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Meta-Citta and Spiritual Care

April 9, 2013
'Cow and Person Dissappear,' Ox Herding VIII by h.koppdelaney via  The "Ox Herding" pictures illustrate a Zen understanding of mind training.

‘Cow and Person Disappear ‘ Ox Herding VIII by h.koppdelaney via The “Ox Herding” pictures illustrate a Zen understanding of mind training.

The focus on thought in understanding our minds is a curious byproduct of the European Enlightenment’s insistence on objectivity and scientific reason.  We worry so much about what other people think we often neglect entirely how they feel.  Likewise, we become so caught up in our own thoughts that we often use them to alternatively bury or justify our emotions without bothering to examine them.  In recent years, Buddhism has suffered under the influence of Western psychology’s cognitive bias, neglecting resources within our own and other spiritual traditions even as Western psychologists themselves have begun to note the imbalance.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman is dismayed at the curious focus on cognition, on thinking, and mere “academic” intelligence by human scientists of the twentieth century.  He naturally argues that emotions and subsequent emotional intelligence play a large, if not larger role, in our ability to be successful and happy in life.

The Buddha would agree.  In fact, in Buddhist psychology, feeling precedes cognition. This psychological model begins with perception.  We perceive the world through one of our six senses: eye, ear, nose, mouth, touch, and mind (yes, mind is a sense).  Whatever we perceive we immediately react to.  This reaction comes in the form of an emotion, which, at its most basic, is either attractive, averse, or neutral.  Then cognition sets in.  We name the object, place it within our conceptual categories, and begin to make up a story about it.  In the Buddhist model, perception going something like this:

'chair' by misabrzi via

‘chair’ by misabrzi via

We see the chair (perception). We feel attraction towards the chair (emotion).  Possibly even nostalgia or affection. We associate the chair with calm, peace, and warmth.  We compliment it’s good lines and soft color, thinking it is well designed (cognition).  We decide we like it.  If we dig deeper, we may remember that our grandfather had a chair just like that.  We recall fond memories of our grandfather and associate the chair with him.  We want to have it and feel sad or upset if we cannot posses the chair (dukkha/suffering).

First is perception, followed by feeling, followed by conception – we make up an entire story about the chair in the blink of an eye.  The more we “think” about the chair, the farther we get from that initial feeling and the more likely we are to forget about it.  In fact, most of the time, we don’t even notice this chain of events.

Buddhist psychology is not a result of scientific experiments or observations.  There was never any delusion of objectivity.  It is a wholly phenomenological psychology – born from careful observation of the so-called mind (by the so-called mind) and its activities and confirmed over countless centuries of repeated observation by one seeker after another.  In translating Buddhist psychology for Western audiences however, we run into a few problems.  One of which is the meaning of “mind” itself.

The opening lines of the Dhammapadda tell us:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The above translation is by Acharya Buddharakkhita.  Another translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu states:

Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.

Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves.

Why is it that Buddharakkhita has translated this passage as “mind” and Thanissaro as “heart?”  Because there was no such divide between head and heart, between affect and cognition, emotions and thoughts, until Buddhism came to the West.  Now astute teachers such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu must use the language of Western psychology, with its long divide between cognition and emotion, to describe ancient Buddhist understandings.

 …we think of the heart as the side of the mind that wants happiness, the head is the side that understands how cause and effect actually work.

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Head & Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas

There are many words translated as “mind” or “mental” or “thought,” but perhaps the most well known in Buddhist circles is the term citta, which is the same in both Pali and Sanskrit.  In Pali, it names the Cittavagga or short discourse describing the qualities of the mind.  In Sanskrit, it is most famous for its use in bodhicitta, or the awakened quality of mind, the enlightened heart of the bodhisattva, or awake being, a kind of Buddhist saint.  It is most commonly translated as “mind” in English not because this is it’s closest meaning, but because of the preexisting Western emphasis on mind and cognition in understanding the nature of self.

'got Bodhicitta?' bumper sticker by wadem via

‘got Bodhicitta?’ bumper sticker by wadem via

I think it is high time that Buddhists took back the original meaning of citta as both mind and heart without duality.  Citta encompasses both how we feel and what we think in a unified perception of our interior reality, the dimension we study most through our process of meditation in order to bring us closer to understanding reality as a whole.  In that sense, all Buddhist meditation is the process of “meta-citta.”

Metacognition is the “awareness of one’s mental processes,” and has long been the focus of much Western psychology. However, Goleman laments that “Emotions enrich; a model of mind that leaves them out is impoverished.” (Goleman, p. 41)  He could not be more right.  As someone with a cognitive bias myself, it took long years for me to fully understand and value the nature of emotions.  I tend to think about my emotions more than I feel them, because that is often the safer path.  But I have discovered that this habit cuts me off from the lived experiences of others; it hampers my ability to empathize and turns my compassion into something dry and mechanical.  Meta-citta could be a Buddhist antidote for the recent overemphasis on metacognition.

In their focus on the spirit or soul, the fields of pastoral counseling and care in other religions have done a good job of holding on to the more affective side of spiritual care.  They have not sacrificed it to the false god of cognition (though there was some danger of that, I am told).  However, much of Buddhism cares little for souls or spirits or mystical experiences of divine revelation (some traditions do).  The great dialogue about psychological healing and care-taking between Buddhism and the West in recent decades has not been with religions (we prefer to debate ontology and soteriology with them) but with Western psychology.  The Dalai Lama did not found the “Mind and Spirit” Institute; he founded the “Mind and Life” Institute as a place for dialogue with scientists.  While their have been laudable efforts at dialogue on both fronts, the topics of those dialogues have been curiously divided.

I believe it is time to encourage greater dialogue between Buddhism and its fellow spiritual traditions on how to care for persons and bring about mental and emotional healing informed by spiritual and religious teachings and values.  We have much to learn about the fields of care not only from modern secular psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, but also from pastoral counselors, chaplains, and spiritual caregivers in other traditions.  And perhaps they can learn a few things from us – like meta-citta.

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