What flows in your “stream of consciousness”?

An ancient model of the mind as a guide to mindfulness practice

William James, often considered to be the father of American psychology, used the phrase “stream of consciousness” to refer to the parade of thoughts that continuously flow through our mind. Is it possible to make sense of this stream in an orderly manner? It may surprise you that an ancient model of the mind* originating from Buddhist teachings 2600 years ago, explains the moment-by-moment manifestation of our mind-stream. Guided by this model, we address the following issues:

(i) What flows in the “stream of consciousness”?
(ii) What affects the flow of this stream?
(iii) How can this information guide us to calm our mind and avoid rumination and worry?


When a beam of light strikes crystal glass, a spectrum of colors can emerge. The light hitting the glass is a trigger that precipitated other events. Buddhist teachings describe six triggers that can result in the generation of different mental events. The first five of these are the input from the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touch sensations). The sixth trigger is a thought (relating to the past, present or the future) that happen to arise in the mind. The mental events generated as a result of these triggers are: feelings, perceptions and intentions/behavior. Of these, feelings can be happy, sad or neutral. Perceptions refer to attributes of an object or event such as the color, shape or other characteristic of the object or event. Intentions/ behavior can be bodily, mental (e.g. rumination and worry) or verbal.

Imagine taking a leisurely walk along a lake. As you walk, you experience numerous triggers that can generate various mental events. You may hear a noise, which is a trigger that can lead to various feelings, perceptions and intentions/behavior. As you continue on your walk, a thought from the past may come up, and this in turn may generate feelings. A butterfly may fly by, perhaps generating a pleasant feeling. Various smells can also generate different perceptions, feelings and intentions/behavior.

Past associations and conditioning influences also have an effect on the manifestation of mental events. For example, seeing a snake slithering by can result in different feelings, perceptions and intentions/behavior for different individuals, based on their past conditioning influences and associations relating to this trigger.

Whether someone is taking a leisurely walk, engaging in household chores, relaxing or at work, triggers of the senses and thoughts that come up in the mind are followed by feelings, perceptions and intentions/behavior. This mind-stream is experienced by everyone all the time one is awake, whether one is a taxi driver, a research scientist, a pizza maker, an acrobat, or even a scientist who studies the brain. When we go to sleep, the activity of the mind based on the senses is temporarily halted, although thoughts and mental events can come up as dreams (in deep sleep however, thoughts or mental events are not experienced).

Everyone experiences the “stream of consciousness” all the time one is awake, no matter what one is engaged in.

A trigger in the present moment (such as something one hears) can come up as a thought a few moments later in the future (i.e., thinking about what was heard). Any trigger could also lead to mental proliferation; a series of thoughts and mental events. A thought that arises now can come up again later in the day, and each time it comes up, it is a new thought moment. In other words, the present moment is experienced either through our five senses or as thoughts and mental events. However, the past and the future are experienced only as thoughts in the present moment.
The continuously changing “stream of consciousness” in each individual constitutes the moment-to-moment manifestation of triggers, feelings, perceptions and intention/behavior. All these experienced moments have the characteristic of arising and passing away.


Each experienced moment is generated if causes and conditions are conducive for it to arise at that moment. Commentaries of Buddhist teachings list five sets of causal laws (sometimes referred to as the “five cosmic laws”) that govern the whole of the universe. These can have an influence on the flow of the mind-stream. These laws are: physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, volitional laws and universal laws. The first three sets of these laws are familiar to science. The fourth set — volitional laws refer to how our behavior/actions (mental, verbal or bodily) can influence events that arise in the future.

The teachings classify behavior/actions as wholesome or unwholesome. As the name implies, wholesome behavior is described as resulting in beneficial outcomes and unwholesome behavior in non-beneficial outcomes. Dwelling on a thought repeatedly and attaching to it (mental behavior/action) can increase its intensity. For example, if we dwell on an angry thought (an unwholesome thought) and constantly proliferate on it, this act produces conditions for the unpleasantness of anger to grow and increase when it arises again in the future. In addition to this unpleasantness, the unwholesomeness of the thoughts may result in various unwholesome bodily and verbal behavior/actions, and these can result in additional non-beneficial outcomes. On the other hand, cultivating wholesome thoughts and engaging in ethical behavior is described as the path that ultimately leads to beneficial outcomes as well as a peaceful mind.

The fifth set of laws, Universal laws refer to laws of nature, such as the inevitability of death and decay and the impermanence of everything.

The ordinary mind leaps from thought to thought often getting entangled in rumination, worry and mental proliferation (a situation often referred to as the “monkey mind”). Buddhist teachings explain that this tendency can be reduced through calming meditation practices that involve focusing one’s attention on a meditation object (such as the breath, body posture or body sensations) in a relaxed manner. Initially, during such meditation, one notices that the mind has wandered (which will happen very frequently), and attention is gently brought back to the meditation object. A calm mind facilitates monitoring its own functioning. The practice of mindfulness that has become popular in recent years involves being non-judgmentally aware of whatever “flows” in the mind-stream. Mindfulness is also a technique for monitoring the mind.
In monitoring the mind, one can notice how various thoughts arise and pass away, and how things change in terms of both the pleasant and the unpleasant. Seeing the impermanence of all thoughts and moods prevents one from getting caught up in attaching to thoughts and dwelling on them. In terms of anger, even for situations that some may refer to as “righteous anger” in the face of injustice, while it is prudent to take steps (intention/behavior) to remedy the external situation, proliferating anger internally is of no benefit to anyone.

Seeing the impermanence of all thoughts and moods prevents one from getting caught up in attaching to thoughts and dwelling on them.

With the practice of meditation, one gradually develops the skill of being with the experience in an accepting way and the skill of not getting entangled in thoughts that one does not wish to get entangled in. One can avoid being a victim of one’s own associations and thoughts.

The practice of meditation reduces rumination and worry. Rumination and worry are known risk factors for developing mental illness. Meditation practice also builds one’s resilience; to bounce back from negative events, a very valuable skill to have for daily living. Scientific research continues to uncover the many benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices for both mental and physical health.

The analysis presented in this article reveals the need for two levels of understanding; namely, knowledge and transcendent wisdom. This distinction of two levels was made by Aristotle when he referred to the constructs of phronesis and sophia. Knowledge (phronesis) relates to understanding the material world using information gathered via our five senses and analyzed from a third-person perspective. Science, which relies on empirical observations, operates at this level and the knowledge thus acquired continues to advance the quality of life of people. Transcendent wisdom (sophia), on the other hand is acquired through meditation and contemplation, and involves analyses conducted from a first-person perspective.

The distinction of two levels of analyses can be considered as two different levels through which we experience and understand the world.

This distinction of two levels of analyses can be found in all major religions, and can be considered as two different levels through which we experience and understand the world. The knowledge gained through our senses is often referred to as “relative reality” and the wisdom gained from contemplation relating to the workings of our mind along with other insights are referred to as “ultimate reality.”

The final goal of Buddhist contemplative practice is “enlightenment,” which is “seeing things just as they are, unadulterated by habitual reactions and projections.” The teachings describe the constant state of flux of the material body as well as the mind. The material elements that make up the physical body and the external environment are described as continuously moving to and from the material body (as a result of our eating, drinking, breathing and eliminating). The mind is also described as a dynamic continuum of constantly changing experience, where past phenomena continue to influence and condition the ever changing present moment. The whole of the external world is also described as continuously changing.

Disciplining and training the mind as well as gaining insight into processes that govern the mind summarizes meditation practised in Buddhist traditions. According to Buddhist teachings, the practice of meditation is facilitated by cultivating behavioral attributes of engaging in ethical behavior, cultivating patience, self-control, forgiveness and compassion.

Article written by Nandini Karunamuni and Neela de Zoysa