This month we will be exploring the next link in the chain of Dependent Origination – Mental Formations (MFs). MFs are connected to ignorance from the past and consciousness in the present. They are the volitional impulses, habits, assumptions and fabrications of the mind and are developed from our past conditioning. The best way to get a sense of how MFs work is to think of them as the imprints or impressions on our mind. They determine how we see the world and what we believe is true.
When these impulses or impressions arise out of ignorance – they push us towards further ignorance or suffering. Mostly because we never question the truth of our impressions about life/experience. We simply follow the impulses as if our impulses are somehow telling us the truth about the moment. In fact, the impulses and/or impressions are really only telling, or to be more precise, reminding us about what we thought before.
MFs can be physical, verbal and mental (even though they are all referred to as MFs). They all relate to the impressions, habits and/or impulses relative to some source. Physical formations are relative to the bodily sense doors. Verbal formations are relative to speech and mental formations are relative to thought. They can also be “good” or “bad”.
“Good” formations arise out of the cultivation of wisdom about the true nature of existence through the felt sense awareness of the 3 Characteristics and the 4 Noble Truths. They are considered good because they can interrupt or change our course and lead us away from suffering towards skillful means. “Bad” formations arise from past ignorance. They are considered bad because they are habitual and continue to lead us directly towards suffering by strengthening our persistent unskillful actions.
Additionally, MFs are related to kamma. They are the intention behind action. In Dhamma, intention to act is what leads to action so it is considered the same as acting. This means we are responsible for our intentions before we act and the impact of any action we intended to take – even if we didn’t intend the specific impact that occurred.
Finally, these MFs are connected to our past actions and usually are part of our unconscious awareness. This is why it’s nearly impossible to stop ourselves from doing harmful habits. We have to cultivate the capacity to feel the impulse and not react out of habit. It takes practice and time to not follow our impulses.
This is why we meditate. We feel the impulse to scratch an itch, to move the body, to distract ourselves in thoughts or to stop meditating outright But we practice not following these impulses. Not because we’re such good yogis. We do it because if we practice enough with resisting the urge to scratch, to move, get lost in thoughts or to get up, we can train our minds how to resist the urge around much bigger issues like harmful reactivity, destructive behaviors and/or manipulative & intimidating habits.