by Peter Carlson
We live in a very competitive culture where status is determined by who has the most money, who won the game or the argument. We are also plagued by self-criticism, often judging our life experiences unmercifully. These mental states generate much suffering. Buddhism has something to offer for alleviating this distress.
Another term in Buddhist psychology associated with “comparing mind” is conceit, an old English word meaning something imagined, fanciful, perhaps even delusional. We frequently think of conceit as arrogant, grandiose and filled with entitlement-the world should be as my conceit dictates. This is accurate, but conceit can also apply to self-loathing. Through conceit, there is a repeated judgmentalism, critical when the ideal is unfulfilled. This conceit is a root cause of suffering, as it finds ways to relate each moment of experience to an imagined, ideal self. The Buddha said that the core of human suffering is derived from the false notion, the conceit, that there is a separate self, that is compared to others.
The mind’s normal, untrained mode of operating perceives an organizer, the self, that must be defended or gratified. This subjective experience compares, on a moment-by-moment basis, different ego states, judging one against the other. These comparisons can be on a large scale, i.e., comparing wealth, professional achievement, athletic accomplishment, or physical attractiveness-the list goes on and on. On a small scale, this moment of itching on the face is compared with the last moment of serene breath awareness, or this moment of peaceful clarity is compared with the prior moment of painful confusion. These moments tumble into one another, similar to the way dominoes, stacked on end in a line, can knock one another over. This results in a harsh internal landscape, one ego state competing with other ego states, with no respite.
This process is deeply conditioned in the human psyche. Infants are not born comparing on a large scale-they simply react to different sensory input. If the input is pleasant, they want more. If the input is unpleasant, they protest. This is comparing mind on the small scale. As the ego evolves, repeated exposure to our competitive and critical culture indoctrinates the child’s mind, building upon the pleasant or unpleasant reactions to create an elaborate process of comparing on the large scale. Comparing today’s experience to yesterday’s, my performance to yours, my status to your status creates an imbalance, and insecurity about winning and losing that can become as absurd and dangerous as road rage.
The Buddha developed a system of observing inner processes that liberates the mind from this comparing. Using concentration, mindfulness and equanimity, the illusion of the ego’s demand for supremacy is investigated and deconstructed in a way that reveals there is no enduring ego to be judged, gratified or defended.
Concentration allows the mind to be stable and disciplined in observing experience. Initially, concentration is developed through breath awareness, focusing intently on the arising and passing away of the breath sensations at the tip of the nostrils, repeatedly turning attention away from other mental objects. This creates tranquility in the mind, and the effort to stay focused on the breath increases discipline. The mind becomes less agitated.
Mindfulness, combined with concentration, supports being clearly aware of phenomena and less identified with transient objects. Being mindful of the arising and passing away of the ever-changing breath sensations more and more precisely cultivates clear awareness of the transient nature of mental objects, moment by moment (remember the dominoes knocking each other over?). This observation process does not compare one breath sensation to another-there is simply clear awareness of the sensation as it is. Then there is another moment of sensation that can be determined, without judgment or criticism. The simplicity of breath awareness lends itself to not comparing mind-moments. The neutrality of breath sensations supports non-reactivity in the mind. How do we do this noticing without falling into comparing? Through the practice of equanimity.
Equanimity is the balance of different mental processes, revealed by mindfulness, disciplined by concentration. Observation is balanced with non-reactivity. The observing doesn’t turn into obsession. The mind doesn’t react to the demand of pleasant or unpleasant feelings. When a mental event occurs without equanimity, the untrained mind identifies with the arising thought or image, then acts on the accompanying pleasant or unpleasant urgency. Mindfulness reveals the arising thought without this identification, like seeing each domino clearly, rather than the blurred images as the line of dominoes falls. Concentration supports the steadfast application of mindfulness, investigating each moment as a condition of the mind, not a self to be compared to another self, or even to the next moment of experiencing.
Equanimity provides a non-reactive spaciousness that allows enough perception to identify the object, but without attachment to it, and enough energy to experience the pleasant or unpleasant attributes of the moment without acting on the urgency of the feelings. The mind is in a dynamic balance. Equanimity has no preference; it simply opens to the moment.
Buddhism describes a wholesome mental quality called discriminating mind, which is the capacity to recognize the difference between wholesome and unwholesome mental states, supporting the alleviation of suffering. How can one tell the difference between wise discrimination and comparing mind?
With comparing mind, there is an attachment, a “stickiness’ to the mental event. Attention is captured through craving and clinging, and the self is coalesced around this attachment, elaborating a story and reacting impulsively. With wise discrimination, there is a clear awareness of the event, without the attachment. Through concentration, mindfulness and equanimity, there is the opportunity for a very brief moment of reflection that assesses the degree of urgency and mental preoccupation without action and, through prior study of Buddhist principles, an intention to let go of the attachment. This prior study results from a reasoned understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
How does how does wise discrimination affect comparing mind? When the three factors-concentration, mindfulness and equanimity are present, the operating mode of the mind shifts significantly. The mind becomes more buoyant, less “stuck” on an experience, and more adept at shifting attention from moment to moment. In addition, the mind is more tranquil and workable, more disciplined, more capable of seeing events without the burden of self-centeredness.
At this point, some interesting things happen: The urgency of the moment diminishes, softens. The perceived need for the ego to be gratified and defended becomes more transparent and less demanding. This alleviates the burden of comparing one ego state to another, one “self” to another. It becomes more clear that what arises in the mind is impersonal, controlled by prior mental conditioning, and does not demand action the way we imagine it to. The mind simply stops being so invested in comparing one ego state to another. It is noticed, but instead of being a criticism or judgment it remains just an observed object. I hope that these observations help you find a way to let go of the craving and clinging that causes so much suffering.