Two meditations that reveal how your mind really works

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You think; therefore you exist, right? “I think; therefor I am.” was René Descartes undoubtable Truth.

René Descartes walked into a bar. The bartender asked him if he wanted a drink.

René Descartes replied, “I think not.”

And he ceased to exist.

Well, perhaps that isn’t an undoubtable truth. Jean-Paul Sartre examined Descartes statement and came to the following conclusion:

“One can ask why the “I” has to appear in the cogito {Descartes’ argument, “I think therefore I am.}, since the cogito, if used rightly, is the awareness of pure consciousness, not directed at any fact or action. In fact, the ‘I’ is not necessary here, since it is never united directly to consciousness. One can even imagine a pure and self-aware consciousness which thinks of itself as impersonal spontaneity.”

This is a brilliant insight. Awareness and cognition do not require an “I”. The “I” of Descartes exists only as an imputation of consciousness. In other words, the “I” is a product of imagination. The awareness of the imputed “I” is a deeper level of consciousness. If I were to restate Descartes maxim, it would be as follows:

Awareness exists, therefore existence is irrefutable.

When an “I” is inferred from awareness and existence, the philosophical disagreements start. Many Christians point to this “I” as the soul, a permanent and everlasting entity that survives death.  Buddhists claim that this “I” is merely an imputation and that no permanent or intrinsic “I” actually exists. Buddhists posit a Very Subtle Mind as the container for Karma that passes from one life to the next, but the sense of personal identity we typically associate with “I” does not survive death.

Your Mind is a collection of thoughts and feelings simultaneously running in a quantum computer known as your brain. Your mind is capable of processing hundreds if not thousands of thoughts at the same time. To make sense of this cacophony, your Mind has a special faculty called consciousness capable of monitoring all these thoughts (your subconscious mind) and focusing another special faculty called attention to whatever thought requires action. The way your consciousness focuses your attention is based on the emotional importance your Mind assigns to the various thoughts. Emotions are inseparable from thought.

Your mind is a thought generating machine. It will serve up whatever thoughts you react to, which means any thought you feel is important. If something in your life is urgent, your mind will serve up thoughts about this urgent matter constantly. We call this obsessing. If nothing in life is urgent, your mind will drift from one topic to another searching for something meaningful. We call this daydreaming. Obsessing and daydreaming are features of an untrained mind.

These thoughts are not you. You are not involved in their creation. Your mind is not you any more than your computer is you or Google is you. If your thoughts were you, why would you need a voice in your head? After all, wouldn’t you already know what you were going to say to yourself? Why do you need a voice to constantly comment on everything you already know? The answer is both simple and profound: you are not the voice in your head.

If there is a “you” in there, and there is much debate on that issue, the “you” is the observer of the thoughts. You are the one who knows, and the one who decides to take action on the knowing.

Our first meditation is designed to help you see the thought activity of the mind directly. The meditation comes from the book ‘The Power Of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. Here’s Tolle explaining how the method works:

“Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be.” Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole?” — Eckhart Tolle

This is a simple meditation, but very profound. Who is the observer? Where do those thoughts come from? If you have never experienced the higher consciousness of the observer perspective, this simple mediation will change your understanding of consciousness forever.

The second meditation will point to an object that is more subtle – the fundamental nature of reality is conceptual, not intrinsic. (Youtube: Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality by neuroscientist Anil Seth) In other words, reality does not exist “out there” as it is largely a creation of your mind. This is the Buddhist concept of Emptiness.

Your brain receives electrical impulses from your senses. Your brain must decode this information and present it to your awareness in a way you can understand. Nobody knows how this occurs, and philosophers call this the Hard Problem of Consciousness. We believe intuitively that we perceive the world “out there” exactly as it exists, but in reality, we perceive an appearance of the outside world layered with thoughts, feelings, and concepts we add to the raw sense data (Very deep dive on Youtube: The neuroscience of consciousness by neuroscientist Anil Seth). We don’t live in a world of raw sense data. We live in a conceptualized and mind-interpreted reality. This second mediation demonstrates this fact directly.

We will take a simple object like a stone, and we will examine it. At first, our task is to identify every characteristic of the object we can: its weight, size, color, uses, parts, and so on. Once our mind starts to run out of new concepts, it will quiet down, and the meditation takes on the same characteristics as the mouse-hole meditation. Our mind will go blank as we wait for the next conceptual thought to arise concerning that object. When your mind is in this receptive state, it becomes apparent that the object which seems so real and permanent is merely a collection of conceptual thoughts – perhaps based on outside sense data, but the sense data is a tiny fraction of our total perception. Everything we perceive – including ourselves –  is an imputation by mind.

So what does all this mean? What can you gain from this experience? You may come to realize that all of the things we consider so solid and real are mere appearances to mind. Nothing you perceive is untainted by your Mind’s concepts, and these concepts and misperceptions are the roots of all your suffering. A deep understanding of the Empty nature of reality is the Enlightened state eagerly sought after by Buddhist practitioners. I can’t promise you will leave this meditation fully released from all forms of suffering (Enlightened), but you may emerge with a deeper understanding of how your mind processes thoughts and experiences, including the experience of “you”.

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Anatta
I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.