Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog


I'm not even sure if nituke is a proper word - it's a dish I came across when looking at macrobiotic cookbooks. Anyway, I like cooking things with weird names and this side dish has become a regular fixture in my meal plans. It's basically braised vegetables and it's very easy to do. I like to cook it with carrot, celery and Chinese leaf. Here's what I do:


3 carrots, cut into chunks
4 sticks of celery, cut into chunks
1 clove of garlic, mashed
1 red onion, cut into chunks
1/2 a whole Chinese leaf, chopped up
some chilli sauce
olive oil
soy sauce of some kind
toasted sesame seeds (if you can be bothered)
a splash of water


1. Put a splash of oil in a saucepan or casserole dish.
2. Add the garlic, onion, carrots and celery
3. Turn the heat on, put the lid on
4. Let the vegetables fry gently for a minute or two
5. Add all the other ingredients apart from the Chinese leaf and sesame seeds
6. Let the vegetables steam gently for 10-15 minutes in the pan …

A standard view of the Jhana states (what happens when we meditate)

Here is a diagram of the Jhana states as they are generally explained. The first row consists of the Jhanic factors (I have compressed the first two, applied and sustained thought, into one called "Settled mind" to make the diagram more consistent). The second row are the first four Jhanas, and the bottom row are the formless states of mind. (If you click the image, it gets bigger).

So then, how do we use this kind of information as we meditate. Well, I spent many years wondering about various experiences that occurred during meditation and only when I discovered this information was I able to get a sense of the whole map. This was helpful.

Generally, I like to use these states not as a list of achievable things but as a conceptual map of what is possible with the mind. As you meditate, it can be useful to incline the mind towards contentment and wide open space rather than simply counting 10 breaths. Even though the depth of the actualized Jhana states is tremendously profo…

A nice exercise in whole body awareness

It all starts with the body. Your body is your greatest asset.

Take a seat somewhere. Go inside your body and take a relaxing breath. Become aware of your body. Start at the feet and then expand from there. Sense your awareness of the body growing - become aware of the feet and legs; then feet, legs and torso; then feet, legs, torso, arms and hands. Have a sense of energy growing through the body.

Finally, as you breathe, hold your entire body in awareness - feet, legs, torso, arms, hands and head. Feel into a sense of openness and clarity. Notice any blockages in the flow of openness. Then enjoy three or more clear breaths. Nothing outside the present moment, you and your body.

During the day: try it standing up, or in everyday situations. Notice what undermines your attempts to do the practice.

Quick fix: attempt one full body breath before you begin your next task. Do it as often as you can.

How do I fix myself with mindfulness

This appears to be a common pattern. We do our mindfulness course expecting to be transformed, we feel a bit better on the course, a week after the course we find that nothing has changed. There's also the case of people who have been doing meditation for ages and yet they still feel as depressed and angry as they did when they started.

So then, what is going on?

The mind is a tricky beast. It is used to taking action and seeing immediate results. Mindfulness is more subtle than this. It is about seeing the relationship between body, feelings, mind and thoughts and how they come and go. There is no explicit result to be found, just an on going relationship with the thing that is us. However, the longer we observe ourselves the more likely we are to see wisdom arising. That is to say, we begin to see what is beneficial and what is harmful to us. We begin to take responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness - we are no longer simply victims of circumstance. We know what we nee…

Bare attention and clear comprehension

Here are two key cconcepts that you might like to immerse yourself in once you've been meditating for a while. It's a way of breaking down mindfulness a little bit and is onward leading.

Firstly, we might ask ourselves: what is mindfulness?

There are lots of mindfulness experts out there nowadays who could help with this but generally speaking it is: paying attention to something without effort. You could call this bare attention or choiceless awareness or open awareness. We hear a sound, a sound is heard - it takes no effort. It arises and passes away.

Bare attention is a skill that requires practice. The more we practice, the easier it becomes to stay with bare attention. If we do lots of body scans the mind will relax and this will happen naturally: we fall into a state of: in one ear and out of the other.

So, let's say we have been sitting in a state of bare attention for 10 minutes or so - it's pretty cool, relaxing, and we're grooving along quite nicely in …

What is mindfulness?

I like to have a crack at this every now and again because my appreciation of it seems to change as the years go by. This time I'll do it through a series of questions.

How do I know I'm being mindful?
The simplest way to do this is to label your experience as it happens. Keep it casual. Pay attention to what is going on and give it a label - sitting, seeing, thinking, feet, pressure, breathing. If you are able to label what is happening then you know what is happening. This knowing is mindfulness.
Is that it?
That's the beginning. Once you know what is going on you can begin to explore experience and what your mind is doing. This gives you some space around experience and this gap is where the freedom happens. This space separates out the details of your life from what you really are.
Why does it come and go?
The mind is a complex instrument that is rapidly switching between different modes of operation (for want of a better phrase). Mindfulness is not a mission critical thi…