The mind is a non-physical river of mental moments

Jan 11, 2024


One of the Buddha’s essential points is that your mind is not physical. Your love and your compassion and your kindness and your anger and your jealousy and your psychosis and your tendency to be good at music or good at football, these are not physical. These are mental tendencies, and in their nature they are not physical: they’re subjective, cognitive experiences.


The body comes from Mummy and Daddy, but what’s the source of these tendencies? A really simple way to put it is one of the terms they use in Buddhism for your mind: a “mental continuum”: a continuity of mental moments, a chain of mental moments. It’s pretty evident: a good analysis to do, a good meditation to do, is to track back from this moment of mind – where to? The very previous millisecond of consciousness. And that came from where? The very previous millisecond of consciousness. And where did that come from? The previous moment of my consciousness. And where did that come from? The previous moment of that very consciousness.


Mind has its own source: why do we assume it has to come from something or someone else? It’s a continuity of mental moments, it’s a river of mental moments, it’s an unbroken chain of mental links. 


This implies, then, that the main source of the anger that arises in my mind this second is a previous moment of the tendency to be angry. The main cause of the love in my mind is the previous moment of the tendency to love.


For sure, the external world plays a role. Your boyfriend punches you in the nose, your boyfriend is kind to you. These are external conditions that will play a role in what happens in your mind, but we think they are the main cause. The Buddha says, no, they’re not. They’re secondary, they’re merely catalysts.


When you do this little analysis, this meditation, thinking of this moment of my mind now and tracking it back, moment by moment, inexorably, you will end up back in your mother’s womb. Keep tracking back and you’ll get to the moment when the egg and sperm joined. 


Where did the egg and sperm come from? From Mummy and Daddy – no argument there. But that moment of your mind came from a previous moment of that very river of mental moments; it’s got its own source. And if you track that back a few weeks, you’ll find that that mind was in a previous body. 


And then you think, “Well, where did I begin?” We always want a beginning. We always want a first moment. “Well maybe,” we’ll think, “I began the lifetime before. Maybe I began three lifetimes ago.” And you track yourself back in this same way – linear, cause and effect, one moment going back to the previous, to the previous – and you think, “Well, maybe I began then in my mother’s womb, then, maybe at the time of conception, and when the mummy and daddy of three lifetimes ago had sex, and then suddenly I began then.”


Well, no. How can that be? If we posit the law of cause and effect, then by definition a moment of consciousness – in fact, a moment of anything – has to have a previous moment.


It’s the same argument when it comes to the universe: Where did it begin? Where did it come from? What was the first moment of the universe? As His Holiness has said, “Big Bang, no problem. Just not the first big bang, that’s all!” 


We all want the first big bang, the first moment. Where did I begin? Where did it begin? Where did my anger begin? We always want a first cause. It’s a huge point for the creator religions: a capital F, capital C, First Cause. They have intensive philosophical discussions about how there can be a First Cause, which is called “God,” of course. Buddha totally disagrees. 


This is very weird for our minds, but if you analyze it, it’s got some logic to it. There can be nothing that doesn’t have a previous cause of a similar nature.


Anger and love and kindness can’t be injected into us, nor can they be mainly caused by an external event. They’re triggered, yes, by an external event – no argument there – but whatever arises in that mind itself, its source is the previous moment of that.


When Lama Zopa started teaching the lamrim to all the hippies back in the ’70s – this presentation of the Buddha’s view, this packaging of the path to enlightenment – he always started with the mind, because when you hear about reincarnation and you think your mind is your brain, then you’re in trouble! You are left with the assumption that there’s another part of us called a soul.


But Buddha doesn’t talk about a soul; he talks about the mind, our consciousness, this non-physical continuity of mental moments, which goes back and back – beginninglessly. This always blew the hippies’ minds! We all so desperately want a first moment – “but there must be a first moment,” we insist!


What are the implications of this experientially? I find this is the most tasty thing. It means my mind is mine. It means I’m the boss; it means I’m in charge. It means, therefore, that I can change it. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “We can mold our mind into any shape we like!”


love that!

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