HOW MIND CONDITIONERS WORK
THE UNIVERSAL AND OCCASIONAL CETASIKAS
In exploring the section of the Anapanasati Sutta related to training oneself to be “…sensitive to mental fabrication…calming mental fabrication”, there’s benefit in understanding the nature of the factors that fabricate each moment of self-awareness. These fabrications emerge from the categories of conditioning factors called cetasikas. The meaning of the term is “that which is associated with the mind”. This term is a kind of categorical listing of what are called sankharas, a term synonymous with karma. Both are derived from the word karoti, which means “to do”. If you imagine the cetasikas to be just the conditioners, then the “action potential” is karma. For me, the basic value of the cetasika “system” is to “deconstruct” the notion of a separate, enduring self.
If we consider the mind to be a mirror, then cetasikas/sankharas are the functions that are reflected in the mind. This system is radically different from what was the accepted understanding of how reality works in the context of Indian culture of the fifth century BCE. The working model of how the human experience operates in the time of the Buddha was determined by the gods, as interpreted by the Brahman priests. The radical innovation the Buddha introduced, elaborated and expanded by his followers over the next several centuries, suggested that human experience is self-determined, organized around the ethic of benevolent intention, supported by clear awareness of factors in the mind that condition responses to the experienced world.
We can think of cetasikas as the “stored” form of sankharas, which are then enacted when the appropriate conditions stimulate them into action. Trying to correlate the cetasikas with current models of how the brain processes stimulation into rapidly sequenced moments of “selfing” is challenging.
Initially, a “sense door” is stimulated (the eyes and seeing; others include the ears and hearing, nose and smelling, tongue and tasting, body and tactile/temperature/hunger/pain/pleasure, etc., and the brain and cognizing.)
Light hits the eye, and the optic nerve is stimulated. As the nerve impulse travels to the back of the brain for perceptual processing, a “sample” of the flow of stimulation is channeled to the mid-brain, where initial responses to data input are processed. These initial impulses related to feelings start a chain reaction; the initial “approach or avoid” process from the emotional part of the brain coordinate with the initial perceptions generated by the back of the brain. This relates to the part of the graphic associated with feelings and perceptions.
In the next phase, the “universal cetasikas” constitute primary processes co-occurring with the processes of feeling and perceiving. These cetasikas are ethically malleable, that is, they can be associated with wholesome or unwholesome cetasikas.
UNIVERSAL CETASIKAS—appearing in any moment of cognition. They are “ethically malleable”, that is, the characteristic moment of selfing is influenced by accompanying unwholesome of wholesome cetasikas, which will be explored in other essays.
The first two are FEELING and PERCEPTION, and the remaining five are:
CONTACT, which is the stimulus activating the optic nerve.
VOLITION, the intention that develops and “aggregates” the cetasikas as they are activated by the stimulus. As the aggregation develops coherence, the cetasikas “become” sankhara, as it is shaping the formation of a momentary sense of self.
CONCENTRATION, the momentary aggregation of the cetasikas creates a temporary stability that arises and subsides very rapidly. In this case, concentration is both the momentarily stable aggregation as well as a sense of continuity, most evident in the experience of Samadhi, ongoing concentration on a single focal point, or a persistent focus on the application of the seven awakening factors in the practice of vipassana.
VITALITY is the manifestation of energy in the system, that is, the release of energy in the form of glucose and oxygen as the neural patterns are firing. The signals between the neurons aren’t “on and off switches”—they are more or less active in sending signals to one another.
ATTENTION is what we are aware of at any given moment, the “summation” of the operation of the sankharas that emerges into conscious awareness. If we regard the aggregated cetasikas/sankharas as being like an iceberg, then attention is the part that can be seen above the water.
PARTICULAR/OCCASIONAL CETASIKAS—the appearance of these is conditional and may or may not appear in any moment of cognition. They are, like the universal cetasikas, ethically malleable, appearing in either wholesome or unwholesome self-states.
MOVING ATTENTION TO AN OBJECT is termed vitakka in Pali. It may or may not be associated with attention. My understanding is that vitakka functions with volition; when vitakka isn’t a component of the aggregation, then the mind wanders restlessly, or is mired down with sloth and torpor.
SUSTAINING ATTENTION is termed vicara in Pali. It is most often associated with vitakka, and is an essential element for developing the awakening factor “investigation of mental phenomena”. It also is absent when the mind is “scattered” in function, or the mind is dull and lacking focus in the experience of the hindrance of sloth and torpor. Vitakka and vicara have primary roles in anapanasati.
DETERMINATION is the degree of confidence or commitment that occurs when the mind is focused on a mental object. The absence of determination is the condition for the arising of the hindrance of skeptical doubt. When it is operating effectively, it is associated with the first on the list of wholesome cetasikas, confidence.
ENERGY seems to me to be synonymous with vitality. I perceive the human experience as the transformation of energy (glucose + oxygen) into information (subjective experience). I interpret this cetasika as being associated with determination, vitality and will-to-do (see below). The absence of energy is manifested through the hindrance of sloth and torpor, and an overabundance of energy is manifested through the hindrance of restlessness and worry.
ENTHUSIASM is termed piti in Pali, and is usually translated as enthusiasm or joyful engagement. The fullest manifestation of piti is as one of the seven awakening factors. The absence of piti is the hindrance of sloth and torpor or skeptical doubt.
WILL TO DO is the “triggering” function of the cetasikas. It is associated with taking action, so it is coordinated with volition, energy and determination. The absence of this cetasika is the hindrance of skeptical doubt or sloth and torpor
The next “phase” of the development from the stimulation of the eye to a moment of “selfing” involves the orientation of the cognitive process through either the wholesome or the unwholesome cetasikas. Unwholesome cetasikas will be explored during the next essay.