You may have up to three kinds of consciousness inside your body.
The first is your own consciousness, which entered your mother’s womb at the time of your conception, without any other consciousnesses mixing in with it. There were lots of other consciousnesses around it at the time, but they all died out before they could take birth. You can’t count how many there are at a time like that, but in the fight to take birth, only one of them has the merit to make it, and the rest all fall away in huge numbers by the wayside. So when we make it into a human womb at the time of conception, we can chalk it up to our merit that we’ve been able to establish a foothold for ourselves in the human world.
Once our consciousness gets established like this, it begins to develop. The body develops. As it develops, other consciousnesses start infiltrating without our realizing it. If you want to see a really clear example, look at the human body after it takes birth. Sometimes a worm two feet long can come out of your intestines. What does that come from, if not from a consciousness? Or how about germs? Some diseases are actually caused by little animals in your body that cause swellings and tumors. As traditional doctors used to say, there are eight families and twelve clans of disease-causing animals in our body. What do they come from? From consciousness, that’s what. If there were no consciousness, how could there be animals? Animals arise from consciousness. And some of them you can clearly see, as they come crawling in huge numbers out of wounds, out your ears and eyes, nose, teeth, anus, whole swarms of them. So what are they? They’re a form of consciousness.
This kind of consciousness you can see clearly, but there’s another group of consciousnesses that are more insidious, that don’t have a body you can see. Only if you meditate and gain psychic powers can you see them. That’s the third kind of consciousness inhabiting your body.
So altogether there are three: Your own consciousness, and there’s only one of that. And then all the many consciousnesses lurking in your body, so many that you can’t say exactly how many there are. The ones with bodies you can see are more than many. And as for the ones with no bodies, but are living in your body, there’s no telling how many there are.
Now, it’s because there are so many of them, with so many agendas, that the Buddha tells us not to go joining in with them. They’re not us, not ours, none of our business. Sometimes we sit around, with absolutely nothing wrong, and all of a sudden one thing starts leading to another inside the mind. We don’t want it to happen, but the mind seems to take on a mind of its own. That’s a clear case of these consciousnesses, these crazy consciousnesses, getting into the act, seeping into our own consciousness and making us fall in line with them.
These consciousnesses that lurk in our bodies without any bodies of their own: They can get angry, too, you know. They can get greedy and deluded, they can feel love and hate, just like us. Once they start feeling things like this, and they’re right next to us, our own consciousness follows along with them, without our even realizing it. This is why there are so many issues in the heart.
It’s entirely possible, you know. Suppose, for instance, that two of your children are quarreling right in front of you. That’s enough to put you in a bad mood yourself. Even though you didn’t get involved in the quarrel along with them, there’s a connection, and so you end up with a lot of hurt feelings, too. This is why we’re taught, Yaṁ ve sevati tādiso: You end up being like the people you hang around with.
So we’re taught to analyze things. There are lots of minds in your mind. Some of them are animal minds. It’s not your mind that gets worked up; their minds are the ones getting worked up, but they’re right next to yours, and as a result you start tilting in their direction. This is why we’re taught that they’re anattā, not-self. Consciousness is not-self. So don’t get involved with it. We have to use effort, persistence, endurance, to keep things under our thumb.
As soon as these things disappear, that’s when the heart can be bright and at ease. Because actually, when things like this arise in the heart, it’s not our doing. It’s their doing. If it were really our own doing, then when things like this appear in the heart, we should feel happy and content. When they disappear, we should feel happy and content.
But actually, when things arise in the heart, there are only some cases where we’re delighted about what’s happening. There are other cases where, no, we’re not happy at all. There’s a conflict in the mind. Sometimes there are huge numbers of these other consciousnesses, and they have lots of agendas of their own. We get outnumbered and start falling in line with them. When this happens we do things wrong and say things wrong and end up sorry afterwards. This is because we act in line with them, and not in line with our own true heart.
So you have to keep this point in mind if you want to understand consciousness. The Buddha tells us in really simple terms, but we don’t understand him. He says, “Consciousness isn’t our self.” Only four words, and yet we can’t understand them. And how can we expect to understand them?
Our hearts aren’t established in concentration, so everything we hear gets all confused. All we can think is that consciousness is our mind. That’s all we can think, so we start aligning ourselves with everything, taking sides: This is us. That’s us. We start siding with everything, which is why we don’t understand consciousness.
Now when we start considering things carefully to see what our own real consciousness is like, we’ll check to see if there’s anything in there that’s honest and loyal and true to us. If there’s something that you like to do—you realize it’s proper, you know it’s right—and you go ahead and do it to completion, then that’s something you can trust.
But there are other things that you don’t really like—part of you wants to do them, another part doesn’t—so when there’s a split like this, you should realize that you’ve been associating with fools, with certain kinds of consciousnesses that have come to deceive you.
That’s when you have to resist, to persist, to pen that thinking in. In other words, you have to focus on contemplating that particular consciousness to see what kind of consciousness it is. Is it your own consciousness? Or is it another consciousness that has snuck in to trip up your consciousness so that you fall in line with it? If you fall in line with it and end up doing things that you later regret, that’s called getting fooled by consciousness.
When the Buddha tells us that consciousness isn’t our self, that it’s anattā, we don’t understand what he says. There’s one sort of consciousness that’s really ours. The consciousness that’s really ours is loyal, honest, and true to us. Suppose you make up your mind that tomorrow you want to go to the monastery to hear a sermon. Now, going to the monastery to hear a sermon is something good that you like to do. You really benefit from it. You’re really clear on this point. But by the time tomorrow comes, your mind has changed because—it’s simply changed.
When this happens, you should realize that your consciousness has gotten mixed up with some other kind of consciousness. That’s how you have to look at things. Don’t think that it’s really your consciousness. The new thought that repeals your old thought isn’t really you. It’s cheating you. It’s not really you.
Normally, if something is really you, it’s not going to cheat you. It has to be honest and loyal and devoted to you. Once you make up your mind to do something good, you have to stick with it until you succeed and feel happy afterwards. That sort of thinking is your own real consciousness. It’s honest. It doesn’t deceive you.
Most people, though, deceive themselves. Actually, they don’t deceive themselves. They’re perfectly all right, but these other consciousnesses seep into them, so that they end up getting deceived. This is why the Buddha teaches us, Asevanā ca bālānaṁ: Don’t go associating with fools. If you hang around with that kind of consciousness often, you’ll end up suffering.
So—paṇḍitānañca—associate with wise people. Make your mind firmly settled and established. If you think of doing something good, make it good all the way until you succeed in line with your aims. That’s you. Don’t let any other consciousnesses in to meddle with your affairs. If you run across any thoughts that would make you abandon your efforts, realize that you’ve been associating with fools, associating with consciousnesses aside from yourself. That’s how you should look at things.
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Excerpted from “Consciousness” in Inner Strength & Parting Gifts: Talks by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu.