Notes: Evolution of Mind States

Notes on the Dhamma Talk

‘Evolution of Mind States’

(Pandit Bhikkhu)

at the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives

December 2010


We can start by looking at the mind as you meditate. For most people, the mind wanders away continually from the meditation object, which should be something neutral like the breathing.

Why does the mind wander away? What part of the mind wants to stay with the object and what part of the mind likes to do something else? Seeing the mind do things that you have not instructed it to do is called the ‘non-self’ aspect. Meditation is all about training the mind, or in the language of the suttas, ‘taming’ the mind, and seeing the mind in the non-self aspect is a big part of that training.

You do this by bringing attention back when you catch the mind wandering – which is Zen is likened to taming a bull. While the bull is bigger and more powerful than you are, if you grab it by the ring in its nose, it will follow. Likewise the mind’s nature of straying here and there is stronger than you are. You have to take hold of it in just the right way to bring it under control. If you try to force it, you will find it much more powerful than your ‘Will’.

Yet after some time, you get moments when the mind is very present, and awake. Although the awareness is still weak, it shows how the mind should be, how the mind feels when it is at rest. Normal people in the world never know this – they only know the mind that leaps around, which seems to be normal to them. They look at a meditator and wonder what they are doing; maybe they think the meditator is just spaced out in some zone or trance. Actually the meditator is more fully present.


The Theory of Evolution relies on three aspects.

1. Inheritability

This means the parents must pass characteristics on to their offspring. Darwin thought that the parents forms were simply mixed. An example of mixing might be light and dark skin – the result is a mid-tone. Yet this was proven not to be the case. Actually inheritance was found to be particulate. Gregor Mendel discovered this by experiments on plants. Long and short beans bred together would produce either long or short beans, not medium length ones. Eyes are a good example too. Each parent carries two sets of genes. If all those genes are blue or brown the eyes will be that colour and no other. If the genes are mixed, then the eyes will be one colour or the other, but never a mixture of the two. Brown eyes by the way, are dominant and tend to beat out blue eye genes.

2. Variation

Each generation of a species is different in some small way. Change occurs through sexual reproduction, which throws up new variations of the wider gene pool of the species. The other variation is mutation, which throws anomalies into the mix. Some variations are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’, in so far as they enable the species to live better/longer/reproduce.

3. Selection

In fact variation tends to be ironed out of any gene pool by genetic drift. For a new variation to ‘take’ there must be some kind of selection process. If the selection is forceful, then change occurs very quickly. Pigeons for instance, have been bred into many breeds by humans selecting certain qualities. An example of selection made famous by the late Carl Sagan is the Samurai Crab. This kind of crab had various markings on its shell – and when it looked like a face it was thrown back into the water, due to the superstition of the fishermen. Very soon, all the crabs had markings like faces. You can see the story here.

Originally it was thought that the selection must make the animal fitter for survival. Then it was thought that changes made the species more fit for survival (some changes seem to aid the group rather than the individual). Lately it is thought that the advantage lies with the gene, rather than animal or species. There are many theories of evolution.

 Four Right Efforts

The relevant teaching in Buddhism is the Four Right Efforts, or Samma Vayama, which means Right Effort. These are:

1. when an unskillful (unwholesome, or akusala) state arises one strives to abandon it.

2. when and unskilful state has not arisen, one strives to prevent it

3. when a skillful state arises, one strives to maintain it

4. what a skillful state has not arisen, one strives to arouse it

So these Right Efforts are a form of selection of mind states. Do the three aspects of evolution apply?

Inheritability – in Buddhism this is called Karma (some might argue it is citta niyama, but we’ll leave technicalities for another day). Karma means that whatever arises comes from a cause. Good and bad causes have relative effects. You might also call this ‘habit’. If you give attention, thought and emotion to a particular state of mind it is more likely to recur. For instance if you get angry, you make it easier for anger to arise.

Karma is nothing to do with the past however. (see past notes on the Future of Karma).

Take Freud for instance. His theory stated that any character trait is dependent on past experience, especially from when you were an infant. These experiences are buried in your unconscious. Only by delving into the unconscious with the aid of a therapist can you start to ‘fix’ the past, which will affect your current character. He also thought of habits of character as brewing in the unconscious like a steam engine builds pressure. Once the pressure hits critical something is going to give.

There is experiential backing for this idea. It seems that moods build and recede. Some therapy even has things like scream cushions where you give expression to these pressures that have built up, to relieve them.

Yet modern psychology no longer holds to this idea. Each time you commit an action, you are increasing that character ‘trait’, and make it easier for that trait to perpetuate. So if you scream into a cushion, you are making it easier for the screaming mind state to arise agian. Buddhism very much holds to this approach. You do not try to change the mind so that your present behaviour is better. You change your present behaviour, which will then change your mind/character.

With our evolutionary approach, the mind will throw things up, and your behaviour is feeding those states with thought and attention, or not if you view them as unskillful.

By the way, Karma is also particulate. Indian philosophy had thought of past actions as accumulating on the Atman and producing a degree of purity or impurity. Buddhism rejected this idea and said that different actions will have results at different times. Thus you could be very moral, but some particular action of the past can manifest a bad result. Your karma does not get mixed into a general condition, but produces particular effects for particular causes.

Variation – Every moment produces a new mix of thoughts. You can see/hear your parents, your teachers, your friends, tv programs ….all jostling for expression in your thinking. There is no end to the new combinations regarding the content of your mind. Endless variation. This is why it is difficult for truly new ideas to arise. We just rearrange old ideas we have picked up. Every so often a new combination arises that is revolutionary, like General Relativity.

And there are all kinds of influences you cannot pinpoint. Research shows that different things influence you that you would not imagine. For instance, what kind of chair you sit on influences how you judge other people’s character. (find the details on that here)

Add into this the fact you can always input new information via books, video, teachings … And you make possible almost infinite variation.

Selection – Here we use ‘Wisdom’ that comes from direct looking. You look at what is actually happening rather than what you think about what is happening. Thinking will lead you astray more often than not. But if you observe directly, silently, then the outlook starts to change. You can even include thinking itself as something to examine.

According to Buddhism, if you just see things the way they are (yatha bhutam) you will change, and find enlightenment.

In the four right efforts we see a deliberate selection process going on.

Compare to the Samurai crabs. It took millions of years of evolution to develop that crab. And evolution tends to move very slowly … yet a human choice forced a very rapid change to the shape of those crabs. If there is strong selection, then the animal can change very quickly.

Similarly for the mind. You may even have thousands of lifetimes of karma. Yet if you put in place wise selection, you can very rapidly turn your mind around. Enlightenment in the suttas was always something that is quickly attainable. Stories about the path to enlightenment taking thousands of lifetimes of work are simply not true, unless you have made a vow to become a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha (Mahayana Buddhism tends to say, incorrectly,  that Theravada takes many lifetimes, where Mahayana takes only one lifetime).

When you take a step back from your own mind and look at it objectively, and apply wise selection you quickly train the mind. Whatever state of mind of train of thought you give attention and feed with thoughts -that state is reinforced. Whatever state you let og of, by not feeding it with thoughts and attention, loses its grip (attachment).

By the way, good intentions carry 10x the Karmic weight of bad intentions. So don’t worry about bad karma from the past.



Just for fun, there was a recent study published which compared methods fo controlling habits and temptations. It is a splendid piece of nonsense that finds its way to something true. Basically, if you have a temptation (to food, drugs etc..) it is best to distract yourself from that temptation. But if you have a habit (maybe like smoking after a meal) then rather than delve in your past by different methods to change your character and habit, the most effective approach is ‘Vigilant monitoring’.

Which in Buddhism this is called ‘mindfulness’ isn’t it?

This monitoring shows that habits that are ignored are not overcome. Only be bringing them into attention by being vigilant can they be changed. Which is exactly what Buddhism has been teaching, as in the Sabbasava sutta – some hindrances are to be abandoned by seeing them; some by using them, some by ignoring them etc..

But more on this sutta another day…

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