|BuddhaSasana Home Page
A Technique of Living
Leonard A. Bullen
The ninth month
THE PRACTICE OF THOUGHT CONTROL
IN most communities the thoughts of the average person are governed by the thoughts of the majority of other average people, and this holds good from early childhood right through to old age. Only to a limited extent does the average person think for himself.
During early childhood you learnt largely by exercising your senses; you looked at things, you listened to sounds, you smelt and tasted things, you touched and handled them, and you experienced physical pain and physical pleasure from then. Thus by direct first-hand sensory contact you became acquainted with the fundamental elements of experience.
When by exploring the world with your senses you found something that yielded pleasure or satisfaction, you regarded that thing as good, and similarly when you encountered something that gave rise to pain you regarded it as evil. Good and evil at this stage were identical with pleasure and pain.
But your elders soon complicated matters for you by scolding you for enjoying your pleasures and by forcing you to do things which, although unpleasant, were called good. As you learnt the language of your elders your concrete concepts of good and evil became further confused with the abstract concepts of right and wrong, while the rightness and wrongness of things were measured by the approval and disapproval of others.
From the beginning, then, your thoughts were governed largely by the thoughts of those about you, conveyed to you by their approval and disapproval.
There were other external influences to shape your thoughts as you grew older, but to a large extent the effects of these later influences – although less definite – followed the patterns laid down in earliest childhood.
You tended to approve of those things that were approved by the people you liked and admired, and to disapprove of the things associated with people you disliked.
In your present phase of life, whatever it happens to be, you still largely follow the childhood patterns. Sometimes, perhaps, it may be that you believe a thing because it pleases you to believe it, and not because your reason supports it. Or you believe it because everybody around you believes it, or because, years ago, your parents taught you to believe it.
For the childlike mind, authority forms the only basis for belief; but even if your mind is more mature it probably still retains old beliefs and builds new ones on inadequate foundations, mainly because you are never called upon to apply the critical function of your reasoning powers to the matters concerned. You take them for granted.
There is a very powerful factor in modern life that continually conditions your thinking, or perhaps your lack of thinking. The patterns and channels of your thoughts are conditioned to a large extent by the continual blare of advertising This uses both blatant and subtle means to keep at the highest pitch both your desires for sensory enjoyment and your sense of self-importance.
You can realise that it is of vital importance to develop a technique of thought control. In this connection, Buddhist psychology offers a method called bare attention.
This is one of the most important forms of mindfulness. In bare attention, the attention is stripped bare of all emotional biases, prejudices, self-references, and associated thoughts. This emotion-free attention is essential for seeing things as they really are, because emotional biases, prejudices, and uncontrolled associations bring about falsifications or distortions of perceptions.
Bare attention thus means the bare uncluttered awareness of a perception, without any reaction to it in the form of deed, speech, or mental comment.
If you were to examine your normal everyday perceptions, you might find that they are often muddled, cluttered up with mental material that belongs elsewhere, and obscure or distorted.
Sometimes these falsifications cause misunderstandings, conflict, and discord. You can see that, if you apply the principle of bare attention to your everyday thinking, you can reduce the misunderstandings that sometimes occur, together with their consequent conflict and discord.
It is not until you become aware of your own mental functioning that you realize just how widespread and deep-seated your strong emotional biases really are. They are, in fact, so widespread and so deep-seated that without special self-training it is impossible to perceive a sense object, to form a clear idea of a situation, or to recollect an event without some distortion or other.
In the jungle of emotionally-distorted ideas that constitutes a large part of the average mind there are danger zones, and when these are stimulated they give rise to irrational thinking, bad temper, and misjudgments. Any of these can cause quarrels and heartaches when they intrude into your associations with other people.
And it is important to recognise the fact that you cannot as a rule see the danger zones in your mind, because the tangled masses of emotional undergrowth make them inaccessible to consciousness. Until the light of full consciousness can be brought to bear on them, to identify them, and to clear them away, they will remain as danger zones.
Much of this undergrowth was planted during childhood and before, and if you really want to arrive at the detailed awareness of your own mind in its fullest sense you must learn to break the false emotional connections formed in your early life. It’s probable that many buried complexes exist in your mind and are at the root of your irrational behaviour, of your unaccountable likes and dislikes, and of your fears and resentments.
Now it is not my intention to discuss methods of self-analysis or systems of reaching buried complexes. This is a specialist’s territory and any endeavours to enter the danger zones of the mind by a frontal attack could raise more problems than it solves.
The practice of bare attention, at least in the sense in which we are considering it here, does not make a direct or frontal attack on such problems; it works by establishing a foothold in the observations and perceptions of the present and cleansing these of their biases and prejudices; and then, as these current experiences are purified, the cleaning-up process extends backwards, so to speak, into the past. In other words, as your current experiences are progressively stripped bare of their retardant emotional clutter, the increased awareness extends to the memory-patterns of earlier emotional experiences.
Whereas a direct frontal attack in approaching a touchy complex is practically certain to fail, the gradual and subtle influence of bare attention seeps through into lower layers of the mind – layers normally inaccessible to consciousness – and cleanses them at their own level.
However, it must be realised that this is not the work of weeks, or months, or years; it must be considered as a process of decades at least; in fact, it is a lifetime task.
There is another point of interest in applying bare attention to that jungle of emotional undergrowth called the human mind. As you employ the technique of bare attention to your current experiences – as you endeavour to keep your present observations and perceptions clear of bias, prejudice, and irrelevant emotion – so your mind itself changes. It is like cleaning a mirror which has accumulated spots and splashes; as you proceed with the cleaning process, so you find the reflection becoming truer and clearer. In the same way, as you gradually clean up the perceptive faculties of your mind, so you enable it to see into itself with greater clarity and so to reach to greater depths.
This matter of bare attention forms an extremely important factor in the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the core of Buddhism. To make this point clear, let’s run through the eight steps.
Right understanding is the first step. In one sense, this is intellectual understanding of the Buddha-doctrine; in another sense it is the understanding of the true nature of existence; while in yet another sense it becomes a direct insight into the ultimate reality beyond all things.
The second step, right thought, is one of the specifically psychological aspects of the Path, since it involves the control of mental processes. Next in order come right speech, right action, and right livelihood, which three together summarise the moral aspects of Buddhism.
Then comes the sixth step, right effort, which being the training of the will, is an essential part of Buddhist psychology. The seventh step, right mindfulness, is also psychological, since it comprises the process of perfecting the normal faculty of attention; while the last of the eight steps, right concentration, takes us beyond the realm of normal psychology into the cultivation of supernormal faculties of the mind.
Now it is the second step of the Eightfold Path, the step called right thought, that we’re primarily concerned with at present. Right thought is usually described as thought which is free from uncontrolled sensory desires, from ill-will, and from cruelty.
To a large extent, mental processes involve the use of words, not only for expressing thoughts but also for formulating them; and therefore the control of these mental processes can be assisted by the use of the verbalizing function of the mind.
Before we deal with verbalized thought, however, it will be of interest to consider what Buddhist psychology has to say about the nature of thought in a broad sense, and later on we can discuss the type of thought which uses words as its instruments.
The Buddha-doctrine describes thought (in the sense of the general process of cognition) as a conscious process, as a process whereby various stimuli affect consciousness.
Thought, of course, must always be conscious. There can be no such thing as unconscious thought; and, although we may speak of subconscious mental processes, these processes cannot properly be called thought.
Just as thought must be conscious, so any kind of consciousness must have a stimulus or object. This stimulus may come from outside by way of one of the five physical senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, and body-sensibility), or it may come from within the mind itself in the form of an idea or a mental image.
Thus, if there be no stimulus (no sound, no odour, no recollection, nor any other sense-object or mind-object), then there can be no consciousness.
Under such conditions, the state of mind that prevails is, in Buddhist psychology, called the mental subcurrent; it is that form of mental energy which gives to the body its life, and without this mental energy the body could not live.
It can be visualized as an undercurrent of mental life from which full consciousness arises. In English writings on Buddhism it is often called the subconscious mind: but to avoid confusion with Western concepts it is better to use the term mental subcurrent.
The mental subcurrent may be illustrated by a stream of water flowing placidly and evenly; and, when this flow of water is disturbed, waves arise on the surface. Similarly, when the subcurrent is disturbed by stimuli (either external sense-objects or internal mind-objects) then consciousness arises, as waves arise on the surface of the water.
The mental subcurrent is the essential foundation of individual life and without the mental subcurrent individual physical life, cannot exist. In it are stored the resultant impressions of all previous experiences; and these sometimes enter consciousness in the form of memories.
The subcurrent possesses no volition of its own, since volition belongs only to consciousness; but the subconscious mental processes that go on within it are directed by habits which have been formed by conscious will-activity in the past.
During ordinary waking life, consciousness seems to be completely continuous, but the Buddha-doctrine teaches that this is not as it seems, since ordinary waking life consists of conscious phases rapidly alternating with subconscious phases.
If we were to look at an electric light being switched on and off many times each second, it would appear to be a completely continuous light, whereas there would actually be a rapid alternation of light and darkness. In the same way, what appears to be continuous consciousness is really a rapid alternation of conscious and subconscious states.
Each mind-state lasts for an inconceivably small fraction of a second and then passes away, to be followed immediately by the next mind-state. In passing away, each mind-state transmits its energy to the following state, which is thus in sonic degree similar to its predecessor. But this new mind-state is not necessarily similar in all respects to that which preceded it, for new external stimuli may have arisen.
Thus any mind-state consists of the energy of its predecessor, plus sometimes some degree of modification.
In waking life, consciousness arises from the mental subcurrent and sinks back to the subconscious condition millions of times a second, and the rapid succession of these alternating states gives the illusion of continuous consciousness. The unit of time used in describing the processes of cognition is called a thought-moment; millions of thought-moments go to make up a second.
When the mind is in a subconscious state and a strong stimulus occurs, full consciousness may arise, and the process of its arising will occupy a period of seventeen thought moments.
The following description of the process describes these thought-moments one by one:
Moment l : The mental subcurrent is evenly flowing below the level of consciousness and the sudden strong stimulus occurs.
Moment 2: The mental subcurrent is irritated of disturbed.
Moment 3: The mind turns towards the stimulus or object.
(This stage is called advertance, but it must not be interpreted as attention since as yet there is no mind-consciousness).
Moment 4: Consciousness of the sense-object now commences, but this is sensation and nothing more, for it occurs as yet only in the physical sense-organ; it has not as yet been received by mind-consciousness.
Moment 5: The stimulation is now conveyed via the nerve-fibres to the central nervous system and is received into mind-consciousness. This function, called reception, is more or less under the control of the will, and unless it takes place no further perception of the object can occur. In the case of a weak stimulus, it may be possible volitionally to cut it off; but in the case of a strong stimulus it is not normally possible to keep it out of mind-consciousness.
Moment 6: In the next phase, the function called investigation takes place. Now investigation as ordinarily understood is a process spread over a period of time, so we are not to suppose that in one thought-moment the whole process of investigation of the nature of the sense-object takes place. What is meant is that in any conscious period of this kind, the mental energy seeks to connect up the new sense-object with the existing impressions left by earlier sense-stimulations. In each succeeding phase of cognition this momentary process is repeated.
Moment 7: Following on the previous thought-moment’s activity (the investigation phase) some degree of connection with the impressions of earlier similar sense-stimulation is effected, and by virtue of this connection the mind is able to begin to classify the particular sense-object. Here again, the process is repeated in each cognitive process until the classification is complete.
Moments 8 to 14: During the next seven thought moments, the mind determines an attitude of liking or dislike towards the object, an attitude of either good-will or ill-will. This phase in the conscious period is called impulsion; it is mentally the most active part of the process, and to an extent it is under volitional control. During these seven impulsionmoments, reaction-forces are generated within the mental structure, and each separate thought-moment brings into being its own particular kind of reaction force.
Moments 15 and 16: During a period of two thought-moments, the process is finally impressed or registered on the mind, or in other words it is passed into the memory-store.
Moment 17: In the final thought-moment, full consciousness ceases for this period, after which the whole process of cognition may be repeated over and over again while the stimulus lasts.
The above description applies to a strong sensory stimulus, but if the stimulus is very weak there is no more than a slight disturbance of the mental subcurrent.
When the stimulus is not a sense-object but a mind object in the form of an idea or a recollection, the process is slightly different; but the effects of the impulsion moments are in general the same. Conscious and unconscious periods alternate with so great a frequency that there is an illusion of continuous consciousness.
Now as the word thought is used in the second step of the Noble Eightfold Path – the step called right thought – its meaning is to a large extent restricted to what is called the verbalizing function of the mind. We carry out a great part of our thinking by means of words, for words are symbols for ideas, while ideas in their turn are the mental representatives for things, ideas, processes, and abstractions.
Whereas an idea of a complicated thing is necessarily complicated, it can generally be condensed into a simple word; thus while thinking with ideas (in the absence of words) would be clumsy and laborious, thinking with words is much quicker and easier.
Thus thought-control largely means the control of the verbalizing function of the mind, of the "inner speech" whereby we silently use words to consider a problem, to reason about it, to reach a decision, and to plan out a line of action.
We can see, then, that we use words not only to express our thoughts but also to formulate our thoughts. While it can’t be said that all our thinking takes the form of silent speech, or thinking in verbalized form, we must realize that a large part of our thinking does take this form.
Obviously, then, if the words we choose to formulate our thoughts do not accurately represent the ideas they are intended to represent, our thinking will be loose and inaccurate, so that any tendency towards self-deception we possess will be accentuated.
Few of us are free from some tendency, however slight, awards self-deception. While we are generally aware of the extreme forms of sensory desire, ill-will, and cruelty as they appear in our own make up, we are not always aware of these adverse qualities when they appear in their mild and unobtrusive forms.
Thus when we allow one of these adverse qualities to operate in our mind in a small way, we may tend to gloss it over, to excuse it, and to make no effort to deal with it. We feel it is too unimportant to worry about it.
Yet the small everyday operations of an adverse mind-factor in its minor manifestations strengthen it little by little, and thus lay the foundations for its major appearance at some later time when, perhaps, a crisis arises.
In cultivating the second step of the Noble Eightfold Path, then, it is essential to watch the small everyday outcroppings of sensory desire, ill-will, and cruelty, and recognise them in their many mild and unobtrusive forms. It is almost useless to wait until they appear in their extreme forms, for then they are too powerful to be handled effectively.
As long as we allow our thinking to remain vague and fuzzy, we are unlikely to recognise the lesser forms of adverse qualities. If, on the other band, we verbalize our thoughts in the form of precise words, we are likely to discover these qualities and can then more easily deal with them.
This brings us to the use of the verbal formula as an instrument in thought control. A carefully-worded or well selected phrase, silently repeated, can act as a kind of mechanical aid to direct the thoughts along a particular channel, or alternatively to divert the thoughts from unsuitable or unwanted mind-objects.
Thus if we are suffering from an acute sense of loss – as for example after a bereavement – it may be helpful to use a phrase like this:
It is in the very nature of things that at some time or other we must part from all that is dear to us; and by yearning for a return of that which is past we merely prolong our sorrow.
Of course, the main problem here is to remember to use the formula at the times when it is most needed, for a t these-times we are generally overwhelmed with our sense of loss; but this is a matter of developing the habit of mindfulness, which in itself is a major part of Buddhist mind-training.
Ideally, we should not wait until a severe loss occurs to begin to train ourselves in detachment. One aspect of right thought is that it is characterised by mental detachment from objects, people, experiences, memories, and anticipations that give pleasure.
Since ordinary life largely revolves around such things, we generally become enmeshed in the web of attachment, and to break free from this web is normally beyond us.
Thus when a severe loss does occur, it becomes very important to use every aid – such as that afforded by the mental repetition of a formula – to make an adjustment to the new circumstances.
Now we must admit that thought free from all sensory desire is a good deal to expect from average people, like ourselves, who must live ordinary lives in equally ordinary environments. Perhaps it will help us to understand the problem if we consider what is meant by sensory desire.
Briefly, sensory desire is thought loaded up with the desire for enjoyment by the six senses, namely by impressions of visual objects, by sounds, by odours, by tastes, by body-sense impressions, and by mental reflections on any of these.
Sensory desires include the wish to see a sunset, the lights of a town seen across a valley, a beautifully patterned wall-paper, or a glimpse of a loved one’s face; these are all visual things. Many desires are auditory; the desire to hear a piece of music or even a single chord, the trickling of a mountain brook, or the sound of a loved one’s voice. There are desires to experience pleasant perfumes, tastes, and body-impressions, such as of comfortable warmth, and there is the desire to look back on any of these physical sense-enjoyments or to look forward to them.
Now freedom from all these forms of sense-desire would seem to be freedom from all ordinary forms of motivation; and up to a point this is true. Ordinary motivation is based on the desire for sensory or mental enjoyment of some kind; and without the prospect of enjoyment many of our activities would come to a stop.
All this is so, of course; but the Eightfold Path is not the path to ordinary life with its ordinary enjoyments, but to the Transcendental, the realm which lies outside and beyond the relative world that we ordinarily know; and attachment to sensory and mental enjoyment becomes an obstruction to one who is aiming to transcend the relative world.
Nevertheless, for those of us who do not feel yet ready to follow this high aim, some degree of control over the desire for sensory enjoyment is necessary if we are to gain. the fullest value from life. While this limited application of sense-control may not involve a complete renunciation of sense-pleasures, it must bring about some degree of detachment to be of any value; and this detachment, instead of reducing the pleasure of living, increases them by cutting away the grasping tendencies which often tend to vitiate these pleasures.
Sometimes we are advised to be aware of the present and- not to live in the past. At first glance this appears to be good practical advice; but when we try to put it into practice, how often do we succeed?
We are told: "Kill in yourself all memory of past experience. Do not look behind you or you are lost." But if we were to follow this literally – assuming it to be possible – the ordinary processes of thinking would cease.
We are told also that "the past must not control the future, where each minute is a new birth." But if we were to follow this to the letter, we’d be unable to add up next week’s grocery bill because we refused to allow our past (during which we learned arithmetic) to influence our future household shopping.
Does this mean that the advice is useless? No: it means we have misunderstood it. What it really means is that we should accept the past with its losses and mistakes, its sorrows and heartbreaks, its joys and pleasures. We must accept the fact that the joys and pleasures of the past had to come to an end at some time or other – this is inherent in the very nature of this universe – and if we look back on them and yearn for them to return, then all we are doing is to vitiate this present moment.
If we look hack on a happy event of the past and gain from it the pleasure inherent in a happy recollection or memory, without yearning for its return, memory – as then we are living in the present, for that happy memory as a memory but not as an event – is apart of this very present. As an event, it is part of the past, but as a memory that comes into our consciousness at the present moment, then it is in fact our present experience.
As a memory, we may enjoy it without vitiating the present; but if we yearn for its return or its repetition we are divorcing ourselves from the present and trying to throw ourselves back into the past, which at this moment is non-existent.
So much for the matter of that type of right thought which is called freedom from sensory desires.
Another aspect of right thought is freedom from ill-will, or, expressed positively, thought that is characterised by good-will. Sometimes even the most even-tempered of us become annoyed with our fellow-men; and although often this annoyance evaporates when the occasion for it has passed, it sometimes leaves a residue of resentment or ill-will which needs special handling.
It is easy to see that no progress is possible to a mind that is poisoned by ill-will or hate, or by any of its associated mind-factors such as revengefulness, annoyance, or anger.
Again, right thought is thought that is free from cruelty. While cruelty often springs from hate or anger, much cruelty also arises through an indifference to the suffering of others or to thoughtlessness. Right thought, then, involves not only the absence of active and positive hate, but also the absence of its more negative and passive indifference to the sufferings of others.
The second step of the Eightfold Path – right thought – must be based on the first step, right understanding; for it is necessary to recognise right thought as right thought, and wrong thought as wrong thought. Without the attentive mind developed by right mindfulness, right thought is not possible in the fullest sense. Thus you can see that the second step of the Noble Eightfold Path must be carried along parallel with various other steps, and each one is inseparable from the others.
In particular, the practice of right thought must be carried along parallel with that of bare attention, for without the practice of bare attention – an aspect of right mindfulness – all thought processes tend to become cluttered with emotion.
In ideal circumstances, if you wished to establish the mental patterns of bare attention in a complete form, you would put aside all responsibilities and other interests for a period of some weeks and devote yourself to a strict course of self-training. Under such conditions, you would avoid all but the barest essentials in the way of physical work, and you would put aside writing and reading, and even talking as far as possible.
But these ideal circumstances are beyond the reach of most of us. Unless you are fortunately situated, it is probable that you can’t find sufficient time and freedom from responsibilities to carry out the strict practices of mindfulness to the exclusion of other activities for a long period. How, then, are you to establish the practice of bare attention?
What you can’t do in its entirety, then, you must do in part. Since you are unable to place yourself in ideal conditions, you must use your daily activities as the basis for your inner development; and it may be, in fact, that these daily activities are really more ideal for the purpose than a life of seclusion would be.
In order to establish the mental patterns of bare attention you must slow down some activities. As a starting point you can select one definite activity so that, without detriment to anything else, you can carry out this one activity more slowly than usual. If you have to catch the 8:17 train every morning, you obviously cannot slow down in that particular activity. If you are a housewife with children to look after you can hardly slow down the chores involved in getting them off to school. Again, if you are a bus conductor you cannot use the peak travelling periods to inaugurate the practice of bare attention.
However, there must be some daily activity that you can use as a basis for the establishment of the practice. There must be some short periods when the pressing urgency of duty subsides for a time.
Maybe the office worker can relax in a cafe at lunch time, or the housewife can pause for a few minutes once the children have been bundled off to school, while the bus conductor has a few minutes at the depot during which he can smoke a cigarette.
In each of these cases there is an opportunity to make a start on the development of bare attention, even in a small way. The office worker can usually slow down during his lunch time and mindfully observe the weight of the knife and fork in his hands, he can chew more slowly and observe the taste of food, and he can observe the colour and shape of his cup and saucer. And, more important, he can at this time observe his own general muscular state, feeling whether his muscles are taut or relaxed.
In the same way the housewife, when she pauses, can intentionally slow down the process of making a cup of tea for herself, in order to give her full attention to it. She can then become more conscious of the steam rising from the kettle, of the sequence of her own muscular actions as she makes the tea, lifts the cup to her lips, sips and swallows the tea, and so on. fn this exercise in attentiveness she can become more aware of the details she normally misses. These details are unimportant in themselves; the point is that they can supply an opportunity for an increase in mindfulness.
Again, when the bus conductor smokes his cigarette during a few minutes’ rest at the depot, he can apply increased attention to the sensation of the cigarette between his lips, to the taste, and to the appearance of the wisp of smoke rising from the glowing tip.
Obviously these small attempts at bare attention will be of little value if they end where they begin. The value of taking one small frequent or regular occasion for mindfulness and consistently applying bare attention to it lies in the fact that it helps to establish a foothold. Once this foothold exists it is relatively easy to extend the practice to other small things throughout the day. However, to change the simile, it is only the thin end of the wedge, and unless the wedge is driven right home it effects very little.
Your approach to the practice of bare attention, then, should he to select one small thing that you do with some degree of regularity and which you can do more slowly and mindfully than usual. You should resolve to give this one small activity increased attention for a period; and to do this without looking for results, but purely as an exercise in mindfulness.
You will find, of course, that to make a vague resolution that when an opportunity occurs you will slow down and apply increased mindfulness will be of little use. You will need to be more specific, and you will need to enforce your resolution by a self-imposed penalty.
To be specific, therefore, resolve that during a period or at least a month you will take twice as long as usual over some small task, such as the task of taking off your shoes each night before going to bed. Should you neglect or forget to slow down this one action and to give increased mindfulness to it, you can impose some small penalty on yourself the next day.
Then, later on, you should search for another activity and use it also for the same purpose, slowing it down and giving it increased and sharpened awareness. Once the initial phase is established it will be somewhat easier to give increased attentiveness to other activities without the need for greatly slowing them down.
While this exercise relates mainly to your physical actions rather than to your mental functioning, you will find that it will help in your general overall plan of self-observation, and in this way will reinforce the effects of other practices.
to English Index]
last updated: 03-04-2005