Saturday, August 6, 2011

Four Important Mind Steps

A Twitter exchange with @Meryl333 got me back into reading Ayya Khema's 'Who Is My Self?', specifically the following mind sequence [page 76]:
The first aspect is "sense-consciousness", the five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.
The second aspect is feeling, which arises from sense-contact. This feeling is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral [or rather a combination of pleasant and unpleasant in my experience].
The third is perception, which can also be called labeling. For example, when the feeling is unpleasant, the label is "pain".
The fourth is mental formation, or reaction. If the mind has said "pain", the reaction is usually "I don't like it", or "I've got to get away from this."
. . . 
Most people are only aware of the first and the last step, the sense contact and the reaction.
. . . 
We should practice in the following way: having noticed our reaction, we go back to the sense-contact that led to it. We then try to become aware again of the feeling that followed the sense-contact, and then of the mind's explanation, its labeling (dirty, disgusting, delicious, boring). Notice these two missing parts, the feeling and the label. 
. . . 
We can also decide to stop to the sequence at any of the four points, particularly at the perception, the labeling. Then we will notice that we are not compelled to react. 
Very important stuff, worth verifying through thorough investigation of one's immediate experience.

I just wonder why Ayya Khema did away with the sixth sense-consciousness, the intellect-consciousness included in the Buddha's teachings? Today, I could see how through the cognizing of a certain idea, much unpleasantness arose. In my mind's haste, all I could notice  next was the "I don't like" part. The third step eluded me completely. Following Ayya Kehma's instruction, as I go back and try to retrace all of the steps, I can now see the part about perception, and all the "pain" that I attached to the unpleasantness. Pain is a loaded word that can't just be left alone . . . 

I need to spend more time at the edges between pleasantness and pleasure, and unpleasantness and pain. Letting go of the mind's habit to create stories around life cyclical ways.


  1. Marguerite, thank you for this post, and thank you for introducing me to Ayya Kehma. I wonder if the feeling step is always a +1, 0, or -1 state, or perhaps there are shades of gray. Similarly, could one learn to reprogram the feeling in step two? For example, I enjoy chocolate ice cream, and the sight of a cone always evokes a positive feeling. However, if I were to eat too much, the sight might then cause a negative feeling.

  2. Thank you Jack. Actually, it is my teacher Gil Fronsdal who helped validate what I had found in my own practice. That there is never really a neutral state, but rather either insufficient awareness, hence the impression of a neutral feeling state, or when one looks more closely, a blend of pleasantness and unpleasantness.

    Regarding reprogramming the feeling, my understanding of this and also my experience is that pleasantness and/or unpleasantness are an integral part of the way we experience the world. Where the freedom to choose comes into play is in the third step of assigning a label to either state. If we are truly wise, we 'know' that both states just that, impermanent and not to be made a big deal of. Also, using Ajahn Chah's image, even the most beautiful flower carries within it the seed of decay and wilting. So no need to get excited about the pleasantness of sight. Same with unpleasantness. That too shall pass. No need to attach aversive labels to it.

  3. Lovely piece. Reminds me of Stephen Covey's idea that between stimulous (what happens) and response (how you react) is a space in which you can exercise your independent choice.

    An idea which, I imagine, he might have gained from Buddhist teachings; the Dalai Lama suggests that between stimulus and the suffering apparently caused by that stimulus there is space for us to make our own sense of things.

    The suffering we feel is the result of the making sense rather than being an intrinsic part of the stimulus; therefore the suffering doesn't have to be the way it is. It is, in the end, what we make it.

    Gary M

  4. Nice! Absolutely . . . Hence the importance of mindfulness and investigation, to see this possibility and degree of freedom we have in choosing happiness.
    Thank you.

  5. Hi Marguerite,
    funny that I was listening to Ayya Khema recordings this morning during my walk and the part about labeling confused me (even though i have heard it from different teachers)... so i googled the question and came to your page! :)
    I am still not completely clear about how to label my distracting thoughts. I feel like I need some examples. For example, if my thoughts are memories or a moment I imagine in the future... what kind of label would I place on that? Of if I am thinking about, as an example, what I should wear tomorrow for work... how would I label that thought?
    Always appreciate your sharing of your experience!