Five Activities of the Mind

I have just embarked on an online Philosophy course with University of Edinburgh.(What was I thinking when I signed up?) One of the content we need to study is all about the mind.

In my yoga, meditation and Buddhist practice, I am told to practice mindfulness and to put all thoughts away. Philosophers do a lot of thinking. I just learned that for a single topic, there are many ways to think about it in Philosophy. Initially, I found that to be a conflict, then I realized there are times for thoughts and times for not. In addition, the content of the thoughts makes a difference as well.

When I asked Mike what exactly is the Chinese translation of “Mind”, he threw up a few words, but nothing singular that really captures the essence of the word. Wiki has a rather comprehensive write-up (, including one sentence on the mind after death, something Ajahn Brahm touched on briefly when he spoke about life beyond death.

Yesterday, I came across an article in a old copy of Yoga Journal which I felt I must share. In the article, the author Kate Holcombe talked about the five functions or activities of the mind and explains that each has the potential to either cause us suffering or not.

1) Correct Perception – is seeing something correctly, whether it’s directly with your own eyes, through inference (such as when you see smoke and infer there is a fire), or through a reliable source.

2) Incorrect understanding or misperception – occurs when you think something is true and acts as if you have perceived it correctly, when in fact you haven’t.

3) Imagination – happens on a more subtle level, as an idea we create in our minds.

4) Deep sleep – ‘nonactivity’, the mind is directed inward, operating at a very subtle level.

5) Memory – is the recollection of our past experiences.

Identifying which function of the mind is working in a given moment allows you to differentiate unavoidable agitation due to facts you cannot change from agitation born of misperception, imagination or memory, and thus allows you to avoid unnecessary suffering.

The functions of the mind is neither good nor bad, positive nor negative. Each has the potential to either cause us agitation and suffering, or not. Correct perception can be painful if you see evidence of a friend’s dishonesty, or get a diagnosis of a serious illness. Incorrect perception might lead you to avoid suffering or even to feel good. (Ignorance is bliss.)

Your reaction and personality determine if you suffer or not. She gives an example to illustrate. If you are hiking and there is a snake on the trail, you might see it correctly and go around it, thus avoiding harm. Or perhaps you may misperceive as a stick and step on it and suffer a bite. However, you may also mistake the snake for a stick and walk calmly past it without fear or harm. Or you might see the snake correctly and panic, startling the snake and getting bitten.

The other functions of the mind are similarly potential agents of suffering or not. Imagination can lead to hypochondria or health phobia (bad), or creative interventions (good). Deep sleep leaves you refreshed, disturbed sleep negatively affects your mood the following day. Memories can bring you pleasure or cause you agitation.

Memory can also influence your present situation. The parent of an exuberant 5-year-old who offers to bring a dish to the table may call out ‘Be careful!’, making the child fearful and self-conscious and may lead her to drop the dish. Operating from memory can get in the way of experiencing the person in that moment as a unique individual entitled to try new things.

Learning how the mind works helps to see your Self as separate from the workings of the mind and to abide and act from the self, rather than the mind.

You can check yourself when you are feeling agitated by taking a moment to stop and examine which activity of the mind is actually operating. Take a couple of deep breaths to quiet the mind. Step back a little and observe yourself from the outside. Are you bothered over something that has actually happened, and over something you fear might happen? Are you upset because of something that had happened in the past, or something you are imagining could happen in the future?

A friend who is having marital problem suffers from all the negative aspects of the five functions. He misperceives his wife’s married boss of having interest in his wife (the boss is friendly and nice to everyone), then imagines them of having an affair, and have recurring memory of their imaginative trysts. His sleep suffers. As he describes himself, he is going crazy. Yet when told it’s all in his mind, he insists on holding on to his beliefs and continues to suffer. The marriage counseling makes no progress.

Now let makes the scenario positive. Let say he perceives the affair as true, and wishes to forgive and works on the marriage by going to counseling, then he needs to curb his imaginations and only have memory of their happy times. He will sleep better as the marriage improves and suffers less.

Sounds easy on paper, right?


About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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