The Universal Mind
We now begin with a discussion of mental elements 1–6 that perform essential and neutral functions of the mind. These elements are present as a group in all mental activities. Mind cannot function without their presence (see slide).
Sensation (mental element 1, Se)
Sensation is the first mental element to function in all cognitive processes because it actually facilitates contact between consciousness (the inside world) and objects of experience (the outside world). This contact is similar to a physical touch, but it is more of a mental impression. It is nothing but a coming together of the senses and the objects of the senses.
When we see a flower, the eyes do not actually go out and touch the flower. When we hear a radio, the ears do not actually go out and touch the radio. Still there is a touch between eyes and flower, ears and radio. There would not be any seeing or hearing otherwise. When we see our favorite dishes, our mouths start watering. This happens without physically touching the dishes with our mouths. We have mentally touched the dishes. Similarly, when our children are physically hurt and experiencing pain, we feel their pain because we are touched due to the element of sensation.
Here an external object, mind, and consciousness are meeting. They are coming together dependent on each other. Therefore, the best way to understand the element of sensation is to look at it as a meeting place between mind and matter, between the external world and the internal world, or between the senses and objects of the senses.
Sensation fits into a gray area between mind and matter. It has a foot anchored in both the physical and the mental fields however it is predominantly mental.
Sensation initiates mental activity, which leads to the arising of feeling. Sensation is a foundation and a necessary condition for the occurrence of feeling.
Feeling (mental element 2, Fe)
Feeling is the second consecutive element to function in all the cognitive processes. As such, it is preceded and conditioned by sensation.
Bare, unconditioned feeling is a mental phenomenon that “feels” objects of the senses. All experience results in some kind of feeling. Therefore, everything in the realm of experience can be understood in terms of feeling.
Feeling assists consciousness in experiencing an object directly and thoroughly. That is how we can differentiate it from sensation. It is difficult to understand our feelings without experiencing them. Right now, try to feel your breath or touch your arm with your fingertips. What you are feeling is direct and thorough. This happens due to the arising of the element of feeling.
There are basically three types of feelings: pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings. Sensual pleasures are examples of pleasant feelings. Physical pain (from now on referred to simply as “pain”) and sorrow are examples of unpleasant feelings. Equanimity is neutral: neither pleasant, nor unpleasant.
Even though sensation is the first mental phenomena to occur in any experience, the arising of one of these feelings initiates the direct experience of anything in the world. Because of the initiating and affective quality of feeling, it has tremendous potential to awaken the mind. Also, the element of feeling is somewhat unique because it initiates experience. In this sense, it is the chief mental component of every experience.
The unpleasantness or pleasantness of a feeling is not a perception. It is not a reaction to an object that makes a feeling unpleasant or pleasant. Unpleasantness or pleasantness are inherent qualities of the element of feeling, just as heat and cold are inherent qualities of the element of fire, and just as hardness and softness are inherent qualities of the element of earth.
Unpleasant and pleasant feelings are neither unwholesome (bad) nor wholesome (good). What makes a feeling good or bad is the presence of other mental elements that arise with it. Pain, for instance, is an unpleasant feeling. This doesn’t mean pain is unwholesome. Pain is simply unpleasant, just as the earth element is hard and the fire element is hot. Pain becomes unwholesome when greed or hatred arises with it. In other words, if you dislike or like the unpleasantness of pain, then pain becomes unwholesome. Similarly, feelings of happiness or joy are pleasant in nature. This is so because it is their inherent quality. Feelings of happiness become unwholesome when you develop a craving for happiness or when greed arises with it.
Unpleasant feelings exist in nature. If we feel unpleasant in hot weather, it does not mean that we are reacting to the weather. If we feel uncomfortable or suffocated in polluted air, it does not mean that we are reacting to the air or that we are physically or mentally weak. We feel uncomfortable because of our physiological and psychological constitution, which is common to all human beings.
A feeling (unpleasant or pleasant) can be either physiological or psychological. Feelings primarily caused by the body (or that have matter as a proximate cause) are physiological. Feelings that are primarily mental (or that have mind as a proximate cause) are psychological. Pain can be understood as an unpleasant physiological feeling and sorrow can be understood as an unpleasant psychological feeling. Sensual pleasure can be understood as a pleasant physiological feeling, and happiness can be understood as a pleasant psychological feeling.
(SEE SLIDE: Click on the link shown in the column to the right)
Feelings are mental phenomena that have physiological and psychological underpinnings. Such understanding is helpful in removing the delusions of ill-informed spiritual enthusiasts, including some ascetics and yogis. Many do not understand the nature of feelings. They criticize or look down upon others who would avoid painful feelings, wrongly considering their own ability to tolerate pain or unwholesome environmental conditions (such as polluted air, noise, and so on) as a measure of their spiritual attainment. Ignorant ascetics and yogis develop an attachment to pain and an aversion to pleasure. They shy away from pleasant feelings. But this becomes a huge hindrance to mental development. Proper understanding is also helpful in removing the delusions of worldly people who struggle to push away or suppress unpleasant feelings.
When we realize that it is the nature of a feeling itself to be pleasant or unpleasant, we begin to detach ourselves from the feeling. We stop thinking that our perception is coloring the feeling. We neither develop guilt for experiencing sensual or mental pleasantness, nor do we try to escape from sensual or mental unpleasantness. We simply dis-identify from feelings, which ultimately leads to objective observation. As we observe our feelings arising and passing away without reacting to them, this in turn leads us to become aware of our neutral feelings. Once this happens it is an indication that equanimity, a sublime quality of mind, has arisen.
Neutral feelings are elusive. Students frequently ask me if neutrality is the same thing as numbness or not feeling. They understand pleasant and unpleasant feelings but struggle to comprehend neutrality. They also commonly ask: “How can it be a feeling if it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant?”
The answer is that only one type of feeling can be felt in a particular moment. Until it has passed away, another type of feeling cannot arise. Therefore, if one remains consistently mindful of one’s feelings from moment to moment, one can understand that pleasant and unpleasant feelings do not occur simultaneously. When such mindfulness (a precursor to equanimity) is established, sooner or later one begins to realize that feelings come and go of their own accord without any being having control over them. One begins to realize that feeling feels. It is just a mental phenomenon. One understands that the awareness or consciousness of feeling is being mistaken as a “feeler” and that there is only consciousness. When such wisdom arises, a feeling is experienced that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. This is the third type of feeling: neutrality, which awakens equanimity and non-attachment.
Equanimity and non-attachment result in the occurrence of additional neutral feelings, which are of transcendental nature, meaning they transcend pleasantness and unpleasantness. They are not numbness, indifference, blandness, tastelessness, and insensitivity, as is often misunderstood. Rather they are the indirect manifestation of supra-sensitivity and wisdom. The term “neither pain nor pleasure” does not merely signify the absence of pain or pleasure, but the transcendence of those feeling states.
Transcendent neutral feelings are an indirect experience of egolessness, the manifestation of perfect intelligence. However, such feelings do not occur until there is thorough and experiential understanding of pleasant and unpleasant feelings through the practices of soul meditation and contemplation, which we will discuss in later chapters.
Going Beyond Sensual/Physical Pleasures
When we experientially understand all three types of feelings, our knowledge always gives rise to spiritual joy. For those who are inclined towards perfecting intelligence, experiencing spiritual joy is absolutely necessary because it assists us in going beyond our cravings for sensual pleasant feelings. It serves as a substitute for sensual pleasant feelings, thereby saving us tremendous energy that we would otherwise spend in pursuing sensual pleasures.
As we begin to abide in the pleasantness of spiritual joy, we start naturally abandoning sensual pleasures. We begin to spend more time reading, studying, contemplating, meditating, and so on, activities that are sure to result in the experience of deeper kinds of pleasantness, ranging from rapture, to delight, to bliss, and so on. Without experiencing such pleasantness, it would be extremely difficult to abandon sensual cravings and deal with the monumental task of eradicating all cravings. Spiritual joy is necessary for going beyond sensual pleasures.
However, you should celebrate when you experience spiritual joy, but do not get overexcited. Even if it arises out of wholesome spiritual practices, you must not develop a craving for its pleasantness. Simply allow it to arise and pass away, gladden your mind, and deepen your practice, so that equanimity ultimately can arise of its own accord.
Going Beyond Pain
Pain is a physiological feeling. Unpleasantness is its intrinsic quality. Even someone in an egoless state, such as the enlightened master, cannot change that, as it is a law of nature. Everybody feels pain as unpleasant, but once equanimity arises, there is no reaction to the unpleasantness. And when there is no reaction to unpleasantness, due to equanimity, it becomes so refined that it is eventually transcended. The subject and the object of pain are transcended.
A crude way to understand the refinement of pain is to perform a physical exercise in which you hold a posture (say the squat or table-top pose in martial arts) for a long time. As you hold the posture, you will begin to feel unpleasantness in your thighs. This unpleasantness will increase with time and turn into pain the moment that you react to it with aversion. If, on the other hand, you work to develop mindfulness of the unpleasant feeling and non-reaction to it, you will be able to hold the posture longer. You may feel unpleasantness, but not pain. Soon, in an advanced stage of practice, you will no longer even feel unpleasantness if the same posture is held with increasing mindfulness and non-reaction united with concentration and wise attention. The unpleasant feeling then is refined to such an extent that unpleasantness itself would be transcended.
Through increasing mindfulness and non-reaction (in union with concentration and wise attention), it is possible to become so subtle that you can actually move through oceans of feelings without getting wet. It is as if you are simply abiding in consciousness without clinging to anything in the world of matter and mind.
It is not essential to go through pain or torture to master pain. It is neither a necessary condition, nor a proper means to develop equanimity towards pain. However, many spiritualists and theologians use this unwise process, as they assume that pain can be mastered (or sins can be erased) by burning up past mental impressions related to unpleasant feelings. In some traditions, this unwise process is known as “karmic retribution.”
If a person inflicts pain for the purpose of mastering pain, it is not easy for that person to develop mindfulness, non-reaction, and concentration—states without which real equanimity and perfect intelligence cannot arise.
Mental pain (unhappiness, sorrow, lamentation, grief, anger, and so on) is more intimate and subtle than physical pain because it requires a higher degree of mindfulness to remain non-reactive to it than to physical pain. Therefore, when it comes to mastering pain, dealing directly with mental pain is of utmost importance. Ultimately, mental pain has to be dealt with in order to transcend any type of pain completely.
My earlier example of an exercise in the martial arts pose was given as a crude means for an experiment. If you decide to try this experiment, you should not let your unpleasant physical feelings rise to such a level that you react to them with aversion. You have to gradually and skillfully expand your tolerance zone so that you do not develop a craving or an aversion to unpleasantness. In other words, never allow unpleasantness to aggravate to such levels that it turns into pain. The moment you realize that aversion is arising, you should knowingly get out of the posture. Later try again, and each time you do increase the holding time to manageable levels of unpleasantness.
The important thing is to try to remain non-reactive in every painful situation. It is not necessary to inflict physical pain on oneself intentionally as some of ascetics, monks, and yogis do. If physical pain arises due to a natural process, like aging or disease, only then should it be used to develop the faculty of non-reaction.
As long as we live, we cannot avoid physical unpleasantness. It naturally arises through disease and the aging process, and while dying. No amount of prosperity or luxury could help us to get rid of it. Therefore we train ourselves not to develop aversion towards it.
In advanced stages of meditation practice, you should start paying wise attention to pain. You should aim to understand it as an imperfect aspect of your existence. Look at pain merely as a wakeup call for beginning the process of physical and mental purification. Use painful feelings as a constant reminder of your imperfections. Try to discover and understand the causes of pain and realize that essentially it arises due to lack of equanimity towards unpleasant aspects of life.
The meaning of non-reaction, equanimity, mental refinement, and transcendence is best experienced through soul meditation and contemplation. If you try to understand these states intellectually, it may raise more questions than provide answers.
Feeling vs. Emotion
The element of feeling is not emotion, as some people think. Emotion is a complex phenomenon that results from the combination of various material and mental phenomena, including the element of feeling and other mental elements. Emotions are felt in the same way that everything we experience is felt. This does not mean that emotions are only feelings. They are phenomena of body-mind-consciousness. Whenever we experience an emotion, there are always physical components, mental components, and consciousness in it.
Lust and anger, for example, are common emotions. Lust arises because of the arising of sexuality and body sensitivity, along with greed, delusion, and sense consciousness. Anger arises because of the arising of various bodily phenomena, hatred, delusion, and mind-consciousness. No matter what emotion or experience arises, however, the element of feeling initiates it. In this sense, feeling is the chief mental component of any emotion.
[See Slide: How emotions occur: Dependent upon bodily conditions, various mental elements combine and give rise to an emotion. The element of feeling is a chief mental component of every emotion.)
Most of us blame external factors such as another person or situation for our emotions, not knowing that the element of feeling is the main culprit. External factors are mere triggers. When someone insults you and you become angry, what is actually happening in the background is your reaction to the unpleasant feeling generated by the insult and not the insult itself. This reaction is none other than aversion (hatred) towards the unpleasantness of feeling.
If we want to get rid of any unwholesome emotion, first we have to realize the makeup of various mental elements that give rise to that emotion. Second, we have to develop mindfulness of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the feeling associated with that emotion. Third, we have to learn not to generate craving (greed) towards the pleasantness or aversion (hatred) towards the unpleasantness of feeling, knowing that all feelings are transient and will cease on their own accord. This is the most skillful way of dealing with emotions—the way of mastering them inside ourselves. Trying to control or fix the outside only leads to more suffering.
Perception (mental element 3, Pe)
Perception is the third consecutive element to function in cognitive processes. It is conditioned by sensations and feelings. Basically, the phenomenon of interpretation of sensations and feelings is perception. It distinguishes, recognizes, and identifies. However, perception is not same as the act of understanding or the act of cognizing.
When we see a flower, how do we know it is flower? We interpret the sensations and feelings that arise from the contact of our eyes with the flower, as “flower.” We make it a flower by marking it as a “flower” the first time we see one. When a similar object is seen, we know it is a flower because of the previous mark that we made. Because of this mark, we perceive flowers as flowers again and again. If a flower is identified as a bundle of material elements that are impermanent and impersonal, then, such identification and interpretation are acts of understanding rather than perceiving.
Perception does not make a person optimistic, pessimistic, or deluded. There is no such thing as an intrinsically good perception, bad perception, positive perception, negative perception, and so on. The phenomenon of perception is neither good nor bad. What makes it good (wholesome) or bad (unwholesome) are the other mental elements that arise with it.
A person sees a piece of rope in the dark and interprets it as snake. This is a perception with delusion. A blind person touches an elephant’s tail and interprets it like this: “An elephant is like a broom.” This is also a perception with delusion. An ignorant person sees a body, hears sound, smells odor, tastes flavor, feels tactile sensation, has feelings, and interprets them like this: “This body is mine; I am the one who sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels.” This is also a perception with delusion. Any sense of separate self should be understood as a deluded perception.
When an ignorant person deals with an angry person, the angry person is perceived as unpleasant and irritating. Such perceptions occur because the element of hatred has arisen along with perception, making it unwholesome. A wise person does not perceive an angry person as a threat or an enemy. The person is perceived as someone diseased and sick who needs help. Such perceptions occur because the element of compassion arises with the element of perception.
Perceptions that are not wholesome, unwholesome, or deluded are indeterminate perceptions, such as the perception involved in mere seeing, mere hearing, mere tasting, mere touching, mere smelling, and so on.
Some people wonder whether our memory is responsible for our perceptions.
Memory is a mental phenomenon that facilitates the functioning of perception, which in turn builds up memory by marking objects. When the same object is repeatedly recognized, perception itself can be understood to be functioning as memory. To this extent only, memory is related to perception.
Memories can be wholesome or unwholesome. Perception, on the other hand, is neither wholesome nor unwholesome. It acquires the ethical quality of the wholesome or unwholesome mental elements that arise with it. Therefore, if we purify the mind of greed, hatred, and delusion, and culture it with non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion, we build up a stock of wholesome memories and our perceptions evolve.
Volition (mental element 4, Vo)
Volition is the fourth consecutive element to function in the cognitive processes. It is conditioned by sensations, feelings, and perceptions. Volition is the phenomenon of will power or the willingness to take a particular mental action. The organization and coordination of all mental elements in a mental activity comes from volition. In this way, volition gives a particular quality to any mental activity.
Volition itself is ethically neutral (neither wholesome, nor unwholesome), however it serves as a leader of sorts in imparting ethical quality (wholesomeness or unwholesomeness) to any mental action. Because ethical force (aka volitional force or karmic force) results from ethical mental actions, we can say that volition functions as the most important element in the generation and accumulation of the ethical or volitional force. In other words, volition is the seed of ethics, volitional phenomena, or karma.
As we have previously discussed, volition always results in further volition; thereby it forms the volitional force. This force conditions the arising of present volitional action, and together they lead to the results or fruit of action.
My use of the word “force” is not literal. We cannot quantify volition or the volitional force that it generates because they do not get stored in some ethereal field or in the brain. They are immaterial phenomena (non-things). They should not be considered as “matter” that exists somewhere or as something that belongs to “someone.”
If we want to experience good results we must cultivate wholesome volition. We can generally recognize wholesome volition by the good feelings (and good aftereffects) associated with it. When unwholesome volition arises there is always unpleasant feeling associated with it, due to fear, shame, anger, greed, and comparable elements. It is not possible to generate good feeling when there is unwholesome volition.
Volition should not be mistaken as choice making. There is a subtle difference between the two. When a certain choice is made, volition is at the root of it. But due to delusion we misunderstand this volition as being my volition. Whenever there is a sense that “I” am having volition, the volition becomes a choice and “I” becomes a choice maker. Therefore, even though arousing good volition is important, it is even more important not to arouse it as if one is making a choice. So, let good volitions arise based on the clear understanding of selflessness.
Attention (mental element 5, At)
Attention is a crucial element in mental phenomena. Once volition determines the direction of an action, attention takes it in the direction of the final destination. It guides mental elements towards an object like the steering wheel of a car guides the car in a specific direction. The element of attention is like a driver and the other mental elements together constitute a vehicle.
Sometimes students ask whether attention is the same as mindfulness.
There is a difference between attention and mindfulness, as there is between attention and thinking. Attention is the most preliminary form of thinking or mindfulness. Bare mindfulness can be understood as attention. Paying attention (being attentive) is the first step towards developing either thinking or mindfulness.
Attention generates consciousness out of the flow of the subconscious. When attention is not strong enough, there is no consciousness, meaning no cognitive process or “knowingness” is occurring. For example, when someone is in a coma, the element of attention is extremely weak, and this renders the comatose person subconscious. Similarly, when we do not pay enough attention to what we are doing, we are primarily driven or sustained by subconscious forces. This always leads to suffering.
Mental Life (mental element 6, Ml)
All mental elements need sustenance and maintenance so that they can repeatedly occur in mental activity. For example, without sustained volition and attention, you would not be able to read this book for long. During your reading of this book, volition and attention have been sustained and maintained by a unique mental phenomenon having its own intrinsic nature. We call it the element of mental life because it is non-material, and also because sustenance and maintenance are functions of “life.”
Mental life originates from volitional forces, which also support and foster it. In fact, mental life symbolizes the presence of volitional forces just as light symbolizes the presence of electromagnetic forces.
How the Universal Mind Works
If there were such a thing as a “mother mind” or a “primordial mind,” it would be composed of these six elements. The elements of feeling and perception would be its most basic or primitive constituents and the remaining four (as well as the other remaining 46) would be more like mind’s derived or “formed” constituents. This is somewhat similar to having hydrogen and helium as the most primitive elements on the periodic table and the remaining elements as formed elements.
Let me remind you that the universal mental elements arise and pass away in extreme rapidity. There is no such thing as a timely or linear succession (one after the other) of elements in a cognitive process. Some elements only perform consequent to each other because they condition each other’s occurrence. For example, sensation conditions the occurrence of feeling. Therefore, feelings always occur as a result or consequence of sensations. But this does not mean that feeling actually arises only after a sensation has arisen and passed away. Sensation may continue in consciousness after the feeling is gone.
Following this discussion, I hope it is now apparent that there is no single or fixed entity that performs essential mental functions, but instead that a variety of mental elements do. Does this make you wonder if there really is such a thing as an individual mind (a separate self) that feels, perceives, and wills? Doesn’t this reassure you that your existence will continue much the same no matter whether you believe in a separate self or whether you let that belief go?
The Special Mind
The seven elements (7–13) that perform extraordinary mental activities are special in that they are not present in all states of consciousness, but only in some. They perform neutral functions of the mind just as the universal mental elements do; however, their functions are exceptional (see slide).
Thinking (mental element 7, Tk)
Thinking is the initial application of thought. Thinking builds on attention by directing and applying attention to an object to unfold and unravel it just as peeling away an orange’s thick outer skin begins to reveal its nature.
The phenomenon of thinking is neither unwholesome nor wholesome. It takes on the ethical qualities of other mental elements that arise with it. Conspiracy is unwholesome thinking, because in this case thinking is conjoined with greed and delusion. Contemplating enlightenment is wholesome thinking because in this case thinking is conjoined with mindfulness, non-greed, and non-delusion.
Thinking is considered special since it begins the processes of contemplation and meditation, and also because it removes the hindrance of sloth and torpor (mental dullness). It therefore commences the process of the development of higher intelligence.
Thoughtfulness (mental element 8, Th)
Thoughtfulness is the sustained application of thought over an object. It examines an object more thoroughly than thinking because it facilitates continuous thought. During meditation, thinking generally leads to thoughtfulness, just as holding a pen or sitting in front of a computer screen generally leads to actual writing. Like the element of thinking, thoughtfulness is ethically variable. It is special because it deepens the process of contemplation and reduces the hindrance of doubting, skepticism, or suspicion when it arises along with wholesome mental elements. It therefore anchors the process of the development of higher intelligence.
A fellow spiritual practitioner once told me that thinking and thoughtfulness were actually not desirable in spiritual practice. In a recent spiritual gathering, the group leader asked participants to get rid of the thinking mind so they could become spiritual. Once I was told that I was born to believe and not to think!
If the purpose of a spiritual practice is simply to relax, feel good, and live pleasantly, then maybe thinking and thoughtfulness are not required. If you simply chant a particular mantra, recite verses, listen to celestial music, or sing melodious prayers there is no thinking or thoughtfulness occurring, at least not wholesome thoughtfulness. But such practices still can bring about a feel-good experience. May I suggest that these experiences—although they are better than mundane worldly pleasures—are more sensual than spiritual in nature? They may soothe or quiet mind temporarily, but they do not purify it. However, such practices can become highly effective in perfecting intelligence if they are combined with wholesome thinking and thoughtfulness.
Unless we think about who we are, why we are the way we are, what is mind, why it is so, why it is not so, how to make it so, and so on, we cannot purify and perfect our minds. We cannot remove superstition and delusion without wholesome thoughtfulness, and wisdom cannot arise without the extinction of delusion. There is absolutely no possibility of attaining perfect intelligence without wisdom. Meditation and contemplation are the tools that we can use to cut through delusion and to develop wisdom. Thinking and thoughtfulness are the raw materials that these tools are made of like a saw is made of a metal blade and a wooden handle.
Rapture (Happiness/Bliss) (mental element 9, Ra)
Thinking and thoughtfulness lead to a delightful interest in an object. Such interest eventually leads to the experience of spiritual joy, elation, ecstasy, exultation, and so on. This mental phenomenon is called rapture (or happiness), which is a forerunner to bliss.
A thirsty man naturally thinks about water. As his thirst increases, he starts looking around for water. He starts contemplating finding water. His thinking develops into thoughtfulness. If he finds water while he’s in such a state of mind he experiences rapture/happiness. When he actual drinks water and quenches his thirst, he experiences bliss. Similarly, a hungry man feels rapture/happiness when he sees food and he experiences bliss when he actually eats.
Bliss arises whenever there is refreshment of the embodiment. Here, the word “embodiment” means soul (body-mind-consciousness) with a predominance of the body.
Unless there is delightful or joyful interest in what we do, we cannot derive happiness from our actions. However, it is important to engage in wholesome actions to become truly happy because happiness can also arise out of unwholesome actions.
Rapture/happiness is not intrinsically wholesome. It becomes wholesome only when it arises with wholesome elements. If a person craves money and wins a jackpot at a casino, he will experience unwholesome happiness, because it arises with greed. If a person ardently contemplates on the separate self and eventually understands the reality behind this illusion, he experiences wholesome happiness because it arises with non-greed and non-delusion.
Unless this is understood clearly, real (wholesome) happiness cannot be experienced. In fact, unreal (unwholesome) happiness becomes an impediment because it binds and imprisons us.
Rapture/happiness is special because it deepens contemplation while restraining the forces of hostility and animosity. It wakes up, stirs up, and stimulates the mind to attain higher states and thus awakens mind’s ultimate potential.
I consider rapture/happiness to be the source of mental power. Without it, we cannot develop concentration, which plays a fundamental role in the development of higher intelligence.
Concentration (mental element 10, Co)
Concentration unifies and fixes all mental elements on an object. It focuses mind-consciousness on a single object without distraction of any kind. Concentration is the element that facilitates perfection during the process of mental development.
When thinking, thoughtfulness, and rapture (especially) are present, concentration effectively functions to unify all mental phenomena. For concentration to occur, rapture is necessary, because rapture removes the physical and mental afflictions that act as hindrances to the arising of concentration.
Concentration leads to contemplation. And, in fact, it is at the heart of any meditative activity. Even just as a trace, concentration is always present in meditation.
There are increasing levels of concentration, which result in higher and higher states of mental absorption. Ultimately, mental absorption leads to liberation from mental attachments.
Concentration is ethically neutral. It becomes wholesome only when it arises from a wholesome subject or only along with wholesome elements. If a soldier is concentrating on shooting and killing an enemy or if a power-hungry business executive uses concentration to gain the upper hand in an organization, then such concentration is unwholesome because it is rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion. Developing concentration for the purpose of purifying the mind is wholesome.
Concentration is different from mindfulness. Both elements are present in all effective and wholesome meditative activities, but they perform distinct functions. Concentration primarily leads to focus, mental absorption, and calm. Mindfulness primarily results in present-moment awareness and understanding. When mindfulness is present during concentration, it does not allow unwholesome elements to pollute the concentration because it makes you aware of their arising. Therefore, in soul meditation, mindfulness and concentration are always combined.
Concentration decisively awakens the mind to its ultimate potential. When the mind’s wholesome nature is established through ardent and diligent practice, the mind is ready for perfection. Concentration is an important source of mental power.
No amount of intellectual knowledge will unravel the power, beauty, depth, and subtlety of concentration. You have to meditate diligently to witness its wonders.
Resolution (mental element 11, Re)
Resolution is the complete settling of mind on an object. The act of resolving a matter (an object) is similar to the act of persuading yourself about it. The expression, “This is it!” is an expression of resolution. It is like liberating the mind from indecisiveness about a specific matter. Resolution is not quite the same as having faith; however, it ultimately results in faith when it arises intensely along with wholesome elements.
Resolution arises in mental activity only when we are certain and convinced about what we are doing. For example, I am certain that the practice of soul meditatio
n is a foolproof path to enlightenment. Therefore resolution arises during my meditation practice and I experience determination and decisiveness about the practice. This ultimately results in clearer and faster realization of the path.
Resolution is ethically neutral. If a person is certain he wants to take revenge or he decides to become a multimillionaire by hook or by crook, such resolution is unwholesome. It is rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion. If a spiritual seeker is certain about the principles of meditation and convinced about its benefits, then the conviction, fervor, and sincerity (collectively known as resolution) that arise during practice are wholesome. Resolution leads to better mindfulness, stronger concentration, higher intelligence, and so on.
Resolution is a special mental element because it provides decisive and unshakable support to a mental action, like a strong spine provides decisive support to the body. When it arises with wholesome elements it becomes a great mental benefactor. Without great resolution, it is not possible to attain great things.
Vigor (mental element 12, Vi)
Vigor is somewhat like the energy of mental states. It reinforces mental phenomena and does not allow them to collapse. When a starving person eats even a small handful of peanuts, he does not fall down due to the vital energy coming from eating the small amount of peanuts. Vigor is similar to such vital energy. It is unique in that it arises in an emergency situation or in any situation where we feel a sense of urgency.
Vigor is responsible for taking forceful and vital action. If one’s life is threatened, one experiences a burst of energy that helps one cope. This burst of energy is vigor.
Vigor is ethically variable in its quality. It becomes wholesome or unwholesome depending upon what other elements arise with it. If vigor arises along with anger or hatred, as in the case of a soldier fighting a strong and overpowering enemy in the battlefield, it is not wholesome. If it arises along with compassion as in the case of a Red Cross volunteer working in a war zone or in case of a firefighter combating a blaze, it is wholesome. Wholesome vigor always leads to a non-failing and non-ending state of mind that is critical in pursuing and doing extraordinary stuff.
Wholesome vigor is necessary to avoid and overcome temptation. For example, it is indispensable in overcoming addiction. It is also indispensable in developing healthy habits. Without a sense of urgency to avoid cancer, a smoker would not quit smoking. Without a sense of urgency to prevent diabetes, an obese person would not stop overeating. A sense of urgency is the key to arousing vigor.
If we look at our physical and mental imperfections as a disease, or if we contemplate our impending death, we can arouse vigor out of a sense of urgency to purify the embodiment. Vigor can prevent us from going back to the rat race or status quo. It can reinforce spiritual endeavors. It can also eradicate mental sluggishness that would prevent us from taking powerful action. The restraining power of vigor coupled with mindfulness ultimately does not allow bad habits and sensual desires to endure. For example, when we have a desire to get intoxicated, to cheat, to lie, to overpower others with violence, or to satisfy lust, wholesome vigor prevents these desires from persisting and facilitates us in abandoning them. Because sensual desires are so powerful, we often need a burst of super-energy (like vigor) to oppose them.
Many spiritual (and especially religious) practitioners follow ascetic practices, such as celibacy, fasting, and extreme physical workouts, and many live isolated in forests, monasteries, and seminaries with minimal means all in order to learn to overcome their sensual desires. If they could arouse vigor at will (by arousing a sense of urgency for mental purification), then they wouldn’t have to follow these practices. From this perspective, arousing vigor at will could be considered the highest ascetic practice for developing virtues, because vigor (when united with mindfulness and so on) can successfully nullify sensual desires. In my opinion, the practice of arousing wholesome vigor (its restraining power) is the most evolved ascetic practice there is, and it is best suited for a contemporary meditator.
Vigor is a great mental power. However, it must be combined with wholesome mental elements. Vigor can arise out of fear. The fight-or-flight response is unwholesome vigor because it is rooted in greed for survival, hatred for the pain of dying or injury, and delusion about the true nature of self. Wholesome vigor, on the other hand, is that which arises out of the fear of imperfection and ethical/karmic accountability (bad actions generating bad results).
Fear is not intrinsically bad. If it weakens or paralyzes us, it is bad. If it awakens us to the reality of our weaknesses and imperfections, and arouses a sense of urgency to get rid of them, it is good. A person who becomes fearful of negative effects of lust, anger, and so on, and therefore begins his spiritual journey, will experience a sense of urgency that arouses wholesome vigor. Because of this vigor, objects of lust won’t attract him. He will develop strength to shy away. Because of vigor, he will be able to refrain from anger. Vigor will provide him enough power to pursue the difficult path of mental purification.
Vigor is like “mental energy” that generates power for restraining vices and for reinforcing and upholding virtues. It should be understood as the basis of all achievement. Vigor is responsible for all extraordinary human attainments.
If vigor arises with greed, it becomes overpowering, passionate, agitating, and so on. But if it arises along with the elements of mindfulness and concentration, its power is kept in balance. That’s when it becomes a real mental power.
The use of any power is a matter of skill. One should use mindfulness and concentration to balance the power of vigor. Otherwise vigor can result in passion and agitation. Similarly, one should use vigor to balance the calm of mindfulness and concentration, thereby avoiding too much calm, which can result in idleness. In this way, one should skillfully combine mindfulness/ concentration and vigor into spiritual feet so one can walk steadily on the path of mental purification and perfection.
Bare Desire (Intention/Inclination) (Mental element 13, Bd)
Bare desire is simply an inclination or intention, a mental pull towards an object. It can also be understood just as a “wish to do.” Bare desire is not same as a desire in the conventional sense. It is not wanting, craving, or lust.
Like other special elements, bare desire is ethically neutral. It becomes unwholesome—a desire—if it combines with unwholesome elements such as greed, hatred, delusion, and so on. Bare desire with greed would be present in the case of a man or a woman pursuing a rich spouse to acquire wealth. Bare desire with hatred would be present in the case of a vendetta.
Bare desire becomes wholesome if it combines with non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion, and so on. Bare desire with non-greed would be present in the case of a devoted social worker. Bare desire with non-hatred is present in case of a missionary who preaches a message of love. If you are inclined towards meditation, you are experiencing wholesome bare desire. Such inclination always leads to the development of higher intelligence.
In short, a bare desire is an intention. Unwholesome bare desire is a desire, as we commonly know desire. A wholesome bare desire is a strong will (see slide). Such understanding is vital, especially for those who cleverly hide sensual desires and passions behind the curtain of enthusiasm or activism.
Many people who are energetic and powerful are driven to activism and social service. However, they contribute to the common good not exclusively because of altruistic motives but also because of self-interest, personal attachment, and vanity. Some people are so blinded by enthusiasm and the quest for personal empowerment that they do not realize what is actually driving their actions. To such people, I would like to humbly suggest that they repeatedly crosscheck their intentions.
Some people wonder whether we can really do anything without having a desire. For example, why would I write and publish a book if I did not have an intention to sell it and profit?
If I publish a book with an intention to become famous and rich or if a goldsmith makes ornaments with an intention to make ton of money, then such intentions are desires. They are not worth pursuing because they defile the mind with greed. However, if my intention is genuinely to help large numbers of people through a book then my intention is a strong will, not desire. If a goldsmith is genuinely interested in pleasing his customers by adding art and beauty to their lives, then his intention is also a strong will. Strong will is synonymous with self-control, right-force, strength of character, motivation, spirit, and so on. People who are aware and wise (rather than clever) can easily determine whether their intentions are desires or the strong will to act.
Bare desire, intention, or whatever you choose to call it is not intrinsically bad for us. We simply have to combine it with wholesome elements. In some spiritual circles, desire is misunderstood. Truthfully these words and definitions don’t matter much, as long as the message is clear: Employ “strong will” and fire “desire.”
When a sincere meditator employs strong will towards non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion, the meditator clearly sees the liability in greed, hatred, and delusion. When he employs strong will towards renunciation of physical pleasures, he clearly sees the liability in sensuality. Strong will is the quality that makes the element of bare desire special. Strong will, when it becomes exceptional, leads to accomplishment, as it plays an instrumental role in leading and channeling all our actions towards a target. In this sense, it paves the way for success in any endeavor.
How the Special Mind Works
Let us now see how special mental elements would function in a real life scenario.
Imagine you spot a poor, abandoned child in the streets of New York. From earlier study, we already know about the functions of universal elements that would first cognize the child. In this cognitive process, attention keeps consciousness in contact with the child. Thinking builds on attention by directing and applying attention to further clarify the condition of the child. If thinking is present, you do not simply watch the child and leave, you watch the child closely. Thinking leads to thoughtfulness. Now you watch the child not only more intensely, but also for a longer period of time. In thinking about the child in this sustained manner, you might soon interpret the child as a poor, abandoned child needing help.
In this progression of observation, if you take joyful interest in the welfare of the child, thoughtfulness next leads to rapture. Due to rapture, concentration soon arises. Now, there is only you, the child, and the process of observation. Depending upon the degree of concentration, nothing else exists at such moments. You will now see and understand the child from more intense or subtler states of mental absorption. You will see his innocent eyes, his helplessness, his inner cries for shelter and love, and so on.
When you do, your mind soon begins to open to the desperate condition of the child. This release happens due to the arising of resolution, a mental element that is conditioned by concentration. If you confirm and decide that the child needs help, this confirmation is resolute. It is unshakable. It liberates the mind from indecisiveness about helping or not helping the child. If you develop sense of urgency, vigor arises and then you do not turn back. You are now able to support and uphold the state of compassionate mind. If wholesome bare desire (strong will) arises, you end up getting out of the car to talk to the child or to call social services or foster care facility, or to take another constructive action.
The end result in this episode was wholesome because, in your consciousness, only wholesome mental elements combined with the special ones. Imagine what would happen if hatred arose at the moment of spotting the child. Instead of thinking about helping, you would be thinking about how irresponsible the child’s parents were. Instead of feeling compassionate, you would be feeling angry and sorrowful.
We must understand that any mental power, such as the power of the special elements, is ethically neutral. To make it wholesome, we need not only to metamorphose it with wholesome elements, but also to liberate it from unwholesome ones.