The Vipassana Retreat

6. The Mind’s Latent Tendencies

The question exists as to why it is that many long-term meditators still experience difficulty with negative emotions, when you might suppose that after many years of practice they would have at least come to terms with psychological problems.

You might suppose that perhaps they haven’t practiced deeply or intensively enough to affect the deep-seated problematic behaviour patterns. So maybe they are better off doing some psychotherapy or having counselling to get some insight into their problems. If that is the case, then it is rather ironic, when you consider that many Buddhist meditation techniques are being incorporated into psychotherapies, such as cognitive training and mindfulness practices.

To understand the problem as to why long-term practitioners are still having to deal with psychological difficulties we have to make the distinction between mental disorders, that is, clinical conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and, on the other hand, unwholesome behaviour or negative predispositions that are detrimental to oneself as well as harmful to others with whom one is in relationship with.

Then, being clear that we are dealing with the mind’s unwholesome predispositions and not clinical conditions, we need to examine them in depth and learn how to work with them from the point of view of meditation practices, especially Vipassana meditation.

Unfortunately it is not uncommon that many people experience these ingrained unwholesome patterns of mind that are harmful to their wellbeing. However, while we have to acknowledge that it is not an easy matter, it is possible through Vipassana meditation to detoxify the mind just as it is possible to detoxify the body.

These mental poisons or pollutants of the mind are known in Buddhist teachings as the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance. Often they are expanded to a set of seven that includes sensual desire, aversion, wrong view, doubt, conceit, craving for existence, as well as ignorance. Then they are referred to as the latent tendencies (anusaya) or predispositions to negative patterns of mind. These latent tendencies lie dormant in the mind and are the source of one’s addictions and deep clinging, holding the mind in a state of attachment and, as a result, in suffering.

As a meditator, I personally became acutely aware of these hidden tendencies of the mind during a year’s intensive Vipassana retreat in Burma in 1986 when, in spite of sustained attentiveness and without consciously controlling or suppressing the mind, unwholesome material kept surfacing, for example, anger would continually flare up month after month even though I was in silence and was not relating with anyone except the teacher. Although, when the mind was powerfully concentrated these anusayas – or dormant tendencies – that had been manifesting were suppressed. But that was not the desired outcome, as I was trying to follow the ‘pure’ Vipassana approach that avoids the blocking effect that results from fixed concentration.

I would say now though that strategically it is useful, even necessary, to use the inhibiting effect of one-pointed concentration to help pacify the mind during Vipassana meditation, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the cathartic effect that comes with pure moment to moment awareness. One needn’t be afraid of any turbulence that arises in Vipassana, as it is an essential part of the cleansing and healing process that purifies the mind and insights into the three marks of existence, of change, distress, and impersonal mental processes.

Now, can I ask you to do some radical reflection on these latent tendencies, as an understanding of them is crucial in dealing with the ongoing difficulties that plague the mind? First, one needs to be truly honest with oneself and accept the fact of their presence together with the knowledge on how they are activated. Then one is ready to undergo the cleansing process, the purification of mind in Vipassana meditation, which eventually leads to the healing and transformation that ultimately frees one from mental suffering.

The anusaya’s are inbuilt tendencies – it is known that babies have them at birth – so everybody has them to some degree or other. Perhaps we can say that they are our karmic inheritance, somewhat like our genes. But don’t suppose that the latent or underlying tendencies need be there forever – that they are everlasting, or that we are fated to their effects. As it is a universal truth that everything changes, so we need not get stuck in conditioned patterns of the mind, as we have the potential to decondition the mind and be free!

There was an American politician who won an election with the slogan, ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ We say ‘it’s the mind, stupid’, as it is the mind that is the source of self-inflicted suffering, or you might say stupid suffering. So we identify the mind as the source of suffering and the root latency in the mind is the latency to ignorance. This tendency to ignorance forms the foundation for the latency to craving, which is the tendency to get attached to – to identify with – things. We are very much inclined to identify with one belief system or another, seeking certainty and relentlessly pursuing the myth of security, while not being savvy to the Wisdom of Insecurity.

One of the deeply conditioned latent tendencies is the attachment to concepts while taking them for realities. It is the tendency to get attached to concepts, per se, without understanding them for what they are in themselves: as just something that someone has thought up, or has been able to imagine. There is an ingrained tendency to grab hold of the concepts in worldly usage, to cling to them tenaciously and identify with them. We assume that the words that we use have a reality of their own, that they are true in their own right, even going to the extreme of a war of words over ideas – over some ideology.

As the latent tendencies lie dormant in the mind below the conscious level, the question is what triggers them, or what causes them to surface? As far as I know there are two ways that this happens: during the play of emotions, when the mind state is coloured by the unwholesome latent tendencies, which tends to reinforce them; or during the process of perception, when there is thought and then conceptual proliferation.

In whatever way they find expression, the latent tendencies are activated unconsciously in the mind and that is why they are so difficult to control, even when they are continually cut down (without uprooting them) by concentration-based meditation (samatha).

There is a verse by the Buddha in the Dhammapada that illustrates this:

If its root remains undamaged and strong,
A tree, even if cut will grow back.
So too if latent craving is not rooted out,
This suffering returns again and again.

– Dhp 338

A model of the mind used to explain Buddhist practice has the mind in three layers. The top is the expressed level, where restraint is used to inhibit expressions of unwholesome emotions; the middle is the manifest level, where unwholesome thoughts are swirling about and are pacified or temporarily inhibited through concentration based meditations, such as loving-kindness; while the bottom level is where the latent tendencies lie, which are only accessed and eliminated through insighting into the processes of the mind itself, in various forms of awareness based meditations.

A simile used to illustrate this is that of a sleeping snake, i.e. the dormant level, who when provoked rises up in anger, the manifest level and then strikes, the expressed level. So you can see that while we use restraint to block the anger and loving-kindness meditation to change the climate of the mind, the latent tendency remains dormant until the mind’s ventilating processes during Vipassana meditation releases the dormant material; and as long as one does not play back into the content of the mind, that is, when there is non-reactive awareness, then this de-conditions and gradually cleanses the mind of the latent tendencies.

Another possibility of accessing the latent tendencies is by intercepting them during the process of perception. But this presupposes that the practitioner can increase the perceptual threshold level. The perceptual thresholds are levels where subtle or fast processes can be observed. Below the threshold the process is not observed, and above the threshold the process is observed.

In a study at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts during a three month’s intensive Vipassana retreat in 1984, the perceptual threshold of meditators increased as much as 100%, 200% or more. This showed that it is possible to substantially increase one’s perceptual threshold, at least in intensive meditation practice.

The latent tendencies lie dormant in the mind, becoming activated during the perceptual process: through contact, or during a sense impression at any of the six sense-doors (i.e. the five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, or the processes of the mind itself). The process of perception is normally experienced as a conditioned sequence, and functions in this way: with contact via feeling and cognition (a pair) thought arises, which in turn stimulates conceptual proliferation.

The conceptual proliferations (papanca) can in turn give rise to further concoctions and biased cognitions, which lead from the original sense data to all kind of associations. Once the stage of conceptual proliferation is reached though, the course is set. So allowing that the perceptual threshold is above the norm, one could be ‘clearly knowing’ during the stages of cognition and initial conceptual reaction with close attentiveness (sati) and so be free of the conditioned sequence. Insight and therefore reduced suffering are the result of a change in perceptual thresholds that allow access to previously unconscious mental processes. These processes though are beyond the perceptual threshold of the normal person.

The most difficult latent tendency to root out is that of sensual desire. In Buddhist practice, there needs to be at least a degree of renunciation, whether for lay people or monastics, in order to expose the latent tendencies. While this can be challenging and is not for everybody, sensual desire is best worked with within the context of the celibate lifestyle of the monk and nun. This is certainly going against the stream of worldly life, but in order to cut the roots of defilements in the mind one needs to expose the unconscious processes of the mind and make them conscious.

The way to do this is to focus the mind in a profound examination of the present moment processes of the mind (satisampajana), which though not accessible to normal consciousness, thereby become conscious. Unconscious processes become conscious processes. It is like switching a light on in a dark room so that which was unseen becomes seen, which is a simile commonly used in the discourses for Enlightenment. So regardless of which sense object is focused on — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or processes of the mind itself — the sense object becomes a projection screen for observing the fundamental processes of consciousness, which brings about the stilling of the mind and a deep transformation of consciousness.