Understanding the Mind

A mind is the complex of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement — a characteristic of human beings, but which also may apply to other life forms. (Wikipedia)

(in a human or other conscious being) the element, part, substance, or process that reasons, thinks, feels, wills, perceives, judges, etc.: the processes of the human mind. 2. Psychology. the totality of conscious and unconscious mental processes and activities. 3. intellect or understanding, as distinguished from the faculties of feeling and willing; intelligence. (Dictionary.com)

It is generally agreed that mind is that which enables a being to have subjective awareness and intentionality towards their environment, to perceive and respond to stimuli with some kind of agency, and to have a consciousness, including thinking and feeling. (Wikipedia)


Advaita vedanta is frequently criticized by Western advaitins for its intellectual approach. Many things can be said about this but I would like to clarify here what Advaita Vedanta means by mind.

In the West quite a number of functions are subsumed under this one term ‘mind’. From the point of view of vedanta the above definitions are a bit of a mumbo jumbo. Two flaws in particular need to be pointed out. The first is to do with the use of the word ’consciousness’. Whereas Wikipedia says mind enables consciousness, vedanta states the opposite: consciousness enables mind. The other flaw is that there is no differentiation between all the various functions listed: ‘thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement ‘.

I would like to take up this latter point here.

Vedanta describes mind as the flow of thought and identifies four distinct categories of thought:

Chitta, memorizing

Manas, emoting and thinking

Ahamkara, identifying with, relating perceptions to an entity called ‘I’; the ego

Buddhi, differentiating, discriminating, learning; the intellect

Amritabindhu Upanishad says: “Mind is the problem, mind is the solution.” This only makes sense in respect of those four distinct categories of thought. Western seekers on the other hand, lumping all of them together, cannot but develop a deep mistrust against anything coming from the mind – which amounts to the assumption that it cannot contribute anything worthwhile to the search for truth.

The question left unanswered is: what then, apart from the mind, can enable the seeker to discover his/her true nature? In short Vedanta bases its appreciation of the human mind on the fact that ignorance is the reason for people to be unenlightened, they do not know who they are. This ignorance is basic and we are born with it. Fortunately it can be removed. By what? By insight. Where does insight happen? In the mind. Simple.

The ego

So let’s look into how mind actually can and does play a decisive role for there to be enlightenment. Obviously ahamkara is the one thought form that constantly upholds the ignorant notion of each individuals being a separate entity surrounded by other separate entities. On the other hand it is ahamkara alone that enables us at some point in life to seek for our true nature. How is that? Without the sense of a separate ‘I’ we are not able to personally feel dissatisfied about the fact that something always seems to be missing. And without the notion of something missing, we will not start seeking for the missing thing. Initially, this search is greatly coloured by our ignorance, meaning we seek for completion where it will not be found – in more security, more pleasure or in the satisfaction of being a meritorious ‘good’ person.

But over the course of time we come to realize that we are moving in circles – forever finding the thing that seems to make us complete and losing it again; then, in one blessed lifetime, we will come across someone or something that informs us about the fact that we need not seek outside for completion, but that we are already complete and just need help to recognize it.

So what applies to the mind as such – being the problem as well as the solution – also applies to one of its particular aspects, namely ahamkara.

From the practical point of view, however, seekers usually have to deal with ahamkara’s difficult side: identification. Whatever happens or does not happen in life becomes a problem entirely due to identification. And the basis of any identification is the idea of a separate ‘I’. What is the cure for identification and its basis? First of all the information mentioned above is indispensable: you are not a separate ‘I’ that has to construct itself constantly by feeding on identification with all kinds of things in order to feel complete. In reality you are non-separate, i.e. by your very nature you are utterly complete. No need to try and make yourself so.

Secondly this information needs to be absorbed. How? Blind belief will not help, still, as a prerequisite a certain trust needs to be there so one takes up the information and tries to find out for oneself whether it is possible to prove it to be true. And then start proving it to be true. For this we need buddhi. Buddhi is our ally on the path to truth.

Chitta and Manas

But before I talk more of buddhi, I’d like to introduce chitta and manas. We all know chitta, memory. Every memory appearing in the mind, whether it is of 5 minutes ago or 20 years, is subsumed under chitta.

Manas is what Western seekers usually refer to when claiming that mind is a problem and nothing but a problem. Manas is the name for the constant chattering by which everyone seems to be attended throughout life, whether the person likes it or not. The reason why the manas chattering cannot stop is due to three lacks: the inability to learn, the inability to discriminate and, because of these two lacks, the inability to make wise and final decisions.

Even though manas thinking may seem to be a nuisance, in fact it is not. It becomes a nuisance only if there is identification with it. Same for chitta thinking – this too becomes a nuisance only if there is identification with it. Nuisance in this context means that we are not free to focus on what we choose to focus on because, due to various identifications coming into play, our attention is constantly diverted.

Whatever the kinds of thoughts or feelings or memories appear in the mind, they will only disturb me if ahamkara is active, declaring them to be expressions of ‘me’. If the ‘I’ thought is not involved they are free to come, stay, go and return as often as they do so; they are inconsequential/immaterial to the real me, the Self.

Ahamkara and Buddhi

So the problem for the seeker is ahamkara, not manas. The more dominant ahamkara is, the more we will be ruled by our identifications, underlying which is the identification with a separate ‘I’. Now to the one and only mental function with the potential to dethrone ahamkara: buddhi. This potential is because buddhi has all those abilities that manas is lacking, i.e. with buddhi we have the ability to learn, to discriminate and therefore make wise and final decisions.

In my experience, Western seekers learning of this definition of the mind happily drop their resentment of the mind. They love buddhi, recognize its functioning and helpfulness in the spiritual realm.

Buddhi needs some backing, though. Buddhi is translated as intellect and we all know that a sharp intellect is useful in many ways. The problem for seekers of truth is that they are used to keeping their intellect out of the spiritual realm. This is so with all religions the world around, and it is the same with Western New Age spirituality. The only non vedanta spiritual area where it is not so is with several Western Satsang teachers. But Advaita Vedanta has perfected the intellectual approach and all teaching essentially focuses on strengthening buddhi.

I sometimes listen to certain Western Satsang teachers via the internet and, while I do admire their profound, sharp, observant way of approaching people, I also continue to find many of them struggling because they lack the crystal clear terminology of Advaita Vedanta. With this post I would like to make a start on this site of introducing Vedanta’s concept of the mind, leaving its usefulness open for discussion.

Understanding your own mind

This subhead is a contradiction in terms if we do not take into account the different aspects of the mind – and especially buddhi. Only through buddhi can there be an understanding of the mind as such because of the three mentioned qualities it enacts: the ability to learn, the ability to discriminate and the ability to make wise and final decisions. Let’s take a couple of examples:

Decisions – what is the right thing to do? Most people know this question going round in their minds. Correction: going round in manas. I call manas the merry-go-round: thinking, doubting, analysing, deciding, emoting, knocking over the decision, thinking again, doubting once more, finding new aspects, making a new decision, emoting again, doubting again, more thinking, more analysing … endlessly. Chitta will add to it, remembering sometimes something backing up this idea, sometimes another – not difficult, as you have a lifetime of memories at your disposal.

But as I said, none of this is a problem per se. It all depends on whether ahamkara is dominant or buddhi is. If ahamkara, the ‘I’ thought, is dominant, manas and chitta will be believed to be expressing the truth of myself, the me that is in charge of my life and needing to make a success out of it. If buddhi is dominant, manas and chitta will deliver the goods (information), buddhi will discern the useful from the useless, and quietly and swiftly decide what is the needful in the given circumstances. What about ahamkara? The inclination to attribute certain thoughts, feelings or memories to me will come up but buddhi, not believing in a separate ‘I’, will not pay much attention.

Emotional/mental agitation – This too is something most people know only too well and this too is one of joyless merry-go-rounds of manas. Some may get overwhelmed by anger, some by fear, some by sadness, some by regret or guilt, some by jealousy, some by passion, some by envy, some by shame etc. etc. Again with chitta you easily dig up memories that reinforce the emotion(s). And again it makes all the difference whether ahamkara is dominant or buddhi. If the former is the case, the emotion is taken as expression of myself, and of course anything that is an expression of myself has to be paid the utmost attention, especially if it is as disturbing as the above examples.

So the mind becomes focused on the agitation, feeding it and keeping it going – the whole thing often ending up in some grand drama. If, on the other hand, buddhi is dominant, the emotional uproar is seen in the right light. Buddhi might light up different solutions, depending on the state of maturity of the person, but the solution will be based on discrimination, wisdom or at least sensibility. Ahamkara will have its say but will not be strong enough to influence the decision.

Although you might have experiences of such a scenario – maybe in your meditation – most seekers habitually hop onto the merry-go-round of manas-chitta-ahamkara from time to time, or even quite often. On the other hand in order to discover who you truly are you need a reasonably quiet mind. Mind quietens down in direct proportion to which buddhi dominates. The more dominant buddhi, the more the peace; the more dominant ahamkara, the more the turmoil.

How to strengthen buddhi

In the shastra, buddhi is described as the mirror that is able to reflect consciousness. If the mirror is dusty, it cannot reflect consciousness very well. So all that needs to be done is cleaning the mirror. This cleaning process happens by developing a karma yoga life style (see my comment on Dhanya’s post here https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-karma-yoga-attitude-is-one-of-worship/#comments )

Cleaning the mirror is one thing. Another is steadying the mind. An agitated mind makes for a reflecting surface which is constantly moving, thus distorting the reflected image. The antidote to this turbulence is upasana yoga, i.e. meditation.

I would like to add a third remedy for strengthening buddhi: exposing oneself to the teachings of truth and reflecting on them. This, however, is unlikely to be very effective without a clear and steady mind. That’s why in traditional advaita vedanta it is thought of as a prerequisite to even starting the study. But in reality there is hardly anyone in this ideal state when turning to a teacher. This means that even those whose minds are reasonably clear and steady will go on practising the combination of karma yoga and upasana so the veil of ignorance can lift for good at some point.

 Photo credits: Andreas Sulz@pixelio.de

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About Sitara

Sitara was born in 1954, she became a disciple of Osho in 1979. In 2002, she met Dolano and from then on,discovered Western-style Advaita teachings, especially those of Gangaji. After reading Back to the Truth by Dennis Waite in 2007, Sitara started to study traditional Advaita Vedanta (main influences being Swami Paramarthananda, Swami Dayananda and Swami Chinmayananda). She teaches several students on a one-to-one basis or in small groups (Western-style teaching inspired by Advaita Vedanta). Sitara is highly appreciative of Advaita Vedanta while at the same time approving of several Western Advaita teachers. She loves Indian culture and spent many years in India.

7 thoughts on “Understanding the Mind

  1. Very competent and lucid discussion of ‘mind’; reminds me of a book published a long time ago called ‘Mind the Healer. Mind the Slayer’. Though you do not say so, clearly buddhi is trans-individual, though still considered as an aspect or part of ‘mind’; and that is the key. Your whole discussion is taken from the vyavaharika standpoint, but buddhi escapes the limitation inherent thereto (which is an intemediate step). Seen from the highest (paramarthika) perspective, mind is just an extension or projection of Consciousness, and, in essence, not other than Consciousness itself. Who then takes action or makes an ‘individual’ decision at any time? The person (jiva)? Buddhi?, Consciousness? Or just the concatenation of cosmological causes and conditions operative at any and all times?.

    • Yes, I am speaking from vyavaharika viewpoint as any discussion on anything only makes sense from that viewpoint. Advaita Vedanta is pointing to paramartha while providing (mental) tools to account for vyavahara in order to enable the mind to see through it. The mind, including buddhi, is not trans-individual. Buddhi is part of the individual mind, which is part of the individual subtle body. So buddhi is subtle matter. Consciousness is beyond matter.

      As I said, buddhi is our ally on the path to enlightenment. Yet, it does not escape ‘the limitation inherent in vyavahara’. The reason why buddhi is our ally is because it is able to see through them. In fact buddhi as the mirror that is able to reflect consciousness will reflect consciousness perfectly once the mirror is clean. But even if the reflection is perfect it will remain a reflection and reflections are mithya. Only consciousness is satya. (there is a passage in my blog on Death and Deathlessness about mithya and satya).

      You say “Seen from the highest (paramarthika) perspective, mind is just an extension or projection of Consciousness, and, in essence, not other than Consciousness itself.” My reply: “So is a plastic bag, a ball pen or a corpse.”

      What I mean to say is that looking at things from paramarthika perspective doesn’t lead anywhere. It is important as background information – as I pointed out in the blog – but it has to be proved. Who or what needs this prove? The mind.

      Btw. Mind is neither an extension nor a projection of consciousness. Mind is mithya, consciousness is satya, i.e. seen from paramarthika perspective mind is consciousness.

      You ask “Who then (at paramarthika perspective) takes action or makes an ‘individual’ decision at any time? The person (jiva)? Buddhi?, Consciousness? Or just the concatenation of cosmological causes and conditions operative at any and all times?” Although these questions are rhetorical, I’d like to answer them:
      On vyavaharika individual level it is the jiva who makes decisions with the instrument of his mind (the whole thing, including buddhi).
      On vyavaharika cosmological level events are an effect of ‘the concatenation of cosmological causes and conditions’ (=Ishvara).
      On paramarthika level there are neither decisions nor events, consciousness is and never does anything.

      Btw. ‘the concatenation of cosmological causes and conditions’ is not operative ‚at any and all times’. It is only in operation when a universe is manifest.

  2. Are you saying that buddhi can uproot ahamkara? If ego sits at the center of self and identification, how does any aspect of mind even approach it? It seems to me that ego is a reflexive, automatic activity within the body, not only the brain. It’s unconscious roots cannot be approached by any aspect of the mind no matter how deep the insight might be. Our very cells are involved in all of this. This is the very reason why the admonition from many sages has been ‘to stop seeking’. For me, this is where the usefulness of buddhi lies, in knowing its own limitation and to not get caught up in the effort to understand and free oneself from an imaginary bondage. The rest is a mysterious process we have no knowledge of or control of. The Divine takes over and it is no longer your problem. Truth comes to you, not the other way around.

  3. Your use quite some undefined terms in your comment so I have to ask you several questions in return. Allow me to comment about what you say, taking one sentence by one.

    You say: Are you saying that buddhi can uproot ahamkara?
    Question to you: What do you mean by ‘uproot’? Uproot from where? Where is ‘your’ buddhi’ located and where is ‘your’ ahamkara located?

    You say: If ego sits at the center of self and identification,
    Question to you: What do you mean by ‘center’ and by ‘self’?
    My answer: From the point of view of advaita vedanta ego does not sit in a center – let alone in the center of the self. The self is all there is and it is partless so there neither is anything in its periphery nor in its center because the self has neither periphery nor center.

    You ask: how does any aspect of mind even approach it?
    Answer: Ego itself is nothing but an aspect of mind. Also, nothing approaches it at anytime. It is just a question of how dominant buddhi thoughts are in the mind or how dominant ahamkara thoughts are in the mind.

    You say: It seems to me that ego is a reflexive, automatic activity within the body, not only the brain.
    Answer: It is true that ego seems to be reacting reflexively and automatically. This is due to ignorance being prevalent in that person’s mind which in turn is a sign of buddhi being weak and ahamkara being dominant. This being the normal state of the majority of minds does not mean that it is the only possibility.

    Btw: Ego is part of the mind, which is part of the subtle body. The subtle body does affect the gross body (‘every cell’) but a calm mind with buddhi dominant will affect it as much as an agitated mind with ahamkara being dominant.

    You say: It’s unconscious roots cannot be approached by any aspect of the mind no matter how deep the insight might be.
    My question: What do you mean by ‘unconscious’? Where is this unconsciousness located?

    You say: This is the very reason why the admonition from many sages has been ‘to stop seeking’.
    My question: Would you mind quoting a few of them and telling me about their background?
    My answer: I can guarantee you that no-one who is unenlightened is able to stop seeking. Not even you, reading and writing here. Whoever has not found is bound to seek. Vedanta is a methodology to go about this seeking intelligently instead of haphazardly.

    You say: For me, this is where the usefulness of buddhi lies, in knowing its own limitation and to not get caught up in the effort to understand and free oneself from an imaginary bondage.
    My answer: Okay, then you have your own definition of buddhi. It is not the definition of Vedanta which I tried to lay down in my blog.

    You say: The rest is a mysterious process we have no knowledge of or control of.
    My answer: This is where your position is in direct opposition to vedanta, which suggests a process that helps you to replace mystery with understanding.

    You say: The Divine takes over and it is no longer your problem.
    My question: what do you mean by ‘the divine’? And why does it only take over under certain conditions? Is the divine something like a Christian/Jewish God who rewards certain behaviour by taking over?

    You say: Truth comes to you, not the other way around.
    My answer: No, truth neither comes to you nor you come to truth. You are truth. But you have to truly discover this fact. How? By replacing misunderstanding by understanding – and the best tool I know to do this is using the methodology of vedantic teaching.

  4. We can always answer a question with a question, and when we have a system of asking questions where the answers are already given, already known, we just repeat these questions and answers to ourselves when we analyze our experiences. Great debaters and scholars have done this forever making them sound like authorities and wise men.

    For myself, I don’t know how to discover anything true, by working within a system of beliefs. For an intellectual understanding, that’s okay. But a step by step question and answer path to Truth simply doesn’t exist. You can understand up to a certain point, but the rest happens with a complete surrender of self into something that has no name or form to it. The difficulty talking about this is in the beliefs held that the Divine, or Brahman, or Truth, or Absolute Reality, is one thing or another. All of the descriptions I am using are figurative and only to impart a sense of what I see taking place. Duality or Non-Duality is not the point. The actual surrender is the point. The self does give up its search, not because it finds something, but because it understands in some way, that there is no possibility of attaining what it thinks it wants. A giving up, not in a fed up attitude, but a real insight (or whatever word one wants to use)into the nature of mind (self), allows what already is to reveal itself more fully. There is no one size fits all in this surrender. It will happen in different ways for each person. But, it will happen in your body, not in your mind. That life force will do its work no matter what we think. If there is no transformation in the body, there is no transformation at all. I’m not sure you will agree with this or anything I am saying. That’s okay.

    • Basically we have to agree to disagree, not only in the last point but in almost any other point too.

  5. Sitara
    My overdue thanks for your reply to my observations. You have stood me corrected in a few points related to the teaching of Advaita, particularly concerning buddhi.

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