Big Mind

Big Mind

Big mind is a term used in many contexts, including Buddhism. Shunryu Suzuki uses the term "big mind" in his works including his book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The remainder of this article deals with an exercise more properly known as the "Big Mind Process" or "Big Mind Big Heart Process" - the phrase "big mind" itself predates this in its use by, inter alia, Suzuki and other Buddhist writers.

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi formulated his "Big Mind Process" in the late 1990s, which is most succinctly described as a combination of western psychological technique with a Zen Buddhist understanding of reality. The primary inspiration for the Big Mind Process exercise is the Voice Dialogue method created by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone. Voice Dialogue and Big Mind are similar to a variety of awareness exercises in Gestalt psychology, with Big Mind situating this process within a Buddhist ontology that moves one between the domains of the relative and absolute (see Nondualism).

The Big Mind experience is typically manifested in a small group or individual process. According to the founder of the exercise, Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi of the Kanzeon Zen Center, the experience normally requires years of dedicated spiritual practice in Buddhist, Contemplative Christian, Jewish mystical or Sufi traditions to attain. This experience can, according to Merzel, range from a mere glimpse into the absolute to a profound and life-altering experience.

The voices

The central idea in the Big Mind exercise is that there are 10,000 voices in the mind. They are all competing to be heard and to act. Because they are "stuck" or suppressed, they are not well controlled and manifest at inappropriate times. (e.g losing one's temper). Proponents of the Big Mind process argue that by very clearly bringing out each voice into full consciousness, the voice loses its neurotic control of actions and instead can be expressed in a healthy manner.

The dysfunctional corporation analogy

One analogy used in the Big Mind exercise is that of a corporation where the 10,000 employees have no idea of their job description, don't know who hired them and there is no organizational structure. The company is total chaos. The mind is very similar. The Big Mind process talks with each voice (or at least the most important ones) and clarifies the roles, duties, benefits, and dangers of each voice in the mind. One also simply stays in a given voice to become familiar with the depth and feelings of that voice. However, Genpo Roshi stresses in his books (The Path of the Human Being, Shambala, and Big Mind Big Heart Finding Your Way) that he does not present the Big Mind process as a therapy but as a way to enable present day Westerners to experience a glimpse of the experience of non-dual or transcendental awakening.

A key idea

One key idea in Big Mind is that for 2500 years Buddhism has been trying to achieve enlightenment by sitting and meditating on various mental states. Merzel's teaching is based on ideas from Gestalt psychology and Hal and Sidra Stone, that simply talking to a given mental state or voice may help a person achieve the state immediately, although dedicated practice is generally needed in order to arrive at deep levels of that state.

One analogy is that of a long journey where someone shows you a map of the entire journey. Then you fly in a helicopter and very briefly touch down at key points in the journey, all the way to the end of the journey. One then goes back to the beginning and spends a lifetime walking the route on the ground.


The Big Mind process consists of "talking" with various voices in the mind. For example the dialog between the facilitator and the student or students might go as follows for the voice of Fear:

Facilitator: Ok, I would like to talk to the voice of Fear.
(Everyone does a small sitting position shift to represent a change of voice or shift in perspective.)
F: Who are you?
Student: I am the voice of Fear.
F: What is your job?
S: To be afraid.
F: Will you ever stop being afraid?
S: No. It's my JOB to be afraid. That is why I was hired and get paid.
F: What are you afraid of?
S: Everything.
(Various students will volunteer items that one could be afraid of, digging deeper into what is the nature of fear.)
Students: Other people. Being attacked. Failure. Being hurt. Losing control. Uncontrolled fear. Death. Fear itself...
F: Why are you (Fear) useful?
S: I protect us from harm. I act as a warning. I Tell the Protector (voice of the protector) that there is danger.
(Note that all responses are done in the first person AS Fear, not a third person description of fear.)

The group then goes on to talk with the voice of Fear about benefits, disadvantages, roles, and such of the given state of mind. The conversation is always in the first person.

Many voices are investigated, culminating in the voice of Big Mind. Big Mind is usually described as being in and of everything and timeless. Big Mind is synonymous with the Buddha Mind, the Mind of God, the Timeless Mind, the Non-Dualistic Mind and many other representations of one's higher consciousness.

The voices engaged and the order in which they are engaged varies due to the dynamic nature of the Big Mind process. This process can take anywhere from 2 to 7 hours. Longer sessions allow for better internalization of ideas and realizations that the participants experience.

A typical order in which each voice is engaged follows:

The Dualistic Voices

  • Introduction
  • The Skeptic
  • The Protector
  • The Controller
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • The Fixer
  • The Damaged Self (takes all the damage when the above fail)
  • The Innocent Child (this is what all of the above are protecting)

The Non-Dualistic Voices

  • The Non-Mind
  • The Big Mind
  • The Big Heart
  • Complete heart-mind

The Integrated Self (Real Self)

  • The True Self (Big Mind, Big Heart, All Dualistic Voices integrated); also called "Integrated Free-functioning Mind"
  • Great Doubt
  • The Big Mind
  • The CEO (Chief Executive Officer: the voice that sets goals, directs and plans)

At dismissal to leave on a good note

  • The voice of Great Joy

Group and Individual Sessions

As is the case with most Zen Buddhist philosophies, people wishing to deeply explore or study the Big Mind process often do so through individual or group sessions with a teacher who is trained and experienced in the process.

Solo Practice

Ultimately, a person's path to understanding and enlightenment is dependent on that person's own effort and diligence. A teacher can do nothing more than provide guidance and introduce someone to tools they can use to further obtaining this goal. Once a foundation has been laid and the tools have been learned, a person is able to use the principles or techniques of Big Mind on their own in a solitary setting. This is described in Genpo Roshi's book Big Mind Big Heart: Finding Your Way.

Additional information

Objective testing

The University of Utah is doing a neurological study where an EEG is done before Big Mind on students that have never meditated before. After the session another EEG is done and the results compared. Preliminary results show a visible change in the wave patterns. The changes persist for at least six months afterward and may be shown to persist longer. (not yet published)

Translation to other languages

One issue with 'Big Mind', stated by Dennis Merzel (Nov 2006, Kanzeon Zen Center, SLC), is that some languages such as German, French, and other Nordic languages have no word for 'Mind'. In these languages the term 'Big Mind' is simply not translated.


Big Mind has been the subject of some controversy; supporters claim it to be an effective, even revolutionary technique, while critics have disparaged it, and the experience it engenders, as having little to do with Zen and the experience of authentic enlightenment (kensho, satori) as understood in the Zen school. Criticism has also been leveled at the donation suggested for Big Mind sessions.


  • Merzel, Dennis Genpo (2007). Big Mind Big Heart: Finding Your Way. Big Mind Publishing: Salt Lake City. ISBN 0977142337.

Further reading

  • Merzel, Dennis Genpo. The Path of the Human Being: Zen Teachings on the Bodhisattva Way. Shambahla Publications, Inc., 2005. ISBN 1-59030-173-0.
  • Merzel, Dennis Genpo. The Eye Never Sleeps. Shambahla Publications, Inc., 1991. ISBN 0-87773-569-7.

External links

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