Priming the Mind

Luang Por Pasanno • November 2012

As we get into the cool season, there are things around the monastery that need to be taken care of and chores that need to be finished before the winter retreat begins. It’s a good time to be paying attention to all that, as well as trying to keep things fairly quiet.

Last week, during the Thanksgiving Retreat, I didn’t really have a plan in mind for what I was going to teach. I ended up talking a lot about anicca, dukkha, and anattā—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self—and how these three characteristics display themselves in our practice and how central they are. We constantly use reflections on the three characteristics when investigating our experience. This is not a contemplation we only do on retreat or during a time of formal meditation; it’s an investigative perspective that we bring to all of our experience, both in formal practice, as well as in the day-to-day application of our mindfulness and contemplative living.

It is quite essential in the practice to bring that investigation into the mind, so that the mind is seeded or primed. Yesterday evening at teatime, we were talking about a video used to demonstrate a psychological phenomenon. It shows a circle of people passing two basketballs around. Some people in the group are wearing black and the others are wearing white. One ball is being passed between the players wearing black and the other ball is being passed between the players wearing white. The people viewing the video are told to keep track of the number of times the ball gets passed between the players wearing white. As a result, viewers focus on the players in white shirts and the ball to the exclusion of most everything else. So when somebody in the video dressed in a gorilla suit walks through the group of people throwing the basketballs, beats his chest, and walks off, most people don’t even notice!

That’s because the mind was primed to focus in a particular way—a way that produced an overall state of heedlessness. But if we prime the mind to view experience in terms of anicca, dukkha, and anattā, in terms of these universal characteristics, then we start to see those characteristics more consistently and clearly. However, we usually tend to overlook those fundamental truths of existence, thereby missing the big picture. We get caught up in our personal stories, worries, fears, likes, and dislikes. So we need to prime the mind for viewing our experience through the lens of Dhamma, because otherwise we overlook it. That’s very much a part of our training in mindfulness, reflection, and investigation—keeping a particular agenda in mind.

Of course, the agenda here is to see how the Buddha’s fundamental truths actually apply to our experience, how those truths affect us. The beneficial effects of seeing these truths are clarity, relinquishment, and loosening the grip of clinging and delusion. By priming the mind to see though the lens of Dhamma we are supporting wholesome inclinations toward spiritual truth and spiritual peace, rather than unwholesome inclinations that spur the mind into keeping us clouded in delusion.