Our Different Minds and Buddhism

‘To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.’

Paul Valéry

When you walk down the road, how do you now bump into things? When you write your signature, you don’t need to think about it. This state of mind is what Zen and Buddhism at large points towards.

This state of mind is beyond thought and involves instinct, intuition, and trained reflexes—a place where we engage with reality without overthinking it.

Our minds have different modes with different goals and aim. If our aim is to alleviate our own suffering we need to understand how our mind(s) works and the way we create our suffering and ways we can address it.

We seem to have different types of minds as we engage with the world and our lives. Below are the different types of mind to-do with suffering, and the Buddha Mind to-do with liberation.

The Grasping mind

The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that thing of which it already has an idea.’

Alphonse Bertillon

One very important mind we have is the Grasping Mind, which seeks answers and understanding. It typically uses thought, analysis, logic, and evidence (see discriminating mind below) as ways to find those answers.

The mind grasps because of the other types of mind that drives it, see Insecure Mind below.

One notable feature of the grasping mind is we often don’t notice we’re using it, an element common to other types of mind.

Here we have the grasping mind because we seek answers to solve problems, because we believe life is a problem to be solved, so we spend a lot of time grasping for it solutions.

The Insecure Mind

‘The mind that spends time grasping for answers is one searching for safety.’

We feel alone, separated, cut off from others from the world, even ourselves. We’re confused by a world we don’t understand, and with the inevitability of death, we find life unsatisfactory.

Such separation results in us feeling vulnerable, insecure; we loath and fear that feeling. We’ll do anything to avoid feeling weak, at risk, in doubt, so we commit to projects. The Grasping Mind seeks knowledge, acquire a partner, find a job, buy consumer goods, a house, eat sugary food, smoke cigarettes, do drugs.

The Insecure mind drives the Grasping mind because we can’t handle uncertainty very well. We strive for knowledge, possessions, a partner, and a job because we need to feel safe.

Our egos are very needy; we need know, be correct, be in control and have what we desire because it makes us feel safer and more secure. We numb our fears and insecurities in many ways, but one is searching through our projects, the work we do, the knowledge we gain, the home we build.

But this sets up another problem, another mind.

The Suffering mind

The world is so big, and we are so small, and nothing we do removes the fear and insecurity because the world is constantly changing. We suffer because we can’t easily accept a world where we suffer and die, our needs not being met.

The Suffering Mind sees existence as unsatisfactory this is Dukkha. The suffering mind is the manifestation of the Insecure Mind or ego. It drives the Grasping Mind to keep working, to find solutions to our suffering.

We grasp and strive towards happiness, yet, this is where our problems start; contentment never lasts because all things are impermanent (See The Buddhist concept of – Impermanence (Annica, Anitya, 無常 Mujō). The safety we cling to never lasts.

There’s a circle between the Grasping, Insecure and Suffering Minds.

Related to the minds and the cycle of suffering are other types of mind.

The Chopping and Naming Mind

To expand upon the Grasping Mind, let’s look at the mind we use to find such answers. The tool we use to understand existence/reality works by chopping up into pieces, separating, classifying and naming reality into ideas and sets of ideas.

It’s the mind of discursive thought and discriminating taste. It’s the mind we use to decide on what we like and don’t, what’s right and wrong, and a mind we use to create knowledge and judgement.

We create everything from scientific theories, maps, models, philosophies and religions, art to social stereotypes. Reality is messy and complex, so this mind simplifies it into practical, understandable, and communicable ideas, which we share through language, art, stories, science etc.

(Think of languages like a currency: we share words and ideas like notes or coins).

The problem is whilst ideas are helpful they are also misleading—our ideas are simplifications of reality: abstractions, not copies. As I like to say, ‘within every conception, there is a misconception’.

Our thinking mind can’t fully capture the complexity and ambiguity of the world; we have to simplify. Otherwise, our maps and ideas would be so complex; they would be unreadable, unusable.

‘Reality can’t be captured in a conceptual net.’

A stereotype is an everyday example; not everyone fits the stereotype. A stereotype is a ‘widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.’

People don’t fit into stereotypes because they’re far more complex than the simple ideas to surmise them. To put it another way ‘the map is not the territory‘.

We have to accept our models are wrong, but they can still be useful.

The Squeezing Mind

‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

Sherlock Holmes – A Scandal in Bohemia

A particular type of mind ignores or forgets that maps are simple abstractions and claims reality is a simple as the map or model.

Carrying on with stereotypes, we interact with people carrying this kind of baggage; we have assumptions we made before talking to each other. What happens when there’s a discrepancy between the stereotype and the person we are with? It’s a mistake to think the stereotype is correct, and the individual is wrong. 

The term for this is Reification: the twisting of reality to fit our ideas because our ideas are more important than facts.

When it comes to passionately held ideas, we risk this kind of mistake, the model is correct, and the world is wrong.

Worse still, we’re ignorant or uncaring for the discrepancies that arise seemly content to live in ignorance and prejudice.

Such a mind is a manifestation of the Insecure Mind, which likes even needs the world to be simple and understandable. So it twists reality to fit the more straightforward and easier understood model, we become divorced from reality and so make mistakes.

The Tidiness Obsessed Mind

There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of… there were loose threads… untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads… it unravelled the tapestry of my life

Picard, to Riker, Episode, Tapestry

All of this points to a consciousness that’s often a slave to our insecurities. We’re obsessed with thinking analysing, finding certainty, safety.

Abraham Maslow said, ‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.’

Our conscious minds are problem solvers. We’re well-practised thinkers. Believing that thought, reason, cogitating, conceptualising, analysing are the way to go, (the Chopping and Naming Mind). We live in a Head Driven World, obsessed with thought.

We don’t stop to consider any alternatives; like an unconscious habit of a smoker reaching for a cigarette; because we are well-practised thinkers. Being anxious is easy for those who habitually overthink (The Grasping Mind).

The issue is we see all these flaws in life, nails that stick out, the uncertainty, the messiness, mistakes made, and problems unsolved. Our belief is if we direct our conscious intellectual arsenal at the nails, we can hammer them all downWe use the mind to gentrify reality; clearing away all the mess and ugliness to live is a false sense of paradise. We only accept the world when our conscious minds can grasp it.

The Obsessed mind is the Grasping mind, and the Insecure Mind leads to the Suffering mind. We have made thought a fetish; thought has become addictive, and we find ourselves often in this trance. Ignorant of the role the subconscious has in our life and behaviour.

We have so much anxiety; a life that’s too head driven suffers under the deluge thought. Each thought is a grasp toward fixing reality, to find security and peace. It comes from the need to find control and the belief we can find it.

Like any addiction or craving, it harms us. We become stuck in analysis, anxiety and depression because we can’t free ourselves from the habit of thinking.

The Myopic Mind (The Mind of Illusion)

‘People only see what they are prepared to see’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

All this grasping, for answers for certainty, fails to work because we’re ignorant of how we work; our mind works.

We fail to understand our fears, and insecurities, which drive the Grasping and Chopping Minds, but perversely leads to more suffering.

The tool we employ, our discriminating, analytical mind, is not up to the task of understanding a reality that can’t fit into its thinking. We don’t see the illusions of the mind easily.

‘Reality/the world will always defy our explanations and expectations, it will do its own thing.’

In Buddhism, a sentiment is sometimes expressed as the ‘The Mind is Maya’ (Maya is the God illusion and tempted the Buddha). We don’t notice our insecurity and how it drives us; we don’t see how it chops reality into separate pieces. We don’t see such striving as the cause of our suffering.

Our Ignorance is the problem, a ‘root poison’ in Buddhism.

Our methods of solving problems and inquiry are not separate from the insecure minds that desire safety. The need for certainty is a bias that leads us down specific pathways and not others. We may think logic and reason are blind to emotion, but experience says they are more slaves to our feelings.

‘What the mind discovers is not separate from the mind that it seeks and why it seeks.’

We’re ignorant toward ourselves and how the world works because we fail to look closer and see the illusions that misleads us. We are lazy thinkers, anything that looks complex or hard work we avoid. Answers that upset us are them same.

The way out of all this is a Buddha Mind, which sees through the illusions that mislead and confuse.

The Effortless Mind

People are fixated on consciousness and thinking. Forgetting most of what goes on is under the hood. 

To begin to understand what Buddhism it’s first a good idea to notice that we have a different type of mind, one that takes over when it is not needed.

When I first asked about walking down the street, signing your name, I’m pointing towards a part of your existence that goes unnoticed, yet it is always there. You can’t explain it, don’t give it any credit, but it does most of the work.

We can tie our shoelaces without thought, sign our names, and speak without a script. None of it requires our attention or thinking. It’s the mind that works from trained instinct. 

It’s a mind that’s effortless in its activity, which in Daoism it’s called Wu Wei, or a ‘mind like water’ or a mirror; it changes shape to find the shape of the world. In Japan, it can be called Mushin, ‘No mind’.

A mind that, when well trained, can create art, play sports, execute complex moves and do it all right just as we learned how to walk and talk. (4th stage of competence). In our everyday existence, the subconscious world goes unnoticed, even though it’s doing most of the work and making the decisions. 

What do you think when lost in some music, looking at a beautiful sunset? Nothing? The Self disappears. You go into this mental state often, every day even. (It’s a Flow State in psychology). You’re so immersed in what you are doing; there is no thought or a separate self.

It’s not an empty mind but a mind clear of obstructive thought, a mind that engages with reality not concealed behind the illusion of thoughts and ideas. This is a mind of Tathata, a mind that deal with reality as it is, a suchness or thusness.

Buddha Mind

The solution to our suffering is to find the cause of it. Find out why we grasp for answers and safety and are so needy. To understand the grasping, fear, and insecurity that drives us, and let go of the attachment to solutions, to certainty.

The aim is to see and engage with reality no matter how upsetting is, to face the world, not run from it. To accept reality for what is not what we wish it to be, to take the insecure ego or self out of the equation.

The philosophy of the west is one of Grasping, Chopping, and Mind leading to suffering. The desperation to have all the uncertainty washed away with answers to leave existence neat, tidy, and understood.

Buddhism is different because it’s the philosophy of letting go. Accept the mystery and not get caught up in thinking or grasping for answers for certainty.

Buddhism is trying to get you to see that you habitually engage with reality, obstructed by thoughts of a self, but a Buddha Mind, is a mind unencumbered or obstructed by the neediness of life to be certain. So freed, it can deal with the vicissitudes of life better because it’s no longer attached to ideas; the world has to be a certain way.

Closing thoughts

My problem was looking for answers in the wrong places, believing there was an answer and ultimate truth. I discovered that there are no answers, No Secret Ingredient, I didn’t need one.

My suffering was bared; I sought an answer to my suffering, but I learned that seeking answers was the cause of suffering. It’s a paradox that still tickles me today.

Suffering arises because we’re ignorant about how our minds work, our understanding of existence is myopic, tainted by illusions, biases and false idea. We use our discriminatory minds to create ideas, but we forget it’s a reality the mind has created, a fiction. We also forget a lot of the work we do is done by our subconscious, of habitual, trained reflexes.

You can’t use the tools of the ego or self (the thinking mind) to overcome the problems of ego or separate self. You cannot think your way out of a prison made of thought.

Our fetish for consciousness and thinking twists our search for answers. We default to it when faced with uncertainty and craving safety. It’s a way to avoid messy emotions. Playing with ideas gives the feeling we’re in control.

We desperately cling to the narrative that the world can be understood; our insecure ego demands it. Our suffering is an attachment to the idea the world owes us something. With that in mind, we live our lives always expectant but never satisfied.

‘Life is not a problem to be solved but an adventure to be lived. Let go of and live each day, no longer trying to hammer square pegs into round holes.’

The lesson the Buddhists offer is we don’t need to understand. It’s a hard lesson I had to learn; the more I wanted security, happiness, success and confidence, the more I strived for it, and my suffering continued. I had to let go and learn there are no answers, no secrets to life.

To deal with our suffering, we have to see through the illusion of the self. We’re not separate, our ego is the source of our insecurity. We hurt others because we are hurting, the desperate and paradoxical pursuit of security and happiness.

Buddhists examine the mind to see the illusion that leads us astray, a mind clouded with fear and falsehoods. Once seen we are less caught up in these illusions, a life beyond the discriminatory thought.

Once we accept the world doesn’t have to make sense, it frees us to act. Unburdened by trying to answer the impossible, we are lighter, more carefree, and not ground down by the burden of truth and answers. Our subconscious does the work. (Which it has all along, we don’t give it credit).

Such liberation allows us to live our life, we no longer chase for a life beyond it because that leads to more suffering. We come back to this reality, to life, to the present moment, the joy we can find right here.

“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”


[1] (https://beingwithoutself.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/theunconditioned.pdf)

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