The Buddhist washing machine

This is my attempt to bring some clarity to a part of Buddhist psychology that caught my attention and opened a window into something I'd been pondering about for a while - namely, why do we become what we think? Also, why does a difficult thought lead to even more difficult thoughts? I've used the honeyball sutta as my basis and added a feedback loop.

So, I've been itching to do a diagram and here it is:

1. Imagine we start from a clean, neutral position (sometimes we wake up like this, or we can get there by using meditation techniques). Nothing is going on, there is stillness. 

2. We hear a sound (or other sense impression). In Buddhism this is called contact - there is the object (the form) and our corresponding consciousness that is generated by contact with the form. A sound is heard.

3. The sound is either pleasant, unpleasant or neither. We don't think about this - it's an instinctive reaction. This is called feeling tone.

4. Along with feeling tone comes perception. We know the object - sound of engine -> car. This also happens effortlessly.

5. Now, from the perception our thoughts open up. There's a car, it sounds old. In the honeyball sutta, this goes into mental proliferation - we keep having thoughts and they run away with our minds. However, it's important to note that each thought we have is in itself 'contact'. So, immediately we go back round the loop again. Sometimes a sound can be neutral, then we perceive it, have a thought about it and then it's this thought that generates the unpleasantness in us.

That completes the loop. Each moment of consciousness conditions the next. Once we have one negative thought we start a cycle of negative thinking that gathers momentum in our heads (the same goes for positive thoughts too). We can interrupt this process by applying mindfulness at the thinking stage and directing our thoughts into something else. Something external might also shift us into a new cycle - a phone call from a friend, a nice poem. Anyway, round and round we go loading new events into our minds like clothes into a washing machine.

I like to use this model at regular moments in the day - what is going on right now? How am I feeling? What flavour of thoughts am I thinking? Can I introduce more positive thoughts? Can I put myself in more positive situations? What is generating the negative thoughts? And so on. The way I am thinking is conditioned by the situations I am in and my learned responses to them. This attitude gives me a little bit of room around difficult ideas I might be having - they're not me, they're just what is going on right now.

Extra note, you might also notice that this process is formed from the five aggregates - the elements of self creation - although I'm not going to go there.


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