For students and practitioners of yoga and tantric meditation, we need a simple and clear definition of what is meant by the word “mind”. In the traditional and modern literature of the many esoteric traditions, the word “mind” is used in various and sometimes confusing ways. It is often mixed up with what would properly be called the principle of “consciousness” or the experience of embodied sentient awareness.
To address this ambiguity I have found the following to be a practical working definition of “mind”: “Mind”, (n) is the sum of the activities and mechanisms that give rise to our though-forms and feelings: The contents of consciousness, but not Consciousness itself.
This includes the sensory perceptions as encoded in our brain and nervous system. It includes all of the “processing” that creates consciously-accessible content. It includes the processing and encoded brain activities that represent our past memories, our imaginative constructs of the future, and our conceptual representations of objects and events. This includes our constructed conceptual image of our self. That is what I call the “operating-relative self” (or ego), which is but a conceptual construct within the body-mind. That is not the “Self” that is our true and abiding nature, our highest and imperishable Self.
What is not included in this definition of “mind” is the power of conscious awareness itself. Consciousness, the ever-present field of awareness or sentience is prior-to and not dependent upon the operation of mind. It does not arise from the neurologic processing of the brain. (Even though many neuro-cognitive researchers think otherwise.) Rather, Consciousness is the universal and fundamental underlying principle of all existence.
“This entire world, and our very own Self, arises, manifests and abides within the Absolute Light of Consciousness”, the Tantrāloka declares. And simultaneously, Consciousness is the fundamental essence-nature of our own personal Self. It is the ever-present (yet often overlooked) field of personal living awareness within which all our experiences of life arise and exist. Mind, via the brain and nervous system, produces the contents of thought. But consciousness is the source of the experience of those contents.
So if mind is the source and the sum of all of our thoughts, the content of our consciousness. Then consciousness is that essential faculty which illuminates, sees and knows that content. That is what is meant by “the Light of Consciousness”. It is that by which all experience is actually known. And it is taught that there is actually no other existing light. For even the sun would not “shine’ except that it is illuminated, seen and known in that Light of Consciousness. (From the Tantrāloka, Ahnika I)
This definition and perspective on “mind” is confirmed in the teachings of classical Yoga and Samkhya philosophies. In their scheme of the 25 tattvas or “reality principles”, the highest principle is Consciousness itself in its personal aspect called “Purusha.” That is the individual or personal aspect of pure Consciousness.
Beneath this, in the realm of relative existence, are three tattvas that together comprise the “mind”. First there is the “buddhi” which the most subtle level of the relative mind. It corresponds to what western psychology would call “sub-conscious” in that much of it is not readily accessible. It includes all of the subtle memory-traces (samskaras) from our past experiences. And it determines what is permitted to arise up into the level of our accessible thoughts. Second is is the “ahamkara”. This means the “I maker” or ego. It stamps our experience with the recognition of belonging to our self: “This is my experience.” “These are my actions.” etc. Finally is the “manas”: This is the operating-mind of consciously accessible thought, concept formation, emotional coloring, and executive organizing, etc.
So these three, buddhi ahamkara and manas, are the 3 levels of function that together comprise the “mind”. But Consciousness itself (“purusha”, or “atma” in the later tantric non-dual view) stands apart, ever-free, ever-radiant, in its own illuminating Light of Consciousness. This distinction is of the utmost importance for us.