The 5 Constants of the Mind

The Five Constants of the Mind

Over previous weeks we have explored the nature of mind in a raw sense and looked at Mind watching.

We can now take this a stage further. After the Buddha’s death, a text was prepared by his disciples. It captures the essence of his teaching on mind. This teaching can be found through the Pali cannon (the Buddhist bible) but this text pulls it together. It is called the Abhidharma. The text sought to identify and investigate all of the differential mental objects and states that our minds can have. It identifies 5 key states that are known as the 5 constants. Then, it digs in deeper and discusses a total of 51 states and objects which are all variances on the 5 main constants. Today, we are looking at these 5 constants.

They are –

Contact, Feeling, Interpretation, Will, Attention

Contact (Sparsa)

This is the initial meeting with one of our senses. It’s easy when we consider this to focus on the organ that first encounters a sense object. However, we don’t actually ‘hear’ with our ears. Yes, they pick up the sound waves in the air. But they don’t, themselves have any recognition or understanding of sound. Remember the Koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”. Contact is the first encounter of any sense object with the mind and we often describe this as the Sense Doors. Each of our sense has a ‘door’. A way in to the mind if you like. At this stage we are talking about raw awareness. Without recognition, labeling, without any reaction. Just the simple experience of the object, whether it a chemical entering the nose or a particular arrangement and frequency of light as it bounces off an object and enters the eye. At this stage, pure awareness is very difficult to achieve but not impossible.

Feeling (Vedanas)

The is the initial stage where there is a definite potential for awareness of the sense connection. The mind firstly makes a choice. Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. But it may also result in deeper emotional reactions driven by past-life experiences. The Vedanas are a wonderful place to investigate with our mindful awareness. Even out on the street, we can study the incoming sense objects and our initial reaction to them. Concentration is needed as the moments are fleeting.

Interpretation (Samjna)

The mind now makes sense of the raw data and also starts to act on any emotional connection made with the object. It justifies the Vedanas (the choice made) using past experience, increasing any associations made and the whole experience is now much more conscious. At this stage the experience will be anywhere between fully conscious and fully in the subconscious. We will only be consciously aware of the sense experience at this stage if we choose to be. It is however at this stage that the sense experience is no longer just a raw and direct experience. It is being interpreted and embellished by our minds history. Bringing in any preconceptions, prejudices, deep held beliefs, desires and aversion. Now the sense experience has become something else. It is very much our representation of the experience.

Will (Cetana)

This is where our response to the sense experience can be acted upon. Generally we either move toward (in a conscious sense) the sense object or away from it. It includes emotion, desire, aversion and volitional action. Of course, even at this stage the subconscious mind can be the greatest influence here, sometimes for very good reason. Think about when you unwittingly touch a hotplate! We go through all of these stages extremely rapidly, finally pulling the hand away. This all happens in a split second, but we are still travelling through them all.

Attention (Manaskara)

This is the focusing of our awareness on some particular thing. This may sound simple but there is a key point that we can contemplate on here. The ability to have this attention, this focused awareness exists because we have this concept of ‘me’. I’ll drop that in there and allow the reader to contemplate this over the coming weeks and we may come back to it in a meditation soon.

The ability to focus on sense objects is key to meditation, because we usually are considering just the main 5 senses. Sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. In Buddhist thinking we have a 6th sense. The mind itself. So we look at these 5 main constants in relation to the mind as a sense. We see that the mental objects that arise in the mind are the triggers for these 5 constants. Contact, Feeling, Interpretation, Will, Attention and awareness all are present when a mental object such as a thought or a memory travel through the mind. These in turn produce new mental objects, all influenced by our life history. So the whole mind-environment is deeply influencing how we see and connect with the world. One of the aims of Buddhist meditation is to strip all this back so that we can see the world as it is.

The 5 constants don’t exist independently. We shouldn’t see them as necessarily sequential. They actually are present in the mind and arising all the time. They are called constants for a reason.

Think of a rainbow. At first glance we see separate colours. But as we look in to the rainbow in detail, we see that the colours aren’t separate but merge in to each other and depend on each other. You cannot tell where one colour ends and the other begins.


So we meditate on the 5 constants. Bringing awareness to the mind and mental objects we use concentrated awareness to watch the 5 constants arising.