Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Sixth Sense

The Buddha considered the mind to be the sixth sense. This is sometimes a difficult concept for people who have been raised on the Western model that tends to separate body from mind, but can make perfect sense to those familiar non-dual philosophies, such as yoga. The truth is, of course, that the body and the mind are never separate.

If we treat the mind as we would any sense receptor - the eyes, ears, nose, body, or tongue - then the idea that the mind constitutes a sixth sense becomes a bit clearer. In this way, we can come to consider the mind as just another "sense gate." 

When we hear a sound, the vibrations produced in the atmosphere strike the "ear gate," and those physical vibrations are converted to electrical impulses that feed to the auditory area of the brain, and we "hear" the sound. When we have a thought, the impulses created by the neuronal firings are perceived by the "mind gate" of awareness, and the thought is known. 

We can actually sit in meditation practice and experience the arising of thoughts and the first perception of them as they strike the mind gate. Because of the compelling nature of thoughts, however, we tend to get lost in them rather quickly, and we get swept away in a fantasy or reverie about one thing or another. This renders us somewhat unconscious until we can become aware of this wandering, and return to the present moment through the re-connection to a sense object.

There are many metaphors and images that can help you learn how to perceive thoughts as they arise. One is to imagine that you are sitting at a railroad crossing in your car while a long, slow-moving freight train is passing through. Every freight car represents a thought arising in consciousness. If you keep looking straight ahead with your gaze soft, you can watch the thought cars pass by. Sometimes, however, a pretty freight car catches your eye, and you continue to follow it with your gaze, thus succumbing to the "train of thought." When that happens, you can return your gaze to center, and just watch the parade of thought cars without getting carried away by any one of them.

You can also imagine that you are sitting beside a stream, gazing softly into the water as it flows by. Floating on top of the water are leaves of different kinds. Each leaf is a thought, and your task is to just watch them float by without following them. Of course, sometimes a really stunning or interesting leaf comes into view and the eyes follow it for a while. That is when you bring the attention back to watching the leaves moving past your field of vision.


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