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Formless non-physical mind and Buddhist meditation

Most Buddhist schools regard the mind as a fundamental aspect of experience which goes on from life to life and does not owe its existence to any pre-existing physical or mechanistic system. This contrasts with the materialist worldview, which claims that all aspects of psychology can ultimately be reduced to neurology.

The fact that the mind is formless means that it is unconstrained, and hence has immense potential. The mind can comprehend all objects including its own creations.  The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. So it it is free from steps, loops, branches, strings, tables, stacks, queues, datastructures and all the other algorithmic constraints . In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic.  The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness.

The (anti-Buddhist) philosophical doctrine of computationalism (a modern form of materialism) claims that the human mind is a physical system, and all physical systems can be modelled by a general purpose computer. Computationalism lays itself open to refutation, since if any aspect of psychology is discovered which cannot be interpreted in terms of the interactions of algorithms (procedures) with datastructures, then one must conclude that at least one component of the mind is not a machine, and is not indeed a physical system of any kind. 

Meditation on formless mind
One of the quickest ways to convince yourself that the root mind is not physical, (and is not therefore limited by one birth and one death), is to meditate on the formless nature of the mind.

(1) Find somewhere quiet and peaceful where you won't be disturbed. If at home take the phone off the hook.

(2) If you can't manage a classical meditation posture just sit upright in a chair. Try to keep your back reasonably straight. Avoid the two extremes of slouching  and getting excessively rigid.

(3) Observe your breathing. Don't try to control it, just observe the natural rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.

(4) Once you've settled into this observational state, but before you've got bored, introduce a small amount of breath control - just pause for a second between the in and the out.

(5) Next try a simple mental recitation. On the in breath mentally recite the syllable OM (you don't need to say it out loud). At the pause between the in and out mentally recite the syllable AH  (there is no need to prolong this pause any longer than it takes to mentally recite this syllable). On the out breath mentally recite the syllable HUM.

(6) Keep on breathing and mentally reciting OM AH HUM.  Don't force the breath. Breathe naturally apart from the slight pause long enough to mentally recite the AH between the in and out breaths. You can then extend this pause if it helps you to feel calmer, and you can do so without discomfort. You may like to imagine that you hold the AH sound at your heart during the pause. Concentrate on the syllables and don't let your mind wander.

(7) After a while the novelty will wear off and your mind will appear to become extremely busy, with all sorts of thoughts competing for your attention.  Your mind will have much more immediate concerns than OM AH HUM. -  'It's a week since I last phoned my mother - that reminds me, can I afford to pay my phone bill? -   I haven't checked my  bank balance lately - I guess its bad because I haven't had a raise since my boss put me on a wage freeze ....It's because I'm 48 and not likely to find another job -  Why do I have to work for that creep? - Surely I could branch out on my own - the whole company's become a pile of poo - Oh look there's a crack in the plaster - Is it superficial or something structural? Structural..structure... Oh shit I should have emailed that drawing this afternoon..... etc,etc...

(8) Welcome to your superficial mind! Why  does meditation make the mind busier? You thought it was supposed to calm you down. Yes ultimately it does, but in the early stages all that happens is that your mind becomes aware of the incessant junk-thoughts circulating in your brain (the first inkling that mind and brain are different!). There's no more going on in your head than usual, it's just that you've become aware of it.

(9) So is this incessant parade of trivialities all that there is to your mind?   Who's controlling it - obviously not you! 

(10) Continue with the OM AH HUM for a little while longer, gently returning your mind to the silent recitation every time it wanders away.

(11) Now cease the recitation and examine the constant stream of linked thoughts that your brain is presenting to your mind. But try to distance yourself from these thoughts. Observe them but with a certain amount of disinterest. Pretend you're observing someone else's stream of consciousness rather than stuff which is obviously aimed at you. Don't get involved in this thought stream.  Rather than experience how one thought leads to another, examine what the links are and how each thought arises.

(12) You'll become aware of the datastructures in your mind - the associations or 'hyperlinks' which link all mental objects together.  Then you'll become aware of the algorithm - the automatic process which like a webcrawler follows all these associations and presents them to your awareness. You don't (at present) control this webcrawler. You will notice that the webcrawler has certain preferred types of links, those that lead to objects of anger, fear or desire. It doesn't pay too much attention to bland associations, and there's no family filter on what it dredges up.

(13) You have now begun to understand the algorithms and datastructures of the mind/brain. What you still need to experience is pure mind - the actual awareness which is viewing all the trivia which the webcrawler is displaying to it.

(14) Convince yourself that your mind is neither the individual scenarios thrown up as the stream of consciousness progresses, nor the mechanism which drives the stream of consciousness. Your mind is pure awareness - non-structured and non-procedural. Occasionally the stream of thoughts will subside into the root mind, and a moment or two of clarity will occur before a new thread of associations emerges. When this happens, attempt to catch a glimpse of the calm, space-like and empty nature of the root mind - like a blue sky rather than one constantly obstructed by a passing procession of clouds.

(15)  Slowly come out of meditation. It may help to mentally recite the OM AH HUM for a brief period.

It is traditional and auspicious at the end of a meditation to silently dedicate any insight that you might have achieved to the happiness and freedom from suffering of all sentient beings.


- Sean Robsville

The very subtle mind
'...The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, called 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end....'

Further Information on Meditation
'....We should train in this preliminary meditation until we gain some experience of it. However, if we want to attain permanent, unchanging inner peace, and if we want to become completely free from problems and suffering, we need to advance beyond simple breathing meditation to more practical forms of meditation, such as the cycle of twenty-one Lamrim meditations...'

Introduction to Buddhism    
The reasons for starting out on the Buddhist path.

Buddhist Teachings
on the mind, personal relationships, meditation and the spiritual path.

Arguments against Buddhism
' ....People get spiritual experiences under the influence of electromagnetic fields such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS),   and from psychedelic drugs such as mescalin, LSD, Psilocybe semilanceata and Amanita muscaria. All these transpersonal experiences are simply delusions caused by disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the neurones.'

' ...Yes and No. There's no doubt that people experience other realms of reality under the influence of TMS  or psychoactive drugs. In these conditions the functioning of the brain is indeed abnormal.  But - you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain? The brain is a device which has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being. Disruption .... by biochemical or biophysical agents, enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances.... '

See also non-algorithmic phenomena   and emergence

Implications of a Fundamental Consciousness by Copthorne MacDonald


If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation