One of the most common instructions in meditation is to allow our thoughts to come and go freely, and not be attached to them.
The problem with that instruction, or one of them, is that it perpetuates a completely unexamined assumption of what we mean by thought.
It seems to me that there is a common assumption that our ‘inner world’ is populated simply by thoughts and feelings, ordered and disordered.
But whether it’s inner or not [and I say not], if we examine our actual experience, we find that’s completely untrue. If we examine that, particularly in meditation, we notice that very little of our experience is thoughts. Rather, we experience a mass of phenomena: some auditory; some visual; some somatic; some imaginative. Amongst others.
And what we have on top of that is a fairly ceaseless commentary on this primary experience. This commentary is an attempt, it seems to me, to appropriate these experiences to the self. That corresponds with the Seventh Consciousness in the Yogacara school—the Manas consciousness.
One can see that an idea of meditation as being a quieting of the mind, a letting go of thoughts, isn’t anything of the kind. It’s simply a hidden form of that Manas Consciousness. So now, along with the familiar commentary, there’s an additional commentary that one should stop having this commentary and should let go of thought. Two spotlights, but neither illuminating anything. Quite the opposite.
This unexamined idea of what we mean by thoughts bedevils us in lots of ways. Yogacara is a helpful way for us to get some clarity. The first five consciousnesses [corresponding to the five physical senses] in the Yogacara system, which get remarkably little attention in modern Zen, even though it was one of its main foundations, directly describe our primary meditative experience.
Not just that, but they are a direct manifestation of the trembling and echoes of interdependence. We cannot say that they are either physical or mental. Or both. Or neither.
Those consciousnesses seem also not simply something simply arising in the present moment but rather a direct manifestation of interdependence over time.
For example, if I hear my father’s voice—my father’s been dead for more than 20 years—that seems to me to be auditory Consciousness just as much as hearing the traffic outside.
My brain does not distinguish between the imaginary and the real, between the present and the past, and that’s why it’s impossible for me to have an imaginary sound in my head at exactly the same time as a real sound. It’s impossible for me to have an imaginary picture in my eye and at exactly the same time be seeing the world around me.
So in this system, these first five consciousnesses directly connect us with interdependence, in fact are interdependence.
We fail to see this because of our unexamined idea of what thinking is.
A sixth Consciousness, the so-called ‘mind consciousness’ is not the general activity of the ‘Mind’ [whatever that is]. Rather it is the direct perception of thought in just the same sense that the visual Consciousness is a direct connection with the object seen.
We take these six consciousnesses together, and they describe our primary conscious experience, which is neither just physical or mental.
Manas Consciousness makes it mental because it says ‘This is mine and this is going on here in my head’. And in that way, Manas Consciousness creates the primary duality of self and world, and the secondary duality of mind and body.
And the instruction to let our thoughts come and go keeps that duality in place, because there’s always an unseen ‘someone’ letting the thoughts come and go. And failing.
This is fundamental. If we believe the universe flooding marvellously through us at each moment is ‘mine’, then we will dramatically constrict what we are able to see to ‘thoughts’, and their close relatives ‘emotions’. We will see the floating debris, but not the river.