Definition of the foundations of consciousness from a Buddhist perspective

In The Connected Discourses of the Buddha as translated by Bodhi (2000, p. 602), it is stated:

Then, monks, it occurred to me: “When what exists does consciousness come to be? By what is consciousness conditioned?” Then, monks, through careful attention, there took place in me a breakthrough by wisdom: “When there is name-and-form, consciousness comes to be; consciousness has name-and-form as its condition.”

In this quote, the Buddha posits that consciousness (Pali: vinnana) is an emergent property of name-and-form (Pali: namarupa). Name-and-form was used in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads to denote the multiplicity of the world that sprang from the unity of Brahman (God). In the early Buddhist tradition it was used to refer to the material and mental conditions that generated consciousness. “Form” (as in form and matter) refers to the material world that impacts the senses; “name” refers to the primary mental processes triggered by our moment-to-moment encounters with the world.

“Name” is constituted by five elements—contact, feeling, perception, intention, and attention. Contact refers to the initial impact of the world on one of the six sense organs. Feeling is the experience of that impact as pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Perception is that which identifies the object as this object rather than that object (e.g., a cat versus a jug) by differentiation. Intention is our movement toward and engagement with the world (as well as our recoiling and disengaging from it). Attention is that which apprehends and focuses on an object. These are seen as the foundations of consciousness. Asanga (Buddhist scholar, possibly fourth century) postulated that when these are compounded with the five “determining” functions, which are aspiration, mindfulness, appreciation, concentration, and intelligence in meditation, over time psychological well-being can arise.

This framework suggests that we have all these five abilities required to meditate. People often complain that they cannot sustain attention or concentrate in general or in meditation. However, often it is because they try too hard to pay attention (to concentrate too much), for example when they become obsessed by one person, one idea, or one situation and cannot think of anything else. In meditation we are trying to cultivate the ability to pay attention in a directed manner and in a way that allows stability and calm to arise.

Intention is another important capacity. Good intentions seem to have little power when our repeated New Year resolutions of eating less, not smoking, or doing more exercise fail. However, the ability to intend something in meditation sets up a direction that can be quite powerful and create change over time (as related research in psychology shows—for example Gollwitzer and Sheeran 2006). I could decide to just sit and do nothing, and my mind would simply be in its un-restful resting state. Or I could decide to be aware of my thoughts and suddenly there is no thought as I try to look at them. Or I could have the intention to be aware of my feeling of stress every time I am late and I could learn to become less stressed as a result of increasing my awareness of the conditions that lead to stress, enabling me to change them. Once I started to notice that whenever I would try to catch a bus when teaching in Rome I would become irritable. Then I decided to set the intention to be aware of my feelings when trying to take a bus. This enabled me to become more aware of the moment when I would move from being calm to becoming fretful. Thus, I became more mindful of my relationship with catching transport in general and on many occasions this intentional awareness then diminished the rushing and the irritability.

Perception is about meaning. We are meaning-making machines; things, events, and people need to make sense to us. Meditation helps us to see this process more clearly and dissolve the negative automaticity of much of it. Awareness of negative reactions to people, events, sounds, places, etc. helps us to let go of those reactions rather than being driven by them. Contact is where our reactions begin and feelings influence us to react in a particular way (angrily, happily etc.). Mindfulness is key in enabling us to come to see how all of this happens.

Now we can return to the two components of meditation—concentration and enquiry—with the recognition that these innate abilities can be honed during meditation.

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