7 min read

Snippet | Go As A Sangha: Collective Consciousness

Image of people walking through the forest together.
Walking Meditation. Photo by Rob Walsh

As we continue to find ourselves in a polarized world, I want you to know, dear reader, that you have the power to affect change, even with simply training the way that you think.

When I think of an issue that is global in scale, it can be easy to have the thought, “oh, my actions can’t possibly make an impact.” This thought can arise up when I think of war, oppression, and climate change, to name a few. It can lead me down a path of inaction.

In this post, I’ll look at how our thinking is the base from which our actions spring. It impacts our interactions with our partners, families, friends, and community. It deeply influences what we inspire in others - and that’s the key here.

You have the power to contribute to making a shift in our collective consciousness towards peace, compassion, understanding, and love.

Today’s post: a “dharma snippet”

I’m trying something new today - I’m calling it a “Dharma Snippet”.

Dharma is the Sanskrit word for teachings used in Plum Village. I’m using the word snippet to communicate the idea that this post is intended to be a short, bite size, thought.

The idea is to bring you, my dear reader, along with me on my journey of forming bigger, more flushed out, blog posts. In the past, I have collected little snippets, like the one below, and then seen how a few of them come together to help articulate a larger idea. The idea with posting snippets is to help get some ideas out there for you to enjoy.

This is a first, so please let me know how you like it! Maybe I’ll continue posting snippets in the future 🙂

Today’s snippet is inspired by a section of Episode 28 of the podcast, The Way Out Is In, titled “Understanding How Our Mind Works” (starting at approximately 32:33). In the podcast, Sr. Lang Nghiem talks with Jo Confino about store consciousness and how our thoughts, feelings, and actions have an impact on the world.

Go As A River: The Community Within

In some ways, this post is a follow-up to Go as a river, part 1: the community within. In that post, I wrote about how we can think of ourselves as flowing with 2 rivers daily - one “within” and one “without”.

I wrote that we can think of the river “within” as being made up of our body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These domains, that make up who we are, are all interconnected - they influence one another (they inter-are). The states that arise in each domain are impermanent - our body is constantly changing and waves of experience come and go. We can learn to ride those waves to learn to live life with more clarity, fullness, and equanimity.

I can learn to “go as a river” with everything that makes up “me.” Rather than trying to resist something that arises in a domain - say, for example, pain in my body - I can try to flow with that experience. If I can do that, the pain often subsides quicker and is less impactful.

To dive deeper into those ideas, about the river "within", feel free to bookmark the post linked above. Read on for the beginning of my discussion of the river "without".

Go As A River: Store Consciousness

We can think of the river “without” (outside ourselves) as made up of our friends, family, communities, society, and the world around us. There is a huge amount to discuss regarding these domains, so for today I’ll focus on the idea of collective consciousness.

First, we need to look briefly at store consciousness. Store consciousness is a concept in Buddhist Psychology to help us understand how our mind works. We can think of it as sort of analogous to the concept of the subconscious in Western Psychology - although they are not exactly the same (for a full explanation of store consciousness, head over to the scholar and Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh here).

Sr. Lang Nghiem describes store consciousness as having an “indeterminant nature” - that we cannot judge it as good or bad. She says,

Store consciousness “is like a processor that processes everything that comes in…whatever you bring in, that is most likely the direction it will go in.”

Naturally, the output of a processor is dependent on what we put into it. Computer scientists understand this deeply with the art of coding. Chefs understand this through the art of cooking. We can see this as we observe our minds.

Because store consciousness is not a conscious process, we can consider the mind consciousness (similar to the conscious mind in western psychology) as the input into store consciousness. Whatever is happening in our conscious mind waters seeds in the store consciousness, which in turn become stronger and are then more likely to manifest again in the future in our consciousness.

Our thinking in the present moment builds our future thoughts and actions.

This is where mindfulness comes in.

Sr. Lang Nghiem describes mindfulness to be like the gardener, or the cultivator, of our store consciousness. By bringing awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, we can see what we are strengthening within - we can see what neuroconnections we are forming.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Think of a moment where you noticed some frustration arising (maybe someone cut you off in a long line that you’ve been waiting in) - that frustration in you is partly influenced by the actions of the other person, and the frustration is manifesting in you because this "seed" in your store consciousness has been watered before (both by others and yourself). Perhaps you were already a bit frustrated having to wait in the line in the first place? Maybe something like this has happened before? Another possible response to the situation could be compassion and understanding for this person who is in a rush - there could be a good reason they jumped ahead in the line.

The same is true for feelings of happiness and joy. When I enjoy a chocolate chip cookie, I know that my seed of joy manifests, from the store into the mind, both because it tastes delicious and because the seed of enjoying sweets is strong in me (watered by my parents, friends, and me in the past).

We have power.

At any moment, we have some agency over what seed we water in our store consciousness. We can be the gardener, the chef, or the computer scientist of our mind.

Consider store consciousness like the soil of our mind - if we plant and water beautiful flowers and plants, we are more likely to cultivate a peaceful garden.

Or consider store consciousness like a good soup - if we put nutritious and flavourful ingredients in right now, we are more likely to get a healthy and delicious meal in the future.

Or even consider store consciousness like a computer program - if we put functional code in, we are more likely to get the output we hope for (hope I’m using this analogy correctly - if you, dear reader, are a programmer, please help me out 🤓).

The same is true for collective consciousness. I can bring awareness to what seeds I water in others, through my speech and actions.

If I wish to see more peace, compassion, understanding, and love in the world, then I can actively choose to cultivate those seeds.

In order to be able to water these seeds in others, I first need to be able to water them in myself. My thoughts are the ground of my action in the world. The way out is in.

Go As A River: Collective Consciousness

In the podcast episode that inspired this post, Jo Confino summarized some of Sr. Lang Nghiem’s thoughts on this really nicely. He said (starting at 36:35),

“When we see great suffering or great problems in the world, we tend to feel powerless and say, “oh, what can I do?” But actually, what you’re saying (referring to Sr. Lang Nghiem) is exactly the opposite, each of us is very powerful because each of us contributes to the collective consciousness… Our every thought and feeling we have, has an impact on the people around us, which spreads out.

We tend to look out at the big stuff coming back to us, and we feel powerless, but if we look it at from the other direction… If I’m able to be more compassionate, more loving, more aware - that will affect everyone I come into contact with, and every one of those people who are touched, or see some value in it, or feels happy as a result of what I said, they will each touch many people.

So if we look at it from a sense of power, rather than powerlessness, we can affect great change."

Sister Lang Nghiem quoted Thich Nhat Hanh in response to this - she remembered him saying,

"Even our thoughts continue in the world."

She said he likened it to rain, “whatever quality the cloud it is, it will rain that (quality). If it’s an acidic cloud, it will rain acid rain, and that will land on the ground of our consciousness and go out in the world”.

She continued, “when we can recognize our interbeing…we feel a lot more empowered…seeing the ripple effects of our actions, even if it is only a thought.”

It’s so easy for me to see how I am influenced by the stuff out in the world - how conversations, social media, and the news influence me.

I can easily forget how powerful of an effect my actions have on the people, the communities, and the world around me.

When I remember that, as Joe said, it is empowering. We can start with our own small communities around us. We can look at what the dialogue is and what seeds it is watering in us. We can ask ourselves if our communication is bringing up seeds of anger and resentment from our store consciousness, or are we watering seeds of understanding, compassion, and peace?

We have the power to water seeds of peace. Let’s start right now.

Continuing the conversation

Joe and Sr. Lang Nghiem go on to discuss how to train our minds, and they have a wonderful discussion. I highly recommend you go and have a listen, dear reader 🙂

I will also continue this conversation in future posts about community and sangha.

As a bonus, check out this lovely song, "Go as a River" from Joe Holtaway.

As always, the resources page is here for you. All the links, resources, and references from every post are collected there.

For those reading this that aren’t subscribed, please subscribe! Knowing that there are folks out there reading helps motivate me to continue.

Please let me know what you thought about this snippet! I plan to continue the conversation about going as a sangha in future posts, and I’d love to hear more about what you are interested in exploring, dear reader.

As always, please leave a comment or message me. I’d love to hear from you 🙂.