Teachers in the Buddhist Yogacara tradition explain that there is a storehouse consciousness, the 8th level of consciousness, which is a repository of all our memories. Like the Western unconscious, this is a subjective phenomenon that colors everything we do. If ten people look at a cloud, they will likely see entirely different formations- a head, a sword, a cup, or whatever.
This storehouse consciousness is the deepest level of consciousness. The level just above it is ego-consciousness. “This is me. This is mine. This is not mine.” This is belief in a self, which is distinguished from others. Ego consciousness keeps a tight grip on the storehouse, not letting into awareness anything that might be threatening. It stores seeds from previous experience within in it.
Whenever we have an emotionally charged experience, that experience produces a perfume that coagulates into a seed. If an older sibling terrorized you when you were a kid, many years later you may have an encounter with someone who reminds you of him in some way. The seed, which has been in your storehouse all these years, causes this projection. Yogacara teachers suggest that our lives are often nothing more than a rushing waterfall of experience, perfume, seeds, experience, perfume, seeds, ad infinitum. When this happens, we experience very little satisfaction in our lives, since we are driven by these projections. Fortunately, in addition to unwholesome seeds per above, our storehouse also contains wholesome seeds based on positive experiences from the past.
There are two complementary practices which Yogacara teaching focuses on to liberate us from these negative projections.
First, we can introduce more wholesome seeds into our storehouse, through positive intentions and actions. The practice of the paramitas that I talked about in recent posts is an excellent way to do this. We have opportunities every day to practice the first three paramitas of patience, generosity, and morality. In my last piece I talked about a woman who set me off because she had certain similarities to my mother. I had an opportunity to practice generosity each time, noticing when I was being triggered and reminding myself, “Kay is not my mother and she is having a hard time.”
Second, though our meditative awareness, we begin to see through the false self or limited ego and get glimpses of our still nature (or Buddha nature), which is at the base of the storehouse. As these glimpses grow, the rushing waterfall of experience, perfume, seeds begin to quiet down.
While in most ways the storehouse seems identical to the western unconscious, in this way it is radically different. Yogacara teachers point to an undivided wholeness that we realize when ego consciousness is completely still. This is referred to as “mirror mind.” As the Chinese Zen teacher Shen Hui said, Those who see into the Storehouse have their senses cleansed of defilements, and open to Buddha-wisdom.
Yogacara teachers have suggested practice of the paramitas (patience, generosity, morality, persistent effort, meditation, and wisdom) may create positive seeds to add to our storehouse. Recently I supported someone in doing this. Over the course of several months, he developed the ability to plant seeds of patience and generosity each time his negative thoughts/feelings came up.
Now let me turn to the process of de-activating our seeds. Let’s say I have a craving for something sweet during my meditation. That craving is by its very nature unwholesome because I lose attention, get distracted, and wish I was sucking on a piece of chocolate instead of staring at a blank wall. All I need to do is: 1.) recognize the craving; 2.) accept/embrace both the craving and my distraction; 3). transform the craving by tuning into my bodily sensations including my breath. As I do this, both the craving and whatever distractions I have been engaging in naturally dissipate. I may even fall into a deep calmness, referred to in the Buddhist literature as mirror mind or beginner’s mind.
Through a steady, daily meditation practice, coupled with longer periods of meditation in retreat settings, this process of recognizing, embracing, and transforming happens quite naturally. We find that we are relaxing our grip on our fixations and are able to enjoy our lives from moment to moment in a deeply satisfying way. This change may occur incrementally or through a huge release of all our fixated thoughts referred to as “enlightenment.” My teacher did not put much emphasis on this huge release. But when he was asked directly to talk about an enlightenment experience he had had while a student, he shared the following:
While engaged in a retreat of several days, he did his best to follow the teacher’s instructions to bring his mind back to “no thing” but continually failed. But this only heightened his determination. Then it was time for him to see the retreat teacher one to one in dokusan. The teacher’s nickname was Tanker, because he was both huge and muscular, built like a sumo wrestler. He took up most of the space in the tiny room he met with people one to one. Suzuki himself was less than five feet tall and very slim. He entered the room, looked at the teacher and saw that, “I am Tanker” and was immediately released all his worries and fears. His sense of a limited, separate self vanished and he felt embraced by all life.
Whether we have this kind of experience or not, through our meditation we gradually let go of our identification with the emotional residue which has coagulated into seeds within our storehouse. But as Suzuki said, “Enlightenment is an activity, not an experience.” Stored negative emotions continue to come up as long as we live, which, if we act from, create new negative seeds.
If I watch Fox news, for instance, even for a few minutes, I feel anger, which is undoubtedly a combined activation of seeds from the past and sprouting of new seeds as a reaction to something the commentator has said.
In any case, in our meditation we have the opportunity to access our negative thoughts and emotions just by paying attention to them. We can let them pass through by merely observing them with no commentary. In retreats as in extended therapy, we may notice forgotten scenes from childhood and jumbled scenes of unknown people or be disconcerted by feelings of rage or grief that appear from nowhere. When this happens, we are allowing negative seeds from our storehouse to come into full consciousness. All we need to do is to open to them without entertaining them and those seeds may shrivel up and die.
We can start with awareness of any area of suffering and follow it down into the storehouse. What are the feelings, images, or thoughts that come up? Next we may notice where the emotional coagulation that has risen from the storehouse is felt most strongly in your body. You simply pay attention to these sensations as they grow more acute, dense, or change temperature. In my one to ones with people, I often support them in bypassing the thoughts and emotions, so they can experience a genuine release within their sensate body, where the residue has been lodged.
Unlike much therapy, our focus is not on understanding our past conditioning by untangling harmful family patterns. Instead, we merely cultivate awareness of emotion that is arising on this moment. Instead, of passing on negative patterns from generation to generation we can stop hurting others and ourselves.
By not trying to suppress or control, we can realize that our individual consciousness is universal consciousness. The energy that creates and perpetuates seeds of illusion is the same energy that is pulsating through all of life. As we tap into the storehouse, we tap into the hidden heart of possibility. Zen Buddhism is considered a self-power or jiriki, form of Buddhism. When we allow deep unconscious parts of our minds and hearts to percolate upward into consciousness, we can tap into a power that we didn’t realize we had.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher