“The (Chinese) term ‘hsin’… is used in a way… synonymous with the Tao. Hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning…. To both Taoism and Zen, the center of the mind’s activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.” – Alan Watts – The Way of Zen
In Buddhism, the concept of bringing your whole mind to life-experience is very important. As Watts indicated, in Zen, the point is to transcend finding the center of mind and our sense of self in thinking and emotions (the ego), and find them in the integrated totality of our Being-in-the-world. When Buddhism speaks of “little mind” it is indicating that what we usually associate as “mind” is really only the dimension of mind built around the egoic experience of “me” with “my” thoughts and emotions, while we ignore that which is called “big-mind” that transcends separateness, form and conditioning, which this “little mind” arises within. The purpose of Buddhism with its emphasis on meditation and Koanic riddles is to point the student toward and open them into the realization of “big mind,” the consciousness of non-dualistic intuitive experience that is aware awareness.
The typical person, identifying mind with the thought and emotive structures of the ego, approaches life in a manner that is superficial and programmed. We exist largely within conditioned sets of observation and response, paying just enough attention to notice a situation falling into some recognizable mental set and scenario and go into a stimulus-response, thought-emotion-behavior pattern. We bring only enough of our mind to the situation to engage our thoughts which then activate our emotions and behavior. We play out these pre-set patterns over and over again as we go through our lives with very little awareness of their limitation, or of the many alternative and probably better, wiser, more skillful possibilities available.
These patterns constitute our personality, our habitual interactive manner. They might be effective and they might not be. We mistakenly confuse these patterns for who we are, and they are often significantly neurotic, that is, not optimally appropriate, healthy or helpful. They cause our perceptions and responses to be significantly distorted regarding the what-is of the moment, and they most certainly cannot access genuine spiritual experience. From a Buddhist perspective, we are asleep and to awaken within us a deeper, totally sane and truly spiritual mind is the entire purpose of meditation and Buddhist teaching.
Upon occasion, we are caused, by the context, novelty, intensity or importance of a situation, to bring full attention to what we are experiencing and to engage and respond with the full spectrum of our faculties. In such moments, we become insightful, nuanced, artful, creative, appropriate and skillful in ways that are exceptional. Such moments would be our most psychologically and spiritually healthy, in which we flow effortlessly with the moment, when there is, in fact, no separation between us and the moment. These are moments in which we fulfill the requirements for “hsin.”
Importantly, Buddhism teaches that such moments are reflective of our true, enlightened Self, our true and “big” mind and do not have to be accidents, but rather can be cultivated. Meditation, and its life-interactive correlate, mindfulness, are exercises in the development of this capacity leading to an integrated, skillful, wise and spontaneous sense of Self-in-the-world. Likewise, koanic challenge, those riddles that force a person out of habitual dualistic thought-response patterns into fresh non-dualistic insight, are meant to open the underdeveloped intuitive dimension of mind that serves to create experiences of “felt” understanding and integration. Such insights, skill, nuance and originality are precisely the goals of Zen training.
For a Westerner, it can be helpful in understanding what is meant by whole-mind to look at a concept borrowed from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (d. 1961) who noted that the mind has four “functions”: thinking, feeling (emotions), sensation and intuition. He noted that thinking and feeling are egoic functions, creating the sense of the personal separate self, the “me” that has thoughts and emotions, while sensation and intuition are trans-egoic functions, direct realizations of connection with the physical and consciousness dimensions in which the sense of a separate self can be transcended into a flowing unity with existence.
Dr. Jung further noted that a psychologically balanced and healthy person operates with relatively equal distribution and facility in all four functions. He also noted two directions of mental energy: introversion – the taking into and consideration of experience, and extraversion – the projection of personal consciousness into the world. Here too he described a healthy person as equally and fully capable in both directions. He finally noted that it is with applied awareness that these psychic functions integrate and harmonize. Finally, in a nod to the Eastern philosophical systems that affected the development of his reasoning, he used the image of the Hindu/Buddhist mandala, the perfect circle made of harmonized individual parts, to symbolize this process he termed “individuation.” This term begins to approach what Buddhism means by enlightenment, the integration and awakening of a fully natural person into profound insight and presence with no tension between personal duality and the non-dualistic true nature of existence. Such a person in day-to-day life is notable by their stability, non-reactiveness, non-defensiveness, peacefulness and kindness while being well-boundaried, holding themselves and others responsible for their actions without judgmentalism.
To bring the whole-mind into the world begins with the senses, with a heightened, focused and subtle experience of the physical world we experience as outside brought to our internal world through introversion. We, of course, have, through conditioning, egoic thoughts and emotions concerning our experience, but the person trained in Buddhist mindfulness, rather than letting this egoic conditioning automatically interpret our understanding and determine our actions, notes and suspends them so as to hold the experience in spacious awareness, without thought. This allows intuition, the wisdom-bearing ego-transcendent connection to the unconscious, both personal and collective, that is Life itself, to guide us in then bringing the experience into its own unique mental form and expression through thought and resonant emotion. In this transcendent state, outside and inside dissolve. There is only the moment in awareness. This is “big mind” employing “little mind” to give form and communication of pure Life-experience, which is in truth ineffable, into the world of form and society. As is written in the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao,” while at the same time, as the great Zen master, Dainin Katagiri reminds us: “You have to say something.”
This process trains the unruly and opinionated human mind into the wisdom and discretion of whole mind in the world. With all four mental capacities and both mental energy directions present and interacting, we can bring our experience of the moment into wiser, intelligent, feeling, skillful understanding and action. We can extravert this whole-mind into the world as applied mindfulness, and likewise, the whole-mind’s individual functions can be held in the field of awareness for purposes of deep clarity, integration and understanding of mind itself in meditation.
So, we arrive at the Chinese concept of “Hsin,” the harmonization that leads to the experience in which the sense of self, of “me,” becomes the experience of self and the moment integrated. The sense of an absolute separate self dissolves into the totality of direct experience. Whole-mind is the “totality of our psychic functioning” non-dualistically experiencing and expressing the moment. It could be said that rather than being a person having experience, experience is happening, within which a person occurs. (This last sentence has the quality of koan – so sit quietly with it allowing intuitive insight to arise.) This points to the Zen instruction to “be nobody,” or to “emptiness,” for it is only when we are empty of the sense of a separate self that we can be filled completely by the direct experience of the moment.
This cultivation of “hsin” is “The Way” that Taoism and Zen refer to that brings liberation from the clumsiness and craziness of ego, restoring our natural true self-in-the-world with whole mind. We enter “the gateless gate” of Zen previously barred by ego. We can “Break through the impassable barrier and get to know the opening beyond.” (Fo-hsing T’ai)