In my next couple pieces, I am going to suggest how Buddhist yogacara teaching helps us work with experiences which we are not generally conscious of. I think this teaching is particularly relevant, as fears which seem uncontrollable can unexpectedly arise during these difficult times.
In yogacara teaching, there are several levels of consciousness. The 8th (deepest) level, the storehouse-consciousness, is very similar to the western unconscious. It is a subjective phenomenon, a repository for all our memories, and it colors everything we do. If ten people look at a complex rock formation, one may see a baby’s face on it, another an animal, another something else entirely.
The 7th level (the level just above the storehouse), referred to as manas, is what we call ego in the west. It is the seat of our, “This is me. This is mine. This is not mine”orientation. Manas/ego, generally keeps a tight grip on the storehouse. Its primary function is to store seeds (emotional memories from the past).
Seeds are of two kinds; positive and negative. And movement between ego and the storehouse is a three-part process:
First, I have a conscious experience, second, that experience emanates a perfume, third that perfume coagulates in our unconscious into a seed- then I have another experience which activates another seed, which leaves a further residue which creates yet another seed- on and on and on.
This continual movement from experience to stored memory to projection to experience creates a rushing waterfall of experience, residue, seed, experience, residue, seed, so we are continually captured and propelled forward by our projections from the past.
There was a woman in the office I used to work in who activated all kinds of negative reactions from me… and sometimes she did nothing at all but walk past my desk. As I practiced paying attention to why my seeds were getting so activated, I realized that her actions were igniting memories I had not been conscious of about my own mother.
The pandemic that we are currently in is very likely to activate negative seeds in all of us. As a friend told me about his experience being hospitalized with the virus for three days in March, (and his wife added that she didn’t know if he was going to live because he had so much difficulty breathing), I started getting afraid myself, activating some of my negative seeds. I remembered being by another friend’s bed more than 30 years ago as he was gasping for breath just before he died of pneumonia.
Negative seeds serve an important function, since they warn us about potential danger. But if this warning light is on too much of the time, we can lose our balance and can no longer enjoy our moments.
Luckily, the seeds we produce are not all negative. Positive or wholesome seeds both create and are a result of positive experiences.
In my next piece I will discuss two complementary practices based on yogacara teaching: Altering the seeds we plant through our intentions and actions;
Practicing meditation so can see through ego, and dip into our deep, quiescent nature, released from the tumult of the rushing waterfall.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher