The Way Out Is In / Taming Our Survival Instinct (Episode #65)

Sr Hiến Nghiêm, Br Pháp Hữu, Jo Confino

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Welcome to episode 65 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.

This episode is the second to be recorded live in front of an audience, in the Still Water Meditation Hall of Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, France.

This time, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and leadership coach/journalist Jo Confino are joined by frequent guest Sister True Dedication (Sister Hien Nghiem). Together, they discuss ‘manas’: in Buddhism, “an aspect of the mind that wants to believe we’re separate, wants to crave after all the pleasures of life, wants to avoid suffering, and does not like the idea of moderation.” 

The two monastics begin by defining manas and their larger context, as well as sharing relevant examples from their lives and the community, to support a better understanding of these concepts. The live discussion touches upon topics such as right diligence, watering the right seeds in us, Buddhist psychology, understanding how the mind works, the laws of moderation, reality checks, the importance of community in taming manas, the seven characteristics of manas, and much more.

The episode ends with a short meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu.


Co-produced by the Plum Village App:

And Global Optimism: 

With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:

List of resources 

Sister True Dedication 

The Way Out Is In: ‘Understanding How Our Mind Works (Episode #28)’ 

Sister Lang Nghiem 


The Way Out Is In: ‘Shining Light (Episode #63)’ 

Dharma Talks: ‘Manas Consciousness, Teachings on Buddhist Psychology Retreat, 1997’ 



‘51 Mental Formations’ 

Dharma Talks: ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’

Classes: ‘(Class #13) Right Diligence’


“Mindfulness has to be a verb. Compassion has to be a verb. We have to practise compassion for ourselves.”

“If you want a child to stop playing with something, you have to give him something else to play with.”

“Mindfulness is always to be mindful of something. The energy of mindfulness is like a light that we are able to generate, and we can shine that light towards ourself.” 

“Our manas is what keeps us alive, and we take care of it with nonviolence, with compassion, and with the insight of interbeing and nondiscrimination. Thay is known for his worldly or political nondiscrimination, but his insights on nondiscrimination extend to our whole being, our whole mind, and what it means to be human. And there’s so much compassion and nonviolence in that.” 

“We always say understanding – true, real understanding, right understanding – will generate compassion. And compassion is one of the elements of true love for oneself and for others.” 

“In the path that Thay has opened up for us, we are allowed to show up with our whole self, including all our shortcomings, and it’s such a special feeling to be accepted for who you are.” 

Dear listeners, before we start this week’s episode, we want to let you know that we are going to be performing our first ever live podcast recording in London on the 5th of April at the Conway Hall. And if you’re around, we would love you to come and join us and take part. Our topic actually is going to be stepping into freedom, and we’re also going to be doing a live question and answer session. If you would like to buy tickets, you can find them on We’ll obviously put the link onto the show notes. We would love it if you came and supported us. We are normally, as you know, recording in Thich Nhat Hanh’s very intimate Sitting Still hut where we may have 1 or 2 guests. And now we’re going to have up to 400. So come and smile at us and support us, and we will smile back. Hope to see you there.

Welcome back to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.

I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.

And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in the Plum Village community.

And we have a special guest. Sister, who are you? That’s a deep question to start off with.

True Dedication.

Sister True Dedication. So, it’s one of the aspirations of Brother Phap Huu and I that we bring Sister True Dedication as often as possible into our podcasts. So we are very joyful she is here today. And we are going to focus on an aspect of the mind that wants to believe we’re separate, wants to crave after all the pleasures of life, wants to avoid suffering, and does not like the idea of moderation.

The way out is in.

Hello everyone. I’m Jo Confino.

I am Brother Phap Huu.

And I am Sister True Dedication.

So, Sister True Dedication, we’re here to talk about an aspect of the mind. But before we do, I want to ask you a personal question. Because, a few days ago, you were going to be doing the set piece Dharma talk, which is a very important Dharma talk. And I know you put in a lot of care and preparation to that. And then you caught Covid and, so you were not able to deliver that. So on the day I came down for the talk and I came into the car park, and I imagined that you would be lying in bed sort of with a sort of towel over your forehead, sort of dealing with a sort of fever. And instead, the first sight on entering Lower Hamlet was you, sister, with a mask on in the freezing cold, directing the traffic and doing so with an enormous amount of dedication and generosity. And I could see that you were wholeheartedly there, and I know if it was me, I would be feeling desperate. I’d be alone, curled up in my room thinking I prepared this talk, I wanted to give this talk, and just feeling pretty miserable. And there you were, out there, sort of joyfully helping deal with the traffic. So I just want to know how you do that.

I think being a parking marshal is like my life’s calling. No, it brought me so much joy. I’m an extrovert. In the monastery there’s not many of us. And, I think as an extrovert, when the sangha comes together, it’s like the greatest happiness. And Thay, our teacher, he used to talk about the joy of kind of brothers and sisters coming back from being away for a long time and the kind of sound of laughter and people coming through and, oh, someone will put on a pot of rice and we’ll share a meal together. And so I think, in this community, whenever we have a gathering of the tribe or the spiritual family, we feel a lot of excitement. And I was really struggling to stay in my room because I wanted to feel the gathering of the tribe. So, I thought I’ll put myself to good use and put on my yellow reflective vest and I ran out into the car park to greet everyone. And it was just such a happiness to see… And I thought, no, no, no, who I am. I don’t know why I thought, I thought I was really incognito with the mask and everything, but quite a few people recognized me, and it was just such a great way to connect as a spiritual family. And I think there’s that kind of informality to Plum Village. Everyone pitches in in all the different areas. Everyone’s… It’s a very practical, down to earth, kind of rural setting here. And I think that’s part of the charm of this community.

Anyway, I was very impressed because I thought, I’m not sure I would be able to do that. So anyway, as you heard from the laughter that we are not sitting in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Sitting Still hut in Upper Hamlet, but we are, in fact, doing our second live recording. And Brother Phap Huu, do you want to say where we are and what we’re doing?

And, dear listeners, we are sitting in the Still Water Hall, the big meditation hall of the Upper Hamlet, and we are in our second week of the holiday retreat with so many friends here, and it’s a great joy to have a wonderful community being part of this live podcast. I hope from time to time you will be able to hear their laughter.

So, as I mentioned at the beginning, we’re here to talk about an aspect of the mind called manas. And I was talking to someone the other day, sister, they were talking about how it’s so difficult to change. That they have this sense of their interconnection to life. They know it, but they keep losing it. They keep coming back to this idea of a self that they want to live this life of moderation, but they keep getting stuck in places of grasping and that when they lose their sense of moderation, they… it’s like a second arrow, they beat themselves up because they feel, oh my God, I’m failing. And I think what would be really helpful in this podcast is a lot of people, I think, feel that. They feel that they try so hard to transform, but sometimes they get dragged back. And I think, this episode is a chance to understand how the mind works and why this happens. So, maybe we could start off by just, sister, if you just want to introduce this idea. What is manas? Why are we talking about it? What is the context of it?

Thank you. Jo. I guess, in this tradition, and when we practice with the mind, when we engage in transforming ourselves, transforming our habits, we’re doing so with actually quite a deep understanding of, like, the framework of the mind, the architecture of the mind, the kind of mechanisms and tendencies of the mind. And as a Buddhist tradition with like a long standing heritage of wisdom over many, many generations, it’s not just that we’re practicing with a vague sense of the mind and psychology, we actually belong to a very particular school in Buddhism called the Yogachara School, the manifestation only school. So within the Mahayana tradition, there was a particular lineage that emerged in, say, about 400 C.E. so in that first millennia of Buddhism in India, and it was a school that said, if we’re going to train our mind, if we’re going to engage in meditation, we need to understand what is the mind, what is cognition? How do we perceive the world? What is it that drives our craving? What is it that drives our greed? What are the obstacles to personal transformation? What are the obstacles to liberation? And I find the history of Buddhism really fascinating. And there was a huge amount of kind of intellectual and rigorous engagement in studying, in very precise detail, the mechanisms and operations of the mind from the place of direct experience. So, of course, this is before microscopes and modern science. And in this very kind of illustrious tradition of studying and understanding the mind called this Yogachara school, they developed a sense that there are sort of seven aspects of our consciousness. And so today, when we are practicing mindfulness and our teacher was a kind of master of this approach to the mind, we’re understanding our practice in the light of this very sophisticated understanding of cognition, and you could even call it kind of therapeutic, kind of Buddhist psychology. So this is where the teachings come from. And of these seven consciousnesses and perhaps Brother Phap Huu can elaborate them, manas is a very, very important one to understand. And so when we say seven consciousnesses, it’s also a little disclaimer. We’re not trying to describe reality. Very important. We’re not trying to describe, we’re offering a model of the function and the tendencies of our mind that can help us practice so that we can transform. So it’s an allegory. You could say it’s an image. It’s just a… It’s just a representation. And this school is very sophisticated in this understanding of how to sort of describe the world in a helpful way so that we can transform. So there are seven consciousnesses, and manas is… Sorry, there are eight consciousnesses and manas is the seventh.

Great. So, Brother Phap Huu, that was… you had an introduction from Sister TD, which is that to understand one we need to understand them all. So do you want to give us a sort of context for understanding manas, so that we… then when we get deep into it, that we understand it in relationship to everything else?

So disclaimer, I didn’t do my homework like Sister True Dedication. So I will speak on the mind consciousness and the store consciousness first as this is a very traditional and classic teaching in the Plum Village explanation of understanding our minds. And also for those who are more interested to go deeper into mind consciousness and store consciousness, Sister Lang Nghiem, Sister Hero, also did an episode on the podcast, on episode 28, called Understanding How Our Mind Works. And today we are going to focus on manas because there are seven characteristics towards manas, which will take some time for us to explore and explain and to look deeply together, but to just give a framework of mind consciousness and store consciousness to come home to see and understand ourselves, we have to be able to recognize our inner emotions, our feelings, what we are experiencing in the very here and now. And mindfulness is always to be mindful of something. The energy of mindfulness is like a light that we are able to generate, and we can shine that light towards ourself. First we look within ourselves and it takes the energy of attention. So we have to focus on our breathing, as in the Plum Village tradition, to bring our mind home to the body, to recognize, to embrace, to feel what needs to be felt. And in the present moment, we can start to identify. I am having a feeling of nervousness. I have butterflies in my stomach. I see a lot of eyes looking at me. I have… My own mind is creating different stories of how people are thinking. And to recognize, and this is the scenario that my mind is painting in this very moment. So I’m at the level of mind consciousness, but then I can come to the store consciousness, which is recognizing that we have, we call them bija, we call them seeds. And each and every one of us, when we manifest in the world, we have a full package. In our tradition, we call 51 mental formations, and they have been transmitted to us from our ancestors, our parents. And all of us have these seeds and depending on the conditions, our environment, what we see, what we hear, how we interact. These seeds are touched, they are watered and they are being nurtured and they manifest, they bloom. So our mindfulness is to recognize which seeds are present. And then to go deeper to understanding the root of each seeds. And in this process we start to learn to accept all of the wonderful qualities that we have, such as the ability to be mindful is a mental formation, the ability to generate peace, the ability to be happy, but also embracing the energies of anger, of jealousy, of hatred. And a lot of the times we think to meditate is to get rid of the bad habits or the negative energy, and we need to get rid of all that to be happy, to be successful as a practitioner, as a monk, as a nun, as a Zen master. But what we learn here is to care for all of these seeds, so we are taking care of our mind consciousness and our store consciousness on a daily basis. This belongs to one of the Eight Noble Path. And this is right diligence, to understand the seeds that are being cultivated each day, and to be diligent in watering the appropriate seeds in us in order to cultivate our way of being. And so our teacher used to explain it, mind consciousness is like the living room. Store consciousness is our basement. And when we have a wonderful friend that comes along in our home, hangs out with us, we want to keep that friend as long as possible. And so we want to take care of our living room in a way that we feel pleasant, we feel at ease. We know how to take care of ourself in that way. And then here comes in manas. We start to explain about manas, and our teacher always draw manas is in the middle of this mind consciousness and store consciousness. And yesterday, as I was contemplating the living room, the basement, and I recognized what manas is, can be in a household, it is like the alcohol bar.

With the chocolates.

That is somewhere there. That it is pleasant, you can enjoy it, but it also leads to ill being. So this is where manas starts to… is always lurking, is always present. And manas has a very a real presence in our characteristic of survival, of just being a human being. And is very connected to our original fear and our original desire. So our teacher speaks on the moment of birth, the moment that we enter into the world is the moment that we, as a human being, we experience separation because for nine months we’ve been nurtured by love, by warmth in our mother’s womb. They say it’s the perfect temperature. And we didn’t have to eat. We didn’t have to drink. We didn’t have to breathe for ourselves. Our mother did that for us. And there was this deep connection. And the moment when they arrive, we have to enter into the world. We have to spit out the liquid in our lungs and take the first breath for ourself, our own independence. And then our umbilical cord is cut. It’s a moment of real separation. And in Buddhism we call this the original fear, the original desire, because suddenly we don’t have that tenderness there for us anymore. And manas is also manifesting as in mind consciousness and store consciousness independently, because we were already connected to mind consciousness and store consciousness. But this is moment where is your self, you are by yourself now.

Great. Brother, thank you. So, sister, let’s head over to the alcohol cabinet and open it up. So what’s in the alcohol cabinet? What’s your sense of manas? And in the historical context of Buddhist understanding, how is it separate from our daily actions and also our sort of more unconscious mind?

So Thay would always describe manas as that tendency, just like Brother Phap Huu said, is so deeply connected to our survival instinct and to our vitality. And as we talk about manas, part of the challenge is to talk about manas with equanimity, and like Brother Phap Huu was saying, to not think that we need to somehow get rid of it or it’s the bad part of us. So Thay would say that wherever life is, if we are alive as a human being, then this tendency of manas will also be there. It has its wholesome aspects, its healthy aspects to have a sense of self, to protect ourselves, to set our boundaries, but at the same time, in its more extreme form, manas is the one that says, I am me. I am this body. I am these feelings. I’ve got to look out for me because no one else will. So manas is, there’s this really very strong sense of self preservation and also self identification. And it’s really interesting because this has its role. And I want to put in a little word here also because for those of us that don’t have a very strong sense of self, if we’ve gone through trauma or had real difficulties, actually, it’s really important to kind of strengthen manas a little bit, to really give ourselves permission to set our boundaries and to have a clear sense of identity and to be able to learn to take care of ourselves. So sometimes one of the words in the tradition for manas, another word for it is the lover, because it sort of emerges from store and grasps our body and mind for itself, grasps our five skandhas for itself. And so there’s that sense, so we want to know how do I recognize when my manas is operating? You know, it’s that, the grasp of the lover that doesn’t want to let go, that is afraid of when the hug will end. So that’s the energy of kind of manas in us, and it has its healthy aspect, but it also, as Brother Phap Huu was saying, ultimately manas is what mindfulness is practicing with. It’s the sort of object of the practice of mindfulness. So we are shining light on manas, helping manas see that, okay, just take something as simple as this body is mine. It’s like, well, that’s only partly right. It’s only partly true. This body is also the body of our parents and grandparents and ancestors. It’s not just me, some completely separate self. And so Thay would say that with the energy of mindfulness, for example, when we’re showering or when we’re eating, you know, to eat is not an individual act. To eat, and whether it’s chocolate or with an… a bit too much alcohol, or a bit too big a serving or whatever, that when we sit and we contemplate that, our energy of mindfulness can embrace that sort of semi like a little bit subconscious kind of manas that, that served all that food, right, without us even noticing. Like, that went for that, just an extra spoon or just an extra thing. It’s the hand that reaches for the chocolate and put it in our mouth before we even noticed. That’s our manas. And so then our mindfulness engages and, we might say, hello, manas, so this is kind of one of our practices, just like we might say, hello, my anger, we say hello, manas, and then we might say, hello, father, mother, hello, grandfather, hi, dad. I see it was you taking that chocolate. And we can engage in quite a playful relationship with our manas to bring some awareness to these different moments with the energy of mindfulness. So… And we see that even that habit, and you began, brother, you began Brother Jo. You began, Brother Jo, by saying that sometimes it can be frustrating when a habit is hard to change. It can be frustrating when we have these strong impulses and cravings and pulls that we wish we didn’t have. Actually, the teachings on understanding these tendencies of manas help us enter into a kind of dialog with ourselves. Like, which part of me is the part that wants this habit to continue? What? Like, what do I think I’m serving by continuing this tendency? And so we engage in it and then we can ask it, where do you come from? Do you come from my parents? Or a particular grandparent? Do you come from a collective energy in the collective consciousness that is kind of driving us to feel attracted? I always think that the, I’m going to talk about cigarets, I don’t know why this is coming up, maybe we’ve got some smokers in the hall. But that tendency to think that to take a drag on a cigaret is cool, is wonderful, is a good idea, you know, that is also coming from consciousness, from images in consciousness. And that has watered a seed in us. And then we’re drawn to that. But with the energy of mindfulness, sometimes actually in the teen program here, we’ve done like cigaret meditation with the teens that find it really hard to not smoke during the retreat and… now breathe really deeply to understand what we are doing to our lungs in this moment. And we accompany them as they smoke a cigaret. And so that is the energy of mindfulness, engaging with the energy of manas, because one of the key characteristics, and perhaps that’s what we can move on to next, is that these, the urges of manas cannot recognize the dangers of pleasure seeking.

So before we get into that sister, Brother Phap Huu, I just want to bring you in here because a lot of people go to war with manas. That they see it, as you were saying, sister, something we need to fight, we need to get rid of. That we’ll only be happy when we stop our craving, when we find moderation, when we see that we’re connected to everything, and actually everything that stops that from happening is to go to war with, and a sense of failure that because we can’t find the place we want to get to, that we feel we’re failing and then go deeper into a sense of maybe despair. So can you just build a bit more on what sister was saying in terms of how do we embrace something that we feel is doing us harm?

I think it’s really important to always understand that the path of practice has to embrace the energy of nonviolence. And nonviolence is not just a path outwards, but nonviolence has to be directed towards oneself also, such as when we learn about understanding the first characteristic of manas, which is knowing that it is a self. But in deep Buddhism we also learn about the insight of non-self, meaning that we are made of the non-me element. If we remove our parents, if we remove our ancestors, if we remove education, society, we don’t exist. So to see that even the negative impact has a role, and that’s also one of the characteristics of manas is manas likes to ignore the goodness of suffering. But here, as a practitioner, we understand that suffering can become very good nutriment for our growth of happiness, our growth of well-being. And we can learn so much from suffering. So when we are practitioners and we start to allow silence to be presence in our daily life, we start to slow down, we start to recognize our mind much more, and we start to see of all of the image that pops out without our wish, you know, I was… I think I share this on the podcast already, but I was introduced to porn at a very early age, and all of my cousins and uncles were like, you know, like, let’s pollute this young boy. And I was like, you know, and I was bathed in all these images. And becoming a monastic, it’s the totally opposite direction. We live a celibate life and we are learning to take care of ourselves. And as a human being, we have sexual energy. And I really struggled with that at the beginning, like every time this energy comes up, I always saw myself as not pure, not a pure monk, or I’m not taking care of myself properly. And I got very allergic to the word purity because I don’t think there is full purity anywhere, and even in the Heart Sutra it says neither define […] nor purity and I was oh, thank God, like, the Heart Sutra says that, you know. And it was just a moment of just like embracing and recognizing that as human beings we’re made of so many conditions and each and every one of it, if we can embrace and accept it, we can help transform and move on. And I had a very special moment with Thay. I was an aspirant when I was 13 years old, and I became a monk when I was 14, so teenagers. And one day Thay called me into his hut and during our times when Thay was very healthy, if you get called in by the Zen master, either you’ve done something wrong and he’s gonna, you know, give you a dharma lesson, a dharma stick or a…

Dharma sword…

Or a dharma sword, or some sweetness. Thay’s a very skillful teacher. Or he has projects for us. But I was like, I’m just 14 years old, I don’t know what Thay is going to say. And it was so sweet. He said, Phap Huu, you’re a teenager, you’re going to be experiencing changes in your body, in your feelings, in your energies. If you have any questions towards sexual energy, or you are uncertain of what is happening with your body, please come to Thay. You can ask me. And this is like a Zen master that like, you know, is giving talks to the world. And in my mind, I was like, wow, what a beautiful teacher to be so attentive to not just like having a mission of bringing peace to the world, but helping a student acknowledge and be ready to accept the changes in the body, the emotions, the feelings that will manifest as I am growing as a teenager. And so we have to understand that part of our practice is embracing, understanding the mind, understanding all of these emotions. And as Sister True Dedication shared, as we look deeply at feelings and emotions and habits which are manas, pushes us in particular actions instead of thinking of it as wrongdoing only. But we can see, oh, how can I transformed this into something to allow me to be more attentive. So, as a practitioner, we start to fine tune our attention to our actions, which can directly and indirectly transform our manas. Growing up, in school, cursing was our daily language, and it’s so important to understand that our manas is very influenced by the environment of who we are with. And when I’m in Plum Village, I never said one F-word. I never drop an F-bomb.

You just did.

And it was… Like it was just so natural that, you know, that you don’t do this here. It’s not part of life here. So our manas also has an intelligence. It knows also how to adapt and be aware of its surroundings. Like Sister True Dedication shared, the manas is working for survival also. So to be accepted, it doesn’t want to do things to be disapproved of.

Great. Thank you, brother. And sister, before we get into pleasure seeking, let’s just delay that for a moment. I just want to do one more bit of grounding, which is on definitions, because the language we use is important. And I sometimes think of manas as being the same as the ego. So I sort of swap that when I describe manas is a bit like the ego. But let’s just be clear, is it the ego? Because I think of the ego as being a separate self, feeling small, feeling I need to protect myself. Are these interchangeable or not?

Right. Good question. Kind of yes and no. I think when we use the word ego kind of informally, it’s like, oh man, that’s his ego speaking. Or when we kind of sometimes I often recognize the tendencies of manas, they’re always a little bit secretive and a little bit self-serving. And actually, in that sense, the kind of informal use of the word ego, we can be like, oh, wow, that was really someone doing something self-serving, perhaps without even realizing it. So manas can operate even without us realizing what we just did. But what is fascinating about this term ego is that in 2014, 2013 to 14, so it’s the last year of Thay’s teachings, and he wanted to go further in his teachings and insights on Buddhist psychology. And because we belong to this wisdom lineage of more than 1500 years, Thay wanted to review, revise, update and clarify some points. And, so in the winter of 2013 to 14 and the summer of 2014, Thay actually, made a direct comparison between the teachings of Freud and the teachings on manas, and it was very, very helpful and very beautiful. Thay was doing this also to introduce the idea that manas is not something to be removed or destroyed, but something to be embraced and practiced with. And so I’ll try to give the visual image of what Thay kind of drew on the board. And so Thay drew like a kind of a lotus stem and the layer of mud in the lotus pond Thay said, this is manas. Manas is the mud, the suffering that we need in order to nourish the lotus. And then the kind of level of the water, he’s like, this is the kind of mind consciousness. And he said, if we equate it with the teachings of Freud, manas is actually closest to what he called the ID or the it, it’s the sort of really visceral, animalistic survival instinct. And actually mind consciousness is what Freud called the ego. So this is a kind of very subtle kind of comparison. And I think because the word ego has come to us sort of through the psychoanalytic theory, it’s a really helpful distinction. And to understand that, yeah, it’s those particular, it’s the urge, these most subconscious kind of urges and self-serving original fears and desires. That’s the id, that’s the manas. And ego is maybe that part of our agency, free will, autonomy of self, that is what we practice mindfulness with. So, and just a point here is so interesting because people are like, you know, they say, accept yourself, be your true self, be beautiful, be yourself. And then whenever we say these things, people always comment isn’t like I thought you said there’s no self in Buddhism. How are you using these terms? So, yeah, in the case of mind consciousness, mindfulness, we do need to have mastery of our body and mind and breathing and our awareness in order to be able to practice, in order to be able to choose what food to serve, what drink to pour, what words to use, what decision to make. We need to have enough of a coherent mastery of ourselves in order to do that. And we want to go towards this sort of deeper, wider insight of interbeing and no self. So both can be true at the same time. And to continue on kind of the Freud analogy, so you have the id which is the mud, you have the nourishing the lotus, you have the ego, which can be the kind of the water. And then, in the scheme of Freud, we want to be able to transform, he used the word sublimate the ego to be the kind of super ego or the over ego. Right? And Thay said it’s quite similar in Buddhist practice of mastery of our mind, actually, the ultimate intentional aspiration is to take these forces of vitality, of strength, of kind of life force, you could say, that manas carries, that is the mud that nourishes the lotus and gives rise to the kind of lotus burdened flower of the kind of super ego that sort of transformed self, which redirects these energies into the energy of bodhicitta, the energy of service, of engagement, of social action, of music, art, literature, creativity. Those of us who’ve engaged in these things, like kind of it takes a huge amount of energy from us to do that, and that’s when we are accessing the energy, the life force of manas and redirecting it to be of service and of good to the world. So we have the id, the ego and then the super ego.

And sister, that I think for many people will be very comforting to hear, to say, actually, it’s about harnessing the energy, not denying the energy, not pushing away. Because if you push it away or deny it, then that is what hooks us much more, much more fully. So to actually to embrace it, to welcome it in and then to work with it is a completely different way that most people often think about what they see as their negative traits.

Absolutely. And this is quite unique to Thay’s interpretation of this sort of body of insight in this aspect of Buddhist psychology that Thay was really saying, we keep on manas. Our manas is what keeps us alive, and we take care of it with nonviolence, with compassion, and with this insight of interbeing and nondiscrimination. And I find it so powerful sometimes Thay is known for like his sort of worldly nondiscrimination or kind of political nondiscrimination, but it’s extraordinary that his insights on nondiscrimination extend to our whole being, our whole mind, and what it means to be human. And there’s so much compassion and nonviolence in that.

So Bother Phap Huu, just if we were to embrace it and to work with it rather than denying it, what difference does that, would that make in how we act in the world? Because often it’s when we’re in denial or when we have self-hatred or when we feel powerless, or when we feel in despair that we then we don’t hold it just in ourselves, we then project it out into the world. So is there a sense that if you work more effectively with manas actually you are, that yourself creating a better world outside of yourself?

I would say so because, that is the process of understanding oneself. And we always say understanding, true real understanding, right understanding will generate compassion. And compassion is one of the elements of true love for oneself and for others. So if we have understood our manas, then we start to have more compassion and understanding towards us, which would then lead to our right action of body, speech and mind. So if we have that intention and understanding towards oneself, and when we start to see other folks who is being moved and behaves just because of their manas, we can have a more compassionate view on others. We can understand, we can accept. We can see, ah, they are being carried away because of their desires, because of their discrimination. And they don’t yet have the… They haven’t had anybody teach them to understand where these thoughts and where these actions are coming from. So understanding ourself can lead to and giving more space to others, because we are not perfect as we see our manas, then our critical mind of perfectionism, we don’t try to copy and paste it on everyone else, and that can lead to not just a view, but our way of being. So, manas, when we really take care of our manas, our true presence is starting to be established in a very embracing energy. It’s like when Thay, our teacher, Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. When he’s with us, his students. There are many times that Thay had to really give direct teachings to us because we are not practicing as he wanted. […].

She’s like, you have to see yourself like a little child. If you want a little child to stop playing with one thing, you have to give it something else. So, like, when I was coming into the monastery, I don’t know, maybe she could see I was an active person. And, she was really like, you have to see what are you going to give yourself if you’re not, if you’ve given up all these other things, what are you going to then give yourself to sort of replace it with? We always have to replace one negative habit or one thing we wanting to transform with something nourishing and positive or inspiring. And so I think by learning with others, by learning in community, and by also leaning on like the collective energy of mindfulness is so powerful. I used to go to the Heart of London sangha that used to meet in Piccadilly, in the center of London, and I’d get on the number 38 bus on a Saturday morning and go to practice with this small group of people. And really the only thing that connected us was the fact that we would always start in silence. We’d just sit and breathe together. Then someone would lead a kind of guided meditation. We’d do a little slow walking meditation. We’d listened to 20 or 15 minutes of a teaching, and then we’d have a short Dharma sharing and just listen to each other. And like, kind of nothing would ever happen. You know, it was just being in a certain zone of energy. But it was literally the healthiest thing I would do all week. Like, to just slow down, to be in presence and connection with myself and in presence and connection with others. And it’s like we kind of give ourselves those good seeds in our store consciousness. We just give them a boost, a kind of big hug. And it’s so simple and so kind of like suspiciously simple, like to just spend 2 or 3 hours like that on a Saturday morning. But it just was so transforming for my whole kind of week. So it’s not exactly that other people need to even actively or directly be involved in that habit change, but are we allowing ourselves to be in a state of non craving, non fear, non grasping, to just be with our breath and body and maybe a little bit of those pain and suffering we’ve got. And can we do that in community for a few hours every week or every fortnight? And that is a great source of spiritual strength then for those moments when we really need kind of right mindfulness to intervene, to give us back our freedom.

Thank you, sister. And the other thing, Brother Phap Huu and I recently did a podcast recording on the Four Mantras. And the fourth one is I suffer, please help. And as you’re talking, you know that if we feel that, you know, if manas is trying to avoid suffering, but just to say I suffer, please help, is such a powerful intervention because it just opens up maybe a vulnerability that someone has never been able to share. So I’m just wondering if either of you want to just talk about just that sense of… Maybe we don’t need to say it. Maybe we just leave it at that. But it is that powerful intervention of just say I suffer and it’s okay, and please help me. It’s such a powerful offer… cry for support actually.

I think in community and especially in this shining light practice and it’s shining light season in the monastery right now. It’s very powerful to be in front of those you live with and to say, yeah, these are my weaknesses. We shine light on ourselves, other people shine light on us. And with so much compassion and so much acceptance, and it allows us to really show up as being fully kind of human, like, this is my suffering, please help. It’s like there are no secrets from each other. We all know what each other’s practicing with. We all know our shortcomings. We all know our kind of real humanity, and yet we still kind of show up and take care of each other and live together and embrace each other. And it’s really powerful. And I think sometimes in our daily life or in our professional lives, we might always be doing so much to try and hide our shortcomings. And I think that also manas is somehow involved in that, the kind of masking, the secrecy, the hiding, oh, people really knew who I was, they wouldn’t be able to accept me. But really, in the path that Thay has opened up for us, we are allowed to show up with like our whole self, including all our shortcomings, and it’s such a special feeling to be accepted, like for who you are.

I have one final question. So one of the characteristics of manas is the avoidance, ignoring the law of moderation. And, we know that something like appropriating yourself for what you’ve both been saying is, yes, of course we need a self, but we don’t want the self to be dominant. We… It’s wonderful to have pledged to seek pleasure, but in moderation. It’s wonderful to avoid suffering in moderation. You know, it’s like everything is about the middle path. And so I just wondered if you have any final reflections on how can we know if we’re on the middle path? How do we know? How can we tell if, let’s say, appropriating the self, that we can actually have a sense that that balance between yes, I am an individual, I do have my healthy boundaries, I do have my needs. And also I’m part of something more than myself. And I’m feeling integrated into the world and I feel connected to everything. You know, how can we… Are there any signals that we could look for that would allow us to have a sense of does that feel like a healthy balance, or is it out of balance? Is there anything that in your own experience, in your own practice, that helps you to understand whether you’re in a reasonably healthy place? Sister. So always good to end with the easy questions.

Brother Phap Huu will start. I’m still listening deeply.

Ruminating. Brother?

Can you phrase that question again, one more time?

Yeah. The question is essentially that, you know, Buddhism is often about the middle path. And when it comes to, let’s say, appropriating a self, you know, this idea of, yes, we are separate, we are individuals, we do need healthy boundaries. We do need to look after ourselves. We do need our passport. We do need to make sure that we are in touch with who we are and that we recognize that. And also we want to be part of the world. We want to feel part of life and to feel that deep interbeing. It’s okay to seek a bit of pleasure, but we don’t want to be hooked by pleasure. So I’m just wondering, are there any signals that we can look out for that would help us to know that we are in a reasonable balance, as opposed to on one side or the other, where we actually either trying to in spiritual bypassing or actually just caught up in our cravings. I don’t know if that makes it easier to answer.

For myself, I always check in if I have a smile or not, and if my smile is authentic, or if it’s fake. And nobody knows that except me. And I know when my authentic smile is on my lips. If it comes from real inner freedom, I still have a lot of space inside of me. The soelf is still open. And the four qualities that is in a classic Plum Village song, Breathing in, Breathing out, Fresh as a flower, I am solid as a mountain, I am water reflecting, and I am space. These four elements have been my foundation of how I show up and kind of like I have, I always have a pulse to see what is lacking inside of me. And as we practice, we know that yes, we have a self, we have to take care in order to offer, but we can also become mechanic even in our practice, even in our service, even in our offering. And even when the good actions become a habit, that also becomes a way of seeking good pleasures or seeking like validation. So for myself, I always check in of my way of offering. Is it coming from the heart of service or is it very mechanic? And I’m very good at that now. I’ve been here for 22 years. I know how to offer an orientation. I have a list and I can come in and just go abcdefg. But one of my underground mentors, he always shared, when you come into a room, you always want to look at the community and you want to connect to them. You want to see that they are here because they want to bring in the practice into their life. And maybe some of them, we can recognize their suffering and that becomes a new energy to even refresh oneself. And to bring back even balance. So there are moments I feel very dry. I feel, oh God, I’m the only Dharma teacher that is not sick. Here I am. And… But and I can come in with that energy or I can come in with I’m here for the sangha. There are wonderful human beings that have chosen to be here. I connect to them. I want to offer. So it’s checking in with the self, the four elements, stability, freshness, space, as well as stillness. But sometimes it can also be by being in a situation that it mirrors back that I need to bring that in. And our teacher always used the word generating. We have the capacity to generate all of this. And so we can tell our manas. It’s like, no, no, no, I am not going to just think about myself right now. I’m going to generate interbeing, I’m going to generate my connection to the people in front of me. And so therefore the Dharma, the practice, this is where it becomes you don’t only wait into your good to offer, but you can use the suffering. Or you can use any moment to generate the right energy to bring back to yourself, to give yourself that. And so moderation is in terms of the manas, it talks when it says ignoring the law of moderation, it speaks on consuming more and in our habits of running away from suffering. Therefore we consume so much. But in terms of the middle path, these I always my languages is do I have a pulse on myself? That’s when I want to check my my middle path. And really shining the light of mindfulness on these four elements. Freshness. And each and every one of us, we can recognize one of the habits or one of the actions that we do that tells us we’re happy. For me is my smile. I really trained that. And when it’s fake, I think, you know, I need to take care of my inner space. And it can come from the energy of irritation. When I’m irritated very easily I know that I am lacking something, inner space or understanding.

That’s a really, really helpful answer I think for everybody, brother. So thank you for that deep sharing. Beautiful. Thank you. Sister, top that.

This is not a competition, dear manas.

Actually I was just sitting here and I was thinking, Jo is basically asking me to speak about how I stick to the law of moderation, and I think that’s kind of not really part of my personality. If I’m really honest about it, I think many people who know me well, I’m a very passionate person. I’m a very energetic person. Actually, the sister sitting in the audience who’s just been my roommate in the covid room for the last week, and she was like, sister, if you ever give a Dharma talk about the deep importance of, you know, real resting and relaxation, you know, I’ll be sitting at the back coughing, because she was just like, sister, like, can you not contain yourself? That was when I was running out to be a parking marshal. I think me and the law of moderation, I think, I know, so… Just a word on moderation. So maybe also many of the listeners like, I see you, I feel you. If this is not part of your life, like that’s okay. I think some of us, the way I come to this is I’ve always wanted to be someone who lived life deeply and had all these best experiences. And, even though I ordained relatively young, I had a lot of quite, a lot of experiences before I became a monastic. But I also see, even in the monastic path, I’m also on a quest for like, extreme experiences somehow. And, but it’s also part of my wish to, like, not waste life. I don’t want to waste a single day. We don’t know how long we have. And I don’t know about the rest of you, but my journaling for the New Year’s resolutions was about, okay, what if this is my last year alive? How do I want to live it? Like that’s the framing I’m always giving to myself. And I think it’s partly because that’s how this path is brought me out of despair, and it’s how it’s brought me out of suffering. So I want to live every day to the max. In mindfulness. Peacefully. So that’s what’s going on for me. And…

I’ll withdraw the question.

But then… But I do create these moments like I really… Actually food is one area of like deep practice of moderation and healing. And I’ve had a lot of personal and familial healing through the mindful meals. That’s really somewhere where I touch simplicity and enoughness. And that’s been a beautiful journey for me, as someone who had what I guess would be called disordered eating as a teenager. So, just putting that out there, like a lot of healing is possible in that. And that’s somewhere where I’ve had real insight and kind of breakthroughs. So, like, three times a day, that’s a chance to really, that’s when I lean into moderation and enjoy it and touch peace. But I think what I want to kind of say is that I think this thing about stopping, the way I practice mindfulness is like many, many moments of stopping during the day. And at different times, I might be focusing on different moments, like the moments of opening and closing a door, or the moments of putting on my coat, or the moments of putting on my shoes, or the moments of kind of like stepping out and setting off. Like, am I a free person? Is this the life I choose? Am I owning this somehow? I’m like, oh manas is the part that wants to own and claim. But it’s like, am I a free person? I think it’s really a question I’m asking myself, let’s say, like, I don’t know, a hundred times a day. And in that moment, it’s like a reality check, because in my life, before I felt so swept up by things, I felt like I could sometimes go days at a time without even stopping once. And like, my life was just a sort of tumble, rushing, flowing forwards, just pleasing other people and doing what was expected of me and kind of not really having any sense of personal agency. But I kind of feel like… Hundreds of moments in the day and the week I’m kind of checking in like, do I want to do this? Like a really good example is this parking. Okay? This parking marshaling. At some point I was at the wrong end of the car park. There was the kind of confusion and chaos of cars blocking then the road, and I was like, you know, I took a moment of stopping, took a deep breath, I’m like, all right, I’m going to sprint over there. You know? And it’s like I’m sprinting. It looks like I’m running, but it’s like in total joy and freedom. Like I’m going to now go over there. Then I need to get their attention over there. I know how to do a good wolf whistle. And this is my way of resting. And I do a wolf whistle and get the intention of like, there’s a lot of joy and freedom. So I mean, it’s the kind of moderation, it’s the moderation which is I’m the master of my life and I’m living it fully, and I’m not a victim of my impulses, of really running away from things. At the same time, I’d say I am often doing this reality check. And for me, I think also one area that’s really hard in the law of moderation is kind of my engaged action and service and work, and I don’t know if there’s other people in the hall here who love to invest themselves in work. And we have a word in our precepts, which is to not lose ourselves in our work. And that’s really a point of practice for me, which is whenever I get deeply invested in a particular creative project or an engaged project, it’s really, am I losing myself in this? Am I still free? So it’s this kind of pulling myself up short, stopping, checking in. Am I really still the free person I am? Can I walk away from this? Am I ready to let it go? Am I ready to practice non-attachment, non-self, and so on? And also, the other question that comes up for me in the in the work, in the service is when are the moments when I kind of like, okay, I’m gonna, you know, plow into this thing and work hard and deep for a few hours. Sometimes I catch myself and I’m like, am I avoiding something? Is there something coming up? Is there a pain coming up? And some of my best redirects are when instead of than, like opening the laptop, I sit down at my low desk and sit cross-legged and journal and really do some deep in a kind of reflection and actually take care of the pain that I was actually running away from, which I thought was great bodhicitta motivation for the work. But I was actually running away from something. So it’s a kind of continual checking in, but I think it’s these loads of moments of stopping during the day and really asking ourselves, is this the life I want to live? Am I a free spirit? Am I a free agent in this moment?

Thank you, sister. My only disappointment was I thought you were going to park my car for me. I was going to give you the keys and say, can you… This is a good place to stop, Sister True Dedication. Thank you so much for joining us, part of the team. Brother, do we have time to have a short meditation? Just, we’ve heard a lot, and just to settle ourselves here. One sound of the bell in the hall and then do a short meditation.

Yes. And before we do that, maybe I just want to word it clearly the seven characteristic of manas, because I felt we thread all of them within our discussion, but just to give it a nice frame.


Thank you, dear friends, for listening on this episode on manas. And I would like to just share the seven characteristics of manas. Number one. It is appropriating a self. This is me. This is mine. Number two. Our survival instinct to protect what has been appropriated. Number three. Manas likes to avoid pain. Avoiding pain. Number four. Manas likes to seek for pleasure. Seeking pleasure. Number five. Manas also likes to ignore the danger of pleasure seeking. Ignoring danger of pleasure seeking. And number six. Manas likes to ignore the goodness of suffering. It doesn’t want to learn from the suffering. Ignoring goodness of suffering. And the last one, number seven. Manas likes to ignore the law of moderation. Thank you, dear friends.

Dear listeners, whether you’re on an airplane, on a train, sitting on your sofa, on a chair, on your cushion, or if you are going for a jog, a walk, or you are simply just cleaning your house, if you allow yourself to be still, you can find a seat, a bench, or you may even like to lay down. I invite you to connect to your breathing, inviting you to become aware of the weight of your body on the chair, on the ground, on your two feet. Bringing attention to our body, relaxing our body. And as you breathe in, become aware this is my inbreath. As you breathe out, become aware this is my outbreath. This is inbreath. This is outbreath. We don’t have to force our breathing. If the breath is short, allow it to be short. If the breath is long, allow it to be long. Breathing in. I take refuge in my inbreath from the beginning to the end. As I breathe out, I take refuge in my outbreath. From the beginning to the end. One with inbreath. One with outbreath. As I breathe in, I’m in touch with the stillness that has arrived. Breathing out, I allow myself to be in this stillness. Stillness arriving, allowing myself to be in stillness. As I breathe in, connecting to my whole body in this stillness. As I breathe out, I relax my whole body. Smiling to my body. Aware of body. Relaxing body. As I breathe in, I smile to my manas. As I breathe out, I accept all the tendency that it has. With mindfulness, I’ll be attentive, caring and compassionate towards myself. Breathing in, I offer myself loving kindness. Breathing out, I smile with acceptance to myself. Loving kindness, a smile of acceptance.

Thank you, dear listeners. Thank you, dear community, for joining us. Thank you, Jo. Thank you, Sister True Dedication.

See you next time.

The way out is in.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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