One aspect of the contemplative life is the maturity to learn from other traditions. Since contemplative practices have been reintroduced to the West largely in the last sixty years or so, we’re novices in sense, needing to rediscover the language and teachings to navigate this inner terrain.
The Christian tradition, especially after the Enlightenment, has been largely focused on either concepts or the physical world. In other words, we’ve been identified with the body-mind, and largely lost the vocabulary of inner space, or understood how our consciousness works and can keep us trapped in unskillful or spiritually immature patterns.
One of the most popular teachers of Eastern meditation in the West is Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King for a Nobel Peace Prize in the late 1960s. He has popularized the method of walking meditation and is the subject of the documentary Walk With Me, released in 2018.
Rooted in the Abhidharma teaching in the Pali Canon, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches of 51 types of what he calls mental formations. It’s the content of our thoughts we normally aren't aware of, especially if we have no regular contemplative practice.
After engaging in contemplative practices for years, this description resonates deeply with the experience of what comes into consciousness the more we practice: our mental processes or habits, our mental formations.
As we gain more experience in our contemplative practice we become more and more aware of the types of thoughts, thought patterns, and emotions that tend to come up for us repeatedly. We start to identify less and less with these thoughts and become less defined by them. This opens up an inner space of choice and freedom.
As Richard Rohr puts it, the primary addiction for all humans is the addiction to our way of thinking. This is why many contemplatives are former addicts and the broken. Many have suffered with addictive patterns and found their way toward healing and wholeness in part through non-judgmental self-observation, of laying bare the habitual thought patterns that led to acting out behavior. For many, especially beginning down this path, it can be helpful to have these reference points.
Experienced contemplatives, too, can find this list a helpful framework for considering the different ways in which we get ensnared by our thoughts and emotions, or the body-mind.
In the Eastern tradition, all of these exist as seeds within the psyche. The qualities we want to cultivate are the seeds we need to water. Our attentiveness and meditative or contemplative practice helps us tune in to how we can do that.
All of these appear in the mind in some form and impact our False Self. Moving into the free space of contemplative awareness, at first we simply observe these mental formations occur and allow ourselves to become aware of them.
As we progress, we become less and less impacted by them. It’s as if we slip off the nose ring by which these experiences have been dragging us around. To clarify, these experiences can be positive, negative, or neutral, but increased awareness allows us to slip out of their control. Being addicted to the positive experiences unaware can also become destructive, as we addicts know.
Christian contemplatives often teach that boundless love is our natural state. Becoming more aware of the internal mechanisms and processes that keep us from that original blessing and allowing them to dissolve or become dismantled is part of the contemplative path.
Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as his students call him, remarks that it was helpful for him to memorize all 51, so that when they occurred he could welcome the experience and attend to it lovingly, “Hello anger! Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you.” That posture of gentle attentiveness is what we cultivate in the contemplative life.
So much of these we accept as normal, but our lack of awareness about them is an underlying cause of much of our struggle, relationship issues, anger, resentment, despair, and addiction. Christ invites us to become more aware and to “clean out our cup” (Matthew 23:26)
Christian contemplatives speak of the positive mental formations naturally emerging as a result of deep awareness. "When the eye is unobstructed, the result is sight. When the heart is unobstructed, the result is love."
the 51 mental formations
inner shame (or “inner clarity of right and wrong”)
shame before others (or “honoring the other”)
absence of craving
absence of hatred
absence of ignorance
6 Primary Unwholesome
20 Secondary Unwholesome
10 Minor Secondary Unwholesome
2 Middle Secondary Unwholesome
lack of inner shame
lack of shame before others
8 Greater Secondary Unwholesome
lack of faith, unbelief
lack of discernment
(added by Thich Nhat Hanh)
absence of anxiety
(added by Thich Nhat Hanh)
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