In this practice of settling the mind in its natural state the eyes are at least partially open and the gaze rests vacantly in the space in front. The focus is not on any visual object, shape or colour, but just resting vacantly. We are directing the full force of our mindfulness to the space of mental events, to the contents of experience not detectable with any of the five physical senses or any of the instruments of technology. This is the space in which discursive thoughts arise, mental chit chat, mental images, memories, fantasies, desires, all manner of mental events. You are directing your attention, your mindfulness, to this sixth domain of experience not included in any of the five physical senses.
If you are new to this practice you may find it helpful at the beginning to deliberately generate a discursive thought. This could be any thought whatsoever, for example, the thought, “this is the mind.” Slowly and deliberately generate this mental sentence, syllable by syllable and as you do so, direct your full attention to this mental event. As soon as that thought vanishes back into the space of the mind, keep your attention fixed right where it was, and as you hold your attention there you will have found the domain. Now quietly observe (or experience) whatever next arises within this field, this space of the mind, whether it be another discursive thought, or perhaps a mental image. Whatever arises just let it be and attend to it with a discerning mindfulness that is passive, in no way trying to re-order or modify the contents of the experience.
At the beginning it is easy to lose the domain. When that happens, once again, deliberately generate a thought, or a mental image (perhaps your mother’s face or a fruit or a vegetable). Generate the image, experience it with mental perception and then let the image fade and keep your attention right where it was.
It can be as though the mind is going into free-fall. Mostly we hold onto the most superficial levels of mental activity by grasping and actually identifying ourselves with the thoughts. “I think, therefore I am.” I am my thinking and I am my emotions. I want this; I want that, so I am my desires as well. We become entangled like a fly in a spider’s web. So this practice of settling the mind in its natural state is to disentangle and go into free-fall; and in doing so these multiple levels of mental processes and states that are normally unconscious can now become conscious; the awareness descends through layer upon layer of mental activity. In this process what will bubble up will be memories, emotions, desires, fantasies, all kinds of mental phenomena.
Conscious and Unconscious
Over the last years various neurobiologists have commented that they are really not much interested in consciousness, even though they are cognitive neuroscientists. And the reason they give is that most of what goes on in the mind, let alone the brain, is unconscious. So the conscious is a bit like pond scum. They may very well be right. But this very notion of there being a subconscious has been around long before Freud came along with his own ingenuity and insight. The notion of there being non-manifest mental processes and states that actively influence our decisions, desires, and behaviours, has been around with us at least since the time of the Buddha. They are called mental factors, which can be both manifest as well as non- manifest. They are present often in an unmanifested way, which of course means unconsciously.
In this practice of settling the mind in its natural state, it will become evident that we are lowering the threshold of that which is conscious. It seems that the demarcation between the subconscious and the unconscious is not some kind of a fixed barrier, but rather is a very malleable, permeable border. Sometimes it is ridiculously high. For example, we’ve all seen people (or maybe we’ve been the person) who, on a certain occasion will say in a very loud and angry voice with veins pulsing and a red face, “I am not upset. I’m not angry, I’m perfectly calm.” It is obvious to everyone but the person themselves that they are upset. The person may very well be speaking honestly but completely incorrectly, they are making an honest mistake. The person at the time is simply not aware of how much anger or indignation and moral outrage is there. So on that occasion, in that particular five-second interval, that person’s anger is unconscious to them. Then they calm down and at least retrospectively they can say, “Oh, I see, I remember, that’s called anger,” and they become aware, it becomes conscious retrospectively.
This practice of settling the mind in its natural state is starting with the pond scum, the most superficial level of what is obvious in our minds, and directing our awareness to the space of the mind. We experience thoughts arising, desires, certainly memories, mental images, video clips, emotions, and we come to know more intimately what is immediately manifest.
This practice is one of the greatest adventures one can possible have if one is interested in the mind and exploring its inner recesses. We not only bring to the light of consciousness that which is normally subconscious, but the endpoint is when the mind has settled in its natural state, a state which is not contrived conceptually or fabricated. It’s profound, it’s simple and it’s inactive.
So this settling the mind in its natural state is an unguided tour through various dimensions of conscious through unconscious processes which become conscious by the practice. Finally there can be a settling, when the stone goes thump and hits the bottom of the pond. It is really quite an extraordinary practice.