August 1, 2012 full moon

Mindfulness & the Cognitive Process, Part II

by John Peacock

If sati, mindfulness, is not there in ordinary life, it is not working. If it is only there on retreat, and absent in your daily life, this is also problematic. What makes this integration so difficult is that tanha, desire or craving, is not just something added to our experience: It is literally built into our cognitive process. We are, if you will, born with the pathology of desire.

[This article is Part II of a series; the first part appeared in the June 2012 Insight Journal. Please see here on our website for that article. –Ed.]

Ordinarily the ways that we look at the world are primarily “How is this good or bad for me?” However, the Buddha instigates a Copernican revolution: take “me” out of the center of the universe and we begin to perceive that the universe is actually dispassionate–it does not care about “me” at all.

Once we begin to understand the inefficacy of tanha, endless craving, it starts eliminating the confusion or ignorance about the way things are. “Tanhic activity,” if you want to put it that way, is not driven by confusion; it is the manifestation of confusion. Our representations are distorted because they are always what we want for ourselves: the “sign-making” and “I-making” that go on in the whole process of representation.

Desire is our normal cognitive process

In our normal cognitive process, this is what we are caught up in, language and all of the system of signs that we live within. This is our enmeshment, yet we do not have to be enmeshed in that way. You can unhook; that is what the practice is about, beginning to unhook from the seductive nature of the signs which are around us. It does not mean that you do not do something: It just means you are no longer seduced by the promise of satisfaction.

The other thing to remember is that under the gaze of our desire, that is, what’s functioning in our cognitive process at the moment: We are looking with eyes of desire. I hear with ears of desire. Everything loses its innocence. Only when we can relax into “when seeing, just see,” and so on, can we unhook from the signs. The signs are no longer perceived through desire, but understanding.

In later Buddhist thought, the only real form of knowing is direct perception. Anything else-inferential perception, conceptual perception–is secondary, and potentially erroneous. In fact all representation through signs is erroneous, because each sign is filled with desire. Sariputta, for example, in the Mahavedalla Sutta (MN 43) speaks of the “sign-less deliverance of the mind.”


The Buddha often also condemned the craving to monopolize the truth, where we say, “I have The Truth.” He thinks that dukkha just results from such dogmatism. I think we can see that in the modern world. What we have often is just conflicting absolute truths: no dialog, no talking, no real debate.

The Buddha also points out, in the Madhupindika Sutta, that war is just a continuation of verbal disputes driven by mental proliferation (papañca).

“Why do disputants who assert themselves to be the only experts proclaim different truths? Have many different truths have been heard of, or do they follow from their own reasoning? There are not many truths, but many fixed perceptions of the world. But having reasoned on views, they proclaim a double dhamma, truth and falsehood. Tenacious in their views they enter into disputes in the world; but if tenacity is given up, nobody will excite strife in the world.”

He also says that the tongue is the verbal dagger that is hidden behind the soft palate.

In his diagnosis, the restless, relentless quest we have for final truths and ultimate meanings is called ditthasava. The Buddha anticipates, I think, Freud’s ideas about philosophical and religious mastery, that desire to master things, to be in control. There is a little phrase I came across once, which was anonymous: “Relax. Absolutely nothing is under control.”

The Buddha himself resists and refuses to enter into any disputes about truth, particularly the truth of views. Digha Nikaya I, Brahmajala Sutta, you’ll find 62 views. He is not going to dispute them; he just thinks they’re all wrong views.

Views, if they are held properly, are not a problem. But we do not hold views properly, because there is the craving and clinging for it to be an ultimate truth. We may say, well, I do not really hold to this view, it is really temporary. I can be persuaded otherwise. But it is much more solid than that. When I say, “I have this view,” it generally means “It is true.”

The point is the ability to shift, move, and have flexibility. It is not the views themselves, but the clinging to the views, which becomes the problem.

Narrative & views

We are doing this all the time. Our narratives are true, for us. The novelist Jeannette Winterson, in her book The Passion, has a refrain that runs through the book: “Trust me–I’m telling you stories.” We might not see our stories as political views or the stories expressed by religious traditions, but our views are equally dogmatic, about what kinds of lives we live, what kind of persons we are. In fact, your self is a collocation of views and narratives.

It is an attempt to arrest flux, the impermanence that makes us uneasy. So that is the nature of self that the Buddha is giving you, which is flux, and what we are doing is trying to have some degree of certainty about ourselves and the others around us. That often leads to rigidity, tension and despair.

I’m trying to get personal with you about this, because all the views that we have about ourselves are exactly that, a whole bunch of views. That is what the practice is doing, shaking up our narratives, views and stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is all about the search for certainty and control in a world that is out of control most of the time.

Tanha & the cognitive process

We focus on the circumstances rather than the tanha. But the tanha is always going to be there. It infects every perceptual moment–even in the nicest holiday spot you can imagine. In every unwholesome state, there will be something like tanha going on.

The point is not “Oh, we are terrible people.” In many senses we are not doing it consciously; we are just caught up in it. It is like a person with a pathology who’s caught up in their pathology. It is not as if they’re to blame for it. There is no blame and shame involved in this. Yet from the Buddhist perspective, tanha, and samsara–which is being driven by tanha–is a perfect example of what we would say is obsessive-compulsive disorder. From the Buddhist perspective, everybody has obsessive-compulsive disorder, endlessly repeating this stuff.

roadside weed with dark shadows of leaves

Early Buddhist thought is not metaphysics

Early Buddhist thought is totally misaprehended if we think of it as anything at all philosophical. It is not metaphysical and it is not ontological. It is not making statements about being, and it is not allied to metaphysics either. The Buddha is very disparaging of all metaphysical ideas, including any consolatory metaphysical ideas.

In the Digha Nikaya, in the Tevijja Sutta, The Three Forms of Knowledge, his main attack on metaphysics, he notes that metaphysical ideas are a bit like a house that is being proposed to be built at a crossroads, and they have only built the staircase, and the staircase does not go anywhere. The image says “the house of metaphysics leads nowhere.”

Even more scathing in the same sutta is analysis of the idea of looking for some kind of first cause for everything, some kind of creator. He says in this sutta, isn’t looking for this first cause, this creator, like looking for the most beautiful girl in the world? Someone says, “I’m in love with the most beautiful girl in the world.” And somebody says to him, “And do you know her name?” “No.” “Do you know what she looks like?” “No.” “Do you know which village she comes from?” “No.” “Do you know what caste she comes from?” “No.” After a whole list of questions and responses like this, the Buddha says, “If a person thinks in this way, aren’t they rather stupid?”

Like the house, this is making claims about things we haven’t seen, haven’t tasted, haven’t touched–have no possibility of seeing, tasting or touching, or using in any of our normal sensory apparatus. The Buddha is saying this is a rather stupid way of thinking. It just goes nowhere.

Yet, as the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein remarks in his Philosophical Investigations, language presents us with a picture, and the picture holds us captive. Can we, however, release ourselves from the captivation of the metaphysical pictures presented to us in language?

Buddha, the first semiotician

Buddhist thought, and particularly in the early texts, as I have said, are not metaphysical or ontological. They are an acute examination of the pathology of desire. That also includes seeing and disclosing the disease of the desire which in turn produces ontological systems of thought and essentialist systems of thought.

So when you look at these early texts, the Buddha is doing both: He’s looking at the individual, but he’s also looking at the systems of thought, which he’s actually extremely critical of. In contemporary terms, he is actually looking at the psychology that underpins our beliefs, asking, “What produced our religions and our philosophies?”

In the Mahavedalla Sutta (MN 43), we get Sariputta giving the discourse, which is very much an exposure of this pathology of desire. In this sutta, Sariputta claims that all “realities” are products of desire. Desire is diagnosed as a three-fold drive: lust, hatred, and delusion, all products of desire. This is what he says. (In my notes, I’ve italicized the key word:)

“Lust is something, hate is something, delusion is something.”

“Lust is a maker of signs. Hate is a maker of signs. And delusion is a maker of signs.”

Part of what he’s saying here is that all of our lust, hatred and delusion are instantiated in signification, in the signs that we see around us. The goodies that we see in material society are actually signs of lust, of desire. It is not just psychologically, it is actually our lust, our hatred, and our delusion, embedded, or instantiated in, the signs and symbols that we see around us.

So the Buddha beat the French to semiotics (the science of signs) by 2500 years. Our cognitive facilities are apprehending signs continuously. We live in a world of signs, what Rolland Barthes called “The Empire of Signs.”

Things are perceived as objects of lust, hatred and delusion. It goes on, “They are productive of the measurable.” Now that is a funny word in Pali, pamana, which actually means “the measurable.” So objects of lust, hatred and delusion are products of the measurable: That means we compare them. Due to the delusion produced by desire, the mind cannot perceive dispassionately.

Our minds are constantly making judgments which are measuring or evaluating things, in terms of “good” or “bad,” (for me). Sariputta asks and answers, he says: What causes this? Nimitta-karana, “by way of signification,” literally, by sign-making.

Language is a sign, but so is everything around us: a bunch of flowers is a sign. It can signify different things, for example, a wedding anniversary, or on the other hand, condolence. This is incredible stuff for the early period in which this text is occurring.

We are so imbedded in this it is difficult to catch yourself out. Everything we perceive becomes a signifier, from the book, to the iPad, to the cup of coffee–we live in a world of signs, a forest of signs. We are never outside of signification.

When percepts are seen as becoming, not as signs–this is in a sense what we do in formal meditation, cleaning perception up–we can see our relationship to them unfolding. Then they cease to be signifiers of desire. You are unhooked from them.

For example, you see the desire for something sensual arising in your mind, perhaps even the visualization of it. But the moment you simply allow that to unfold, unhooking to it, just seeing arising and passing away, it no longer becomes a sign. It no longer becomes seductive. The sign is wonderfully seductive; this is what advertising is all about. The subtleties of the seduction are there, even if you refuse to enter into the gross side of it.

Empty signifiers of desire

One of the things that you see when you see things as signifiers of desire is that they’re actually empty of what they’re promising.

It could be argued that “everything is appropriated by us” in some way or another. We think there is a natural environment out there, but it isn’t so natural; in Britain for example, it has been sculpted by a thousand years of particular landscape manipulation. So actually what we are seeing is signs of the natural, which mean something for me. Everything that we are doing, we are doing in that way. So everything becomes “something for me.”

We can see through that; that is what the whole process of cleaning up cognition is. We can see the signs that are offered, and what they appear to be full of–promise, hope, security, beauty, truth, identity, all of the things that we make it for us–and we suddenly see them as empty.

Emptiness is not a thing; it is just the emptiness of whatever is proffered within that thing. Think of the signs of desire within contemporary society, which is mostly the material goods, which are offered out: the fashion, the new technology, new cars, everything of this sort. What do they proffer? Well, very crudely, it is something like the hope of happiness and contentment, status, power, identity, control. But actually coming into relationship with them where you see them arise and pass away in your consciousness as the signs that they are, then you see that they are empty of any reality of possessing those things.

It is the stilling of conceptualization. Part of this is stilling a certain form of sañña (usually translated usually as “perception,” one of the five aggregates), specifically the sañña that is actually taking views. The views themselves are wedded to signification.

It is like the fight and flight instinct; it still has a very good basis if you are crossing a train line and a train is bearing down on you. But for most of us, the fight or flight instinct gets in our way in ordinary societal situations; when the whole thing is kicking in, it gets us into very muddy waters. Equally so, in the use of signs, where the deer is a sign of food if you are living in a hunter-gatherer society, but in most of our societies it isn’t useful at all. It just becomes a symbol of something that we invest with a lot of power, but now no longer has any real significance.

closeup of tomato vines in garden, ripe & not ripe

These things are invested with a power that is basically seducing us. Even if I need a certain piece of technology for my work, there are still probably vestigial aspects of status, power and significance of this particular object within your life. There is still investment in it, even if we’ve got the pragmatic argument.

When you are not seduced by the sign, then there is a sense of release. It is perfectly OK to enjoy an experience, as long as you are not craving to repeat it. We are corporeal, embodied, sensual beings. We are going to have stuff coming through the senses. When the Buddha says “guarding the sense doors,” it is not about cutting ourselves off from the senses, but guarding ourselves against the craving that arises from repetition.

A lot of the tradition interprets guarding the sense doors as like an image that is used in yoga of pratyahara, which is actually the withdrawal of the senses; you go inward, withdrawing from the world. That is not the Buddha’s view at all. He sees that as another form of extreme asceticism. His idea is to be in the world but guarding our sense doors against the inevitable craving and desire that arises.

As signs, things are full. When we see them under the meditative condition, we see them as empty. When they’re full, they are full of desire, aversion, and confusion. The last one, of course, is extremely difficult to see. We can often pick out the desire and the aversion, but we can’t necessarily see the confusion, as we are not necessarily aware of the ground on which we walk.
The moment we are caught up in this world of signs, actually we are caught up in dukkha. Once we are seeing clearly, we know that the world of signs is actually productive of more dukkha, because it does not give us what we want. But when we do not unhook from it, we just go on looking for further signs that will lead us on to the promise of satisfaction. “Satisfaction” is two-fold, avoiding the things I do not want to happen to me, and getting the things I want to happen to me.

“Sign-less deliverance”

To understand what’s going on in the early texts, in the Nikayas in general, you have to understand the pathology and the semiotics of desire. That is what’s going on; the Buddha is talking endlessly about the pathology of desire, and the semiotics of it, in the Mahavedalla Sutta, and others. We have to understand not the ontologies of the mind, but the pathologies of the mind. Semiotics tells us that nothing is neutral; everything is a sign for something.

So the goal of the path, as stated in the Mahavedella Sutta, is to realize what was referred to above as “the sign-less delivery of the mind.” No longer is everything caught up in this pathology of desire, where everything is perceived as some kind of semiotic indicator of aversion and desire. That is an incredibly profound statement, although one that can seem extremely obscure if you just read the text.

The sign-less delivery of mind is being unhooked from all of the things that are proffered by all of the signs that we inhabit. Everything is promising me something. It can also be promising something that is fearful, that is aversive, as opposed to the signs of attraction. A lot of things are saying “do not come near me.” All these signs are human constructs, and all of them can cause suffering if not seen for what they are, merely signs.

~    ~    ~

John Peacock has taught meditation for almost 30 years. He currently teaches Buddhist Psychology at Oxford University in the MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) masters program. He is also Associate Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and is a member of Gaia House’sTeacher Council. .

If you found this article helpful, please consider
supporting the work of BCBS