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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Antahkarana, The Inner Organ of Awareness and Mindfulness Meditation

 मनो बुद्धिरहङ्कार- श्चित्तं करणमान्तरम् । संशयो निश्चयो गर्वः स्मरणं विषया इमे ॥ अन्तःकरणं त्रिविधम्

This is a definition of our inner organ of awareness called antahkarana (अन्तःकरणं )in Indian philosophy. What an amazing understanding of our mental functions, expressed in so few words, centuries ago!

This “non-physical” organ of the mind called antahkarana has four components, and they are listed with their corresponding functions  in this sloka (or better called sutra since it is an aphorism, packing lots of information in a few words).

First is manas (मनो) whose function is doubt (संशयो); desires and feelings also belong here.

Second is buddhi (बुद्धि), is intellect including reasoning, judgement and therefore certainty/conclusion निश्चयो.

Third is ahankara (अहङ्कार) or ego whose function is ownership (I, me, and mine)indicated by the word गर्वः

Fourth is chittha (चित्तं) which stands for will, mood, memory (स्मरणं) etc., which drives action.

What is antahkarana? (अन्तःकरणं)  It is a psychological component of the physiological mind. It is subject to changes and fluctuations resulting in different perceptions at different times. Even if perceptions are proper, it can falsely attribute properties to the objects of perception, resulting in illusions and wrong conclusions. It is also the repository of virtues and vices of the evolved mental functions and pleasure and pain experienced in the body and  of fear and desire in the field of basic emotions.

But how is antahkarana aware of all these states? What is the ground on which these become evident? What is the screen on which the movie is projected? That “ground” is the object of spiritual quest. It is, however, the subject itself! “The seeker is the sought” says the Vedas. 

When understood from the point of view of modern neurosciences, manas indicates functions of the basal parts of the brain which react to desires, fear, anger etc. We call it the reptilian brain. Buddhi corresponds to the higher cortical functions of the brain called the executive functions. This is the function of the neo-cortex or the newly arrived brain. Ahankara corresponds to the insular cortex and other medial parts of the cortex of the brain connecting all the sensations as belonging to one’s body requiring action. It is the ego, personal self. Chittha corresponds to higher functions making one’s decision and eliciting a will to act based on memory, mood, and judgement.

Neuroscience tells us that our primitive, reptilian brain registers the emotions related to events and sensations and is made for the organism to survive. It is reflexive in nature. The middle brain, which is present in all mammals and birds, is where internal and external sensations are always relayed through and remembered. These parts function to store and retrieve memory to explore, learn, to seek food or a mate or avoid dangers, based on prior experience. The inner surface of the brain and the front end have centers involved in registering all the inner and outer sensation as belonging to this body which experiences them, helps make sense of them, and help take a perspective of the surroundings and of other people. Finally comes the areas of the brain doing the highest functions of the brain in judging, prioritizing, planning, and executing.

It is very interesting that modern neuroscience shows that the emotional brain and the executive brain do not have direct communication lines. However, the “emotional brain” and the “ownership brain” do. They exchange information. The only way the emotional brain can be controlled is through the “ownership brain”.  Therefore, all the perceptions, external and internal, are by nature constructed to act quickly, since that is the “survival” mode. For a thoughtful response the message has to go through the “ownership” part which then can request orders from the “executive brain”!

Hope this shows how mindful meditation methods help to make these connections. In mindful meditation we are asked to accept the feelings, emotions, and sensations without judging, without clinging or ignoring, owning them and looking at them deeply (vipassana).  By accepting them and owning them we can bring helpful communication between the executive, reflective part of our mind with the reflexive, emotional part of it.

Buddhism is practical and helps to learn how to live with peace and harmony – with oneself, with the outside world and with nature. It shows how our life is shaped in this world by causes and conditions, how we ourselves are responsible for creating those conditions by our actions, and how our mind creates its own ideas about others and the world based on our emotions, beliefs, bias, and dogmas. It teaches how look deeply and see how we are trapped in our habitual reflexive responses and how we can step out of these automatic, unwholesome responses to actions based on reflective thinking and understanding.

This is mind-training. It is neuroplasticity in modern terminology with strong empirical support. At present we use mindfulness practices mainly to reduce stress, relax muscles, relieve pain and anxiety and practical living, behavioral modification, and general well-being. But this takes care of only the body and the mind.

We can and we  must go further and use it for spiritual enlightenment also.



Ramesh said...

Interesting indeed. The basis in neuroscience that you have explained makes the concept of "antahkarana" that much more grounded. Of course I had no idea of the concept - that is normal when I read your blog; I learn something I had no clue about !

In your recent posts, I see you also exploring Buddhism. I know of your expertise and understanding of Hindu philosophy, but you are now also drawing lessons from Buddhism. Would be interested in understanding how you ventured there.

Balu said...

Thank you, Ramesh for your interest and comment.

I have actually written a small piece on the strengths of Buddhist psychology and why I think this is more likely to appeal to people from all traditions. Now that you have asked, I will make it the next post.

Thank you again