In Buddhism, the primary reason we study the Dhamma (the Truth) is to find the way to transcend suffering and attain peace. Whether you study physical or mental phenomena, the citta (mind or consciousness) or cetasika (mental factors), it is only when you make liberation from suffering your ultimate goal, rather than anything else, that you will be practicing in the correct way. This is because suffering and its causes already exist right here and now.
As you contemplate the cause of suffering, you should understand that when that which we call the mind is still, it’s in a state of normality. As soon as it moves, it becomes sankharasankhara;sankhara. If there is desire to go here and there, it is sankhara. As long as you are not mindful of these sankharas, you will tend to chase after them and be conditioned by them. Whenever the mind moves, it becomes sammuti-sankhara - enmeshed in the conditioned world - at that moment. And it is these sankharas - these movements of the mind - which the Buddha taught us to contemplate. When attraction arises in the mind, it is when aversion arises, it is
Whenever the mind moves, it is aniccam (impermanent), dukkham (suffering) and anatta (not-self). The Buddha taught us to observe and contemplate this. He taught us to contemplate sankharas which condition the mind. Contemplate them in light of the teaching of paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination): avijja (ignorance) conditions sankhara (karmic formations); sankhara conditions viññana (consciousness); viññana conditions nama (mentality) and rupa (materiality); and so on.
You have already studied and read about this in the books, and what’s set out there is correct as far as it goes, but in reality you’re not able to keep up with the process as it actually occurs. It’s like falling out of a tree: in a flash, you’ve fallen all the way from the top of the tree and hit the ground, and you have no idea how many branches you passed on the way down. When the mind experiences an arammana (mind-object) and is attracted to it, all of a sudden you find yourself experiencing a good mood without being aware of the causes and conditions which led up to it. Of course, on one level the process happens according to the theory described in the scriptures, but at the same time it goes beyond the limitations of the theory. In reality, there are no signs telling you that now it’s avijja, now it’s sankhara, then it’s viññana, now it’s nama-rupa and so on. These scholars who see it like that, don’t get the chance to read out the list as the process is taking place. Although the Buddha analysed one moment of consciousness and described all the different component parts, to me it’s more like falling out of a tree – everything happens so fast you don’t have time to reckon how far you’ve fallen and where you are at any given moment. What you know is that you’ve hit the ground with a thud, and it hurts!
What takes place in the mind is similar. Normally, when you experience suffering, all you really see is the end result, that there is suffering, pain, grief and despair present in the mind. You don’t really know where it came from – that’s not something you can find in the books. There’s nowhere in the books where the intricate details of your suffering and it’s causes are described. The reality follows along the same course as the theory outlined in the scriptures, but those who simply study the books and never get beyond them, are unable to keep track of these things as they actually happen in reality.
Thus the Buddha taught to abide as ‘that which knows’ and simply bear witness to that which arises. Once you have trained your awareness to abide as ‘that which knows’, and have investigated the mind and developed insight into the truth about the mind and mental factors, you’ll see the mind as anatta (not-self).
You’ll see that ultimately all mental and physical formations are things to be let go of and it’ll be clear to you that it’s foolish to attach or give undue importance to them.
The Buddha didn’t teach us to study the mind and mental factors in order to become attached to them, he taught simply to know them as aniccam, dukkham, anatta. The essence of Buddhist practice then, is to let them go and lay them aside. You must establish and sustain awareness of the mind and mental factors as they arise. In fact, the mind has been brought up and conditioned to turn and spin away from this natural state of awareness, giving rise to sankhara which further concoct and fashion it. It has therefore become accustomed to the experience of constant mental proliferation and of all kinds of conditioning, both wholesome and unwholesome. The Buddha taught us to let go of it all, but before you can begin to let go, you must first study and practice. This is in accordance with nature – the way things are. The mind is just that way, mental factors are just that way – this is just how it is.