The Magic of Working with Mental Formations

I recently attended my first Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) Buddhist retreat.  My most enjoyable moments during this retreat occurred while listening to TNH’s talk about mental formations – what they are, where they come from, and how to work skillfully with them, once they arise.  This article is my understanding of TNH’s talk, as well as my own personal deeper exploration around mental formations.

According to TNH, consciousness is like a house, in which the basement is our store consciousness (unconscious mind) and the living room is our mind consciousness (conscious mind). Mental formations that haven’t been born yet into anger, sorrow, love, compassion or joy rest in our store consciousness in the form of seeds (bija). We have  seeds of anger, despair, discrimination, fear, mindfulness, compassion, love, understanding, and so on in our basement storehouse. Store consciousness is made up of the totality of these seeds, and it is also the soil that maintains and nurtures all these seeds. The seeds stay there until we hear, see, read, or think of something that touches a seed, which then sprouts up as a mental formation as reactive anger, joy, or sorrow, etc. This is a seed coming up from our unconscious and manifesting on the level of mind consciousness, in our living room. Now we no longer call it a seed, but a mental formation.

When someone touches the seed of anger by saying something or doing something that doesn’t sit right with us, that seed of anger will come up and manifest in mind consciousness as the mental formation of anger (cittasamskara). The word “formation” in Buddhist terms, stands for something that’s created by many conditions coming together. A table and a house are physical formations. My hand is a physiological formation. My anger is a mental formation. In Buddhist psychology, we speak about fifty-two varieties of seeds that can manifest as fifty-two mental formations. Anger is just one of them. In store consciousness, anger is called a seed. In mind consciousness, it’s called a mental formation.

What to do with negative mental formations?  Here are some valuable tips TNH gave on what to do and what NOT to do, when a negative mental formation arises in our mind consciousness:

  • Do not try to push the mental formation down and deny its existence.  This will only make it stronger.
  • Skillful Buddhist practitioners allow all emotions (positive and negative) to come up and be present.
  • Whenever a seed, say the seed of anger, comes up into our living room and manifests as a mental formation, Thich Nhat Hanh said to let the anger take a bath in concentration and mindfulness.  To do so, we first build up our concentration by practicing concentrated breathing, or walking, at the onset of a negative mental formation.
  • Now, TNH said to reach into our store consciousness and touch the seed of mindfulness we’ve been developing in our practices and invite it to come up, too. Now we have two mental formations in the living room – Anger & Mindfulness.   Allow mindfulness to recognize what is present – in this case – anger.
  • Let’s just have a party now, and also invite the seed of compassion to come up to our store consciousness, as well.  Allow our mindfulness to embrace anger with open, caring and compassionate arms, like one would embrace an injured kitten.
  • Hold the negative formation, like anger this way until it naturally dissipates and goes back down to the store consciousness.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh said that the flow of seeds to mental formations and back down to seeds again is a natural, healthy process that creates good circulation in the mind.  He warned us that if we cut off this circulation by denying our experience, or trying to force it to go away, we can actually cause mental and/or emotional problems for ourselves in the future.

Our practice is based on the insight of non-duality – we understand that anger is not an enemy. Both mindfulness and anger are seeds that are part of our selves. Mindfulness is not there to suppress or fight against anger, but to recognize and take care of it. It’s like a big brother helping a younger brother. So the energy of anger is recognized and embraced tenderly by the energy of mindfulness.

Every time we need the energy of mindfulness, we just touch that seed with our mindful breathing, our mindful walking, smiling, and then we have the energy ready to do the work of recognizing, embracing, and later on looking deeply and transforming. Whatever we’re doing, whether it’s cooking, sweeping, washing, walking, being aware of breathing, we can continue to generate the energy of mindfulness, and the seed of mindfulness in us will be nurtured, become stronger and more readily available.

Thich Nhat Hanh said that we can undergo the Process of Selective WateringA process of watering the (flowers) positive seeds, and not the (weeds) negative or challenging seeds.  By doing so, we can selectively choose to strengthen the positive mental formations and bring more joy to the mind.  Here are some selective watering recommendations:

  1. Practice meditation and mindfulness regularly to increase your concentration and mindfulness, so that you will readily recognize mental formations when they appear.
  2. Develop a good environment that doesn’t water negative seeds.  Water the flower seeds, and not the weed seeds.  A prime example would be to avoid or reduce your amount of time spent with negative drama queens, angry people and places – which may even include family members or other people you love.  Instead, spend your socializing time with wise, caring people, in healthy, nurturing environments.
  3. Take immediate action to embrace negative mental formations/emotions when they arise.  By doing so, you will be giving them an opportunity to go back down into your store consciousness.  This may require you to step away, take a break or walk, etc.  Do your best to let go of the stories your mind will be weaving – justifying its victim position.  Do your best to not feed these stories.
  4. Invite seeds of the opposite nature to come up….like ejecting a CD you don’t’ like and putting on a CD with songs that you do like.  It can be done joyfully.  For example, you can invite love to come up when anger is present.
  5. Recognize the good seeds in ourselves and others and water these seeds regularly by focusing on the good seeds, complimenting, thanking, and pointing out the good seeds.
  6. When a good seed manifests as a mental formation, water it and keep it there as long as possible, by recognizing it, appreciating it, enjoying it, while still not clinging to it.  This can get tricky, because we don’t want to get attached to positive mental formations, either.

A good meditation practitioner is not afraid of negative mental formations, for many reasons.  Firstly, as one continually develops greater concentration and mindfulness, one has the skills with which to work with these formations.   Secondly, a good practitioner understands that this IS the practice – seeing clearly what is emerging and embracing whatever is present, without resistance or attachment.

A good practitioner also is more apt to have less resistance to suffering, and accept suffering as a natural part of one’s human experience.  This practitioner understands that as one learns how to work skillfully with suffering, one starts to see that this process of working with suffering is what actually bears the fruit – which is the fruit of liberation.

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One Response to The Magic of Working with Mental Formations

  1. Ralf says:

    Just watched this talk from Thich Nath Hanh on youtube .. words full of wisdom … thanks for your summary …http://youtu.be/7Pz2TG6SnAE

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