If you go to a quiet place and sit down—crossing your legs, keeping your back straight, and maybe closing your eyes—and you then pay very close attention to what is actually happening, you will notice episodes of experience arising and passing away, flowing one after another in a rushing stream of consciousness. Welcome to the real world.
The world of human experience is made of mind moments. Whatever else is really out there, our world consists of transient moments of knowing. Again and again we construct a reality using the apparatus of the five aggregates: an object is known, felt, interpreted, and responded to emotionally. Then the event is over, and the coherence of that instant dissolves. Another object is served up by our sense organs or mind, and another moment of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or thinking takes place, each with its corresponding feeling tone, perceptual interpretation, and volitional response.
While some traditional sources suggest there may be billions of mind moments within the snap of a finger, I suggest we regard that as hyperbole and work with a more modest number, like the four to eight mental events per second of the brain’s alpha rhythm. We are capable of much faster processing (when driving a race car, for example), and there may be groggy times when it feels like we may notice one or two states per minute, at best. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume there are six discreet meta-events happening per second. That is to say, a huge number of neurons, organized into various networks and subsystems, all fire in a coordinated and integrated way to construct a moment of coherent lived experience.
If there were 6 moments of cognition per second, there would be 360 per minute, 21,600 per hour, and assuming 7 1/2 hours of sleep each night, about 356,400 mind moments in a waking day. In a life span of 77 years, one person would experience about 10 billion discreet episodes of experience. That’s it. This is the sum total of what is actually you, your world, your life: 10 billion mind moments.
Let’s take this a step further, and figure that if there are about 7 billion people in the world today, then there are a total of 42 billion per second or 2.5 trillion mind moments per minute enacted on the planet as a whole. While the actual number does not really matter, the fact that such a number exists is astonishing. It defines and delineates the personal and the collective universe of human experience. It is called the consciousness element (vinnanadhatu) in early Buddhist texts, and comes to be called the dharmadhatu, the element ofdharmas or mental phenomena, in later Buddhist thought.
Because the quantity of these moments are so limited (yes, the numbers are large, but they are inexorably finite), it becomes a matter of great importance that we attend to their quality. The Buddha makes a remarkable contribution to human civilization by noticing that the emotional engagement with experience that occurs every moment may be characterized as either wholesome or unwholesome, healthy or unhealthy, skillful or unskillful. Emotions rooted in greed, hatred, or delusion result in greater suffering for oneself and others, while emotions rooted in generosity, kindness, and wisdom are beneficial and contribute to personal and collective well-being.
So it’s just a matter of doing the math. If the majority of your 10 billion lifetime mind moments are unskillful and thus unhealthy, then Buddhist tradition believes you will be reborn in a less fortunate situation. The greater the positive balance of wholesome mind states, the better your life here and now and the better your rebirth will be. The details about how this happens are pretty vague, but as a general moral compass it is useful. If the totality of your 356,400 mind moments each day is wholesome, then you are an arahant(nibbana is defined in the early texts as the complete extinguishing of the toxic emotional fires of greed, hatred, and delusion).
This also gives us a framework for working globally toward the collective awakening of the species. As an optimist about human nature, I like to think most human mind moments are healthy—there are far more good-hearted people caring for one another out there than we tend to hear about. But I accept the pessimist (sorry, I mean realist) position—that most people’s minds are filled with darkness most of the time—as a possibility. Either way, if we adopt this simple model, human flourishing is just a matter of developing and sustaining healthy mind moments, while restraining and abandoning unhealthy mind moments.
Unhealthy mind states tend to arise when a person is oppressed, deprived, or threatened in some way. So working to change these conditions wherever they exist will bring about more skillful behavior worldwide. Healthy mind states are encouraged by situations of safety, care, peace, and respect, so the more we can all do to provide and sustain these conditions for others, the more the project of collective well-being will be furthered. As the Buddha put it in the Samyutta Nikaya (47:19) “Looking after oneself, one looks after others; looking after others, one looks after oneself.”
Sometimes a terrible act is committed by a person who is filled with anger, fear, or hatred, and many innocent people are grievously harmed. Such cases can also release in a much larger number of people a huge outpouring of compassion, goodwill, and generosity toward the victims (and even sometimes toward the perpetrator). The overall impact on the dharmadhatu is often beneficial, with the positive mind states far surpassing the negative. It is almost as if a cloud of antibodies were swarming over the collective wound to heal it.
This view of the human situation combines science, Buddhism, and social activism in a simple but profound model. Consciousness can be seen as a series of brain events taking place within a natural ecosystem, but as events rather than entities they are intrinsically empty and interdependent. One can nobly aspire to the gradual purification of both the individual and the collective mindstream, by working simultaneously to ensure that one’s own mind is as clear and aware as possible, and to help create the conditions for others to optimize their well-being. We are all in this together, and we haven’t a moment to lose.
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