On the Nature of Mind


Having a clear understanding of the mind is essential to unravel the mechanisms of happiness and suffering. That is why psychologists, specialists in neuroscience and philosophers investigate the nature of the mind. It is, after all, our mind that we have to deal with from morning till night; and it is our mind, in the end, that determines the quality of every moment of our existence. So if knowing the mind’s true nature and understanding its mechanisms will exercise a decisive influence on our quality of life, then we have good reason to investigate it. If we do not investigate it, if we fail to understand our own mind, then we remain a stranger to ourselves. When the mind examines itself, what can it learn about its own nature? The first thing it notices is the endless series of thoughts that pass through it. These feed our sensations, our imagination, our memories and our projections about the future. Do we also find a ‘luminous’ quality in the mind that illuminates our experience, no matter what its content? This luminous quality is the fundamental cognitive faculty that underlies all thought. It is that which, when we are angry, sees the anger without letting itself be drawn into it. This simple, pure awareness can be called pure consciousness, because it can be perceived even in the absence of concepts and mental constructs.

The practice of meditation reveals that when we let our thoughts calm down, we are able to remain for a few moments in the non-conceptual experience of pure awareness. It is this fundamental aspect of consciousness, free from the veils of confusion, that Buddhism calls ‘the nature of mind’.

Thoughts arise out of pure awareness and dissolve back into it just as waves arise in the ocean and fall back into it without ever becoming anything other than the ocean itself. It is essential to realize this if we want to free ourselves from the habitual, automatic patterns of thought that create suffering. Identify the fundamental nature of mind and knowing how to rest in it in a non-dual and non-conceptual way is one of the essential conditions for inner peace and liberation from suffering.

A meditation

A thought arises as though from nowhere. It might be a pleasant thought or a troubling one. It stays for a few moments and then dies away, to be replaced by others. When it disappears, like the sound of a bell fading, where does it go? No one can say. Certain thoughts recur frequently in your mind where they create states ranging from joy to sadness, desire to indifference, resentment to sympathy. In this way, thoughts have tremendous power to condition our state of being, But where do they get this power? They don’t have an army at their command, nor do they possess fuel to start a fire with; they don’t have stones they can stone you with. They are only mental constructs, so they should not be able to harm you.

Let your mind observe itself. Thoughts arise.

The mind exists in some way, because you experience it. Apart from that, what could be said about it? Examine your mind and the thoughts that arise there. Can any concrete characteristics be attributed to them? Do they have a location? Do they have a colour? A form? The more you look, the less you find. You note of course that the mind has a capacity to know, but it has no other intrinsic and real characteristic. This is the reason Buddhism defines the mind as a continuum of experiences. It does not constitute a distinct entity, it is ‘empty of inherent existence’. Having found nothing in any way substantial, remain for a few moments in this state of not having found anything.

When a thought appears, just let it arise and pass away by itself, without either blocking or prolonging it. During the brief time that your mind is not burdened by any discursive thought, contemplate its nature. In this gap, after past thoughts have ceased and future thoughts have not yet appeared, do you perceive a consciousness that is pure and luminous? Remain a few moments in this state of natural simplicity, free from concepts.

Let thoughts pass away

As we gradually familiarize ourselves with the nature of mind and learn to let thoughts pass away as soon as they arise – just like a letter written on water – we begin to progress more easily on the path of inner freedom. Automatic thought patterns no longer have the same power to perpetuate our confusion and reinforce our habitual tendencies. We distort reality less and less, and the very mechanisms of suffering finally disappear.
Since at this point, we have the inner resources to deal with our emotions, our feelings of insecurity give way to freedom and confidence. We cease to be preoccupied exclusively by our hopes and fears and become available to the people around us. In this way, we bring about the welfare of others at the same time as our own.

This is a long process that develops in stages until it finally reaches fruition. All the stages of progress are beneficial. So, we should not be impatient, but preserve and appreciate the true and lasting changes that gradually occur in our way of being.

The nature of the mind is comparable to the ocean, to the sky. The incessant movement of waves on the surface of the ocean prevents us from seeing its depths. If we dive down, there are no more waves; there is just the immense serenity of the depths… The nature of the ocean is immutable.

Look at the sky. It is sometimes clear and transparent. At other times, clouds accumulate and modify the perception we have of it. Nevertheless, the clouds do not change the nature of the sky. The mind is nothing if not a totally free nature. Remain in the natural simplicity of the mind, which is beyond all concepts.
Pema Wangyal Rinpoche

From The Art of Meditation, ©2010 by Matthieu Ricard, published by Atlantic Books.