What Happens When We Are Mindful

Mindfulness through the lenses of the Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness.

Eiji Suhara PhD
Jan 16 · 9 min read
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Photo by Snappy Shutters on Unsplash

We all like practicing mindfulness. But:

  • What kinds of objects are we mindful about?
  • How long are we mindful to each object?
  • What will possibly happen when we are mindful?

In this article I am digging into these questions by using some ideas from Buddhist epistemology, especially that of Abhidharma (the philosophical study of the Buddha’s teachings). Generally speaking, Abhidharma arguments are incredibly complicated, and they vary depending on different schools, but I try to discuss my ideas in the most straightforward manner.

I also note in advance that I use a diagram to explain unsubstantial mental representations (thoughts, feelings, impressions, etc.), which is a contradictory strategy. However, this method serves as an “expedient means” to make my argument easy to understand. In any case, our use of language can be criticized for the same reason, can’t it? Through the function of language, we fabricate abstract ideas as if they exist.

What Kind of Objects Are We Mindful about?

First, to what are we mindful? According to the early Buddhist teaching (in a broader sense!), our experience is initiated when the six organs/faculties (eyes, nose, tongue, ears, skin, and mind) come into contact with each sense data (form/color, smell, taste, sound, touch, and thought/feeling).

Among the six sense data, all five except for thought/feeling are considered to be something outside of our conscious realm as indicated by “A” in the following diagram (in this article, I am not discussing the ontological/idealist argument whether an external object exists or if it is the mind’s projection):

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Diagram prepared by the author (Same as hereafter)

For “A” to be experienced, it needs to be transferred as “B” to the conscious realm. At this level, “B” becomes a “mental representation” (thoughts, feeling, impressions, etc.) operated by the sixth faculty of the mind.

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Then, such an experience leaves its “scent” or “seed” in the subconscious realm, as indicated by “C” in the below diagram. As expressed by the psychological term “subliminal effect,” some sense data can be stored in the subconscious realm without conscious awareness, as indicated by “D.” In the subconscious sphere, many seeds are stored from the past experiences that flow like river water.

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Some seeds randomly arise to the conscious realm as indicated by “E.” That is why we can think something or see a dream when the sense organs are not in contact with sense data.

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Seeds arise to the conscious realm on several occasions, e.g., stimulated by sense data, the will to bring it up (“recalling a memory” in the modern psychological expression), and so on. Some are triggered by sense data but modified with influence from a seed like “F” (note the quality/color of “F” as a result of a combination of sense data and subconscious seeds). These complicated processes happening in mind are summarized by D.T.Suzuki as follows:

The seeds grow out of them, and are deposited in the subconsciousness. When the waves are stirred up in the subconscious-ocean by the wind of objectivity — so interpreted by the conscious mind — these seeds give a constant supply to the uninterrupted flow of the mind-waters. (D.T. Suzuki. Introduction II of Laṅkāvatāra sutra. Modified by the author)

In this way, there is an intricate interaction between sense-data, mental representation, and seeds across the external world, the conscious realm, and the subconscious realm. However, generally speaking, we can only be mindful of mental representations when they are in the conscious domain (“B,” “E,” and “F”).

HOW LONG ARE WE MINDFUL TO EACH OBJECT?

Second, how long are we mindful of each mental representation? According to the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness (kṣaṇika), the mental representation perishes soon after it arises, as the Laṅkāvatāra Sutra says:

The mind faculty (Manovijñāna) in union with the system of the five faculties , perceiving the difference of forms and figures, is set in motion, not remaining still even for a moment — this I call momentariness. (Laṅkāvatāra sutra, Chapter 6. Trans by D.T.Suzuki. Modified by the author)

We can picturize the momentariness like:

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How long can such a momentary mental representation last? Some Buddhist Abhidharma texts provide numerical data of momentariness as follows:

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The objectivity of mindfulness lasts only for a short period. If we take more than 13–50 milliseconds to abide by a thought due to excessive greed, we are looking at an illusory thought because it no longer exists. At that time, we are falsely projecting another representation and losing awareness of the presentness, or flow, of the momentariness by attaching to the past.

It is interesting to see a correspondence between this numerical data of momentariness and the “fusion threshold” proposed by the neuroscientist Earst Pöppel in his book Mindworks. In the book, Pöppel conducted several experiments that gave subjects two sense data in a short temporal gap and measured the minimum time they could recognize the two stimuli as distinct.

As a result, the time needed to distinguish two sense-data vary depending on the different sense organs, and range between 2–30 milliseconds (the auditory sensation is the most sensitive while visual sensation needs the largest amount of time to “see” two data as distinct objects). Earst Pöppel. Mindworks, pp. 12–16).

Pöppel also suggests the interesting argument that even though the different durations of time are needed for different sense organs to distinguish two stimuli, the time required to determine the chronological order of the two sense data to “identify” each datum is the same for all sense organs: 30–40 milliseconds (Ibid., p. 19). Pöppel explains that we have this experimental result because the “identification of events… depends… not on a function of the sense organ; rather it is determined by processes occurring in the brain” (Ibid., p. 20).

Other neuroscientists such as Francis Crick and Christof Koch support Pöppel’s claim. They suggest that a single perceptive experience happens when the brain binds several neural activities occurring in different areas in a certain oscillation. According to experiments they conducted, the oscillation cycle of our brain happens every 25 milliseconds. It is our cognitive window to experience something.

We believe we are watching this world as a permanent existence. However, according to their theory, our perceptive experience is discrete. It is as if we believe that images projected on a movie screen are continuous, even though they are actually bunches of discrete images played consecutively over a short duration.

Our cognitive error is also expressed by the psychological phenomenon of the so-called “apparent movement.” When a series of flashing lights is given as sense data, the untrained mind misrecognizes that it is continuous because the mind can’t be aware of the gap between the flashes. Here is the diagram showing such a mental phenomenon “stretching” the objectivities by the stretched subject (the eye is a metaphorical expression of our “mind’s eye”):

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What Will Possibly Happen When We Are Mindful?

What then will happen when we perform mindfulness? Here are some suggestive consequences we may possibly and ideally achieve as a result of becoming the master of the “correct mindfulness” (from a soteriological perspective as described in the eightfold path).

Contrasted to the above construction of the cognitive window that stretched objectivities and caused our loss of awareness of momentariness, the mind’s eye corresponds to the momentary mental contents in the correct mindfulness practice so that both subjectivity and objectivities last only 13–50 milliseconds. At that time, we can maintain our authentic mode as a subjective agent and realize that the so-called “no-self” doesn’t exist as a permanent substance (“G”).

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In this situation, all our experiences become momentary so that the quality/color of mental representations such as greed, hatred, anger, worry, etc., are neutralized as indicated by “H” in the above diagram. Consequently, we are not distracted by those experiences. In fact, there is no such “self” that is distracted. Because there is neither permanent thought nor a self who attaches to the thought, this momentary experience no longer leaves the seed in the unconscious realm.

Does this sound nihilistic? Don’t worry. Our mindfulness journey doesn’t stop here. Let us consider further wisdom we can nourish through repeated mindfulness practice. In the above, we saw that we need to be mindful of momentary mental contents that arise and perish every 13–50 milliseconds.

However, do we have to be mindful of all these momentary mental representations? Theoretically speaking, we can be aware of 20–76 events a second because each momentariness only takes 13–50 milliseconds.

Do we constantly need to be mindful of such a large number of events? That sounds unrealistic!! Of course, that is not the case. When we look at the diagram again:

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Even though seeds in the subconscious realm “give a constant supply to the uninterrupted flow (Introduction of the Laṅkāvatāra sutra by D.T.Suzuki),” they randomly arise to the conscious realm occasionally — therefore, there is always a gap between thoughts (B, E, and F).

Then, when we have enough sharp sensitivity to be mindful of a momentariness, we will be able to notice a gap between thoughts. At that time, we are not attached to or abiding by any mental representations. Then what possibly happens is:

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We will be able to have insights piercing through conscious, subconscious, and even the buddha nature realm as indicated by “I.” Or, our awareness will expand to encompass the entire mind realm as the big mind’s eye “J” as follows:

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CONCLUSION

Until now, we saw varieties of mental representations as momentariness and their complicated interactions along with the mind’s eye. We also saw how our practice of mindfulness functions in such intricate mental phenomena. Here are the critical points I discussed above:

  • Our mental contents last only a very short time, hypothetically 13–50 milliseconds.
  • It is only the mental representation that appeared in the conscious realm of which we can be mindful.
  • When we take longer than 13–50 milliseconds to “see” mental representations, we lose awareness/mindfulness of their authentic mode as momentariness. At that point, we are attaching to an after-image of momentariness that doesn’t exist anymore.
  • On the other hand, when our experiences are momentary through our performance of correct mindfulness practice, we see things as they are, without any judgment based on the seeds from the subconscious realm.
  • In other words, when we acknowledge all mental representations as momentariness, the qualities of mental contents are neutralized. Then we are not distracted by those contents and become a fetter-free person.
  • When we acknowledge all mental representations as momentariness, we realize that our subjective agent is also momentariness, thus confirming the Buddhist doctrine of the no-self.
  • By performing correct mindfulness, we can be aware of the gap between thoughts. And then we can have an insight into a buddha nature, which is our original nature.

These are a few interpretations among the many other arguments put forward by different Buddhist schools. However, I hope that I have provided some insights into how mindfulness practice is executed with the doctrine of momentariness and what kind of possible consequences may be achieved.

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Thanks to Aline Müller

Eiji Suhara PhD

Written by

College Teacher, Philosopher, Religious Studies Scholar, Martial Artists, and Drummer. “Practicing” various types of meditation for long years.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Eiji Suhara PhD

Written by

College Teacher, Philosopher, Religious Studies Scholar, Martial Artists, and Drummer. “Practicing” various types of meditation for long years.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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