How can the mind be limitless? How can that be true?

A student writes:

I sometimes hear the mind being described as ‘limitless’. Could you please explain exactly what is meant by this and how this can be true? I feel that my mind is very limited: I can only perceive what I can perceive through my senses and not beyond (e.g. I can’t see what is happening in Australia, or how a person I am not in contact with is feeling), and my mind also feels very limited by my habitual tendencies, current understanding, grasping and the poisons, at least in its current deluded state.

Lama Shenpen replies:

In English we use the term ‘mind’ for the thinking process and sometimes for the brain or the head – and sometimes as if it were a space like a dimension of reality into which thoughts could come and go. It’s a very flexible term. ‘Awareness’ is often used synonymously with ‘mind’ especially when we are contrasting what knows with what is known.

We also use it for when we are awake and conscious so that we would say it disappeared when we are asleep or unconscious or even when not paying attention.  We use ‘mind’ to contrast what is real and ‘out there’ from what is just our subjective experience and therefore not an objective reality.  Scientific investigation applies only to what is objective in this sense – what can be measured and defined. Subjective experience on the other hand cannot be measured or defined in that way and for some scientists – probably the majority – it is not within the field of scientific investigation.

In other contexts you will come across ideas such a ‘cosmic mind’ or consciousness, or even the ‘mind of God’ – this is obviously using the term for something outside our usual mundane use of the term – and in this kind of context you might hear of the mind described as limitless.

When in Discovering the Heart of Buddhism [the core course of Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training] we talk about the space of the mind, we are looking at our direct experience in meditation when we notice thoughts coming into our mind as if it were a space somewhere – but when we look at that space and try to let go into it all sorts of questions about our experience arise.

For example is that space – that canvas on which the appearances and thoughts and sense impressions arise inside my head?  Where is it in relation to the neurons and atoms of my brain?  The question doesn’t make sense does it? You couldn’t open up a cell and poke around to find it thinking anything could you?  Yet the space in which thoughts appear is where we live – it is us if you like – and it is not inside the body and yet it is isn’t it? 

Your body is activated by it and feels the world through its senses – yet if it were in the body then how would we live in world?  The world would be outside the body and the mind – how would the two meet?  I can think of space going out as far as the edges of the known universe and beyond – but that is my thought – my mind – it is not the actual space of the universe full of planets and so on – and yet where does my thought end and the real universe begin?

That is a lot of questions and yet when you look at your experience when sitting quietly in meditation, you are looking straight at all those questions – you are experiencing the answer but not recognising it for what it is. All the time we try to think by stepping back and trying to be objective in the sense of not recognising that splitting ourselves off from experience actually distorts it, and yet what else can we do?  That is what we gradually learn in meditation by working together with our mentors and teachers and gradually coming to understand the Buddha’s teachings – over years and years of spiral learning and practice.

You are right to observe that at the moment in the presence of avidya – the non-recognition of the nature of ‘mind’ – we are limited by our habitual tendencies and limited capacities.  This is our starting point and from here we learn to recognise what is the mandala of duhkha (suffering) and limitation, and by seeing we learn to open up to the true unlimited nature of our being.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Find out more about joining Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at