Heightened Consciousness

June 25, 1959

The Buddha taught, ‘The pursuit of heightened consciousness is the heart of the Buddhas’ teaching.’ Heightened consciousness is a state of mind that lies above and beyond mental defilement. There are two ways it can be reached:

(1) The mind doesn’t yet have any heightened inner quality, but we heighten it through our efforts.

(2) The mind has developed the proper inner quality and uses it to keep itself safe, above and beyond defilement.

The first case refers to the state of ordinary people’s minds. When they aren’t sitting in meditation, their minds aren’t in any special state of concentration, so if defilement arises within them, they have to be determined and perceptive—to be aware of the defilement and to make up their minds that they won’t let it push them around. This is called Right Resolve. Even though the mind isn’t in concentration, this technique can give results.

What this means is that we’re alert to what’s going on. For example, when we’re angry, when we meet with something undesirable, we should be alert to the fact and make ourselves determined that no matter what, we’re going to keep the defilement of anger under control by resisting it and putting our better side into play. In other words, when we’re angry, we act as if we weren’t. Instead of letting the anger overpower the mind, we use our inner goodness to overpower the mind. This is called heightened consciousness. When you meet with something you don’t like, don’t let the fact that you don’t like it show. Instead, act as if you were happy and calm. In other words, put your good side to use. Don’t let your bad side show under any circumstances.

If you’re circumspect and composed enough to hold the mind in check before it can let its defilements come out in word or deed, if you can force the defilements to stop and can let only your best manners show, you count as having heightened consciousness. You are also a good member of any social group, for you can work toward your own progress and that of the group as a whole.

In the texts, this quality is called composure—a state of mind that lies above the defilements. This is one form of heightened consciousness and is something we should all try to develop within ourselves as we are able.

The second form of heightened consciousness refers to a mind freed from the Hindrances and trained to a state of Right Concentration. The mind is firmly established in its inner quality. When defilements arise, they can’t overpower the mind because they can’t reach in to touch it, for the mind is protected by its own full measure of inner quality.

I ask that we all aim at making this form of heightened consciousness arise within ourselves by being persistent and persevering in cherishing our own inner goodness—in the same way that when we have good food, we make sure to chase away the flies so that we can enjoy it in good health.

To do this, you have to be observant and make two kinds of effort: the effort to abandon your defilements and the effort to develop your meditation theme, which is the means for wiping out the mental Hindrances. There are five types of Hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, torpor & lethargy, restlessness & anxiety, and uncertainty. As for meditation, there are two ways of practicing it—in series and in isolation—as I’ll explain to you now.

(1) To practice in series is to practice by the book: contemplating the unattractiveness of the body, for instance, by following the lists of its parts without skipping over any of them or mixing them up. Whichever theme you choose, you have to understand how the topics are grouped and in what order, so as to deal with them properly. This kind of meditation can give great benefits, but at the same time can cause great harm. For example, if you contemplate the unattractiveness of the body, it can lead to a sense of dispassion, detachment, and calm, but there are times it can also get you into a state where you can’t eat or sleep because everything starts seeming filthy and disgusting. This is one way it can be harmful. Or sometimes you may contemplate the body until a mental image arises, but you get frightened and unnerved. In cases like this, you have to try to be up on what’s happening so that your theme will help you instead of harming you.

(2) To practice in isolation is to focus on a single refined theme that doesn’t have a lot of different features. In other words, you focus on being mindful of the in-and-out breath, without letting your attention slip away. Focus on whatever kind of breathing feels soothing, and the mind will settle down. Try to make the breath more and more refined, all the while keeping the mind gently with the breath, in the same way that you’d cup a bit of fluff in the palm of your hand. Do this until you feel that there’s no ‘in’ or ‘out’ to the breath at all. The mind doesn’t wander around. It’s quiet and still, able to cut away thoughts of past and future. At this point it becomes even more refined, with no restlessness at all. The mind is stable and doesn’t change along with its objects. It’s firmly set and unwavering to the point where it becomes fixed and strong.

When you can develop your meditation to this point, it will make the mind let go of its attachments and gain conviction and understanding into the truths of inconstancy, stress, and not-self. Your doubts will fall away, and you will know the way of the world and the way of Liberation, without having to ask for confirmation from anyone else. When your knowledge is clear and free from uncertainty, the mind is firm in its own strength. This is when you become your own refuge—when your mind isn’t affected by other people or objects and reaches the happiness and ease of heightened consciousness.