Awareness of Mental States

In our previous blog we focused on awareness of the body. This blog focuses on awareness of mental states. A mental state forms the background or context for our perceptions and our thoughts. A mental state may be any emotion, attitude or mood. Specific examples would be anxiety, depression, judgment or joy. Mental states constitute the lens through which we perceive our world; they provide the context and meaning that we give to each experience. For example, if we are caught up in depression then everything we experience is filtered thru the lens of deficiency, despair and despondency. Even a tiny loss or failure can send us spiraling downward into greater woe!

But even in less acute situations our mental state will filter our perception of reality. To the extent that we are identified with a mental state we will project that meaning onto the objective world and perceive it to “really be out there.” Often it is easier to see this in others that in ourselves. Maybe we see how our friends or relatives are caught up in their habitual interpretation of life experiences. We may be tempted to roll our eyes when we hear different versions of the same story repeated ad infinitum.

It's not quite as easy to see how we may be doing the very same thing! Perhaps it’s in a different way, but if we are honest with ourself we will see how it work’s in our own mind. By being aware of our own habituated mental filters we are less likely to project our subjective interpretation onto the external world and make it seem objectively real. Some mental interpretation is automatic and is virtually inevitable; but the key is to see it as an interpretation rather than as an objective reality.

The Buddha taught extensively about awareness of mind states. He said to be especially aware of unwholesome mental states that are rooted in grasping, aversion, and delusion. Mind states such as prejudice, hatred, cynicism, greed, and fear are examples of unwholesome mental states. When unrecognized these mind states can lead to much suffering.

It's important to be aware of physical sensations associated with a mental state. If we are caught up in a mental state such as intense fear or anger it’s helpful to bring some awareness to the body. If we have some awareness on physical sensations in the present moment then we are less likely to be identified with the mental state. Without this awareness we are prone to being caught in a storyline that we have associated with that mental state. We may then project this narrative onto the external world and react accordingly. Much human suffering results from this pattern of projection and reactivity.

We might be aware of a physical sensation before we’re aware of the underlying mind state. For example, we might be aware of tightness in the jaw before being aware of anger; or we may feel a knot in the stomach before having awareness of fear. If you experience a chronic or frequent physical sensation it can be helpful to see if there is a mental or emotional counterpart to this sensation; look for a mental state that might lie behind the physical symptom. Conversely, if you experience chronic or frequent emotional patterns then it can be helpful to recognize the physical sensations that are associated with the experience of that emotion.

Identifying with, clinging to, or resisting any mental state will ultimately result in suffering. This is true even with a pleasant mind state such as joy, because joy (or any other mental state) will eventually subside and morph into another state. If we’re clinging to the joy then suffering will result.

Conversely, resisting an unpleasant mental state is counter-productive because that which we resist tends to persist. Paradoxically, the best way to move through an unpleasant mental state is to accept it without resistance. (This does not mean accepting the veracity of the storyline that we associate with this state.) Once we fully accept the physical sensations associated with a mental state then the related story will likely fade away.

In summary, when you are identified with a mental state it is helpful to a) become aware of sensations in the body; b) name the mental state; c) let go of our grip on the storyline; d) explore the mental state objectively without focusing on the apparent cause or on future action that you might take. If possible, avoid making decisions or taking action when identified with a mental state (positive or negative.)

And finally, I want to point out that true happiness (aka enlightenment) is not a mental state—it is independent of any mental state or any other condition. (The term nirvana simply means extinction; referring to the extinction of suffering.) True happiness is unconditional and is independent of any physical or emotional condition.