Mental Fabrication and Its Antidote

We are usually not awake enough to see how much we add to our actual experience moment to moment. Our minds make up stories, things we want to believe, assumptions built upon past experience and, in effect, we interpret reality to suit ourselves. And unless we are very aware, this is usually a subconscious process.

To see how the mind makes up stories about what it thinks it knows, let’s consider several examples. There is a well-known experiment involving the enactment of a crime, such as a bank robbery, where numerous witnesses are involved. Almost no two eyewitnesses will give the same description of either the flow of events or the bank robbers. Law enforcement personnel know that while eyewitness testimony is helpful, it can often be of questionable accuracy and is also subject to the influence of whatever the witnesses subsequently hear about the crime. The memories will also degrade or change over time.

Our minds seem to have a natural tendency to complete an incomplete mental picture or to fill in the details of a situation or story until it makes sense to us. It is the nature of mind to create meaning, to interpret our reality so we can respond appropriately to it. It’s unfortunate that the interpretations are almost always incorrect in small or large ways because of this tendency of mind to fill in the blanks.

Another example is the Rorschach test in which a series of ink blots is used as a psychological assessment tool. The test consists of a series of indeterminate dark blots, but when test subjects are asked to interpret them, they will swear that one set of blots represents a girl taking a bath, another a pair of butterflies, and so on. A test subject often assumes that everyone else sees just what he is seeing, but in fact the interpretations are quite different from person to person.

The point is that the mind will instantly fabricate meaning to our experience which we believe is solid and unchanging. The poet Ruth Bebemeyer speaks to this:

We make up beds,
And faces,
And quarrels.
We make up poems,
And stories,
And morals.
But nothing’s more made up, one finds,
Than minds.

The Buddha’s prescription is cultivation of mindfulness for the specific purpose of exposing the otherwise hidden tendencies of mind to fabricate experience. Recently someone told me she heard her phone ring while sitting and she spent the entire sit worrying that the call must have been about one of her children being hurt. Yet, when she rushed to check her phone after the sit ended, she found that it was an ordinary call of no consequence. How many times a day can we see the mind jumping to conclusions that seem very real but are not?

Posted by Deb.