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For quite some time now, no matter what innocuous thing I do my mind can randomly wonder to some past experience for no reason at all other than a common bond between the memory and present action or experience.

A few examples:

  • I am making a cup of tea and my mind wanders to a conversation I had 15 years ago with a person about brewing a cup of tea.
  • I make some food and my mind wanders to a person I once cooked food with a decade ago.
  • I am walking and see leaves on the ground and my mind wanders to a memory of my youth 3 decades ago when I played with leaves.

My main practice is a form of mindfulness and observation of any klesha and applying an antidote on its arrival. When these thoughts arise I stop them instantly. The issue is that they can happen randomly at at any time, and that I do not know their cause or how to stop them from arising.

Why is this? Is this part of the root poison of desire, to desire to be "I/me" and the memories of the past reinforcing this, clinging? Is it a by product of the mind-stream (past/present/future) that cannot be avoided? Is this something that all beings suffer from up to or even after arhantship?

Of course I can bring up a memory for context on command. My mind was not always so calm. It was once unruly and I was able to be completely controlled by kleshas. In the above situations, the memories are not being commanded as well as I am not being controlled by kleshas.

I am not asking for personal advice on how to deal with it, because in a more conventional sense it is just a simple distraction that I as a practitioner apply an antidote and alleviate. Is this wandering usual, what is its cause, and can it be completely eradicated?

My mind is not defiled by any sort of strong klesha. These do not seem like general defilements. They are short lived, 2 seconds and I am back to sati of the present moment, but this has been going on for so long now. I feel either this is something I would need to do something specific to eradicate (I do not know what) or it is something that others also experience frequently and is just part of the samsaric experience. Something not to be concerned about.

5 Answers 5

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This answer by Suminda is a good answer for this question.

The phenomena you described is basically caused by papanca, also known as reification, objectification-classification or concept proliferation.

You can search for more questions on papanca for further information.

I quote part of that answer below:

Vitakka/Vicara are the factors which gives rise to thoughts. When Vitakka/Vicara subsides the through ability is lost. Papanca is the stream of thoughts in succession resulting from an initial thought. .....

Vitakka/Vicara is present in all Papanca. Papanca is the snowballing of thoughts starting from initial thought. In all proliferated thought Vitakka/Vicara is present.

If the train of thoughts are represented like this:

  1. initial thought - unprompted by other thoughts - Vitakka/Vicara only - e.g. a smell
  2. next thought - as reaction to thought 1 - Vitakka/Vicara (without Vitakka/Vicara no thoughts will arise) and Papanca - e.g. some one who wore the perfume - this is a related thought
  3. next thought - as reaction to thought 2 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. party that person was in - fills in details
  4. next thought - as reaction to thought 3 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. something that happened in the party - fills in details
  5. next thought - as reaction to thought 4 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. something about another person involved with the incident - relate thought
  6. next thought - as reaction to thought 5 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. if this has happened like this it would have been better - imagination about the past
  7. next thought - as reaction to thought 6 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. if I was in a similar situation I would do this - imagination about the future
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  • So this is essentially explaining it is actually a usual experience for all. Essentially it is a wandering of the mind that is not absorbed in jhana
    – Remyla
    Dec 28, 2023 at 9:16
  • @Remyla That's right. Papanca is kind of the story your mind concocts, a wandering.
    – ruben2020
    Dec 28, 2023 at 11:54
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AN 10.58 says all dhammas converge on feelings (vedana).

MN 44 & SN 41.6 say feelings (vedana) are the mind-conditioner (citta-sankhara).

Note: please ignore the faulty translations in the above sutta links.

Vedana/feeling is an initial sensory impact; similar to being punched & stabbed. Feeling impinges upon the sense organs; similar to a punch causing a bruise. This is why there is memory. Tied up with these feelings are perceptions and then also thought-based narratives.

Thus the second condition of dependent origination is three sankhara:

  1. Citta-sankhara (feeling & perception)

  2. Vaci-sankhara (initial & sustained thought)

  3. Kaya-sankhara (in & out breathing)

When there remains ignorance, these past sensory impacts imprinted into the sense organs will reemerge (as the three sankhara) as they release pressure or will otherwise reemerge when similar sensory impressions occur.

MN 118 refers to the calming of kaya-sankhara (breathing) & citta-sankhara (feelings). If past impactful pleasant & unpleasant feelings have not been calmed & replaced by calm feelings (samatha), they will continue to reemerge.

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  • What does this mean: "If past impactful pleasant & unpleasant feelings have not been calmed & replaced by calm feelings", as if this unwelcomed remembrance of the past IS able to be eradicated? Because the above paragraph "When there remains ignorance..." would of course lead me to think that only an arhant (who is free from ignorance) is free from these past memories unwillingly arising.
    – Remyla
    Dec 28, 2023 at 9:23
  • Yes, an arhant (who is free from ignorance) is free from these past memories unwillingly arising. However, once-returners & non-returners have also greatly reduced unwillingly arisings. Even stream-enterers per SN 13.1. Dec 29, 2023 at 1:48
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I believe our mind has a default action or mode i.e. it drifts. And this is something that it does all the time.

It drifts by leaning towards that which is agreeable. Or it drifts from that which is disagreeable. When there is neither an agreeable or disagreeable moment, contact or experience, it drifts looking for something new.

So I am asking Why is this?

Yes, I believe the root poison is desire which prevents the mind from seeing things as they truly are. It nudges the mind to ignore the reality (ignorance/delusion) but encourages the mind to selectively pick on what is agreeable and/or to shun from that which is disagreeable.

I find this drifting of our mind gets worse as we grew older. I observed this in my late mother in her last two years. We would be sitting together at a table chit-chatting and then the next moment her gaze drifts to someone or something and the conversation just end abruptly. This wandering mind is especially fatal as we grew older. A senior person not watching their step could end in a fall just when they can ill afford to do so. My late mother suffered a few falls (likely compounded by her being easily distracted) resulting in her immobility towards the end.

Things to share:

  1. Thanissaro Bhikkhu mentioned in his talks on trying to see what is the allure that caused this wandering. Seeing the allure that our mind hides behind us causes the attraction to evaporate. This helps to cool the mind and anchor it.

  2. Working on samadhi or single-pointedness in our meditation. I find if the mind enjoys staying with the meditation object, it reduces the habitual tendency to wander.

  3. Seeing impermanence, non-self and sorrow in the contact/object/experience causing the mind to wander helps to generate a sense of weariness and dispassion. Again, this helps to anchor the mind.

  4. An approach mentioned in the Ignorance Avijjā Sutta (SN 35:80) is one that I am personally fond of as it directly address the root cause.

I think the fact that we are aware of this incessant wandering is a sign of progress. The fact that the wandering is short-lived is even better. But I don’t agree that it should be treated as normal and ignored especially if we are seeking to progress in our spiritual development. I believe it is wonderful that we have a chance to be aware of this issue and to overcome it in this life through the Dharma.

With Metta.

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  • Obviously I am not talking about formal meditation. Restless mind, and wandering mind in meditation is obviously a massive obstacle, this is the mind in every day life doing mundane things. From my own perspective I have been practising a form of satiphatanna (tibetan lojong) for nearly 2 decades now, to the point I am in the phase of what I know as "application of non-application" essentially meaning the practice is second nature to me, I do not need to apply any effort, so i am continuously observing my mental functions as a natural mental function. I can in retrospective...
    – Remyla
    Dec 28, 2023 at 13:49
  • Still remember what the mind was like when It was unruly and full of kleshas attempting to take control every moment of the day. Now it has come to a point where my mind is serene, I am near immune to kleshas taking hold, (though infrequently they attempt to arise) but this one thing, remembering the past experiences that arises randomly doing mundane things is something I have no control over and quite frankly it is annoying. Again I control it, i just recognize it as clinging so the thought process never leads me to desire or whatever, but it is very annoying and I would like to contain it.
    – Remyla
    Dec 28, 2023 at 13:53
  • From what I have read and I believe you are equally confident that much progress had been achieved. Not much else to add....just some thoughts. Sometimes, patience is being kind. The mundane can be interesting. Letting go can be controlling.
    – Desmon
    Dec 28, 2023 at 16:07
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This is evidence that your practice is reaping results. When one is able to see one’s own thoughts come and go, it is a good sign. Keep it up.

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Not an answer but useful nonetheless...

from Mahavedalla Sutta:

Friend, these five mental faculties with varing provinces and pastures not partaking each others province and pasture, such as the faculties of the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, where are they restored and who partakes the pasture commonly?

Friend, these five mental faculties with varing provinces and pastures not partaking each others province and pasture such as the faculties of the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. They are restored in the mind and it partakes the pasture commonly.

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