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Letting Go of Mental Formations — Images from Geophysical Fluid Dynamics December 27, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, fluid flow, meditation, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

For some people, this time of year offers especially good opportunities to practice the Buddhist art of letting go of mental formations—our conditioned responses to the objects of experience. Whether waiting in line at an airport, inching along in a traffic jam, sharing a festive meal, or sitting quietly alone, one’s mind lunges towards distractions on familiar themes.

The challenge is, of course, to awaken to the moment, release that pattern of thought, and return to the present. I’d like to suggest the visualization of a geophysical process that may help in this endeavor.

The thought came to me in that semi-conscious, pre-awake state, just before the early morning bell at a recent silent retreat; a picture of fluid flow manifested in my consciousness. Later in the day on the cushion, I put it to use. I pictured the transition from laminar to turbulent flow in a fluid medium. Allow me to explain.

Laminar flow, also known as streamline flow, occurs when a liquid or gaseous fluid flows in parallel layers with no disruption between them. It’s the opposite of turbulent flow which is a fluid regime characterized by chaotic particle motion. In the simplest terms, laminar flow is smooth while turbulent flow is rough. In turbulent flow, eddies and wakes make the flow unpredictable. You can see it in the cascade of water over rocks…

….or in the upward flow of a plume of smoke.

We sedimentologists ponder “flow regimes,” from laminar through transitional (a mixture of laminar and turbulent flow) to turbulent, because they affect the erosion, transport, and deposition of rock particles, large and small, from one environment to another. They bear on the magnitude of devastation associated with floodwaters and debris flows like those brought on by recent rainstorms in California.

Turbulent fluid flow with its high velocity moves material in apparently random, haphazard motion. Upwelling, swirling eddies entrain sediment and keep it moving not only along the fluid but also up and down within it. Most natural fluid flow is turbulent like the motion of broad, deep, fast moving rivers. Only very slowly moving fluids—think maple syrup or asphalt–exhibit laminar flow. Although laminar flow can help transport material down current it moves material less effectively than turbulent flow because it lacks the ability to keep particles of sediment lifted up in the moving current.

And here’s where the business of letting go of mental formations enters the picture. On the mat, “by and by” as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein likes to say, my mind drifts away from the breath to a thought, and the thought begins to lead me far away from my cushion and my focused attention on the breath. But I’m more able to let go of those mental formations when I picture them flowing away. They are my streams of thought, literally. And I feel them move away from my body, first in laminar fashion and ultimately dispersing into the turbulent flow regime where they scatter in eddies and swirls.

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet (Westview Press, 2003).

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

See also our Shambhala Sun Spotlight on Buddhism and Green Living.