The Abhidhamma, a Buddhist Map of the Mind Part 2

In the spring edition of The Spirit Rock News, I read an article by meditation teacher Steve Armstrong about the Abhidhamma (or Buddhist psychology), which serves as a Buddhist map of the mind. During the second generation of the Community Dharma Leader training sponsored by Spirit Rock, I studied this Buddhist psychology text. Tonight I will complete the second of a two-part series of Dharma talks based on the Abhidhamma.

Aside from outlining Buddhist personality types (described in the first part of this Dharma series), the Abhidhamma describes mental life as a flowing stream of consciousness, in which successive moments of consciousness and their attendant mental states rapidly arise and pass away. A particular sequence of moments is conditioned by kamma (karma), elements of material reality, intention, and the degree to which mental concentration and insight has been developed.

The Abhidhamma explains how the stream of consciousness flows during the activation of sense doors and mind doors, so that individual moments of consciousness create a stream of consecutive processes that eventually result in the creation of a consensual reality. By diligently practicing mindfulness, we recognize that each sense door is constantly bombarded by sense stimulation, and that the mind is incessantly processing incoming information, as well as reflecting on it to create so-called “ordinary reality,” which we all take for granted as being true.  Amazingly, this process occurs automatically, ignored by untrained attention and not understood by a heavily deluded mind.

As we begin to practice Insight meditation, we attempt to train attention to stabilize on the meditative object of the breath. We realize that the conditioning effect of mental habits makes it very difficult to stay with the breath. Gradually, a strong intention to stay with the object develops to counteract the processes that create ordinary reality.

On the month-long retreat at Spirit Rock that I describe in my book A Silent Cure, Robert Hall, a poet, body worker, and longtime meditation teacher, reminded practitioners that difficult mind states are part of the spiritual path and a doorway to deeper understanding. He explained how “judging mind” distinguishes between what is pleasant and unpleasant. We use “projecting mind” to compare ourselves with others. “Lamenting mind” grieves and loses a sense of connection to self and others. “Racing mind” is hard to contain, while “rambling mind” free associates. “Desperate mind” seeks addictions, and “sinking mind” falls into what the Buddha called “sloth and torpor.” “Angry mind” results in “lonely mind,” and “obsessing mind” catches us in thought loops. “Lusting mind” can be combined with “obsessing mind,” and “rationalizing mind” analyzes everything. “Doubting mind” can lead to the worst condition of all, “despairing mind.” Robert joked, “Difficult mind states have no pride!”  He quoted the author Barbara Kingsolver: “Attending carefully to one thing, I learn to love my life again.  I have taught myself joy over and over again.”

Robert helped me see how the body reflects every mental state, and how self-obsessed thinking contracts the body.  He suggested that we turn our attention away from the content of thoughts to the accompanying body sensation. According to Robert, “Bare attention has no agenda, no expectation, but accepts reality just as it is. We are practicing self-acceptance. With concentration comes relaxation, letting go of the heart and opening to life as it is.”

In order to focus steadily on the breath, we sacrifice some degree of processing ordinary reality. Advanced meditators report dramatic effects such as psychedelic perceptions, spiritual openings, and distortions in perception of body, time and space. During prolonged retreats, I have had moments of dizziness, as if I were swaying at the edge of a void. When my consciousness expands, I often experience light-headed sensations and sense my heart beating more loudly than usual. Sometimes surges of energy twist my spine into spontaneous yoga postures, and other times my third eye seems to be flooded with bright light. Gradually, I have learned not to become attached to any of these experiences, but to simply note them arising and passing away, just like any other phenomena.

Apart from Buddhist personality types and the stream of consciousness, the Abhidhamma deals with the evolution of liberating knowledge, which is encoded in the Noble Eightfold Path of the Fourth Noble Truth about the end of suffering. The eight factors of the Noble Path are divided into three parts: Sila or ethical training to purify speech and behavior; Samadhi or stability of mind to purify the mind; and Panna of wisdom to purify understanding of latent patterns. Vipassana or Insight meditation practice cultivates wisdom by developing continuous awareness or mindfulness.

The Abhidhamma’s map of progressive states of insight knowledge is one of the most refined and comprehensive maps of the Dharma path.  Insight knowledge begins with recognizing the most elementary direct empirical knowledge of experience. It matures upon stream entry and successive stages of enlightenment, with the realization of nibanna or nirvana, the “unconditioned.” According to accounts by generations of dedicated meditators about the gradual development of liberating wisdom, the well-defined map of the “Progress of Insight” identifies experiences to expect, challenges to face, and knowledge to gain on the Dharma journey. This clear and comprehensive map of the path inspires confidence, imparts knowledge, facilitates right effort and illuminates awareness. Familiarity with this map supports self-correction and is an invaluable aid to practice.

In order for true Vipassana or Insight to arise, we must distinguish between relative and absolute perspectives of reality, and we must understand the conditionality or cause-and-effect relationship of mental and material conditions. Insight into the impermanent, unreliable and insubstantial nature of all conditioned things leads to entering the terrain of exalted joy, bliss, ecstasy, and pseudo-nibbana; and the progressive understanding of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness.

Other wholesome results are comprehension of the stages of practice; the emptiness of self-concepts; the highly concentrated states of jhana and distinctions among states of tranquility, joy, bliss, equanimity, boundless love, space, infinite consciousness and peace; as well as conditioned and unconditioned realms. With full awareness of all these aspects of the Abhidhamma, the knowledge of their place on the Dharma journey becomes clear, and by not clinging to any of them, we develop the path of liberation.