Mental Formations and teaching on the mind according to Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh).
Document created by Michael Schwammberger.
Anything made from other elements is a ‘formation.’ A flower is a formation, because it contains sunshine, clouds, seed, soil, minerals and a gardener. Fear is also a formation, a mental formation. Our bodies are formations, physical formations. Feelings and perceptions are also mental formations, and because of their importance they have their own category.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s school of Buddhism, there are 51 mental formations, including feeling and perceptions. All these mental formations are present in the depths of our store consciousness in the form of ‘seeds’. Every time a seed is touched (watered), it manifests on the upper level of our consciousness (mind consciousness) as a mental formation.
Consciousness here means store consciousness, which is at the base of everything that we are, the ground of all our mental formations. When mental formations are not manifesting, they reside in our store consciousness in the form of seeds. We all have seeds of joy, compassion, love, non-fear, wisdom, and also of jealousy, fear, doubt, anger and despair.
Every time these seeds are ‘watered’ or touched by ourselves they ‘wake up’ and manifest in our mind consciousness and becomes a mental formation. We have to be careful which seeds we water ourselves, and let others water. If we let the negative seeds in us be watered a lot, we can become overwhelmed by them.
It is defined as the coming together of three factors: the sense organ the sense object and sense consciousness.
Description from the Theravada tradition (Southern tradition) Contact means “it touches”. It has touching as its salient characteristic, impact as its function, “coinciding” (of the physical base, object and consciousness) as its manifestation, and the object which has entered the avenue (of awareness) as proximate.
Description from the Mahayana tradition (Northern tradition) It is an awareness in which a pleasant [or unpleasant or neutral] feeling is felt when the object, sensory capacity, and cognitive process have come together and which is restricted to the appropriate object.
There is a river of feelings within us, and every drop of water in that river is a feeling. To observe our feelings, we sit on the bank of the river and identify each feeling as it flows by. Feelings may be pleasant, un-pleasant or neutral. One feeling lasts for a while and then another comes. With mindfulness we become aware of these feelings and their arising and passing. We recognize them, smile to them, fully embrace them and look deeply in to them. In this way we discover their true nature and we are no longer afraid of even painful feelings. We recognise that we are more than our feelings. Looking deeply into our feelings, we can locate their roots in our body, perceptions, or deep consciousness (store consciousness).
Similar to the river of feelings, perceptions too flow like a river. They arise, stay for a period of time and cease to be.
Contact - sense organ and its object / Cognising - noticing, naming and conceptualising / the perceiver / and the object of perception.
In the process of perceiving our minds often distort reality. This can bring painful emotions, as we tend to base our judgements on erroneous perceptions, like mistaking a rope for a snake.
It is very helpful to look deeply into the nature of our perceptions and not be too sure of them. When we are too sure, we can suffer as a result. It is good to ask ourselves: ‘Am I sure?’ If we ask this question, we have a chance to look again and find out that maybe our initial perception and interpretation was wrong, thus saving ourselves from suffering and a possible embarrassment. The Buddha said that 99% of our perceptions are wrong. Our perceptions are often conditioned or distorted by afflictions like: ignorance, craving, hatred, anger, jealousy, fear or habit energies.
5 universal mental formations
- Edible foods
- Sense impressions
- Volition, intention or will (desire)
We need to bring awareness to the types of foods and drinks we ingest. What we eat and drink can bring us physical and mental wellbeing and happiness, or ill-being and suffering. We can see how food affects our body and mind. Some foods make us feel lighter, others make us feel heavy and stagnant; some foods stimulate, others pacify.
For example, alcohol, coffee and tea have an effect at not only our body but also on the metal and emotional levels.
There are other foods that are very beneficial, not only to our bodies but also to our minds. We need to learn to choose the types of foods and drinks that make us feel well.
The way we consume is also influenced by the social environment, media and fashion, and it is important to be aware of this when we are making our choices, as well as the high environmental and social costs of some foods.
Choosing foods that have been produced with a deep respect for the environment and people producing these foods brings a sense of peace and integrity.
We bring awareness to what comes in through our sense doors: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind; these senses are in constant contact with the sense objects, and this contact becomes “food” for our mind and consciousness.
For example: advertisements that stimulate our craving for possessions, food or sex, can have a toxic effect on us. Reading the newspaper, hearing the news, or certain kinds of conversations may have a negative effect, creating anxiety, anger or depression. Movies are food for our eyes, ears and minds. When we watch TV, the programme is our food too. If we are not aware and careful, we can ingest the kind of stimulation that waters the seeds of craving, fear, anger and violence.
We can also be in touch with things that stimulate our senses and our mind positively, for example being in nature, observing beauty, listening to music that soothes and inspires us, listening to talks or having conversations that inspire us towards positive thinking and actions. There are kinds of smells, tastes and sensations that bring wellbeing to both body and mind. The work of mindfulness is to observe the effect different sense impressions have on our bodies and minds, and to notice what kind of seeds are being watered.
It is also about learning how to protect our senses, for example limiting our exposure to news, adverts, words and images that contain violence.
Volition, intention or will
Volition or intention is the desire to obtain whatever we want. Volition and intention are the ground of our actions.
If we think money is the only thing that will make us happy, we put all our energy and time into the pursuit of making money. Everything in our life becomes conditioned by that intention and drive - our family life, work, health and environment.
Is our intention to cause harm or happiness? The intention to deceive someone, or the intention to help someone has a direct impact on our wellbeing and happiness, and will create an internal landscape that can either bring suffering or create wellbeing and happiness.
If our motivation is to get revenge, we will suffer immensely and make others suffer (the extreme example may be 9/11), on the other hand if we are motivated by loving kindness and compassion, we will feel a deep sense of peace, connection, stability and clarity. The positive effects will be noticeable both to ourselves and others. Example: if we help an elderly person carry their suitcase up the stairs at an underground station, this would make us feel happy and connected. We feel well because we have done something positive. Or if we choose to ignore that person in need of help, we may feel indifference, guilt, embarrassment and a sense of separation.
Often, we don’t know deep down what our intentions are, it may feel like a mixture of positive (willingness to change a situation) and of ‘negative’ (being influenced by fear) impulses. The values of the society we live in also influence our volition, often without us being conscious of it.
Our consciousness is composed of all the seeds sown by our past actions and the past actions of our family and society. Every day our thoughts, words, and actions flow into the sea of our consciousness and influence our body, mind and world around us. We can nourish our consciousness by nurturing and cultivating the energies of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, or we can feed our consciousness with greed, hatred, ignorance, suspicion or doubts.
Universals: contact, attention, feeling, perception and volition.
Wholesome seeds: faith, mindfulness, compassion, joy, loving kindness, understanding, patience and non-fear.
Unwholesome seeds: craving, jealousy, hatred, ignorance, confusion, arrogance, doubt, suspicion, wrong view, anger, and resentment.
Selective watering: Touching the wholesome seeds and maintaining them in mind consciousness as long as possible, and avoiding touching the unwholesome seeds so they don't manifest in mind consciousness.
MIND AND STORE CONSCIOUSNESS
Thay explains our minds as consisting of two levels. The upper level is what we are conscious of in our daily life, and is called Mind Consciousness. The lower level, called Store Consciousness is a rough equivalent of what in the Western psychology is called the subconscious. There is a continuous relationship between these two levels of mind. In each of us in the depth of our store consciousness there are wholesome and unwholesome roots (or seeds). Unwholesome seeds are also called afflictions.
Our consciousness is composed of all the seeds sown by our past actions and the past actions of our family and society. Every day our thoughts, words, and actions flow into the sea of our consciousness and influence our body, mind and world around us. We can nourish our consciousness by nurturing and cultivating the energies of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, or we can feed our consciousness with greed, hatred, ignorance, suspicion or doubts.If I am a kind person, it is because the seed of kindness is already in my store consciousness, and when it manifests in mind consciousness, it makes me think, speak and act kindly. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t have the seed of un-kindness. If I live in an environment where my seed of kindness is encouraged, nurtured and 'watered', I will be a kind person. But if my seed of cruelty and un-kindness is watered, I will think and act un-kindly. Mindfulness helps us identify all the seeds in our consciousness.
Touching the wholesome seeds and maintaining them in mind consciousness as long as possible and avoiding touching the unwholesome seeds so they don't manifest in mind consciousness.
Every time we practise mindful living, we plant healthy seeds in our consciousness and strengthen the healthy seeds that are already in us. Healthy seeds function similarly to antibodies. When our body suffers an infection, our immune system reacts by sending antibodies to take care of the virus that caused the infection. The similar process happens with healthy seeds in our consciousness. When we nourish wholesome seeds, they weaken our negative seeds. To succeed, we need to cultivate and nurture a good reserve of healthy seeds within our consciousness like a good gardener.
Controlling and reducing input when possible
In our modern society we are constantly bombarded by different kinds of stimuli. Especially stimulation of the city’s environment creates a particular kind of stress. This disconnects us from the sources of nourishment that give us happiness.
When we identify the sources of these negative stimuli we begin to create changes to aid our wellbeing. For instance, we can turn off our mobile phone at some time during the day, we can be aware of noise levels and minimise our exposure to them, we can create a 'lazy morning' or afternoon. We can include in our life activities that nourish a sense of wellbeing: being in nature, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation or a walk in the park or countryside.
51 MENTAL FORMATIONS
contact, attention, feeling, perception, volition
intention, determination, mindfulness, concentration, insight
faith, inner shame, shame before others, absence of craving, absence of hatred, absence of ignorance, diligence, energy, tranquility, ease, vigilance, energy, equanimity, non-harming
Wholesome M.F. added by Thầy
non-fear, absence of anxiety, stability, solidity, loving kindness, compassion, joy, humility, happiness, feverlessness, freedom/sovereignty
6 Primary Unwholesome
craving, covetousness, hatred, ignorance, confusion, arrogance, doubt, suspicion, wrong view
20 Secondary Unwholesome
10 Minor Secondary Unwholesome
anger, resentment, enmity, concealment, maliciousness, jealousy, selfishness, parsimony, deceitfulness, fraud, guile, desire to harm, pride
2 Middle Secondary Unwholesome
lack of inner shame, lack of shame before others
8 Greater Secondary Unwholesome
restlessness, drowsiness, lack of faith, unbelief, laziness, negligence, forgetfulness, distraction, lack of discernment
Unwholesome M.F. added by Thầy
fear, anxiety, despair
regret, repentance, sleepiness, initial thought, sustained thought
Full table of Mental Formations can be found on the main Plum Village website.
Document created by Michael Schwammberger.
What is this meditation period for?
A brief overview about our possible approach in sitting meditation with book recommendations to support and inform our sitting practice in very concrete ways.
For Stopping (concentration / stopping of habit energies / temporary absence of habit energies): Rest, simply sit (practice “Being a pebble” meditation *) building the capacity to remain present and mindful.
To Nourish/cultivate: cultivate mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness of the breath, of the body, a contemplation/theme, something to which we bring attention back. Water positive seeds: loving kindness, compassion, non-fear, generosity, etc.
To Look deeply (Insight / understanding / transformation): guided meditation - to nurture - to look deep into some issue - to generate deep insight.
The body: the physical body / breathing
- The posture (key points)
- Establish a solid foundation & being well rooted: feet, legs, sit bones, pelvis.
- Bring awareness to: back / spine / torso
- Bring awareness to: shoulders / arms / hands
- Bring awareness to: head / face / jaw / eyes
The mind: attention focused in the here and now / mindfulness and awareness of... / concentration
Actions / Activity
1) Connect (bringing our attention to what is happening in the present moment)
- With the body/breath
- With what nourishes body and mind (positive mental formations)
- Letting go of: attachments / ruminations / forgetfulness - mental absence - / hate / resentment, etc.
- Releasing habits energies / stopping “mental radio”
- Allowing & letting be (letting go of the tendency of control)
3) To be present here and now (sustaining our attention)
- Skilled attention (recognizing the different mental states and which to cultivate and which to let go of)
- Mere recognition (of a mental formation)
- Just rest and be in mindfulness
- Nourish healthy mental formations (compassion, loving kindness, equanimity, tranquillity, stability, quietness)
- Sustain mindfulness
The Five Skandhas / Aggregates
Body / form
Sensations / feeling
Consciousness (Mind consciousness/ Manas / Store consciousness.
RECOMENDED BOOKS BY THAY
The Blooming of a Lotus: Guided Meditations for Achieving the Miracle of Mindfulness By Thich Nhat Hanh
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation By Thich Nhat Hanh, Mobi Ho (Translator)
The Sun My Heart By Thich Nhat Hanh
Understanding Our Mind 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology
Being a Pebble — Meditation
“Let go of everything. Imagine yourself as a pebble which has been thrown into a river. The pebble sinks through the water effortlessly. Detached from everything, it falls by the shortest distance possible, finally reaching the bottom, the point of perfect rest. You are like a pebble which has let itself fall into the river, letting go of everything.
At the center of your being is your breath. You don't need to know the length of time it takes before reaching the point of complete rest on the bed of fine sand beneath the water. When you feel yourself resting like a pebble which has reached the riverbed, that is the point when you begin to find your own rest. You are no longer pushed or pulled by anything"