3. Vinnana, Thoughts, and the Subconscious

1. A thought (citta; pronounced “chiththa”) is on a specific thought object, say thinking about buying a car or going for a walk. There is only one citta at a time, but each lasts less than a billionth of a second and what we experience is vinnanakkhadha which encompases multiple cittas. One can NEVER experience a single citta. Therefore, what we call a “thought” is the result of many of cittas or more correctly the result of many citta vithi, bundled up as vinnanakkhadha.

  • Each citta has many cetasika (mental factors) in it, including the all important sanna, phassa, manasikara cetasika. Then there are “good” and “bad” cetasika in a citta that describe the “mood” of the citta.
  • When someone is angry most cittas at that time will have the hate (patigha and/or dosa cetasika. When the same person is feeding a hungry person his/her cittas at that time will have the benevolence and/or loving kindness cetasikas. The good and bad cetasika do not mix, i.e., one either has a good thought or a bad thought. For  discussion on cetasika, see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“.

2. The manasikara and sanna cetasika is in each and every citta, and they carry all past memories, habits (gathi) and cravings (asavas) in them. The gathi and asavas may not be displayed in each citta; rather, they lie dormant, waiting for a “trigger” to come up. Gathi and asavas are carried from citta to citta (until they are removed), and new habits and cravings can be added at any time.

3. Vinnana is not a thought but it is in thoughts. Vinnana represents the overall experience of cittas, and is largely described by the cetasika in those cittas. Of course no one experience a vinnana due to a single citta; rather what one experiences is the average of millions or billions of cittas. A bunch or a heap is called khandha in Pali or Sinhala. Thus what we experience is a vinnanakkhandha, or the averaged value over a bunch or a heap of cittas.

  •  Vinnana is complex and multi-faceted. We may have vinnana of different types at the same time. Even though we are directly aware of one type of vinnana at a given time, there may be many types hiding beneath the surface. This is what Sigmund Freud called the “sub-conscious”.

4. A thought is what is occupying the mind at a given moment. When I am paying for my groceries, my thoughts are focused on that transaction. But there can be many types of vinnana working “in the background”. I may be building a house, studying for an exam, planning a trip, planning a birthday party for my child, etc. and all those “vinnana” are working in the background even though I am not thinking about any of them at the time I am paying for my groceries.

  • However, any of those, and even some things that I had not been thinking about for a long time could be there further down in the “subconscious”. But there is no separate “subconscious” as such. All these different types of vinnana are there in a single thought (citta), and there is only one citta at a time; see, “What is a Thought?”. Then how is it possible for many types of vinnana to be lurking in the background?

5. It is those mental factors (cetasika) that makes it all possible. Several key such mental factors play key roles including memory (manasikara), contact (phassa), and perception(sanna). These key “universal cetasika” are in all the citta and embody all our desires as well as everything that has happened to us in them. Of course things happened recently are “closer to the top” compared to something that had happened a long time ago. And it also depends on how significant a certain event was. Some special events, even if they had happened a long time ago, are easier to remember.

  • Memories are fixed even though we may not remember all of them; all our memories are kept intact as our nama gotta, in the mind plane; see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“. Of course what we can recall is limited by many factors including the state of the brain. As we get older the ability to recall gets weaker.

6. Vinnana is a sort of the “end result” of many memories as well as our gathi and asavas.

  • The more one does something repeatedly, there starts a vinnana for that particular event or behavior. For example, when one starts smoking, a vinnana starts building, and the more one smokes, the stronger the vinnana gets. This is called “feeding the vinnana” by doing it again and again. In other words, habits are formed via repeatedly feeding the vinnana for that habit.
  • When a certain vinnana is pleasing to the mind, that vinnana tries to get fed frequently. When someone has the habit of smoking the vinnana for that tries to deviate his/her attention to smoking at every possible opportunity. For example, if a smoker sees an advertisement for smoking, that “triggers” the liking or the vinnana for smoking that was in the subconscious.

7. But it works the same way for a vinnana that got initiated with a dislike also. For example, if someone did something really awful to you in the past, the hearing of his/her name will bring back that vinnana. This is why we get “attached” to things we like as well for things we dislike, and is the meaning of tanha (get bonded via greed or hate); see, “Tanha – How We Attach Via Greed, Hate, and Ignorance“.

8. Not all vinnana keep accumulating in the background. Those weaker ones, especially if don’t get fed, diminish and disappear. For example, suppose I had planned an overseas trip, and had been making preparations for it. The more preparations I make and more thoughts I have of the trip, those are “food for that vinnana”, and it grows. If I see a new article with that country’s name, I would immediately read the article. But suppose, a major war breaks out in that country before my trip; then I would cancel that trip right away. I will no longer be planning for the trip and my mind will “not be interested” in it anymore. Since that vinnana for “visiting that country” is not going to get fed anymore, it will be gone in a short time.

  • We don’t even need to actually physically do the activity to “feed the vinnana” or make a habit stronger. There are studies that show that one could improve the game of basketball, for example, by just visualize practising, and getting the ball in mentally. These are called “mano sancetana”. Focusing the attention on a given task can be very powerful.

9. This is why chanda, citta, viriya, vimansa (satara iddhipada or the four bases of  mental power) are critical for achieving goals. When one forms a strong liking (chanda) for a goal, one starts thinking often about it (citta), making effort (viriya), and constantly analyzing and trying to find related facts (vimansa) about how to accomplish that goal; see, “ The Four Bases of Mental Power (Satara Iddhipada)“.

10. Our minds are very complex and powerful. And there are many different ways to analyze and examine concepts that are closely related. This is why there are so many different ways Buddha Dhamma can analyze a given situation and come to the same conclusion. It is a all self-consistent.

  • For example, suppose I thought about buying a silver car of model X several weeks ago; I have been thinking about it reading reviews and so on. I may be driving on the road just focusing on the road and driving with my thoughts and consciousness (vinnana) focused on driving. But now if I see a silver-colored car of model X, then immediately that will trigger my vinnana about “buying the car” and I may compare the silver-colored car with the car that I had in mind. The mind likes to “feed the vinnana” that we have and the more it gets fed, it gets stronger. The more I think about the car, the stronger my intentions get about buying one.

11. There could be several such vinnana “in the background” or “in the subconscious” at any given time. For example, our vinnana keeps shifting as we keep moving from one task to another. But underneath, there may be several vinnana waiting for an opportunity to come up to the conscious level. Thus it can be “triggered” by a related event.

12. A built-up vinnana can form a habit; as the habit gets stronger, it can be carried over to the next life, possibly in two ways: a really strong habit could lead to a “patisandhi vinnana” at the dying moment and can lead to a corresponding “bhava”, and thus one could be born in the corresponding “jati”. For example, an extremely greedy person, may acquire a “peta bhava” at the dying moment and be born as a “peta” or a hungry ghost.

  • On the other hand, if the same person had time left in the “human bhava” then that person will be feeding the “pavutti vinnana” of greed, and will always be looking out to acquire more “stuff” even at the expense of other people. Thus a “greedy vinnana” will grow as one keeps feeding that vinnana. He/she will never be satisfied even if what has been acquired is more than enough.

13. Thus vinnana is very complex; it is not just the “awareness”. It also has one’s “hopes and dreams” as well as “likes, dislikes, and habits”. It is a complex combination of the 52 cetasikas; of course not all cetasikas are involved in a given citta or in our thoughts.

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