This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
This talk was made available by Dharma Seed.
Cittānupassanā: Contemplation of Mind States.
Insight Meditation Society — Retreat Center : Mindfulness, Insight, Liberation: Insight Meditation Retreat for Experienced Students
I’d like to indulge your attention for some considerations around Cittānupassanā, the contemplation of mind states.
A mind state is different from the three other Satipaṭṭhānas in character. Body qualities are relatively easily identifiable. They have to do with the sensate nature of the body, we call them. Things like touch or heat or pressure or contact. We speak of the tactile world, that’s what involves our skin in being experienced. Or we speak of the inter-receptive, proprioceptive world, that’s what the body feels inside. Without the help of skin. That’s relatively straight forward stuff. It’s a huge world. And we’ve given some time to this and as Yuka has said the other day, we will never quite leave this world. Our practice never really strays away too far from the body. What we do is we add on other dimensions. We’ve spoken of Vedana, Hedonic Tone, from Greek Hēdonḗ, Pleasure. The spiking of something in us that goes into “Ooooh!” and to “Ooooh…”. Relatively short, relatively simply structured. Doesn’t have many words, is very powerful as a trigger to the actions and behavior that ensues or the mood that follow[s].
Now with Citta this is a little more complicated. Somehow for Citta we need to be good in the saddle. Emotions have mood. An emotion, affect, is of a different characteristic. It’s not so easily recognized as a[n] object of mind. We experience moods, not as objects, we experience the mind to be colored by a mood. In other words, what we would like to get a perspective on is already part of the instrument that tries to get a perspective on [it]. Meditation, unfortunately, is really messy business. Cittānupassanā is kind of like going down a rickety stair, ill-lit, into a workshop that is completely a mess. Tools are lying around, your workpiece is lying around, gloves [are] lying around. And halfway down the stair, the light goes out. And you are trying to fumble your way through there. There is meditation for you. Whatever they tell you on the brochure, that wasn’t true. You kind of heroically move out, and you are trying to purify, cleanse defilements, cultivate wholesome things, but halfway down the stair the light goes out and you are fumbling. And the very instrument that tries to do the understanding is already affected by the state you are trying to understand.
This is not proper science. You don’t have a clean object, good lighting, laboratory conditions. The status question is neatly listed and then you’re doing little experiments and then you’re charting the results. You’re actually… you have grubby fingers and what you like to look at is already part of your instrument with which you are trying to understand and look at things. Maybe I exaggerate a little bit. I think you get the picture. It’s difficult to separate moods from the mind that is having the functions of understanding, that [is] having the function of mindfulness, that has the function of clear comprehension. These faculties are actually tinged by the very mood we are trying to get a perspective on.
That has something to say about the nature of mood. It feels, a mood, particularly a strong mood, a strong emotion, say something like fear or depression or self-loathing or forms of anxiety, rage. All these things have incredibly… doubt… all the flooders, basically. All these things have an incredibly hypnotic quality. And when we are in the mood, when the mind is colored by this mood, it feels as if all of my world is colored by this mood. Whatever I bring up, whatever I think of, seems to be tinted in the way my mood is colored.
They are basically moods, also they have a strange effect on our perception of time. When we are in a mood, it seems the thing is eternal. When you are in love, it feels like it’s eternal. When you are angry, it feels you’ve always been angry. Your whole life is one succession of rages, helplessness against rages, and then more rage. The stronger the mood becomes in the mind, the more it seems to go from wall to wall. It’s kind of screen-filling. That’s what moods do. That’s not just your moods. You may think this is just your particular tragic experience, but actually, that’s what moods do. The good moods do that and bad moods do that. So we have a greater danger of just plunging in and being sucked. That’s why it is necessary to learn some of the skills of stilling. That’s why it is necessary to learn to anchor the mind’s attention in the body. And that’s why it is necessary to learn to de-identify from the experience.
All that stuff, while it doesn’t make us free, it actually is immensely helpful in working with mood. Because mood has a great mesmerizing power. It has a tendency to rope us in. It has a tendency to be hypnotic. And to make us lose our bearings, how it feels when we are not affected by this mood. Our cognitive processes are colored by mood. Our perceptual processes are colored by mood. Even our somatic processes are colored by mood. Our posture is colored by mood. It’s very difficult to be upbeat when you are like that. And you kind of come in in the morning and crumple up and just pull your blanket up and think, “Oh, I hope it’s going fast and I don’t feel much.” It’s quite likely that you will induct sleepiness.
At the same time it’s really difficult to be totally depressed if you are kind of sitting there like that. Opening your chest, opening the palms of your hand up. It’s really difficult to feel depressed. Mood, somaticizes as body posture. But body posture also suggests to the mind different moods. If you want to feel like how it feels to be a sulking and defiant six year old, just kind of turn your feet a little in and make this face. If you do that thirty seconds, I get that in five seconds. When I go into this posture I start feeling like a sulking six year old. This is quite easily accessible to me. I live with that guy.
We can play this both ways. Mood creates posture, behavior, facial and mimic gestures. And obviously adopting these things begins to generate the mood. Every actor will know that if you want to know how somebody feels just start breathing like they breathe. Start walking like they walk. Move like they move. Then suddenly you begin to get a feeling what these people inhabit as a world.
Cittānupassanā means we need to have some degree of stillness. We need to have some resources in the use of our bodily postures, sensation. Our groundedness in the body before we can actually get in touch with some of the climate of the mind. That climate is no less conditioned than, say, a simple thought is. Or an experience or displeasure. Moods are highly conditioned. Moods are highly… they can easily and quickly change. Dramatically change. They feel very very eternal and very very convincingly solid. And it only takes a tiny piece of change and suddenly the mood swings.
You are in a very happy, liberal, trusting mood with a bunch of people at a gathering or a meeting. Everybody has little gifts and wants to share and is relaxed. And then somebody cracks a wrong joke. The whole atmosphere freezes. Trust disappears. People stop and suddenly it becomes unsafe. Within no time something happens and a mood completely transforms. Not just for yourself, but for other people.
You may find that you are angry about something and then you find a little piece of information and suddenly you dissolve in sadness. Or in shame about your anger. Because you found out the imputed intention you’ve been operating on has actually not been the case. She just didn’t see your note. You haven’t been rejected. She just didn’t see your note. Or it wasn’t her who ate the prunes. It was one of your kids who did it.
There’s so many ways we are powerfully affected by moods. And it’s necessary for us to learn, as meditators, to be in a contemplative way with moods. So what are our ways in? The tendency would be to kind of, we all have dominant moods. Usually I get depressed or I get homesick or I feel a loser or I have subterranean growling rages against parts of my family. Or I just sit here on my cushion and feel increasingly lonely and disconnected and alien.
We all have expectations, what we are going to be feeling like on retreat. I’m just getting more and more calm and collected and cool and really… things are widening. And then I’m holding onto my mat and I’m really on the Nibbana express. And then, you know, Bliss. And I’m on a real wild Samadhi Cruise. So we all have our expectations and then we generally, well, we meet our experience. And often that doesn’t quiet map with the expectation. Or the apprehension sometimes. Sometimes it’s not all bad. I expected to be trudging through the horrors of my life and then I find out, actually, I have a blissful week inspight of things that may be difficult in my life.
One of the things that really helps is to be able to identify mood in terms of body sensation. We are trying to establish a vocabulary of body sensation for differing mood states. So how does fatigue feel in the body? Not just the sandpaper feeling behind our eyes, but a little more subtle than that. What does my body feel like when it is sleepy? When it is bored? How does anxiety feel like in the body? Where do I feel grief in the body? Where is relaxation most noticeably felt? What does this body feel like when doubt is happening? These are very very useful things. Do I have a vocabulary for differing mood states in the body?
Your mind is very unlikely to tell you the truth about your mood state. When I’m angry my mind doesn’t tell me, “Akincano, now you’re angry.” My mind tells me, “I am right!” When I ask, “Are you angry?” It says, “No! I am constructively critical here. This needs a clear boundary. I’m stating facts here.” It doesn’t say, “Now, Akincano, you are in a state which generally you do collateral damage. So please be careful.” It doesn’t say that. It says things like, “Somebody’s gotta lock him up!”
You can’t trust your mind. When you go depressed it doesn’t say, “I’m now going clinically depressed.” It says, “This is a horrible world. I’ve never been happy. I am not happy. I will never be happy. And I will eternally.” This is not to be trusted. You cannot believe thoughts. Because these thoughts are deeply colored by mood. So the body is much more reliable. The body will tell you, “I’m shriveling up.” Or, “I’m expanding.” Or, “I’m getting this awkward sense at the pit of my stomach.” Or, “It feels like I’m being pulled out of my skin.” We have a much better chance to get a perspective on the mood quality, the climate quality of the mind, what Buddhist psychology calls Citta, when we learn to listen to the body’s messages.
That’s one of the things that is really helpful. Acknowledging differing textures, tonalities in the body. That means we stop dealing with single sensations. We are actually interested in widening our mindfulness from an object awareness to a field awareness. We are looking for meeting the object, that’s always the easiest, then spreading. So we are meeting, contacting, and then spreading. Enveloping. Melting. Softening. Either into it or around it. We begin to have a mindfulness that inhabits larger parts of the body. If we want to feel the tone of our chest, we need to somehow widen our type of awareness that the tonality can find space within our awareness. We need to engage in another relationship.
If you engage with relationship with thought, thought is moving fast. It’s sharp. It’s chiseled, it generally says what it means and it connects in all directions. Moods don’t do that. They kind of move in. Like fog. Some of them like fog. Gently. You don’t even notice that they begin. And they kind of grow stronger and stronger and stronger. And suddenly you are sitting in grumpiness. There may have been a trigger… wrong kind of jam on the breakfast table. And something in you says, “We have to leave this planet. This can’t continue that way.”
By the way, that’s another trick. Sometimes it’s useful to do that with moods. When you have moods you exaggerate them. Then they become really… you have to play with some of these things. We can’t take ourselves too serious in this meditation business because there’s so much that is actually quite funny about us. When you see how you create a self. Or how you recreate your story. There’s little tricks. And sometimes you can play tricks on your little tricks by basically exaggerating. You have a little grumpiness and then you make a big disaster out of it. And just overstating the case. And then it becomes obvious in its grotesqueness. You can’t take it serious anymore. And you end up smiling at yourself. You end up recognizing a pattern. And you end up actually freeing yourself from that pattern in this moment. This weakens the pattern.
Sometimes it’s useful to play with those moods if you find little moods tagged at the end of your thoughts. And you know how this works. You have a stray little thought. Stray little thought seems harmless enough. But in its tone the stray little thought has a bigger thought. It has a chain of thought. And at the end of the chain you have a big fat emotion coming in. So while the thought seems very flimsy, the emotion seems a lot more solid afterwards. The thought goes away very quickly; the emotion moves in for the next twenty minutes.
The thought is totally unreal, refers to something that has happened thirty years ago, they may never happen, that’s just a little fantasy, but the emotion that is connected to the thought is a physiological reality in your body.
That’s why Buddhist psychology thinks it’s dangerous to just think around. An untrained mind is deemed a danger because it can drag up anything and you end up with a big fat emotion moving in for the next six hours. And that is going to color your relationship, your perception, your actions, your body state. And all this began with a little bit of careless thinking.
So while emotion has physiological reality and takes place now, and is going to color your outlook onto the world, your outlook onto self, thought may trigger this. And the thought may have no bearing on reality whatsoever. But emotion will. It’s like, the sweat of anxiety in your nightmares is exactly like the sweat of your anxiety in your daytime life. Even though the nightmare may not be real. Your body’s response to it, the state you experience of anxiety is real. You feel it. So emotion does not care whether you have good reason to have this emotion or [you] have bad reason to have this emotion. A fictitional reason is as good as an absolutely consensually shared,as real reason. Does that make sense?
We’re dealing with strong stuff. And if you want to look at Satipaṭṭhāna as a quick map, the task of the first one, Kāyānupassanā, is basically stilling, calming, settling. The task of Vēdanānupassanā is basically stopping the merry-go-round of like>follow behavior in this direction, not like>move away/reject behavior in that direction. The task of Cittānupassanā is more complex. It’s about purifying, cleansing. About processing. It’s about releasing. It’s about stilling. It’s about cultivating. It’s about letting go. And bringing in. The tasks in this department of Cittānupassanā are much bigger. And all the things we are dealing are much bigger.
One way to have contact with the climate of mind is using a feeling type of relationship. Seeing doesn’t really help much with emotions. … If we construe our relationship to our own experience, that’s what I believe mindfulness is. It’s a relationship, a preferably intelligent relationship, to your own experience. This relationship we construe usually in analogy to our sense function. Sense function of seeing generally means things are opposite. Sense function of feeling, tactile sensing, is a very different type of relationship. I think I said it yesterday; when we touch something, we are being touched by it. When we are seeing something we are not necessarily seen. I can be in hiding. I can be a voyeur. I can be unseen while seeing. When I touch, I am touched at the same time. It’s a much more eye-to-eye… it’s a much more egalitarian type of relationship.
So for mind states, the seeing relationship is less useful. We need to have a listening relationship, that we are in the space with something. Or a touching relationship. Then we are more immediately connected. Even a gustatory or an olfactory relationship. Sniff things out. Or get the taste of something. In fact Buddhist teachings are full of that. The words “taste” is always used in connection, often, with Vedanā. The word “touch” is always used with Samatha. The whole Samatha imagery, the whole deep stillness imagery, strangely is equated with the sense of touch in the Palī, Palī psychology.
For us that means when we want to be working with states of the mind, not just negative states, the Cittānupassanā passages speak of: is there greed in the mind or is the mind free of greed? Is there hatred in the mind, is there delusion in the mind? Is there freedom from delusion or hatred? Is the mind… one interesting sequence is: contracted, shriveled up, shrunken? Is the mind shrunken? Or is the mind scattered? Is the mind developed, is it undeveloped? Is it big, is it lofty? Or is it the opposite of it? Is it just drab?
There are various qualities of climate. The early Buddhist psychology doesn’t have a word for the word “emotion”. This is an interesting one. This is a deeply Western psychological concept, an emotion. We find it very difficult to square this with one term in Palī psychology. But it’s obvious that people have had emotions. I have no doubt that the Buddha had emotions, or his disciples had emotions. When I see how people are described in these texts it is very obvious that they have had fear; it’s obvious that they were joyous; it’s obvious that they were grumpy. Or it’s obvious that they experienced discontent or happiness or inspiration quite obviously in these texts these things become clear.
So the Citta state entails that I learn to relate to the climate of the mind with a type of mindfulness that is touching, that is listening, that is getting the taste of something, without magnifying that experience. The problem when engaging with emotion is that we tend to either be sucked in to the emotion or that we magnify the emotion by trying to relate to it. You think about your anger and guess what’s happening, you are becoming more angry because anger lives on thoughts. You think about your anxiety and guess what’s happening because you feed your anxiety by thinking about anxiety. Depression is another one. It’s no secret that one of the major features of depression, particularly relapse, is what the industry calls “Autobiographic Rumination”. It means what Sumedho many many years ago said, casually, “When I want feel depressed, all I do is I just think a little bit about myself.” I remember him saying that in the 80s.
I could be more specific, it’s very good to not just ponder your experience, it’s important that you get personal pronouns in there. Me. Possessive pronouns [are] really better, Mine. Then temporal adverbials are very good, Me Always. Me Never. And the rest you can basically just throw in anything. If you start with Me Always or Me Never or Mine then you have a story. There is your life. Right there. And if you continue that for five minutes then your life is gonna be a succession of failures, of missed opportunities, of great promise and unfortunate underachievement.
Obviously that’s not a helpful piece. What would be a helpful piece? A helpful piece is establishing a sense of body presence. Acknowledging the quality the body feels. The tonality of the body. And see whether you can find, does that feel happy, does that feel sad? Does that feel lofty, does that feel mundane? Does that feel compacted, does that feel scattered? Does that feel welcoming, does that feel hostile?
And then I find three questions very useful. If you look at some of the most recurrent patterns in your mind, generally these are called “distractions”, patterns that take you away from breathing meditation, you find, what is the climate right now of that pattern? Don’t bother doing this with everything, just do this with things that keep recurring. We are speaking of repetitive tenacious stuff that comes up after you’ve been meditating for a few days. After you’ve tried to put this stuff aside, park it, distance it, bring it in perspective, not pay attention to it. And it’s still… still things come in. And you ask yourself, what is the quality of emotion, of mood, of climate, behind this thought pattern? Behind this chain of… this inner discourse.
If I don’t listen to what it says, but if I listen to the tone of its voice. Is this a grumpy, is this a happy? Is this an anxious? Is this a vengeful voice speaking here? Often for me it helps to not listen to what it says but how it says it. It’s kind of listening to the voice rather than the message. Getting the sound rather than the melody. Or however you want to phrase that. That takes a little bit of discipline because usually we just jump to the thought. In terms of my Satipaṭṭhāna analogy, we jump to Channel Four. To the content of the discursive pattern. But rather than doing that, we are actually listening to the mood behind it. Is this a trusting voice? Or is this an anxious or a distrustful voice? The first question would be: how is this voice right now? How is the mood behind my image, my thought pattern, my inner discourse, how is the mood behind this? Is this greedy? Is this wishing? Is this longing? Is this aversive? Is this rejecting, is this contemptuous? This kind of thing. You get a feel… you reach past the message to the medium.
The next question is: when you listen to yourself and it’s not immediately apparent what the tone is … the climate of your experience, just look at some of the stuff that comes up, the imagery, and you wonder, what kind of ground does this grow out of? What [produces], what kind of climate [produces] the images, the thoughts, the voices you have? Is this a place of abundance? Is this a place of deficiency? Is this a place of resentment? Is this a place of inspiration, maybe? Is this a place of contentment? Is this a place of ambition?
[It would] be useful, just looking at the manifestation of what your discursive mind produces: images, thoughts, voices, where do they grow in? One image … I grew up in Switzerland so there are lots of little lakes, and you have these blue lakes and the mountains and then you have winds and you have little white sailboats and the sailboats move across the lake. Instead of looking at the sailboat, you look at the direction the wind comes from. Normally the tendency would be just follow the sailboat as it moves, but now you are looking at the sailboat and from the direction it takes you infer the wind. Where does the wind blow from? The winds that blows the sails of my, that billows in the sails of my little thoughts here, moving across my mind. Where does that wind blow from? Is this a desirous wind or an angry wind or an anxious wind or a vengeful or a blissful wind? Are you writing eulogies? Or is it more elegiac? So second question: where does it come from? What propels my thoughts, my patterns?
The third question would be, predictably, that little thought, when I join that little thought, Yuka used that image last week saying, the bus. The bus comes by. If I board that bus, and most of you are beyond twenty-five, so you’ve boarded a few buses, when I board that bus, where does it take me in five minutes? In three minutes? If I join that thought, if I give that thought my attention, my energy, where does it land me? Will I land in Grumpyland? Will I land in Longing? Will I land in Frustration? Will I just be angry? Will I yet again feel helpless? There are so many busses we have taken so many times as we grow older, we’ve taken many many many of those busses many many times. Most of the busses that come by you pretty well know where they take you in two minutes’ time. If I give myself to that thought, I know very much where this takes me.
Just contemplate the quality of mood as it is now by asking directly, what’s the sound of this particular phenomena, a thought, an image, a discursive pattern? Or you ask, where does it come from? Or you ask, where does it take me if I go with this now? Where does it take me? My mind isn’t that original. Most of the things I think I have actually thought before. Most of the busses that are on offer I have taken more often than I am willing to admit here, frankly.
Contemplation of mind allows this, we get in touch [with] what’s there, we acknowledge the nature of what propels the discursive patterns, the image patterns, the thought patterns, or we acknowledge that we know where this will go if we give it our energy. And then we may take the choice and follow Yuka’s advice: not take that bus. And return to the breath or just return to holding and more deeply letting in what is underneath our wish to follow that bus. Or our wish to ride that thought.
Good. Let us sit for a minute.
[Yuka Nakamura Speaks.]
Note: Text in bold I found particularly instructive. Text in [square brackets] is either redacted or commentary by me. When the public decides there is massive demand for greater clarification, I will happily supply it.