In learning to know our inner world, we can start with the practice of naming things.
For example, if I’m engaged in a physical chore and I’m rushing to get it done, I can inwardly name that mind-state by using the word “rushing.” This labeling of mental states is a very simple exercise, but it helps to make me conscious of my inner life. As soon as I label a particular state of mind, it has already become more tangible to me. If I never make conscious the frustration, restlessness, fear, or whatever it is I’m feeling, then I can never work with it. And if I never work with it, then it can never really cease; it will just fester.
Very intellectual people, however, can sometimes get caught up in having to find the right name for a given mind-state. For instance, they might think to themselves, “Is this doubt or is this uncertainty?” But the point is not to obsess over finding the perfect description, but simply to make things conscious.
Becoming conscious of the inner world is a vital part of our awareness practice. How often do we feel frustrated about something, and then just continue feeling that frustration without truly awakening to it? Awakening to it means saying to ourselves, “This is frustration; frustration feels this way.” So we become fully aware of how frustration feels in the body. We can become more conscious of a difficult mind-state by dropping the storyline associated with it, and instead feel how that mind-state manifests as tension in the body.
In this way, we become more objective towards, and less attached to, the mood of the mind. Although the frustration is still there, this more objective perspective allows us to apply effort in the direction of transforming that unwholesome mental state into a more wholesome one, rather than heedlessly following it in an
If we don’t put any effort into becoming conscious of the inner life, we can get enmeshed in a whole range of reactions to a particular state of mind, including that of self-judgment for feeling this way to begin with. Life is a kind of interplay between what we sense and how we react, isn’t it?
Life comes at us through the senses, through memory, and then there’s a response to this and a reaction to that. If I have no awareness of this impersonal process, then I’m simply a victim of habit or circumstance. And there’s no freedom in that. But if we can have the presence of mind to know, for example, that “This is uncertainty; this is how uncertainty feels,” then this gives the wisdom part of our mind a chance to operate skillfully.
This reflection by Ajahn Viradhammo is from the book, The Contemplative’s Craft, (pdf) pp.66-67.