Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha discovered and taught a practical psychology that has worked to heal the discontent and suffering of individuals and societies through the centuries. His techniques are as relevant and applicable today as they were during his time. Unlimiting Mind is a collection of Andrew Olendzki’s essays that have appeared in several Buddhist journals over the last few years. In this new book, Olendzki presents Buddhist psychology in a language that is modern and motivational, organized into short, manageable chapters. He manages to cover the broad landscape of Buddhist psychology, from how the mind is constructed to the relationship of self and non-self, from nuts-and-bolts practice to extending care and compassion to the world at large.
Olendzki introduces his book with a lucid overview of the Dhamma in the context of modern Western psychology. As he sets it forth, the core of the Buddha’s teaching is contained in five key insights: the three characteristics of reality (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and the principle of non-self); the observation that all phenomena arise in interdependent relationship with each other; and the understanding that the psychological transformation of awakening results in freeing the mind from suffering. These insights are the threads running throughout the book.
Consciousness, as the author demonstrates, is not a fixed mental state or identity but a confluence of interdependently arising factors that come together in complex but knowable patterns forming discrete mind-moments. These moments flow in a “stream of consciousness” that we experience subjectively as a stable, ongoing drama in which the “I” is the central agent. Western psychology concerns itself generally with this central agent. Buddhist psychology, however, is interested in what happens below the level of ordinary awareness where, during one moment of experience, many mental factors independently arise.
Unlimiting Mind explores both the personal and social relevance of Buddhist psychology, looking at how the untrained and unawakened mind can have a harmful effect on the individual as well as a negative influence on our global environment and society. In a chapter entitled “Burning Alive,” Olendzki argues that the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, fueled by individual and institutional carelessness, are burning up the world. However, by understanding our own minds from another perspective, we can stop the damage we cause to live freer, more peaceful and harmonious lives.
The author’s particular gift in delivering the Dhamma faithfully and lucidly is in making technical terms accessible. He analyzes, for example, the Sanskrit phrase abhuta-parikalpo’ sti, literally meaning “unreal imagination exists.” Term by term he unpacks the language to elucidate the paradox that while we construct our world, we also take that construction seriously.
I understand that everything I know and do is a product of imagination, and I can accept without difficulty that it is ultimately unreal, but I’m glad it exists and will engage with that existence with as much conscious awareness as I can possibly muster. This is plenty to work with and inspires me to make the very best of what is present for myself, for those around me, and for the collective whole.
In this one passage I find represented the pervading flavor of Unlimiting Mind, to bring together the personal and the planetary. In doing so it offers a valuable contribution to the burgeoning dialogue between Buddhist and contemporary Western psychology. Having enjoyed Olendzki’s articles over the years, I am thrilled to have a diverse set of his teachings in one book. Seeing his bigger picture, I am left with a clearer, deeper understanding of how I suffer and how to practice toward liberation.