I never thought that my training in clinical psychology would one day leave me hunched over charts detailing the meditation of monks in India about 2,500 years ago. I also never imagined that such seemingly distant information could feel so applicable to my current life and work. And yet the Abhidharma—a series of ancient texts that monks used to remember the ideas of the Buddha—seems as relevant now as ever before.
I came to it by way of meditation, after spending years studying the roots of meditative practices and philosophies. Eventually, my Buddhist teacher recommended studying the Abhidharma, suggesting I might relate to its discipline and depth. The discipline part became apparent right away: Most of the material was dense, complicated, and so interwoven that it was hard to study one piece of it without referring to three or four other books. That's why the Abhidharma has generally only been studied by Buddhist academics and monks, and it has a reputation for being hopelessly esoteric and obscure.
But ancient Buddhists weren’t being abstract or theoretical just for the sake of it. With time, I have started to piece together their take-aways into useful, refreshing lessons to apply to my own life. In that sense, it has felt like a great puzzle.
Principles of this ancient text can be applied to modern thinking.
The Abhidharma system is so basic that it underpins almost every other psychological theory. It dives into consciousness and perception in very small increments, almost explaining the mind like organic chemistry explains the body. I have found that this more elemental analysis clears up what all human minds have in common, as well as what is unique to each mind and each moment of experience.
While I certainly don’t recall every Abhidharma chart while I’m working with a client or going about my own life, I feel that having its lessons in the back of my mind has heightened my awareness and enlivened my perceptions. It has further illuminated how humans function as conscious beings and why meditation and mindfulness practices help us function even more effectively.
Here are five ideas embedded in the Abhidharma that might invigorate your awareness right now:
1. We're thinking about consciousness all wrong.
According to the text, consciousness is a series of minute processes that bubble up one at a time and produce a sense of continuity, like an animation. Thinking about it like this can keep us from getting stuck. How often do we fixate, lock up, obsess, and drift backward instead of moving, minute-by-minute with the world around us? When we are aware that we are moving through a series of small impressions and perceptions, we don’t try to jump to conclusions too quickly.
2. When we have problems making decisions, it's because we're blocking consciousness.
As a therapist, I have spent thousands of hours listening to people try to figure out the "right" thing to do. This is useful practice but not for the reason you might think. I've found that not that many people actually follow through on these "right" decisions. However, the process of coming to them opens people up to an awareness of complexity. If people concentrate less on making up their mind and more on seeing what is there, they can relieve so much unnecessary tension.
Clarity arises naturally when we stop trying to nail it down. Next time something is confusing, instead of trying to figure it out, experiment with asking what is keeping you from the solution. Once you understand why something is difficult to feel, you may simply start to feel it.
3. We have six senses, not five.
After the five commonly known senses, the Abhidharma lists the mind as the sixth sense. The mind is simply another filter for reality, but it doesn't run the whole show. When we keep this in mind, we don’t make the mistake of overanalyzing everything. We obviously live in a world of information and benefit greatly from having access to so many ideas. But we lose a sense of the present moment if we think our minds are more powerful than our physical contact with the world around us.
4. Complex emotions are reactions that will eventually move through us.
This is a particularly useful bit of Abhidharma analysis since emotions are often hard to track down in a world that prioritizes the physical. However, this theory allows us to experience emotions first and foremost as reactive processes to our surroundings. In other words, if we see emotions as moving with consciousness, not determining it, we can let them move through us.
5. Meditation purifies conscious processes by helping them move freely.
There is a classical Zen Buddhist teaching from Eihei Dogen that says that studying the self helps you forget the self. Abhidharma study comes from a different branch of Buddhism but says something very similar. If you really examine the organic nature of the processes of mind, emotion, and experience, you see them in a broader universe. This broader universe naturally feels less personally charged. Awareness on a subtle level, such as was available to the authors of the Abhidharma, allows intention to operate in a refined way.
This helps you spend less energy protecting or analyzing any particular aspect of yourself. Doing so leaves you with more energy to actually be yourself and move through life in a more graceful way.
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