The true nature of the mind

The true nature of the mind: Recognition Sutra #5

In pre-Tantrik yoga, divinity or Spirit (puruṣa) is thought to be completely different from matter and energy (prakṛti): they are thought to be two separate, co-eternal, irreducible things, and should not be confused with each other. In fact, confusing the two is thought to be the source of all suffering. Mind is part of matter, of course, and so cannot be divine; in fact mind and ego are often demonized or denigrated in non-Tantrik yogas. The author of The Recognition Sūtras, Rājānaka Kshemarāja, has a radically different perspective on this topic that is very much at the heart of what makes Tantra distinct from other philosophies of mind and personhood. Here, then, is the fifth sūtra of his spiritual/philosophical masterpiece:

चितिरेव चेतनपदादवरूढा चेत्यसङ्कोचिनी चित्तम्  || ५

Awareness itself, descending from its state of pure consciousness and being contracted by the object perceived, becomes the mind.

Far from teaching an absolute distinction of divine spirit and mundane matter, Tantrik philosophy teaches that they are in fact different phases of one thing, i.e. Awareness, aka Divine Consciousness. Take the example of H2O: in one state, we call it steam, in another, water, in another, ice. These three states are very different from one another, and we interact with each of them in very different ways. This is a perfect analogy for what Kṣhemarāja intends here: there are three different states, or phases, of one “thing”—in one state, we call it God, in another, pure consciousness, in another, the mind.

    The implications of this are of course huge. First, though, let’s explore the specific three terms that Kṣhemarāja is using here for these three states of the One. First we have citi, introduced in the first sūtra, which we translate (imperfectly) as Awareness. Citi (pronounced CHIT-ee) is the state in which Awareness is fully expanded, that is to say, untouched by any trace of contraction, including that of subjectivity or selfhood. In other words, there is no concealment whatsoever operative on the citi level (not that it’s really a 'level', of course). When citi manifests as a perceiver, an individuated subject, then that is the phase called cetana, here translated as “pure consciousness.”

    We have to define this second phase, cetana, more carefully so that we don’t confuse it with the third phase (the mind). Cetana (CHAY-tuh-nuh) is the state of being the conscious knower (literally, the agent of consciousness, “the one who does cit”). We experience cetana in the space between trains of thought, a space of open awareness without thought-forms. That’s why we translate it as “pure consciousness.” We experience it hundreds of times a day, but usually only for a second, and usually without the reflective self-awareness (vimarśa) by which we can know that we are experiencing cetana (though this “knowing,” when it does occur, is not a thought-form, or else it is no longer the cetana state). The cetana level is open and expansive awareness; in fact, it is as expanded as awareness can be while still having a “sense of self.”

    The third phase is citta, which we translate as “mind.” If, in our H2O metaphor, citi is steam, and cetana is water, then citta is ice. Cetana contracts and solidifies, as it were, into the mind, that is, the cognitive apparatus which knows and thinks about specific objects. It is only on this level that specific thought-constructs are operative, the cognitions by which awareness interprets or represents reality to itself. This is the phase of awareness with which we are most familiar, because it is the phase that we are most identified with. 

    Now let’s look at the sūtra again. Kṣhemarāja tells us that it is Awareness (citi) that is the mind (citta), and that it enters its mind-phase by descending, or stepping down (avarūḍhā) from its cetana phase and becoming contracted (saṅkocinī) by a perceivable object (cetya). Notice that all the different phases have a common root in Sanskrit, and that is √cit. It would be a normal Tantrik argument, though Kṣhema does not make it here, to say that the Sanskrit language itself encodes the true nature of reality; here it demonstrates that all the phases being discussed, including even that of the object, are all permutations of the same fundamental thing (√cit -> citi, cetana, citta, cetya). Note, however, that citi cannot be fully grasped through the H2O metaphor. When steam condenses into water, it is no longer steam, but when citi appears as cetana or citta, it does not relinquish its true nature in any measure but remains complete, perfect, divine, fully itself. Of course, seeing this subtle truth clearly is the state we call liberation or awakening.

    Now, having said all that, we must realize that what is really important to the Recognition philosophy is not what state citi is in. In fact, to try to silence the mind and remain solely in “pure consciousness” is a frustrating and largely fruitless task, as anyone knows who’s tried that form of meditation. That is the transcendentalist, escapist path that Tantra rejects. What really matters, then, is not the presence or absence of contraction, but rather whether Awareness or contraction is predominant. As Kṣhemarāja puts it,

The mind is nothing other than this very Goddess Awareness. To explain—when She conceals Her true nature and takes on contraction, there are two modes in which She does so:

  1. Sometimes, She vibrates predominantly as Awareness, subordinating contraction, even though it is still present.
  2. Other times, contraction is predominant.  

The central issue here is one of identification. If you are more identified with the fact of being aware than with what you happen to be aware of, Awareness will naturally be predominant, which is subjectively experienced as rather more blissful than when contraction is predominant. Contraction will inevitably be predominant when we are identified with it, that is, when we are constructing a self out of our thoughts and feelings, or our moods, or our body’s condition. 

    Notice that Kṣhema implies that we need not banish contraction altogether to experience the joy of Awareness. It simply needs to gain the upper hand, as it were, and become predominant. The thing is, the fact of being aware doesn’t usually grab at our attention the way the objects of awareness do. We have to bring our attention to it, and then it starts to reveal itself as the very ground of all our experience.  

A little later in his commentary, Kṣhema continues:

Awareness itself, in taking the form of the contracted perceiver, descends from its state of pure consciousness (cetana)—being eager to grasp the objects of perception—and becomes contracted by a perceived object, such as ‘blue’ or ‘pleasure’. This is [called] the mind.  

Awareness innately desires to experience itself in the form of particular objects, and thus willingly descends from the expanded subjectivity of the cetana state. In the act of perceiving a particular object, whether an external sensory perception (like the color blue), or an internal feeling-state (like happiness), awareness partially takes on the qualities of that object, mirroring it. This is what we call the mind. We could translate Kṣhema in another way, saying Mind is nothing but Awareness contracted in accordance with the object perceived. 

The thing is, since we tend to locate our sense of self in the mind, when the mind takes on the qualities of that which it perceives, we tend to construct a self out of those objects of experience, and say (for example) “I am happy,” or “I am sad.” We even do this in relation to external objects: identifying your preferences with your self, you feel good when others agree that whatever you like is good, or lovely, or tasteful, and whatever you don’t like is bad, or ugly, or tasteless (we call this “feeling validated,” which really means “experiencing the pleasure of believing oneself right, and that one’s limited sense of self is therefore justified”). The important thing to realize here is that the mind will always by colored by the qualities of whatever it perceives; and if there is identification with that mind-state, or resistance to it, it becomes “sticky” and leaves an impression. The collection of these impressions forms our constructed sense of self. However, if there is no identification, and no resistance, then when any given object has been fully experienced, the mind releases it and dissolves back into pure awareness (if only for a moment). That is its nature, to always return to its source. 

The picture of internal reality presented here is a spanda: a pulsing oscillation, in this case, between expanded awareness and the contracted mind-perceiver. Awareness contracts in order to perceive an object, and contracts in precise accordance with the nature of that object, becoming a “blue-mind” or a “pleasure-mind.” Then, each mind (for, in a sense, each object of perception produces a different mind), having run its course with that experience, will, if it is allowed to, dissolve completely back into the formless open space of pure awareness, before beginning the process again. This is the natural, endless process of embodied consciousness. What gums up the works, then, is the inability to let a given mind-state dissolve due to attachment or aversion regarding its object. Pre-Tantrik yogīs thought the solution was to rid themselves of all attachment or aversion. Those who take this path usually wind up in repression and denial, often with disastrous results. There is, however, a more effective (if subtler) method: release the object-cognition when it starts to dissolve, and let the attachment or aversion you are feeling (if any) become the new object of cognition, without mistakenly thinking that it is an energy coming from the object itself. If you give complete, open, and non-judgmental attention to the attachment-mind or aversion-mind, it will naturally dissolve into its ground, leaving no impression. Simple, subtle, and incredibly effective, once you get the hang of it.

This post is an excerpt from Chapter Five of my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sūtras (Mattamayūra Press, 2017).