Excerpt from “Habit of Happiness”, by Thich Nhat Hanh
There are five mental formations called universal. They are present in every consciousness, in every mental formation … Contact, Feeling, Attention, Perception, Volition.
The first one is touch, mental contact. Sparsha.
When eyes and an object come together, there is contact between them, producing eye consciousness. Eye consciousness begins with contact. So mental contact is the first thing that manifests as a perception. Organ and object bring about consciousness. And consciousness is made first of all with mental contact.
It can be followed right away by feeling: vedana.
The feeling may be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.
The third mental formation is called attention: manaskara.
This has the function of drawing your attention to an object. When the bell master offers the half sound, your attention is drawn to that sound. That is manaskara, attention. Several objects of at-tention may happen at the same time—three, four, a dozen—but you’re free to choose one object to bring your attention to.
And with mindfulness you can make a good choice. Instead of listening to another sound, you’re listening to the bell. Breathing in and breathing out, just focus your attention only on the bell. Listening to the bell can help you to create the energy of concentration that can help you to calm down the body and the mind. So that kind of attention is good in nature. It’s called appropriate attention. You choose to focus your attention on something that is wholesome, that will be of benefit. A good practitioner always practices appropriate attention. The Sanskrit word is yoniso manaskara.
But when we allow our attention to go to objects that do not benefit our peace and practice, it’s called inappropriate attention. It’s called ayoniso manaskara. So as a good practitioner, mindfulness helps us to focus our attention only on the objects of benefit, and that can come before contact (sparsha) or after contact. After contact, you may see that this is not a good object of attention, and you may change the object of attention. So manaskara can come before sparsha or after sparsha. These five universal mental formations are always present with consciousness, any kind of consciousness. They are a series, and they bring about a perception.
The fourth universal mental formation is perception.
What you are in touch with, what you are feeling, appears in your mind as a sign that suggests a name, like: flower. This is to have an idea about the object of your feeling. When this happens, bring your mindfulness to that perception, because it might be a wrong perception, like mistaking a piece of rope for a snake. Wrong perception is always possible, and can bring about fear, anger, irritation, and so on. Mindfulness can help you avoid wrong perception. The intervention of mindfulness is very important on the path of thinking, on the path of feeling.
The fifth universal mental formation is volition, cetana, resolution, intention.
You have the concept, the idea, the perception of the object of your contact. You want to decide whether to possess it or to push it away. This is a decision, an intention, to accept or reject.
A New Neural Pathway
These five mental formations are always together. They form a neural pathway that can lead to either suffering or happiness. In your brain, there are many neural pathways that you are used to traveling on. For example, when you come in contact with something that habitually triggers a feeling in you, like the feeling of anger, your frequent traveling on that neural pathway turns it into a habit—the habit of suffering. With the intervention of mindfulness, you can erase that neural pathway and open up another pathway that leads to understanding and happiness.
With mindfulness and concentration intervening in the process of perception, a new neural pathway is created that does not lead to suffering. Instead it can lead to understanding and compassion, and happiness and healing. As a good practitioner you know how to make a new pathway in your brain. Our brains have the power of neural plasticity; they can change. Old neural pathways can disappear and new ones open so that you have access to happiness and compassion.
You have many good seeds of happiness and joy in you. You have the seed of compassion, of understanding, of love in you, and you practice in order to get in touch with appropriate attention, stopping your thinking, enjoying the pleasant feeling that is possible in the here and the now. You recognize the many conditions of happiness that are here, in order to make this moment into a pleasant moment. This is possible. While you are doing so, the healing takes place. You don’t have to make any effort because you have the habit of happiness. All of us have the capacity to be happy. Suffering is not enough!