Which specific process determines where consciousness will alight?


As the title indicates, I don’t know how the mind “picks” which sensation to focus on. Considering the huge amount of sense-data being received by the mind each moment, which condition directs consciousness to alight in a specific range of the whole set of sense-data?

I’ve read that kamma influences where will the “seed” of consciousness grow. But what does this mean, exactly?

In some sources, I’ve read that “past” namarupa gives to consciousness the content to be known in the present, which allows contact to arise. If that’s the case, can we say that where we’ve placed our attention (as a factor of nama in namarupa) in the past determines where will consciousness will alight in each moment?

Some may argue that the intensity of an stimulus might be the main factor in determining where will condition alight. But what will happen when multiple sense-objects have a similar “strength”, or when such “strength” is not objectively defined? For instance, what happens when someone is listening to some music? A singer attention might “fall” on the qualities of the singer’s voice in the song; a bassist may auomatically pay attention to the bass and the technique behind the player; and a “casual” listener might just hear and pay attention to the overall song.

In sum, I’m asking about the processes that might act as “filter” to the whole range of sense-data input to be processed in the mind, and that determine which portion of that amount of information might be felt as a vedana.

Thanks in advance for your time.

Kind regards!


The process is a combination of attention and mindfulness:

“In part, right mindfulness and appropriate attention serve overlapping
functions on the path, particularly in line with the fourth establishing of
mindfulness: that of choosing which phenomena and tasks to focus on in the
present moment, and which ones to ignore. However, these qualities start from
different functions: memory in the case of mindfulness, choice of what to attend
to in the case of attention. Only when they are trained, through the addition of
other mental qualities, to become right mindfulness and appropriate attention do
their functions overlap. Even then, though, right mindfulness covers a broader
range of functions, encompassing all the ways in which memory can be brought
to bear on the purpose at hand.”—Thanissaro


Thanks for your answer, Paul.

But what happens in the case of a “regular” person, which is not trained at all in the Dhamma?

How does the mind “decides” (I know it’s a bad word, but it’s just to make the question clearer) what stimuli will be “catched” by consciousness, giving rise to vedana?

Kind regards!

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For the untrained person, there is the likelihood it will be unwise attention. For the trained mind , wise attention gives rise to all the beneficial achievements of the path:

“In a more general sense, the term appears frequently in the Suttas as yoniso-manasikára, ‘wise (or reasoned, methodical) attention’ or ‘wise reflection’. It is said, in M. 2, to counteract the cankers (ásava, q.v.); it is a condition for the arising of right view (s. M. 43), of Stream-entry (s. sotápattiyanga), and of the factors of enlightenment (s. S. XLVI, 2.49,51). - ‘Unwise attention’ (ayoniso-manasikára) leads to the arising of the cankers (s. M. 2) and of the five hindrances (s. S. XLVI, 2.51).”—Nyanatiloka

The mind decides through the function of memory in mindfulness, where dhamma is applied to present events, and training in that strengthens wise attention.


Perhaps you could say the underlying tendencies (anusayā) determine where consciousness is established. In SN 12.38 (at SN II 65):

“Bhikkhus, what one intends, and what one plans, and whatever one has a tendency towards: this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis there is a support for the establishing of consciousness."

In SN 12.39 (at SN II 66):

“If, bhikkhus, one does not intend, and one does not plan, but one still has a tendency towards something, this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis, there is a support for the establishing of consciousness."

These tendencies are reinforced by intending and planning. Thus it seems that intentional action (kamma) plays a role in the conditioning (in this context, the anusayā) that determine where consciousness will become established. As is said in AN 3.77 (at AN I 224),

Thus, Ānanda, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture for their intention and aspiration to be established in an [inferior/middling/superior] realm.


Thanks Christopher!

That was exactly what I was looking for!

Kind regards!

(I replied to paul1 instead. Thanks paul1 for your answers as well!)


The trained mind:

‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen (greed, hatred, delusion) does not arise, or arisen delusion is abandoned?’ ‘Appropriate attention,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends appropriately, unarisen delusion does not arise and arisen delusion is abandoned. This is the reason, this the cause, why unarisen delusion does not arise and arisen delusion is abandoned.’"—AN 3.68


I like the answer by @Christopher, but for a simpler answer we can just say “all things are rooted in desire” as in: SuttaCentral


It seems perhaps one might view the mind as the actor, the sense data as the object or objects, and processing information as the verb. But…

What if sentience is not a noun, but a verb? rather than identifying a Self-doing-X, what if one lets go of noun- like “things” and recognize processing, causes, conditioning?

"Which specific process determines where consciousness will alight? " indeed!

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When a practitioner starts to think of the path in terms of movement, it is a sign they are entering the thought stage of insight, because mindfulness deals with interpreting moving external events. But the very fact of dynamics determines there must also be stillness, because dynamics work on opposites. So at the point of attention to the object, an informed choice must be made. In the case of the untrained person, this choice is driven by ignorance and leads to the continuing path of rebirth. The samsaric momentum is ubiquitous unless the practitioner takes measures to counteract it. So experience can be purposeful, but it must be made to be so by making right choices.

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Thank you for encouragement. :slight_smile:

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This is correct, the way to experience the path is to graduate to viewing it in terms of dynamics. When the beginner first approaches the teaching, they view all the path structures as linear and that is a normal familiarization with terminology. But later with more experience they launch into applying a cyclic interpretation, for example the fourth foundation of mindfulness turns back and interacts with the preceding three, depending what the mind is focused on at the time. All the path structures can be viewed as cyclic, the seven factors of awakening being divided into three active and three passive factors which need to be kept in balance, with mindfulness the governing principle (AN 10.58, SN 46.53). The reason the breath is the basic meditation subject is because it is moving, and when viewed correctly impermanence is also moving as it proceeds through the cycle of birth, growth, maturity; decline, ageing, death, opposing the static conception of continuity (the view that things will continue in their present form), the hallmark of conventional reality, from which security is erroneously derived by the ordinary uninstructed person, only to be shocked when impermanence emerges. This is abbreviated to rise and fall, and the two parts of the breath are ultimately seen as an example of the cycle of impermanence. In the six exercises under the first foundation of mindfulness, the first three are concerned with mindfulness regarding active life, and the last three concerned with death. So viewing the path structures as dynamics opens up a new understanding which leads to direct experience.


Would you kindly correct that citation? (AN 10.58 was the one referenced by Stu.)

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It’s the correct citation. The factors in AN 10. 58 are more comprehensively explained in AN 4.245, where mindfulness is shown not to be passive, but connected with the endeavors of right effort:

"And how is mindfulness the governing principle? The mindfulness that ‘I will make complete any training with regard to good conduct that is not yet complete, or I will protect with discernment any training with regard to good conduct that is complete’ is well established right within. The mindfulness that ‘I will make complete any training with regard to the basics of the holy life that is not yet complete, or I will protect with discernment any training with regard to the basics of the holy life that is complete’ is well established right within. The mindfulness that ‘I will scrutinize with discernment any Dhamma that is not yet scrutinized, or I will protect with discernment any Dhamma that has been scrutinized’ is well established right within. The mindfulness that ‘I will touch through release any Dhamma that is not yet touched, or I will protect with discernment any Dhamma that has been touched’ is well established right within.

“This is how mindfulness is the governing principle.”

The supervisory role of mindfulness in the seven factors of awakening and their active and passive factors are described in SN 46.53.


"One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong view & for entering into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view.”—MN 117

This cyclic dynamic of the noble eightfold path is where through the application of right effort (directed or governed by right mindfulness), one form of right view (here also referred to as relatively ‘wrong view’) is abandoned to be replaced by a ‘more right’ view.

Alternatively, when a linear approach to the NEP is taken and one factor gives rise to the next, then the erroneous conclusion is drawn that right concentration is the goal of the path (Thanissaro effectively subscribes to this view). When the NEP is viewed in terms of the dynamics of sila, samadhi and panna, then the wisdom factor of right view (and subsequently right resolve), becomes the goal of the path, and right view is gradually developed. This progressive purification of right view through the action of right effort means that right view in its growth mode is not a fixed factor, but is open to change and development.

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"Cyclic"should not be misinterpreted to mean “going with the flow,” appropriate attention involves intervention:

"The mode of thinking based on openness rejects duality as a product of discrimination and deluded concepts. It tacitly presupposes that existence as such is ultimately benign; that beyond our deluded concepts, the rich and vivid diversity of forms has a single taste, a taste that is sweet. In contrast, the attitude of heedfulness is grounded upon the view that existence is textured through and through by dualities that are profound and inescapably real. The world bears testimony to this vision in the contrast between the charming, delightful surfaces of things and their underlying hollowness and inadequacy; our minds bear testimony in the ongoing contest between the wholesome mental factors and the unwholesome ones, between the upward urge for purification and the downward pull of the defilements. That this duality is not trivial is seen by the consequences: the one leads to Nibbana, the state of deliverance, the Deathless, while the other leads back into the round of repeated birth, samsara, which is also the realm of Mara, the Lord of Death.

To practice heedfulness is to take full account of these dualities with their profound implications. The heedful person does not aim at a choiceless awareness open to existence in its totality, for to open oneself thus is to risk making oneself vulnerable to just those elements in oneself that keep one bound to the realm of Mara. The awareness developed through heedfulness is built upon a choice – a well-considered choice to abandon those qualities one understands to be detrimental and to develop in their place those qualities one understands to be beneficial, the states that lead to purity and peace.

Both in our outer involvements in the world and in the mind’s internal procession of thought, imagination and emotion, there continually spreads before us a forked road. One branch of this fork beckons with the promise of pleasure and satisfaction but in the end leads to pain and bondage; the other, steep and difficult to climb, leads upward to enlightenment and liberation. To discard discrimination and judgment for an easy-going openness to the world is to blur the important distinction between these two quite different paths. To be heedful is to be aware of the dichotomy, and to strive to avoid the one and pursue the other. As the Buddha reminds us, heedfulness is the path to the Deathless, heedlessness is the path of Death."—Bikkhu Bodhi