As long as we can remember, we have had a mind. Right now, I am writing this blog and, later, you are reading it, because we both have a mind. We are curious beings who love to learn and understand. Ultimately, we would like to know this mind and heart of ours.
Of course, we already know we have a mind. Having a mind is as intimate and familiar to us as the air we breathe. We live and breathe in an ocean of air, and rarely think about this invisible element. Yet, if we hold our breath for thirty seconds, we are painfully aware of how our life relies on air. Rejoining the ocean of air, breathing out and then in, fills us with joy and life. If we can not find air to breathe, we suffer an agonizing death.
We also live in an ocean of mind. We take this experience of mind for granted, because mind, like air, is invisible and all-pervasive. However, when we lose our mind in distraction or lose heart in depression, it is painful and deadening. This loss of heart inspires us to reconnect with our mind through a practice like meditation. Meditation is a simple way to dive deeply into the ocean of our heart-mind.
We have a mind and are aware of mind, simultaneously, effortlessly. In the Buddhist tradition, this is called “self-awareness” (Tibetan: rang rik). It is called self-awareness, because mind is aware of itself naturally and spontaneously. At any time, we have direct access to whatever we are experiencing. Meditation tunes us into this self-aware mind. We do not meditate in order to create awareness. Awareness is already here, and we meditate to uncover this natural intelligence.
There are two ways of looking at this mind of ours. The first approach is to experience directly how the mind appears, what sort of mental weather occurs in it. This is very helpful for getting to know the thoughts, emotions, feelings, and perceptions that pass through our mind. In particular, we see where we get caught in conceptual discursiveness and what perceptions or thoughts trigger our emotional fantasies and tirades.
Most of the time, we are caught up in how mind appears—what kind of mental weather we are experiencing. Some mind days are all blue skies and sunny; others are dark and stormy with thunder and lightning; and still others are foggy, damp, and stagnant. Many of us come to meditation to improve the appearance of our mind and enjoy better mind weather. It’s true—meditation does make the mind look better. The mind can be trained infinitely and made brighter, more spacious and clear. It can become tremendously sparkling and intelligent. Once we discover this ability, meditation becomes a real attraction and delight.
We can also get lost on this path of endless self-improvement. We fiddle with our mind and body constantly, never quite satisfied. We work hard to fabricate a state of mind that feels good, but can never relax our self-centered fascination. Appearances are always changing. There are countless states of mind. But through all these changes, we still have a mind. From that point of view, nothing has changed.
The second approach to mind is to tune into and feel the mind directly. This is like learning what water is, rather than being concerned with all the different colors, reflections, and flavors that water can take on. What is water, no matter what color or flavor it is? Likewise, what is mind itself like? What is the quality of mind that never goes away, that we find no matter how we feel, no matter what we think? Tuning into this unchanging nature of mind is at the heart of the practice of meditation. We begin to realize that how mind appears is not the main point. If we know what mind is, we will never be fooled by what appears in the mind. We will always know it to be a temporary display of mind. This realization is what truly liberates us.
When we meditate, we may ask, “What is it to have a mind?” This question leads us to touch our immediate experience; it also provokes us to find out who the questioner is.