Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Opl
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Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by Opl » Mon May 04, 2020 11:07 pm

I posted this question some years ago at a theravada forum, and the response was that the mentioned (theravada) teacher was right.
In Dzogchen/Vayrayana that I later have become acquainted there seem to be a very different opinion, and since this question is still a question that often pops up in my meditations, I would like to ask the same question here. Both personal opinions and references to scriptures are very welcome

I once was at a (theravada) mini-retreat where the teacher insisted that if one really watched carefully, one would recognize that it is not possible for the mind to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. I commented that in my experience it is possible to experience a lot of stimuli simultaneously. to see "whole picture" in one glimpse, just like listening to many instruments at the same time, but he kept insisting that this was due to the fact that attention shifted at a very fast pace between objects. And that if I kept practicing I would realize this. Is what he said in accordance with buddhist teaching? I have never heard it mentioned from any teacher other than him (but I remember it from some old perception psychology which I don't know if is out dated), and it really interferes with my mindfulness when I come to think of what he said.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by heart » Tue May 05, 2020 5:44 am

Opl wrote:
Mon May 04, 2020 11:07 pm
I posted this question some years ago at a theravada forum, and the response was that the mentioned (theravada) teacher was right.
In Dzogchen/Vayrayana that I later have become acquainted there seem to be a very different opinion, and since this question is still a question that often pops up in my meditations, I would like to ask the same question here. Both personal opinions and references to scriptures are very welcome

I once was at a (theravada) mini-retreat where the teacher insisted that if one really watched carefully, one would recognize that it is not possible for the mind to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. I commented that in my experience it is possible to experience a lot of stimuli simultaneously. to see "whole picture" in one glimpse, just like listening to many instruments at the same time, but he kept insisting that this was due to the fact that attention shifted at a very fast pace between objects. And that if I kept practicing I would realize this. Is what he said in accordance with buddhist teaching? I have never heard it mentioned from any teacher other than him (but I remember it from some old perception psychology which I don't know if is out dated), and it really interferes with my mindfulness when I come to think of what he said.
It is correct, I was taught the exakt same thing by my tibetan master many years ago.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Lingpupa
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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by Lingpupa » Tue May 05, 2020 9:23 am

Warning: sheer opinion coming...

Yes, this view is out there. It does not match my experience in the slightest. For my own purposes I classify it as a pious regurgitation of a simplistic, mechanistic view of the mind.

YMMV
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Alex Wilding
Stupa in the Snow blog at http://chagchen.org/

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by heart » Tue May 05, 2020 10:16 am

Lingpupa wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 9:23 am
Warning: sheer opinion coming...

Yes, this view is out there. It does not match my experience in the slightest. For my own purposes I classify it as a pious regurgitation of a simplistic, mechanistic view of the mind.

YMMV
The shift is so fast that it seems that you are experiencing many things at the same time. I had some difficulties with this to in the beginning but I have embraced it now.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

fckw
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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by fckw » Tue May 05, 2020 11:57 am

The question shows confusion about the different points of view. The Therevada teacher was obviously speaking from an extraordinary level of mind. If you practice Therevada-Vipassana properly, you will at some point have the experience of a continuous flow of mind moments. Each one of them only contains a single object only, but is changing to the next moment immediately. This can happen many times a second, depending on how much attention you pay to the whole meditative flow of mind moments.

Your question however assumes an ordinary state of mind. Obviously, from this perspective the mind can hold more than a single object "at once". For example, during Guru-Yoga you at the same time hold the mantra and the visualization of the Guru in your mind, those two alone equate to two distinguishable objects, not one. However, this type of practice happens at a far coarser level of mind than said Vipassana practice, hence they are not comparable

Furthermore, Dzogchen - unlike Therevada-Vipassana - reaches beyond the extremely subtle impressions of time (and space), hence from the point of view of the base (which does not exist as a concept in Therevada-Vipassana) it cannot be said to hold an object or many objects "at a time" because time does not apply to the base.

So, you really should distinguish better between 1) the level of practice you are referring to, and 2) the meditative traditions/systems you are comparing, because they may simply not be comparable to each other.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by seeker242 » Tue May 05, 2020 1:34 pm

Opl wrote:
Mon May 04, 2020 11:07 pm
I once was at a (theravada) mini-retreat where the teacher insisted that if one really watched carefully, one would recognize that it is not possible for the mind to pay attention to more than one thing at a time... I commented that in my experience it is possible to experience a lot of stimuli simultaneously. to see "whole picture" in one glimpse, just like listening to many instruments at the same time, but he kept insisting that this was due to the fact that attention shifted at a very fast pace between objects. And that if I kept practicing I would realize this.
What I find interesting about this is modern day neuroscience has come to the same conclusion. :smile:

We believe we're effective at multitasking when in reality we're good at what researchers call "task-switching".

Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, says we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time.

Period.

But what we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

Says Miller, "Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not."

https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/psychol ... sking.html
One should not kill any living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite any other to kill. Do never injure any being, whether strong or weak, in this entire universe!

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by heart » Tue May 05, 2020 2:06 pm

fckw wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 11:57 am
The question shows confusion about the different points of view. The Therevada teacher was obviously speaking from an extraordinary level of mind. If you practice Therevada-Vipassana properly, you will at some point have the experience of a continuous flow of mind moments. Each one of them only contains a single object only, but is changing to the next moment immediately. This can happen many times a second, depending on how much attention you pay to the whole meditative flow of mind moments.

Your question however assumes an ordinary state of mind. Obviously, from this perspective the mind can hold more than a single object "at once". For example, during Guru-Yoga you at the same time hold the mantra and the visualization of the Guru in your mind, those two alone equate to two distinguishable objects, not one. However, this type of practice happens at a far coarser level of mind than said Vipassana practice, hence they are not comparable

Furthermore, Dzogchen - unlike Therevada-Vipassana - reaches beyond the extremely subtle impressions of time (and space), hence from the point of view of the base (which does not exist as a concept in Therevada-Vipassana) it cannot be said to hold an object or many objects "at a time" because time does not apply to the base.

So, you really should distinguish better between 1) the level of practice you are referring to, and 2) the meditative traditions/systems you are comparing, because they may simply not be comparable to each other.
It has nothing to do with levels of practice or levels of teaching, it is just how an ordinary deluded mind works.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by WesleyP » Tue May 05, 2020 5:51 pm

fckw wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 11:57 am
The question shows confusion about the different points of view. The Therevada teacher was obviously speaking from an extraordinary level of mind. If you practice Therevada-Vipassana properly, you will at some point have the experience of a continuous flow of mind moments. Each one of them only contains a single object only, but is changing to the next moment immediately. This can happen many times a second, depending on how much attention you pay to the whole meditative flow of mind moments.

Your question however assumes an ordinary state of mind. Obviously, from this perspective the mind can hold more than a single object "at once". For example, during Guru-Yoga you at the same time hold the mantra and the visualization of the Guru in your mind, those two alone equate to two distinguishable objects, not one. However, this type of practice happens at a far coarser level of mind than said Vipassana practice, hence they are not comparable

Furthermore, Dzogchen - unlike Therevada-Vipassana - reaches beyond the extremely subtle impressions of time (and space), hence from the point of view of the base (which does not exist as a concept in Therevada-Vipassana) it cannot be said to hold an object or many objects "at a time" because time does not apply to the base.

So, you really should distinguish better between 1) the level of practice you are referring to, and 2) the meditative traditions/systems you are comparing, because they may simply not be comparable to each other.
Good Post! Well written. :smile:

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by bhava » Tue May 05, 2020 6:05 pm

According to the theravada Abhidharma, yes, one single object. According to yogachara point of view however, this is not the case. The example given is a drum with many stones beating on it same time. Yogachara Abhidharma gives a different view. However I cannot give a textual reference. My kind teacher used to explain it in that way. I think it could be possible to trace it.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by KathyLauren » Tue May 05, 2020 7:10 pm

The mind can only be aware of one thing at a time. But it is very good at time-sharing. Just like a time-sharing computer can appear to be doing many processes simultaneously, when in fact it is only executing one instruction at a time, so too the mind can appear to be doing many things at once while really only paying attention to one of them at a time. Like the computer, it switches rapidly between tasks.

We can, however, do things without paying attention. I have found, for example, that I can (and habitually do) count things unconsciously, with no awareness that I am doing it. Similarly, most people have had the experience of having driven some distance with no awareness of having done so.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by fckw » Tue May 05, 2020 7:38 pm

heart wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 2:06 pm
It has nothing to do with levels of practice or levels of teaching, it is just how an ordinary deluded mind works.
/magnus
This is redundant to what I said, because the mentioned level of practice for Therevada-Vipassana, where it is possible to observe that the mind indeed contains only one single object per mind moment, is still before stream entry level therefore it must be deluded by definition.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Tue May 05, 2020 7:40 pm

At a certain point it becomes a time vs. space question, so when we say "at a time", this of and within itself carries a pretty significant assumption that can be examined in meditation.
"...if you think about how many hours, months and years of your life you've spent looking at things, being fascinated by things that have now passed away, then how wonderful to spend even five minutes looking into the nature of your own mind."

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by heart » Tue May 05, 2020 7:42 pm

fckw wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 7:38 pm
heart wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 2:06 pm
It has nothing to do with levels of practice or levels of teaching, it is just how an ordinary deluded mind works.
/magnus
This is redundant to what I said, because the mentioned level of practice for Therevada-Vipassana, where it is possible to observe that the mind indeed contains only one single object per mind moment, is still before stream entry level therefore it must be deluded by definition.
My teacher is a Dzogchen master.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by fckw » Tue May 05, 2020 8:42 pm

heart wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 7:42 pm
fckw wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 7:38 pm
heart wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 2:06 pm
It has nothing to do with levels of practice or levels of teaching, it is just how an ordinary deluded mind works.
/magnus
This is redundant to what I said, because the mentioned level of practice for Therevada-Vipassana, where it is possible to observe that the mind indeed contains only one single object per mind moment, is still before stream entry level therefore it must be deluded by definition.
My teacher is a Dzogchen master.

/magnus
That's pretty cool! :thumbsup: In the post above I was talking about Therevada-Vipassana. My teachers, when I still practiced Therevada-Vipassana, were Therevadins.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by fckw » Tue May 05, 2020 8:45 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 7:40 pm
At a certain point it becomes a time vs. space question, so when we say "at a time", this of and within itself carries a pretty significant assumption that can be examined in meditation.
Yes, exactly. Yet such instructions don't exist in Therevada-Vipassana. At least, not to my knowledge. And thus one of the very relevant differences between HYT-Vajrayana and Therevada-Vipassana practice.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by kusulu » Wed May 06, 2020 12:13 am

Who's to say that time is truly linear in the first place? I find the argument collapses on that point. It's not so much that "there is" only one thought at a time, rather "how well" you attend to that "experience", "reality" whatever tag you want to put on it.

:quoteunquote:

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by heart » Wed May 06, 2020 5:49 am

fckw wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 8:42 pm
heart wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 7:42 pm
fckw wrote:
Tue May 05, 2020 7:38 pm

This is redundant to what I said, because the mentioned level of practice for Therevada-Vipassana, where it is possible to observe that the mind indeed contains only one single object per mind moment, is still before stream entry level therefore it must be deluded by definition.
My teacher is a Dzogchen master.

/magnus
That's pretty cool! :thumbsup: In the post above I was talking about Therevada-Vipassana. My teachers, when I still practiced Therevada-Vipassana, were Therevadins.
My point was that it has nothing to do with levels of practice, theravada or dzogchen is exactly the same when talking about ordinary deluded mind. It can hold only one object at the time.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by fckw » Wed May 06, 2020 7:17 am

heart wrote:
Wed May 06, 2020 5:49 am
My point was that it has nothing to do with levels of practice, theravada or dzogchen is exactly the same when talking about ordinary deluded mind. It can hold only one object at the time.
Ok - and I pointed out to the person who created the initial post that during Guru-Yoga practice you - apparently - hold 2 objects in your mind at the same time, failing to realize that mind in fact does not hold 2 objects. If you'd actually look very, very, very closely while doing Guru-Yoga but applying extraordinary levels of mindfulness as achieved e.g. during advanced Therevada-Vipasana practice you'd eventually find out that in fact you don't hold 2 objects in your mind at the same time, but the mind is switching between objects. As you however typically during Guru-yoga don't apply such advanced mindfulness you cannot see this. Hence, the influence of "levels of practice" on the realization whether or not the mind - apparently - can hold one or several objects at a time.
Going even further: even at those extraordinary levels of practice obviously the subject-object dualism still occurrs (as does the impression of time), therefore the mind is deluded also at those levels.

I still don't see a contradiction between your and my argument.

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by heart » Wed May 06, 2020 10:57 am

fckw wrote:
Wed May 06, 2020 7:17 am
heart wrote:
Wed May 06, 2020 5:49 am
My point was that it has nothing to do with levels of practice, theravada or dzogchen is exactly the same when talking about ordinary deluded mind. It can hold only one object at the time.
Ok - and I pointed out to the person who created the initial post that during Guru-Yoga practice you - apparently - hold 2 objects in your mind at the same time, failing to realize that mind in fact does not hold 2 objects. If you'd actually look very, very, very closely while doing Guru-Yoga but applying extraordinary levels of mindfulness as achieved e.g. during advanced Therevada-Vipasana practice you'd eventually find out that in fact you don't hold 2 objects in your mind at the same time, but the mind is switching between objects. As you however typically during Guru-yoga don't apply such advanced mindfulness you cannot see this. Hence, the influence of "levels of practice" on the realization whether or not the mind - apparently - can hold one or several objects at a time.
Going even further: even at those extraordinary levels of practice obviously the subject-object dualism still occurrs (as does the impression of time), therefore the mind is deluded also at those levels.

I still don't see a contradiction between your and my argument.
Are you saying that the understanding of mind degenerate the higher the level of practice is?

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: Can the mind only hold a single object at a time?

Post by fckw » Wed May 06, 2020 11:39 am

heart wrote:
Wed May 06, 2020 10:57 am

Are you saying that the understanding of mind degenerate the higher the level of practice is?

/magnus
What does your Dzogchen master say about this?

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