‘Beholding the mind’ & awakening

In this talk, I am going to say something about a particular approach to mindful meditation known as ‘beholding the mind.’

The mind is a most mysterious phenomenon. Pondering on what it is prompts us to think in paradoxes and ambiguities. We feel it belongs to us, as if it is ‘ours’, yet we cannot easily describe, let alone define, it. It has no form and appears to have no boundaries or edges. It seems to reside within us, yet we cannot say where it is. Mind and consciousness seem to be closely aligned and yet we talk about ‘bringing something to mind,’ as if the ‘something’ is coming from another place. People talk of being ‘of one mind’ when there is agreement and consensus – a meeting of minds. Minds communicate, mingle and merge. We talk of someone being ‘bloody-minded,’ when they are stubborn, awkward or opposed to our own views and desires. We even use the phrase, ‘my mind is made up’ – as if the procession of thoughts, decisions and interactions is suddenly frozen into finality.

We use the word ‘mind,’ a noun, as if the mind was an object, a container – a vessel that contains all our thoughts, feelings and sensations – yet it might be just as accurate to talk of the mind as a process, an active organ, a verb – minding its way through life. The mind is our storehouse of memories, sorting-office, administrative centre, security service and government. And yet it is also the medium of thought, feeling and sensation – an active agent in the world. In our everyday speech we talk of the mind and body as being separate entities, yet few, if any of us, have met a disembodied mind – a mind wandering the world untethered to its host body. Our mind seems to be the ultimate residence of this entity we call ‘me,’ and yet we can observe and think about our body, our limbs, our organs, even our thoughts, feelings and sensations, as if they were separate from, outside or inside the mind. On the other hand, damage to part of our body, particularly the brain, can damage the mind – confirming our understanding that they are deeply united.

In our everyday existence we tend to attach ourselves to thoughts feelings and sensations, identifying with them as being ‘ours’. We rarely pay attention to the mind itself – the boundless space within which thoughts, feelings and sensations seem to arise and pass away. It is as if we perceive the fish, yet hardly notice the water in which they swim. It seems odd to me that we should identify so much with the thoughts and feelings that flicker briefly in our consciousness and yet we hardly identify at all with the mind itself – the generative space in which thoughts are born and die. In mindful meditation it is important to pay attention to this vast open space – to ‘take the backward step,’ as the thirteenth-century Zen teacher, Dogen, puts it, from observing the flickering thought-fish and currents of feeling, to noticing the mind-water itself.

In Buddhism reference is made to Buddha Mind, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Don’t Know Mind, and so on. Bodhidharma, a legendary figure associated with the introduction of Buddhism to China in the fifth or sixth century CE, and a formative influence on the development of Zen – refers to mindful meditation, zazen, as ‘beholding the mind.’ According to Bodhidharma, those who behold the mind and understand it, are enlightened. Those who don’t, will strive in vain. (see Pine 1989: 77)

For Bodhidharma the key to awakening is to be mindful. Probably drawing on his reading of the Avatamsaka Sutra, he argues that all beings have the Buddha-nature and Buddha-nature is awareness, insight and being mindful – therefore, it is through the practice of mindful awareness that liberation is to be realised. By ‘awareness’ Bodhidharma means ‘to behold the mind,’ that is to observe, without attachment, commentary or judgment, the open vibrant space of the mind – the space in which thoughts, feelings and sensations appear and disappear. We can think of the mind as a boundless ocean with all its temporary inhabitants: exciting rainbow thought-fish; dull flat-fish flapping in the mud; angry sharks; gentle angel fish; delicate seahorses; tiny plankton; some creatures are beautiful, some ugly; some long-lived, some gone in a flash; big waves and small waves; currents and tides – all of this motion and life coming and going in the watery medium of the oceanic mind. Every aspect of this beautiful quirky diversity of life and activity is important to the ocean – it is all embraced and nurtured within the benign disinterested space of the watery firmament.

When we behold the mind, we pay attention to all of it equally – noticing how everything is transient and interrelated. We see how every thought, feeling and sensation has its place, how each is dependent on, and interacts with, all of the others. So let them be – the fears and worries, excitements and joys, pleasures and pains – let them come and go as they will. Be open to them all without dwelling on any of them. Do not disturb them or be disturbed by them. See them clearly for what they are. This is an ecological way of paying attention to the beauty and interconnectedness of everything – observing the play of cause and effect (karma) within the oceanic mind.

When practicing mindful meditation, it is important to distinguish between ‘having a thought’ and being aware of having a thought. These are distinctly different experiences. Awareness is the key difference. I can be thinking without really being aware that I am thinking. I can be so caught up in the thinking that I am not really aware of what is happening. It is being aware that thinking is going on that is important. Likewise, with being aware that seeing, hearing, feeling is going on. To be mindful is to be aware of the activity of the mind, without getting caught up in the activity and being carried along by it – not being pulled this way and that by the seductive power of thinking, sensing, feeling.

Instead of dwelling on particular thoughts and feelings, and identifying with them, we can shift our attention to the mind as a whole and identify with this boundless liberating creative space. Imagine we are doing a drawing of a group of objects on a table in front of us. We spend a lot of time trying to draw the shape of each object, as if it is separate from all the others. But if we shift our attention, and become aware of the spaces between the objects, we get a much clearer impression of the whole pictorial space. In this way our awareness, and our ability to draw, can become more precise and accurate. Another analogy would be to imagine you are a buzzard flying high over a particular landscape. You can see far and wide. Each tree, river, person or car is seen in relation to the landscape as a whole. These methods of beholding the whole field of vision, can be applied to beholding the mind.

Bodhidharma argues that what prevents us beholding the mind are the ‘three poisons,’ namely ‘greed, anger and delusion’ – that is: insatiable desire, negative reactivity and misunderstanding These three factors cloud our vision and distort our view of what is happening. It is only by developing a compassionate yet disinterested attention, open to all that comes and goes, that we can clearly observe what is going on. When we do this, we notice both the everchanging nature of reality and of our mind, and we also observe and feel the interconnectedness of everything. In the practice of ‘beholding the mind’ we are cultivating clarity, peace and understanding. When practiced in this way, beholding the mind, is both the path to awakening and awakening itself.


Red Pine, trans. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. 1989. New York: North Point Press.