Everything we do and experience leaves an imprint in the mind. What we expose ourselves to shapes the mind and affects how we relate to our experience going forward. This truth is something that Buddhism and western science agree on, they just use a different language when talking about it. In western neuroscience, they call it neuroplasticity. We now know that the trillions of neuronal synapses in the brain are continually reconfiguring themselves based on our lived experience.
That all experience leaves an imprint in the mind is something we can all probably intellectually acknowledge, but chances are we rarely consider the ramifications of this in our lived lives. If it is true that what we do and experience leaves an imprint in the mind that shapes future experience, then we should be very mindful about what we are taking in. Some imprints are wholesome and steer the mind toward future happiness, and some imprints are unwholesome and incline the mind towards more suffering in the future.
If we were cognizant of the effect that present experience has on our future experience, we might choose, for example, to limit how much cable news we watch. When we allow the mind to get spun up in anger or dismay, by political polarization or the latest COVID newsfeed, it colors to some extent the thoughts and moods we experience later in the day. I think we can all attest to the truth of this. So, it behooves us to take care that the imprinting that is being done on the mind is as wholesome as possible, and this is yet another reason why our mindfulness and insight practice is so important. When we are mindful in daily life, we naturally make more wholesome choices, and avoid what is contrary to our future wellbeing.
To be clear, wholesome and unwholesome is not the same as pleasant or unpleasant. For something to be wholesome or unwholesome there must be some degree of intentionality involved. When we get sick, for instance, that is neither wholesome nor unwholesome. It is simply something that’s happened. How we react and relate to the experience of not feeling well however, can be wholesome or unwholesome. Life consists of many difficult and unpleasant experiences that either can’t be avoided or shouldn’t be avoided because a response is required of us. If at these times, we are able to use our mindfulness practice to intentionally make space for what we are subjectively experiencing without judgment, we create a very wholesome imprint in the face of that difficulty. We create an imprint that weakens our proclivity for reactivity in the future.
Our formal insight practice goes even deeper. Our formal insight practice leaves an imprint that leads to less ego and a greater capacity to be aware of our own nature. It is sort of the king or queen of imprints. The direct connection between our periods of formal practice and daily life may not always be clear. When we practice insight meditation, we shift attention from being caught up in the content of experience to observing the nature of experience itself. We stop worrying about the specifics of the thoughts, feelings and perceptions that are experienced, and instead watch, in a nonjudgmental manner, the movement that is happening in the body and mind – the coming and going of phenomena that is happening from moment to moment. We watch the activity of body and mind and stop worrying for a bit about all the stories we juggle in daily life. While we sit in formal meditation, we attempt to do this with some continuity. This is a form of right concentration, which is one of the factors of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. For many people, this period of formal practice is the only time they are able to cultivate the path factor of right concentration, and the only time we create this type of imprint.
So, right concentration in Mahasati Insight practice means the continuous observation of the action that is taking place in the body and mind, rather than the conceptual content of the mind. It leads to deep equanimity. When we look at the content of the mind, we may see either pleasant or unpleasant things but when we look at the action of the mind, it is always neutral. The action of the mind is the movement that is happening in the mind. The action, or movement, is simply the law of nature happening. If we look at the contents of the thoughts, we might see something dark, but if we look at the movement itself, we only see the arising and passing away of phenomena.
To set aside time to let go of the content or details of our life, and to just observe the activity that is taking place in body and mind, can be seen as a form of renunciation, which is one of the 10 paramis or perfections in Buddhism. It is a temporary renunciation of the conceptual details that we attach to in daily life, and it leaves a very wholesome imprint in the mind that influences future experience. Just as periodic fasting, or the periodic renunciation of food, can bring health to the body, so too can the periodic renunciation of the conceptual details of our life bring increased health to the mind.
Of course, we need to engage with the content in daily life. I think this is why some people have a hard time seeing the relevance of this sort of formal practice to their struggle with suffering in daily life. Rather than judging our formal practice solely in terms of whether we could comport the mind in such a way during the busyness of daily life, see it as something we are doing for a period of time that creates a wholesome imprint in the mind. Over time, this imprint quietly shifts the way we engage with what we encounter in our lives in a subtle but deep way. Maybe this could be a nice resolution for the new year – setting the intention to be more proactive when it comes to the types of imprints we are bringing to the mind.