Big Mind Little Mind

“As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, you must ask yourself, who is it that is aware?”

This Zen teaching, this koan, opens the Universe. Who is it that is aware?

The psychologist, Richard Alpert, turned guru, Ram Dass, talks about the difference between the western psychological tradition and the Hindu/Buddhist model of mind more or less in the following way: We experience our lives as if confined to a prison cell made up of the concepts that are conditioned into us by society, culture, family and personal experience. There does not appear to be any way out. Some of us have orderly,comfortable cells, and some of us have filthy, cluttered cells of personal torture. We call these states of relative order, being mentally well or ill. Western psychology acts like a kind of maid that comes in and tidies up the place,giving it better order and cleanliness. We remain, however, locked inside the cell, which tends to re-clutter itself. This is the psychology of the ego, what Buddhism calls the little mind. Hindu/Buddhist psychology, through the vehicles of meditation and the dharmic teachings, is the door out of the cell,into the world of expansive potentiality, into what Buddhism calls big mind.

Two dimensions of mind. Little mind and big mind. Not the conscious and unconscious dimensions of Western psychology, but the dimension of the ego and, to borrow the term Eckhart Tolle applies, the dimension of Being. Other terms used are the relative and the ultimate, the secular and the sacred. To use the language of Gestalt Psychology, they are the dimensions of figure and ground.They are the experience of form and the vast energetic potentiality out of which form emerges.

From this perspective, to be what Western culture calls conscious is really to be unconscious. It is to be unaware of the limitless potentiality of life.It is to be limited to living in the world of forms created by the conditions and conditioning of the egoic mind. We are physiologically awake, but psychologically and spiritually asleep.

Where does this world, this universe we experience, come from? What is God? What is the purpose of the idea, “God”, that is so critical and universal to the human experience? What is the place of the human species in this universe? Why is the Universe marked by harmony but the human experience marked by such disharmony? Why do humans go insane? What is sane? What is the nature of the human mind? Remarkably, we, in the scientifically advanced West, have no satisfactory answers to these questions. How then, can there be a valid psychology, study of the soul/mind, from such a society? No. We must look to other cultures.

Native American culture explains the unique awareness that human beings possess this way: Spirit manifested, and this Spirit manifesting is the world. But Spirit was unable to experience Creation,that is to say, to stand outside of Creation, thereby having the perspective that allows for subjective/objective experience. So Spirit manifested into an animal unique in its ability to stand outside of Nature, an animal uniquelybifurcatedin its consciousness. Human beings.

These creatures were Spirit manifested just as all the rest of Creation, but they experienced life from the perspective of separated individuality. Is that so different than the Adam and Eve parable in Genesis that leaves the descendants of the original human manifestation, “cursed above all cattle, and above all wild animals”? Human beings. Human. Self aware and separate, what Western psychology calls ego. Cursed. But also beings.Spirit manifested, what Buddhist psychology calls “original mind” or big mind,capable of awareness emerging from its origin in harmonious Nature/God.Consciousness peering into manifestation.

Western psychology seeks to bring order to the inherent cursed disorder of the ego. Buddhism seeks to return humans to contact with their original Beingness. Big mind is the awareness of God peering into the world of manifestation. Little mind is the confused identification with separateness and form that parades around as a person causing mischief and suffering.

How to find our way back to the Garden? How to live in both the relative and the ultimate, the secular and the sacred without contradiction? This is the journey of destiny for each and all human beings. This is the discovery of who it is that is aware.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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