Thich Nhat Hanh and Mental Formations

I attended my first Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) Buddhist retreat in 2011. What I enjoyed most was listening to TNH’s talk about mental formations – what they are, where they come from, and how to work with them skillfully. This article is my understanding of TNH’s talk, as well as my own personal exploration of mental formations.

What Are 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).

Thoughts and feelings that haven’t yet arisen into our awareness 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 reactive anger, joy, sorrow, etc. 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.

Working with Negative Mental Formations

So how should we handle 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:

  1. 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 arise and be present.
  2. 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 mindful walking, at the onset of a negative mental formation.
  3. Then we should 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, e.g., anger and mindfulness. Allow mindfulness to recognize what is present—in this case, anger.
  4. Now we also invite the seed of compassion to come up from our store consciousness. We allow our mindfulness to embrace anger with open, caring, and compassionate arms, as one would embrace an injured kitten.
  5. Hold the negative formation this way until it naturally dissipates and goes back down to the store consciousness.

The Mental Flow

Thich Nhat Hanh said that the flow of seeds up 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 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 parts of ourselves. 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, or mindful smiling. Then we have the energy available to do the work of recognizing, embracing, and and finally transforming. Whatever we’re doing—whether it’s cooking, sweeping, washing, walking, or being aware of breathing—we can continue to generate the energy of mindfulness. In this way, the seed of mindfulness in us will be nurtured, become stronger, and be more readily available when we need it in the future.

Selective Watering

Thich Nhat Hanh described a process called Selective Watering. This is a process of watering flowers (positive seeds) but not weeds (negative or challenging seeds). By doing so, we can choose to strengthen the positive mental formations and bring more joy to the mind. Here are some of his selective watering recommendations:

  • Practice meditation and mindful awareness regularly to increase your concentration and allow you to more easily recognize mental formations when they appear.
  • Nurture the ability to avoid watering negative seeds while consciously choosing to water the flower seeds. An example would be to avoid or reduce your amount of time spent with negative people and places—which may even include family members or other people you love. Instead, spend your time with wise, caring people in healthy, positive environments.
  • Take immediate action to embrace negative mental formations/emotions when they arise. By doing so, you will be giving them an opportunity to return in time 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, for example, that you are the victim in a given situation.
  • Invite seeds of a positive nature to arise, just as you might eject a CD you don’t like and replace it with 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.
  • Recognize the good seeds in yourself and in others. Water these seeds regularly by focusing on them, appreciating them, enjoying them, and thanking them for their presence and their positive effect on you. Do be careful, however, not to become attached to good seeds, which, like all things, are impermanent.

Accepting All Mental Formations

It’s important not to fear, avoid, or deny negative mental formations. By developing greater concentration and mindfulness, you will have the skills with which to handle these formations. And this is our practice – seeing clearly what is emerging and embracing whatever is present, without resistance or attachment.

Ultimately we will experience less resistance to suffering and understand it as a natural part of our human experience. It is, in fact, the process of working with suffering that bears fruit for us—the fruit of liberation.

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