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:
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.
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