As I wrote for particularly pleasant feelings, mental formations can be highly addictive too. Practising mindfulness implies being with but not being within. As in the previous two arenas of practice, we develop the ability on the meditation cushion to observe, to experience, to allow to pass, the mental formations that arise within a given formal practice session.
In practising mindfulness of the mind we are generally guided to work with specific mental formations defined as positive or negative; though it’s probably more useful to think of them as being helpful or unhelpful. This removes some of the inevitable personalisation that tends to come with our favourite moods, emotions and thoughts.
A fundamental approach to working with mental formations is simply to begin to recognise them as they appear and acknowledge their presence and this takes place both on and off the cushion. Being aware is the key element in all forms of mindfulness and is what allows us to engage with what constitutes our daily experiences with greater consideration. Acknowledging formations means identifying them as they are and leaving aside identification with the experience; if you experience anger for example, it is sufficient to say this is anger. By changing the personal pronoun ‘I’ to ‘this is’, we begin to weaken our association with the emotions and states we experience. We basically insert a little space between awareness and unfolding experience. What we discover with time is that these mental states that we habitually experience are really mechanisms that separate us from naked experience.
On the cushion we can actively monitor states as they arise. It is a useful strategy for dealing with typical mental phenomena such as sleepiness, boredom, distraction, arousal, the strong desire to do something, and of course thinking and the results of thinking. Beginning meditators often don’t realise that boredom, sleepiness and irritation are ripe fruit for practice and that they mark a great deal of our daily off cushion experience, or that we fill our lives up with busyness and activity in order to avoid those mental states.
If mindfulness is primarily a process of becoming aware and more present in our lives, then its deeper function of revealing the nature of things must be included as a natural deepening of practice. By acknowledging the content of our experience and removing the habit of referencing it back to an ‘I’ we can begin to allow mental formations to emerge without getting stuck to them. If for example anger arises and I hold that it is not a possession of mine, then anger is simply a response to a certain set of factors and is one of multiple options. In that case I have choice. Because by observing the nature of anger, how it begins, how it is a response to certain factors, how it builds, I can consciously choose to remove its causes, or I can simply remain with it as it arises and subsides without identifying with it. The latter can actually lead to profound insight into how we relate to anger and why we habitually relate to it in the manner that we do. This can be a liberating experience. To go one step further and see that anger is not an inherent response to particular experience and that it generally creates separation and an ‘us and them’ mentality, we can begin to realise that at the root of much of our anger is a need to shore up our defences against a perceived enemy and that behind our defences is a less than solid kingdom that we are mindlessly attempting to protect.
In developing consistency in mindfulness of the mind we start to see how mental formations are not so solid and that the typical range of mental formations we indulge in act as supports for a solid sense of self. In loosening the grip on these mental formations we start to see how helpful formations are also constructs and can be created if we so wish. It might be useful to consider helpful as that which reduces suffering. To respond to suffering whether personal or otherwise obviously becomes easier when we have developed the habit of holding on less tightly to the content of our experience.
Developing Positive Mental Formations
A more active approach to working with this area of mindfulness is actively reducing specific mental formations and consciously generating their counterparts. In working more explicitly with mental content lists come into play. A grouping of typical mental formations listed as unhelpful in Buddhist literature includes greed, jealousy, doubt, ignorance and more. Lists act as nice reminders of some of the areas where we tend to indulge.
In practical terms though, working with rigid structures often results in our betraying the subtleties of our own personal, subjective experience, which is all we truly have at the end of the day. So, it’s true that anger is generally unhelpful, but that is not always the case by any means. It is true that depression is unhelpful, but how do you relate to the bare experience of depression if you suffer from it in your life? And what is the result if we start trying to detach from, disassociates from and banish a narrow range of supposedly negative states from our experience? When fighting injustice, anger has its place. When dealing with genuine loss, profound feeling is part of the grieving process. Many supposedly negative states are rich and psychologically essential aspects of the human experience. The problem is not the state in and of itself and this is really important to understand. The problem is rather our identification with, and reactivity to mental states, and our inability to be with experience fully without getting overly absorbed by the drama of it all.
It’s useful to remember that organizations, especially those of a religious persuasion, love to give the impression of certainty and stability and lists hold that function in part. I have never been a proponent of fixed rules to govern human behaviour and it is very easy to slip into dogmatic prescription for the sake of convenience. At a social, tribal and political level, rules are essential. On a practice level though, rules are always contextual, dependently arise, are impermanent and therefore subject to change. Remember that words are suggestive and powerful symbols. We need to go through the symbolism in order to meet experience directly; this is what mindfulness is designed to help us achieve.
Part of this practice then is giving attention and space to the cultivation of positive mental states. This topic brings up questions for me regarding the line between volitional development, and making way for the natural flowering and emerging of some of the best of helpful human expression. As it often ends up being, the case is likely to be one of finding an appropriate balance between the two. Attention equals energy so in a way simply applying attention to a positive state results in its intensifying and increasing.
In NLP there is a technique called mood induction, which is ideally what contemplating positive states should do for you. I’m not a huge fan of such techniques, but they can be fun to experiment with. The Four Immeasurables are one such example in Buddhism. The idea is that you use carefully worded phrases, or creative visualisation, to evoke a feeling, or emotion. You then rest in that feeling allowing it to intensify and deepen.
May this being be happy
May this being experience deep joy
May this being experience equanimity
May this being be free of suffering
Breathing deeply and relaxing into the phrase can stimulate a more felt experience. It is important for these moods to go deeper than the intellect and with practice these simple phrases can open doors to a depth of human connection to the world that is quite profound.
Mental Formations & Society
Mindfulness of the mind starts by having us examine the habitual mental formations that we entertain as central components of our identity. Mental formations are that, creations, constructs, forms built: they are not the genuine article. The sharing and cultivation of specific mental formations is what feeds in great part group identity and the sense of belonging that each member feels. In a group of angry anarchists, you better feel angry, or leave. Moody, isolated teenagers surround themselves with other moody, isolated teenagers. In an office full of cocky bankers, you better feel the same, because any perceived weakness or genuine empathy with the victims of your latest financial scam would force your immediate ejection from the club. Now, these are fairly gross examples, but this dynamic is playing out in subtle ways in all of the social circles that we participate in. The pariah in any group is often the person who simply felt, or desired to feel or think something alien to the group consensus. The decision to explore that impulse will almost always necessitate departure or some serious reorganising of the status-quo. It is possible to define these social constructs as temporary prison yards with unwritten rules.
Mental formations, states of being, are extremely powerful and persuasive constructs that keep us in line at all levels of social interaction and belonging. The path of renouncing these mental constructs is often a lonely one. We cannot actually isolate ourselves from the game entirely. This is something I tried to do for many years until I found a group of like-minded individuals who had the same agenda. After a while I started getting the same itch with regards a new of conformity that began to emerge with time. The problem was that that group was subject to the same need for social rules and the same need for conformity that gives the group its meaning. I don’t have as yet an answer to this issue. All I know is extremes are never wise and a honest attempt by the members of the group to make the rules explicit and agreed upon can help greatly.
In developing mindfulness of these mental formations, of mental content and processes, we begin to recognise that they are like feelings, they have no permanent base and they are not fixed anywhere in particular. Mental formations are impermanent; they move and shift, come and go. Authenticity is discovered between these formations and not in spite of them. Our natural self is a process, a stream of being present and open to experience, which emerges through the gaps created by no longer identifying with and attaching to specific mental formations. This doesn’t result in you becoming a no-one. What does emerge though with time is the ability to allow mental formations to be part of the ebb and flow of our day-to-day experience. Mental formations no longer become the anchors through which we sustain our identity, but instead emerge as a form of play, which if we are willing, can manifest as a form of impeccable living. Impeccable living is learning to play the game of life profoundly well without ever taking it too seriously. This could just be an alternative translation of skilful means.