How to Examine Mental States

This article is an introduction to a perspective on mystical spiritual practice, based on my own path, which entails first training the belly/body/emotions to stillness, then opening to spaciousness through precise mental discrimination—which opens the energy centers of the head—and finally enlightenment as complete transcendence of the heart's restriction—the source of delusion—through unconditional compassionate release of self-grasping, at the source of consciousness as it emanates from the chest.

The key to spiritual liberation is to learn how to examine our own states of consciousness. In Buddhist parlance, these states are called "mental," but in actual experience they comprise the total field of consciousness-awareness, or the whole body-mind-heart of a being. Only through becoming intimately familiar with the texture of experience may we hope to develop the subtlety of attention required to root out the ego sense.

As the ego sense is the source of delusion—the reification of the division between subject and object—rooting it out is the fundamental goal of the spiritual life. This sense of ego is experienced as identification with the body-mind and a simultaneous restriction of the field of the heart. Rooting it out requires examination using three principle qualities: dispassion, precision, and compassion.

Dispassion is a quality that corresponds with the bodily field. The field of the body is composed of our perceptual world, the most important to us being our emotional experience. Being mostly unconscious of this field, we identify with our emotions and suffer. Freedom from emotions means freedom from motion. Dispassion is thus the practice of detachment from movement. "Just sit," the Zen Master tells us. When we release attachment to activity based on grasping and aversion, we begin to embody the stillness behind and before all activity. This gives us a taste of peace and freedom and forms the foundation for further examination. However, to truly "just sit," we must examine all inclination that moves us to act, the resistance to "doing nothing." By attentively acknowledging our feelings we begin to get a real perception of how deep our dis-ease is—how rich in content our emotional suffering has become under the delusion of self. This real experience of deep malcontent is one of the first major stumbling blocks on the spiritual path. However, if we persevere in our stillness practice we find that all emotional content is impermanent. "This too shall pass" is the hallmark axiom at this stage. In this relative calm we find the first major seductive trap of spiritual practice: attachment to calm states. For if we mistake relative stillness for the egoless ground of reality we can wallow in relative quiescence for a long time without making progress in rooting out the delusion of separate existence. The Xin Xin Ming says:

     If you stop movement to return to stillness, stillness even more fills with movement.
     You will merely stagnate in dualism, rather than realize oneness.

Oneness, our true nature, is beyond all duality, including the distinction between movement and stillness.

This brings us to the second principle of our examination of mental states: precision. Precision is a quality that corresponds to the mind. It is through careful analysis of our mental experience—often called discrimination—that we begin to recognize the arbitrariness of our distinction between self and world. All thoughts that arise immediately pass away again. Thus what we call "mind" is nothing more than a sequence of mental events. It is completely insubstantial. However, time and again we are deceived by our thoughts. While our experience is always whole and complete we take "this is" and "this is not" to be true statements. We continuously fall prey to the worldly custom of valuing one experience over another. We judge between right and wrong, favorable and unfavorable. And although human life is just as natural as the plants and the animals, the stars and the planets, we set ourselves apart through belief in the discriminatory biases of our complicated thinking.

Here we must, as the Zen tradition says: "turn the light back towards its source." In this way, we root out the habit of believing in our own discriminations. We uproot mental bias and we discover a vast spaciousness, which includes all distinction. This process will unleash tremendous energy in the body-mind, often arousing buried emotional content. It is for this reason that the cultivation of stillness through the principle of bodily dispassion is a requirement for mental precision. For without a foundation of relative calm, neither can we wield the instrument of mental analysis nor can we absorb its conclusion: namely that all distinction is mentally constructed and thus purely imaginary. Stillness is our foundation for spaciousness.

The final principle of compassion, which corresponds to the heart, brings us to the very core of our being and to the source of consciousness itself. First, within the bodily field, through dispassion towards and integration of emotional content we came to experience the relative stillness behind all activity. Then, through precise discrimination within the mental field we found the spaciousness that allows us to recognize that all duality is falsely imagined. Finally, it is through compassion arising in and as the heart that we may cut the root of both attachment to stillness and aversion to distinction. For while we learn in our practice that the mechanism of our suffering arises in our own body-mind, no matter how valiant our attempts nor consistent our attention, we will never be able to prevent the arising of new states and experiences. Movement arises and distinctions are formed. Life goes on. It is only through the love that we come to recognize as the core of our being—and the core of the creative movement of the cosmos—that we can find the peace in our heart that transcends all movement and stillness and that suffuses and surrounds all mental modifications of this vast space of being.

For love is the purpose of all creation. The cosmos is the divine in love with itself. You and I arise out of the pure joy of experience itself. There is no purpose beyond that, and there is no salvation for the suffering soul other than dissolving in this all-pervading power.

So, in practice, have compassion for each suffering mind-state you may encounter, in yourself and in others. See clearly that the suffering does not pertain to the phenomenon itself, but to its mistaken sense of separation from the ground of being. Hold dear to your heart all experience, all beings, as they are the pure manifestation of the compassionate heart of creation—which is your heart, and none other.

Through careful examination of your mental states using these three principles of dispassion, precision, and compassion—in the fields of body, mind, and heart, I have no doubt that you will find that the egoic sense has no root and that there simply is no separation between you and the world. Consciousness, the ground of all, arises in the heart, is reflected by the mind, manifests through the senses, and appears as the body and world. Don't allow the reflections to distract you from recognizing that source, reflection, manifestation, and appearance are of one nature. Then you will find final rest in the midst of the creative movement of life and will understand the essence of all mental states to be manifestations of the One Consciousness which is none other than your True Self.

May all beings attain to this bliss beyond all comparison.

-Matt, Winter 2012