭhāna: The direct path to realization. Birmingham: Windhorse; 2003.

4.     Rodger R Ricketts P. Avoiding the influence of Identifications and latent Tendencies which create a proliferated and expanded self. The Buddha's Gift: A Life of WellBeing and Wisdom. https://www.academia.edu/39175678/Avoiding_the_influence_of_Identifications_and_latent_Tendencies_which_create_a_proliferated_and_expanded_self

5.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Bāhiyasutta Ud1.10. 30/06/2021. https://suttacentral.net/ud1.10/en/sujato. Accessed 18 Jul 2021.

6.     Andrew Olendzki. Vipallasa Sutta: Distortions of the Mind: Translators Note. 2005. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.049.olen.html. Accessed 18 Jul 2021.

7.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Vipallasa Sutta: Perversions. 05/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.049.than.html. Accessed 17 Jul 2021.

8.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Satta Sutta: A Being. 05/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn23/sn23.002.than.html. Accessed 17 Jul 2021.

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