Working with Mental Factors in Daily Life
Riga, Latvia, August 2011
Session One: The Ten Mental factors That Accompany Each Moment of Experience
We are dealing here with how we develop balanced sensitivity, and we saw that there are many different variables which are involved in overcoming the extremes of being either insensitive or oversensitive with respect to ourselves and others. And this has to do with how we pay attention and how we respond to situations and to the effects of our behavior – so the situations of others and ourselves and the effect of our behavior on others and on ourselves.
And whether we speak in terms of paying attention or responding, for both of these we need to have a quiet mind and a caring attitude. We need to be able to pay attention, so we have to quiet our minds of all sorts of distraction, comments, judgments, preconceptions, irrelevant emotions like fear and nervousness. All of that has to be quieted down in order to pay attention and also to respond. And remember respond means to respond in an appropriate way with both doing something and some emotional feeling. So obviously if we’re thinking about something else or we’re really nervous or frightened, then it’s very hard to pay attention; it’s very hard to respond in any sort of balanced, appropriate way.
The same is true in terms of the caring attitude. Caring attitude, remember, means to respect the other person: “You’re a human being. You have feelings just as I do. You’re affected by what I do. Your feelings get hurt, just as my feelings get hurt,” and so on. So if we don’t care about the other person – “I don’t care who you are or what your situation is or how you feel or anything” – we certainly don’t pay attention to them, and even if we do notice them, we don’t bother to respond.
These are the two wings, this quiet mind and the caring attitude, for the entire training of sensitivity.
And we also saw that we need to somehow disengage ourselves, in a sense, from the content of our experience, of the mental activity, in order to be able to develop this balanced sensitivity. And that has to be understood in a proper way. That can be a little bit misleading.
It’s not very easy to be of help to anybody if we are always getting angry with them and always clinging and demanding things, being selfish and so on. So we need to be able to get a little bit of distance from that level and quiet down to a deeper level at which we can access the basic ingredients that we all have for responding and paying attention in a balanced way, which means that we need to pay attention to the basic mental activity that’s going on rather than the content of that activity.
Now, if we look on the most basic level, that mental activity is the arising or giving rise of a mental hologram of something that we see – a sight – a sound, a smell, or an emotion, even. There’s a mental hologram. And there’s some sort of mental engagement with it. In fact, that’s the same activity; it’s just described in two ways. It’s not, for instance, that a thought arises and then you think it. The arising of a thought and thinking of the thought is the same thing. And there’s no separate me that is observing it or controlling it or making it happen. And there’s no little mind like a machine that this me is playing at the keyboard of and making thoughts arise or making seeing happen. It just happens.
Now, of course I’m thinking, I’m seeing. It’s not somebody else, and it’s not nobody. But even when we think, “Well, what should I do now?” or “What do people think of me?” all that’s happening is a thought is arising that has as its content the mental sound of these words. There’s no little me sitting in my head in some sort of room that is now thinking this, pressing some buttons and then the thought comes up. But when we think of ourselves in terms of this little being, like some alien sitting in my head, then of course this becomes the object of intense worry and insecurity and so on. What are people going to think of this little me? And how do I make that me secure and make people like me? So you become preoccupied with something that is really quite a fiction. And science of course would agree with that. You can’t find some little me sitting somewhere in our head – or in our heart, if we do it in a Tibetan way. There’s nobody sitting back there looking out through our eyes. But nevertheless, as I said, I’m thinking this – “What do people think of me?” – it’s not somebody else thinking it. So conventionally of course we are doing that. We are responsible for what we think and do and say.
Now, when these mental holograms that are arising, we also need to of course check to see is it a deceptive appearance or is it accurate in order to be able to respond appropriately. And then in order to respond in an appropriate way, we can work with some of these basic features of this mental activity. But in working with them it’s very important to not conceive of this as some little me sitting in our head and here are all these components of my mental activity and I’m adjusting the knobs and the buttons. It’s not a separate dualistic thing of a me who now is going to be the controller and I’m going to adjust what’s happening. Because if you get into that way of working with this type of material – very dualistic – you become like what we call a control freak, and it really becomes very, very artificial. It’s not natural in any way whatsoever. So don’t conceive of it like social networking or using handheld devices and so on – that somehow there’s me over here, and I’m going to communicate and press these buttons, and there’s just some you as an appearance on a screen. It’s not like that. We need human-to-human contact if we’re going to really be sensitive to others and not have this distance that this image of a me behind a computer console would give us. That’s actually very important to realize.
And if I don’t know if any of you – or how many of you – are really into this whole phenomenon of virtual communication with others through Facebook, through email, through text messaging, or whatever. It’s very interesting to really look within ourselves: How are we communicating with others? What is our concept here of communication and being sensitive to others, especially when we can turn off our machine when we don’t feel like communicating? And are we really sensitive to somebody when it’s just with abbreviated little words in an SMS message?
That’s quite helpful, I think, to take a minute or two and observe within ourselves. I mean, maybe some of you are not into this type of communication at all, but so many of us are. What is my attitude? How do I experience communicating in this way? And is this really my concept of what communication and dealing with others is?
And because of the influence of using this type of media, has it become like this even when I’m with somebody in person? How well am I paying attention to somebody when I’m with them if I’m always worried and thinking about: “Well, what’s come up on my Facebook?” and text messaging coming up, and all of these things, and then we’re distracted and doing that? And how deep and meaningful is our response if it’s limited to I like it? Is that all that we want in our communication from others, that we collect a certain number of I like its and “I have more I like its on my page than you do!”?
Let’s take a moment to reflect on our own personal situation. And particularly instructive here is: How many times during the day do I look at my email, do I look at my Facebook page? And do I check my text messages? And how quickly do I respond to them? When you get an SMS, how quickly do you answer it, regardless of who you’re with and what you’re doing? And do we care at all that we’re interrupting what the other person is doing when we send an SMS message and we might be interrupting them? Do we care at all? Does that even come in our minds to think about that? Looking at the screen of the computer or whatever is like looking in the looking glass. Basically it’s seeing me. I’m so important that I can interrupt anybody with whatever I want to say.
So let’s take a moment, please, to reflect.
Okay, I think that the conclusion that we can come to is that real human-to-human communication requires a directness, an actual involvement, a commitment to engaging with another person and not to have this safeguard that if I don’t feel like dealing with you, I just shut off my machine.
So when we’re dealing with this mental activity, as I was explaining, and viewing our experience in terms of mental activity one moment after another moment after another moment, then if we analyze we find that in each moment of experience there are many components – what we call mental factors – that are involved. There are ten of them, according to the Buddhist analysis, that are functioning all the time. And when we can learn to identify these, to recognize them in our experience moment to moment when we’re dealing with others or just dealing with ourselves, then we can also notice whether each of these are in balance. Are they working in harmony with each other, or is something out of balance that needs to be corrected?
But again I can’t emphasize enough that we’re not doing this as a separate me that’s observing and making this judgment and, like the school teacher or policeman or policewoman – “Oh, you have to do this, and you have to do that,” and making the changes. You just do it. A simple example: Turn your head to this wall. Now, how did you do that? Was there a feeling of a separate me inside that pulled some strings like a puppet – “Now I’m going to turn the head,” and then I turned the head? I doubt that that was how we experienced it. You just did it.
So let’s say we notice that we’re not really paying attention to what this person is saying, and our thoughts are just: “Oh, I really want to get out of here. I wish they would stop talking,” you just stop. You just do it. You just pay more attention. It’s not as though there’s the me that has to turn the dial on the attention machine. I mean, it’s as if there were a me that’s the controller and another me that has to be controlled and make the me pay more attention. It’s not like that. You just do it.
Does that make sense? Can you relate to that? It sounds very simple, but actually that’s not so easy, especially when we are very afflicted by worry. “I’m worried. What should I do? Will I do it right? I don’t want to make a mistake.” Then it feels as though there’s a me inside that has to manipulate and control, doesn’t it? And when we experience things in that way, through all this type of worry, then what does it feel like? It’s not a very happy state of mind, is it? It’s a very unpleasant state of mind.
That doesn’t mean that we’re not careful. Of course you’re careful, but just be careful. You don’t have to experience being careful in this dualistic, controller type of way. You just do it. And this is the art, the way in which we work with these mental factors. You just do it. Pay more attention or have more interest in the other person. You just do it, without this comment going on: “Oh, how boring, what they’re saying.” Even if it’s boring, it doesn’t matter. If this other person considers it important enough to say what they’re saying, then you take interest.
Now let’s go through these ten mental factors. This is not the traditional order of them but a slightly modified order that helps with this training practice.
So first we have an urge (bsam-pa). An urge causes our mind to go in the direction of a particular experience. It’s described as being a little bit like a magnet. I have an urge to scratch my head. I have an urge to look in this direction. I have an urge to shift my position on the chair. Just like a magnet, it draws you in the direction of the next moment of doing something, which is obviously involved with an interaction with somebody. We might have an urge to just run away and tell them to shut up or whatever, but you might control that urge, or you can direct it to having an urge to actually be patient and listen to what they’re saying. In some Buddhist systems this urge is identified with karma.
Then we have distinguishing (‘du-shes). It’s involved with how we deal with a sense field. So we have this sense field of vision or of hearing, for example, and we need to be able to distinguish certain features within that sense field. Let’s say if we think of the sense field as a huge mass of pixels of colors or, a little bit grosser, of colored shapes, then you have to be able to distinguish some sort of feature in order to put these pixels and these colored shapes together into some sort of item; otherwise you can’t deal with it. You don’t necessarily have to give it a name. That’s conceptual. You don’t have to necessarily give it a meaning. That’s also conceptual. And there is distinguishing in conceptual thought, where you distinguish that it fits into this name or this category or another one. But if I am dealing with you, I certainly need to be able to distinguish your head from the background, don’t I? Otherwise it’s meaningless. Or if there’s a whole crowd of people – like sitting here looking at this group of people – in order to address one person, I have to distinguish the colored shapes that make up their head, the visual image of their head, from the other people around them. We don’t put it together in weird ways, do we?
But I could also distinguish on a much more refined level in terms of the expression on your face or how you’re holding your body, not giving a name to it but just sort of distinguishing it as an item, which obviously then gives us more information in terms of how to relate to the person. Are they looking bored? Are they looking stressed? Are they looking sick? Are they looking tired? That’s distinguishing it into a category. But first you just have to distinguish the expression on their face. We need to distinguish the sound of their voice from the sound of the traffic in the street, certainly. We need to try to distinguish the tone of voice because that gives us a lot of information about their emotional state, doesn’t it, or their level of stress or their level of self-confidence? That’s communicated very much in the way in which they speak, isn’t it? So we need to distinguish that from everything else.
So the urge brings this particular information into my sense field, and then within that there’s distinguishing certain features.
Then comes attention (yid-la byed-pa). How much attention am I going to pay to what I perceive? What it does is it engages with a specific object within a specific sense field, or engages with a specific emotional state or thought, and it causes us to focus on it or to consider this object in a certain way. We could pay attention to it carefully or pay attention to it very relaxed. All of these mental factors are like a scale, so it could be a lot or it could be a little – pay a lot of attention, don’t pay very much attention.
So how do I engage with this object? Then other mental factors come in. Do I engage in a very critical, judgmental way? Do I engage in a very open way? All of that is how you pay attention to the object.
Then there’s a difficult one called contacting awareness (reg-pa). That’s usually translated as contact, but we’re not talking about physical contact; we’re talking about a mental factor. The way it’s defined is that it differentiates that the object of cognition is pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant, and that serves as the foundation for experiencing that object with a feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral.
So I can distinguish somebody from somebody else, and I differentiate that as a pleasant object, and then I feel happy seeing this object, this person. We’re hearing these words. I differentiate them as pleasant words or unpleasant words. Unpleasant words – I might feel unhappy. Or if they’re just talking, “Blah blah blah,” it’s neutral – I don’t feel either super happy or unhappy.
That’s interesting actually if you think about it. It’s not talking about being judgmental here. Think about that. When we see somebody, is it pleasant to see them or is it unpleasant to see them? It could be the same person. Sometimes it’s pleasant to see them; sometimes it’s not pleasant to see them. Sometimes then, on the basis of that, we’re happy to see them or we’re unhappy to see them. From the Buddhist point of view, we would describe it in terms of a karmic situation. But also we could expand that and say it’s affected by many, many causal factors – that somehow when I come in contact with you, or with this object or with these words, it’s pleasant. Well, because I was busy or I had a good meal or whatever – that’s going to affect, isn’t it, how I come in contact with an experience.
It’s very interesting what affects how we come in contact with somebody. Do I come into contact with it in a pleasant way or an unpleasant way, nice or not very nice? Is it pleasant to see our child, let’s say, or unpleasant? Well, we could be very busy, and then the child comes in and bothers us and makes a big fuss or whatever, so then it’s unpleasant. But that’s affected by the fact that we’re very busy and preoccupied with something else. So basically we’re thinking about me, me, me: “I don’t want to be interrupted.” Whereas if we took more interest in the child (“Well, what do you want?”), then it’s no longer unpleasant to see the child – it’s pleasant to see the child – because we care about the child.
All these things interact with each other. They network with each other. If I were more interested in you, then I would distinguish and pay attention to the expression on your face and to the tone of your voice, wouldn’t I? It would help me to be able to respond in an appropriate way. Because one of the ways that the mental activity works is that it takes in information. So we need to take in more information. The information is there; we just have to distinguish it, pay attention to it.
So we have contacting awareness, and we have feeling (tshor-ba). Feeling refers to feeling some level of happy or unhappy. It doesn’t have to be dramatic happy and unhappy. It could be a very low level. Usually it is very low level. And it’s happening all the time, all of these things.
I’m looking at this painting on the wall, and it’s pleasant contacting awareness, and I’m happy to look at it. And a few moments later it’s no longer very pleasant, and I’m not so happy to continue looking at it. It’s not that I’m really sad and unhappy, but I am dissatisfied enough so that the urge comes to move my head and to look at another painting.
I’m listening to you talking, and it’s a pleasant contacting awareness, and I’m happy to listen to you. It’s okay. I feel comfortable (happy can also be the dimension of just feeling comfortable). But then it’s no longer very pleasant, then I’m unhappy, and then the urge comes to look away or to verbally think something else, and then I’m no longer paying attention. And instead of distinguishing a meaning to the sounds that are coming out of your mouth (it’s just sort of noise in the background), I’m distinguishing how I feel: I’m feeling bored, I’m feeling tired, I’m feeling restless, and distinguishing that. We make this distinction, at least in English: I hear your words, but I’m really not listening to you.
So these are the first five mental factors. The urge brings us to the object like a magnet. I mean, of course there could be willpower. We could decide to look at an object. Decision – that’s another aspect; it adds certainty to what we’re doing. But even then, when we have willpower to do something, even that’s not a separate me sitting in our head doing that and making the decision. It’s just part of each moment. So the urge, the distinguishing, the attention (engaging with the object), contacting awareness (pleasant, unpleasant), and feeling (happy, unhappy). So we have the list, at least, so let’s get a little bit of experience so that we know what we’re talking about.
Notice that when you look at something, it’s pleasant, you’re satisfied, it’s okay to look at it, but then there’s the urge to look at something else and then something else. So there’s always an urge going on that causes a change in what we are perceiving. Look around the room, please, and don’t just swivel your head around. You look at something, and then you no longer feel like looking at it, and then you look at something else. It just happens naturally, doesn’t it?
And when you’re tired of looking at something and you look at something else, we do distinguish it from the wall, don’t we? And in the paintings, we distinguish one color from another, and we put it into items: There’s a lotus. There’s a Buddha. We do that even before we give it a name. You don’t have to give it a name in your head; you know that it’s a lotus. First we put it together as an item, and then conceptually it fits in the category of lotus. All of that’s nonverbal. So distinguishing is going on all the time.
And we can pay close attention or not very much attention at all. Or there’s even a type of attention that is: “I don’t want to look at this anymore,” and then an urge comes up to look at something else. And if we stay looking at it – well, on some level you could say that it’s pleasant and we’re happy to look at it. We’re comfortable. It feels okay to look at it. And then no longer so comfortable, it’s not so pleasant, and then we look at something else.
Now, it’s even more interesting when we apply this to listening to somebody or being with somebody. So while you’re listening to what I’m saying now and what the translator is saying, is there an urge to listen, or is there an urge to do something else? While we’re sitting and listening, there can be urges to do something else, whether it’s to shift our position, whether it’s to scratch our head, whether it is to think about something else or to take notes. And are we distinguishing just the sound of the words and giving them some meaning? Or, well, our attention could be distracted and we’re listening to the traffic noise? What are we paying attention to? Are you paying attention to the sound of the words? Or are you paying attention to the feeling in your knees, which are hurting? What are you paying attention to? It changes all the time, doesn’t it? Or the sensation at the back of my head that itches – I want to scratch it, and the urge comes up. And is it pleasant listening to the sound of my voice or the sound of the translator’s voice? Do you feel happy and comfortable or not very comfortable? If you don’t understand English, for example, is it the same type of experience listening to the English as it is to listen to the Latvian that you do understand?
It’s very interesting. What is pleasant? What’s unpleasant? Somebody could have a very unpleasant voice, the sound of their voice, and it’s not very pleasurable to listen to them, but you’re very interested. Some translators speak in a very boring way, with no expression, and it’s not very pleasant to listen to them. I’m not accusing you of being like that, but there are some translators like that. They’re really boring to listen to, but you’re really interested because you want to know what was being said. So these factors can fit together in many different ways. Because you’re more interested, it will override the fact that it’s not so pleasant to listen to his voice. So this falls into the sphere of attention. How do you pay attention to something? Do you pay attention to it as being important or being unimportant? So the tone of the person’s voice being monotone and boring – well, it’s not so pleasant to listen to, but when I distinguish that, I consider it and pay attention to it as unimportant. What’s more important to pay attention to is the meaning of what they’re saying.
Well, that’s one type of situation. Listening to a translation is not something we do all the time. But we interact with people all the time, hopefully, unless we live totally isolated by ourselves. And sometimes the way that they’re talking can be really quite unpleasant. There’s some people that are always repeating themselves, for example. Or they speak so softly you really have to strain in order to listen to them. Or it’s so loud you feel blasted away. So in this type of situation, what do we consider important or unimportant? Is it the tone of the voice, the fact that they’re repeating themselves constantly, or the problem that they’re facing? So how do we pay attention? What are we distinguishing as the main focus of our attention? All these things are variables; they can change. That’s the whole essence or purpose of this type of training, to see that in each moment of our experience there are all these factors – and we’ve only covered five so far (there are five more) – and all of them interact with each other, affect each other, and they can be changed. Each one is a variable. It can be adjusted in a way in which will optimize our healthy, beneficial interaction with somebody, what I call “balanced sensitivity.”
And of course in all of this we need to be sensitive not only to the other person but to ourselves; we need to gain a balance. We spoke about that. But this is very important to bear in mind when we are adjusting these mental factors. Because we can also distinguish that: “I’m really tired,” for example, and that’s pretty unpleasant and not a very happy type of feeling. And we can ignore that, we can try not to pay attention to being so tired, but sometimes it becomes really strong, especially if we’re yawning and we’re trying to keep our mouth shut and yawn without opening our mouth and so on, and it becomes very, very unpleasant. And sometimes we have to be sensitive to ourselves in that situation. The other person is talking about all their problems and difficulties, and you say, “I’m really tired. It’s very difficult for me to listen to you. I really want to, but I need a little break,” or “Let’s talk about this tomorrow.” So we need a balance; otherwise we’re really not paying attention to the other person. And if we’re really honest about it and don’t feel badly saying that – of course you apologize: “I wish I could listen to you, but I’m really, really exhausted, and I find it very difficult to pay attention” – then usually most people will respond favorably to that and say okay.
So now we have these first five. Let’s take a moment again to digest that. Urges, distinguishing, attention, contacting awareness, and feeling, feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness.
And what we need to do in order to recognize these things is just analyze right now, this moment, what is making up my experience of this moment: What is the urge? What do I feel like doing? And what am I distinguishing? Am I distinguishing my mood, am I distinguishing what’s on the wall, am I distinguishing a sound – what am I distinguishing? And what kind of attention am I paying to it and to everything else? And is it pleasant? Is it unpleasant? Do I feel some low level of being comfortable, happy, or uncomfortable, unhappy? What’s going on right now?
I find it hard to resist, so please excuse me. Actually when we analyze like this, it becomes quite clear that there’s no separate me from all of this. Is there a me that has no feeling, no feeling of pleasant, no distinguishing, no urge, no nothing – blank – and then it somehow connects to feeling happy or unhappy or connects with distinguishing or an urge to do something, but on its own it exists completely separately from all of this, with nothing? When you analyze like that, it’s quite impossible that there’s that kind of me, isn’t it?
I feel happy. It’s not somebody else feeling happy, and it’s not just happiness. Of course I feel happy, but it’s not a me that exists separately totally unconnected to happy or unhappy and then sort of comes into the room and connects with a feeling of happy or unhappy. That has huge consequences in terms of our emotional life. Especially if we are obsessed with this quest of: “I want to be happy,” as if there was an I, a me, that somehow was totally dissociated from feeling happy or unhappy, and now this I wants to connect with feeling happy. Of course I want to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy. But just do whatever it will take to be happy. Don’t worry about this poor me that sits in some room by itself feeling nothing and wants to connect with happiness. Then you become really worried and very, very upset. Just do whatever it takes to be happy.
In many ways a computer analogy is very helpful. Sometimes you just have to reboot. This mood that I’m in, this whole obsession, me, me, me – the program is not functioning properly. We were speaking about this subtle level. You just reboot. You go down to the subtle level and then be in a different mood. Just start again fresh. And if you train yourself, you can do that – you can reboot at any time, and you can do it quite quickly, and it’s not so exotic.
And the place where you really need this is in an interaction with somebody. They’re interacting, and you’re getting all excited – and you’re stressed, and you’re nervous, and your shoulders are up and so on – and the voice is very loud. And you realize: “Error. Error. Something is malfunctioning here.” And then you just: “Phew, okay!” and you calm down, calm yourself down, put your shoulders down. It only takes a microsecond to do that once you’re trained. And then, “Okay, now I’m more calm,” and then you speak in a much more relaxed tone and so on. That’s how you deal with it. You just do it.
This is what we develop once we start working with these mental factors and so on and realize that your mood, your state of mind, all these things – they can all be changed. And you don’t have to do that as a controller; you just do it. And we’re perfectly capable of doing it.
Now the next five mental factors. Let’s go through these.
The first one is interest, or regard (mos-pa). Regard is a difficult word, but that’s really the actual word here. It’s not the Tibetan or Sanskrit word for interest, but it’s pretty much equivalent to interest. Regard has to do with taking an object to have some level of good qualities. That’s the definition. So you regard it as having some level of good qualities. If you regard it as having some good qualities, which often we call interesting, then you have interest in it, and then you would pay attention to it. If you regard it as not having very many good qualities, it’s not very interesting. So that interest is actually a variable of whether we can distinguish good qualities in something.
[We’re in an interaction with somebody, for example,] and they’re talking in a way that’s really boring, they’re repeating themselves, and I’ve distinguished that I’m feeling pretty bored, and I have an urge to just walk out of the room. So I have no interest in what they’re saying, which means that I don’t regard what they’re saying as having any good qualities, as being interesting. Now, what am I distinguishing here? If I’m distinguishing just the tone of their voice and the fact that they’re repeating themselves – well, that’s not very interesting. But if I distinguish their emotional state, what they’re trying to communicate, and I care about the person, then I’m distinguishing a good quality, and then I have interest.
So that whole variable of taking interest is connected with being able to distinguish a certain area that has good qualities, qualities that we consider important and we care about. You can see this very easily when you go to the store: You see a beautiful dress or coat or whatever, and you’re distinguishing the good quality of the material and the cut and the design and so on. That’s one thing. But if you only have a limited amount of money, then that’s not the main thing that’s interesting, the design of the thing. What’s interesting is the good quality of the price. Is it a good price or not? “This is on sale. That’s good quality. That’s really interesting.” So that’s what I’m distinguishing. That’s what I’m paying attention to. And “okay, it’s not in my favorite color, but all right, I’ll make do with this.”
So interest is a factor of what we are distinguishing as being a good quality, what variable to us is important. And things are more or less important because of other factors – how much money we have, whether or not we are concerned about fashion. Many things affect what we consider important. “I don’t have much time, so I can’t really shop for an hour. So the first thing that I see – if it’s okay, I’ll buy it.”
It’s interesting what choice we make at a store if the store is going to close in five minutes or if we have a lot of time to be able to shop. Quite different variable, isn’t it? So what we consider important and how much attention we pay to things, and so on, is dependent on so many causes and conditions.
The next one is usually translated as mindfulness (dran-pa). That’s a difficult term. I call it a mental glue. It is the mental activity of keeping hold on an object once our attention focuses on it. Remember, with attention we engage with the object, and now mindfulness holds it there and doesn’t let go. Well, it helps us not to let go (of course our mind wanders all the time). So it’s mindfulness that we want to work with to hold onto that object and keep our attention engaged with it.
Often we really have to work with that to keep our attention held on what the person is saying and not start to think something else when we notice that there’s the urge to think something else or comment, “This is really stupid,” “This is really boring,” or whatever. Then there’s the type of attention that brings it back, so you bring your attention back, and then you hold onto it with mindfulness.
And all these are a big spectrum. So that mindfulness can be a lot of mindfulness, a really steady hold, or a very weak hold. And of course it could be too intense, when you’re like on top of the person. That also is a fault, isn’t it? It has to be in balance – not too tight, not too relaxed.
And attention goes with this. What are you paying attention to in terms of that mindfulness? People who are oversensitive are really paying attention; they’re really intensely listening to you, waiting for you to say something that they will feel is insulting or will hurt their feelings or something like that. That’s a very unbalanced type of mindfulness.
Then there’s concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin), which is mentally fixating on the object; in other words, staying on the object. The mindfulness is the hold on the object, and the concentration is the remaining on the object. We could be remaining on the object – our attention stays there – but the hold is very weak. So these are two variables that are there.
I’m sure this happens to everybody. You’re watching TV or a movie or something like that, and you’re nodding off to sleep, but you really want to watch the program because it’s really very interesting, and you’re really trying to hold on. So the mindfulness is strong, but you can’t stay – the concentration isn’t there – so you’re constantly nodding off. So you see these are two different variables here, two different mental factors.
Then the next one is discrimination, discriminating awareness (shes-rab). Discrimination: it adds certainty about what we distinguish. That’s its definition. This is what’s usually translated as wisdom, which is completely misleading, I feel. We distinguish some feature, that it’s this and not that, and discrimination decides very decisively between two alternatives: It is this; it’s not that. This is what I’m going to do, not that. This is beneficial; this is not harmful.
Now of course we can be completely certain about something totally incorrect. What we discriminate here doesn’t necessarily have to be correct. For example, we have an interaction with somebody, and we distinguish the tone of their voice and the expression on their face and so on. And now there’s decisiveness about what this is – “They’re upset. I’m convinced that they are emotionally upset,” whereas in fact it could be that they have a headache or an upset stomach, and it’s just a physical thing; it’s not emotional. And even worse we could discriminate that they’re upset with me, something that I did, whereas it could be they’re upset about something totally different. They dropped a glass during the day. The glass broke, and they’re upset. It’s nothing to do with me. But in order to know what to do, to make the decision of what to do, how to respond, how to interpret what we perceive, we have this discriminating awareness. It adds certainty to what we distinguish.
It’s happening all the time. I mean, it’s really quite amazing. We look at these colored shapes of the wall, and we distinguish – we put together a certain set of colored shapes, and conceptually we put it in the category of door. And now I’m really certain about distinguishing that it’s a door, and I walk through the doorway. Well, I could be wrong. I could smack into the wall as well. But it’s amazing how you have to have that certainty in order to walk through the door. Do we call that wisdom? Even the cow can do that. It can walk through the door of the barn. It doesn’t smack into the wall, does it?
Participant: Sometimes it’s a glass wall.
Alex: Well, if it’s glass, then they can’t discriminate, like a bird that smacks into a window. Then they can’t discriminate, because they don’t have the conceptual framework of a window, of a glass window. So here this is incorrect discrimination. Sometimes that happens to us as well with glass.
Then the last one is intention (‘dun-pa). It leads us to do something. So it could be the wish to have it. I’ve discriminated, and now I’m certain that it’s this – “This is what I want.” So the intention to have it, or to do something with it, or to achieve some desired goal. I distinguish a certain physical feeling. I discriminate what it is – it is hunger. And then the intention to achieve some goal – to get to the refrigerator and open the door and take something to eat. So it’s very simple. We have this all the time.
All of these are involved in interactions with others and how we deal with ourselves. We need to be able to distinguish: “How do I feel?” and have some discrimination of what it actually is, a little bit of certainty, and the intention of how we’re going to deal with it.
So of all the physical sensations that I’m experiencing – the sensation of the chair underneath me, the sensation of my clothing on me, the sensation of the temperature of the room, all of that – within that I am distinguishing that my shoulders are up. How I’m holding my shoulders – that’s what I’m distinguishing. That’s a physical sensation. There’s tension in the muscles. And then I add certainty, that: “Yes, the muscles in my shoulders are tense. They’re up.” And then the intention to put them down, to relax. So it’s very useful. I mean, these are mental factors. What are we going to pay attention to? What do you consider interesting? It’s interesting what my muscles are feeling like, the stress in my muscles. Why is it interesting? Well, it’s a quality that is important to me because it makes me feel stressed. So then put them down.
So these are our second set of five mental factors – interest, mindfulness, concentration, discrimination, and intention. So that makes ten.
So I think that brings us to our lunchtime. And this afternoon, if you have some questions about these… That’s always the best way to start the session after lunch because everybody is sleepy, including myself, so it becomes a little bit more interesting. What’s interesting about it? What’s the good quality of it? Well, it gives me and the audience a chance to say something, to participate. And I’m curious – it will be amusing (that’s a good quality) – about what other people are thinking, what they have to say, and what the answer will be. So then that will cause us to pay a little bit more attention to the questions and answers rather than paying attention to the sleepiness that we still feel from having eaten and the room being hotter because it’s a sunny day in the summer.
So these mental factors are involved with every single moment of our experience. And if you are aware of that, then you can mold situations in such a way that it will optimize the experience. And although it might feel as though there’s a separate me sitting in the room in my head figuring out: “Well, how can I keep people’s interest on a hot day right after lunch?” it’s not like that. There’s just the thinking process that’s occurring. Thoughts are coming up – what to do, how to handle things – and decisions are made, and just do it. It’s not that there’s a separate me totally dissociated from being here and being involved with this lecture and then deciding what to do, although it might feel like that. That’s what’s deceptive.
So let’s end here, and we’ll continue after lunch.
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