To understand how suffering arises, practice watching your mind. Begin by simply letting it relax. Without thinking of the past or the future, without feeling hope or fear about this thing or that, let it rest comfortably, open and natural. In this space of the mind, there is no problem, no suffering. Then something catches your attention an image, a sound, a smell. Your mind splits into inner and outer, self and other, subject and object. In simply perceiving the object, there is still no problem. But when you zero in on it, you notice that it's big or small, white or black, square or circular; and then you make a judgment for example, whether it's pretty or ugly. Having made that judgment, you react to it: you decide you like it or don't like it. That's when the problem starts, because "I like it" leads to "I want it." We strive to possess what we perceive to be desirable. Similarly, "I don't like it" leads to "I don't want it." If we like something, want it, and can't have it, we suffer. If we want it, get it, and lose it, we suffer. If we don't want it, but can't keep it away, again we suffer. Our suffering seems to occur because of the object of our desire or aversion, but that's not really so; it happens because the mind splits into object-subject duality and becomes involved in wanting or not wanting something.
We often think the only way to create happiness is to try to control the outer circumstances of our lives, to try to fix what seems wrong or to get rid of everything that bothers us. But the real problem lies in our reaction to those circumstances. What we have to change is the mind and the way it experiences reality.
Our emotions propel us through extremes, from elation to depression, from good experiences to bad, from happiness to sadness: a constant swinging back and forth. Emotionality is the by-product of hope and fear, attachment and aversion. We have hope because we are attached to something we want. We have fear because we are averse to something we don't want. As we follow our emotions, reacting to our experiences, we create karma: a perpetual motion that inevitably determines our future. We need to stop the extreme swings of the emotional pendulum so that we can find a place of centeredness.
When we first begin to work with the emotions, we apply the principle of iron cutting iron or diamond cutting diamond. We use thought to change thought. A negative thought such as anger is antidoted by a virtuous thought such as compassion, while desire can be antidoted by the contemplation of impermanence.
In the case of attachment, begin by examining what it is you're attached to. For example, you might, after much effort, succeed in becoming famous, thinking this will make you happy. Then your fame triggers jealousy in someone, who tries to shoot you. What you worked so hard to create is the cause of your own suffering. Or you might work very hard to become wealthy, thinking this will bring happiness, only to lose all your money. The loss of wealth in itself is not the source of suffering, only attachment to having it.
We can lessen attachment by contemplating impermanence. It is certain that whatever we're attached to will either change or be lost. A person may die or go away, a friend may become an enemy, a thief may steal our money. Even our body, to which we're most attached, will be gone one day. Knowing this not only helps to reduce our attachment, but gives us a greater appreciation of what we have while we have it. For example, there is nothing wrong with money, but if we're attached to it, we'll suffer when we lose it. Instead, we can appreciate it while it lasts, enjoy it and enjoy sharing it with others, and at the same time know it's impermanent. Then when we lose it, the emotional pendulum won't make as wide a swing toward sadness.
Imagine two people who buy the same kind of watch on the same day at the same shop. The first person thinks, "This is a very nice watch. It will be helpful to me, but it may not last long." The second person thinks, "This is the best watch I've ever had. No matter what happens, I can't lose it or let it break." If both people lose their watch, the one who is attached will be much more upset than the other.
If we are fooled by life and invest great value in one thing or another, we may find ourselves fighting for what we want and against any opposition. We may think that what we're fighting for is lasting, true, and real, but it's not. It's impermanent, it's not true, it's not lasting, and ultimately, it's not even real.
Our life can be compared to an afternoon at a shopping center. We walk through the shops, led by our desires, taking things off the shelves and tossing them in our baskets. We wander around, looking at everything, wanting and longing. We see a person or two, maybe smile and continue on, never to see them again.
That's what life is like. Driven by desire, we don't appreciate the preciousness of what we already have. We need to realize that this time with our loved ones, our friends, our family, our co-workers is very brief. Even if we lived to a hundred and fifty, that would be very little time to enjoy and utilize our human opportunity.
Young people think their lives will be long; old people think life will end soon. But we can't assume these things. Our life comes with a built-in expiration date. There are many strong and healthy people who die young, while many of the old and sick and feeble live on and on. Not knowing when we'll die, we need to develop an appreciation for and acceptance of what we have, while we have it, rather than continuing to find fault with our experience and seeking, incessantly, to fulfill our desires.
If we start worrying whether our nose is too big or too small, we should think, "What if I had no head? -- now that would be a problem!" As long as we have life, we should rejoice. If everything doesn't go exactly as we'd like, we can accept it. If we contemplate impermanence deeply, patience and compassion will arise. We will hold less to the apparent truth of our experience, and the mind will become more flexible. Realizing that one day this body will be buried or burned, we will rejoice in every moment we have rather than make ourselves or others unhappy.
Now we are afflicted by "me-my-mine-itis," a condition caused by ignorance. Our self-centeredness and self-important thinking have become very strong habits. In order to change them, we need to refocus. Instead of concerning ourselves with "I" all the time, we must redirect our attention to "you" or "them" or "others." Reducing self-importance lessens the attachment that stems from it. When we focus outside ourselves, ultimately we realize the equality of ourselves and all other beings. Everybody wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer. Our attachment to our own happiness expands to an attachment to the happiness of all.
Until now our desires have tended to be very short term, superficial, and selfish. If we are going to wish for something, let it be nothing less than complete enlightenment for all beings. That's something worthy of desire. Continually reminding ourselves of what is truly worth wanting is an important element of pure practice.
Desire and attachment won't change overnight. But desire becomes less ordinary as we redirect our worldly yearning toward the aspiration to do everything we can to help all beings find unchanging happiness. We don't have to abandon the ordinary objects of our desires, relationships, wealth, fame, but as we contemplate their impermanence, we become less attached to them. Rejoicing in our good fortune when they arise, yet recognizing that they won't last, we begin to develop spiritual qualities. We commit fewer of the harmful actions that result from attachment, and hence create less negative karma; we generate more fortunate karma, and mind's positive qualities gradually increase.
Eventually, as our meditation practice matures, we can try an approach that's different from contemplation, different from using thought to change thought: revealing the deeper nature, or wisdom principle, of the emotions as they arise.
If you are in the midst of a desire attack something has captured your mind and you must have it -- you won't get rid of the desire by trying to suppress it. Instead, you can begin to see through desire by examining what it is. When it arises in the mind, ask yourself, "Where does it come from? Where does it dwell? Can it be described? Does it have any color, shape, or form? When it disappears, where does it go?"
This is an interesting situation. You can say that desire exists, but if you search for the experience, you can't quite grasp it. On the other hand, if you say it doesn't exist, you're denying the obvious fact that you are feeling desire. You can't say that it exists, nor can you say that it does not exist. You can't say that it's "both" or "neither," that it both does exist and does not exist, or that it neither exists nor does not not-exist. This is the meaning of the true nature of desire beyond the extremes of conceptual mind.
It's our failure to understand the essential nature of emotion that gets us into trouble. Once we do, the emotion tends to dissolve. Then we're neither repressing nor encouraging it. We are simply looking clearly at what is taking place. If we set a cloudy glass of water aside for a while, it will settle by itself and become clear. Instead of judging the experience of desire, we look directly at its nature, what is known as "liberating it in its own ground."
Each negative emotion, or mental poison, has an inherent perfection that we don't recognize because we are so accustomed to its appearance as emotion. The true nature of the five poisons -- ignorance, attachment, aversion, jealousy and pride -- is the five wisdoms. Just as poison can be taken medicinally to effect a cure, each poison of the mind, worked with properly, can be resolved into its wisdom nature and thus enhance our spiritual practice.
If while in the throes of desire, you simply relax, without moving your attention, that space of the mind is called discriminating wisdom. You don't abandon desire, instead you reveal its wisdom nature.
Questions & Answers
Question: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "liberating an emotion in its own ground."
Response: Our habit, when an emotion arises, is to become involved in analyzing and reacting to the apparent cause: the outer object. If, instead, we simply, without attachment or aversion, hatred or involvement, peel open the emotion, we will reveal and experience its wisdom nature. When we are feeling puffed up and on top of the world, instead of either indulging in our pride or pushing it away, we relax the mind and reveal the intrinsic nature of pride as the wisdom of equanimity.
In working with the emotions we can apply different methods. When our mind is steeped in duality, in object-subject perception, we can cut iron with iron: we antidote a negative thought with a positive one, attachment to our own happiness with attachment to the happiness of others. If we are able to relax the dualistic habit of the mind, we can experience the true essence, or "ground," of an emotion and thus "liberate it in its own ground." In this way, its wisdom principle is revealed: pride as the wisdom of equanimity; jealousy as all-accomplishing wisdom; attachment and desire as discriminating wisdom; anger and aversion as mirror-like wisdom; and ignorance as dharmadhatu wisdom, the wisdom of the true nature of reality.
Question: Can you say more about how contemplating impermanence reduces attachment?
Response: Imagine a child and an adult on the beach building a sand castle. The adult has never taken the sand castle to be permanent or real, and isn't attached to it. When a wave comes in and washes it away or some other children come along and kick it down, the adult doesn't suffer. But the child has begun to think of it as a real house that will last forever, and so suffers when it's lost.
Like the child, we have pretended for so long that our experience is stable and reliable that we have great attachment to it and suffer when it changes. If we maintain an awareness of impermanence, then we are never completely fooled by the phenomena of samsara.
If you contemplate the fact that you don't have long to live, it will help you. You'll think, "In the time that I have left, why follow this anger or attachment, which will only produce more confusion and delusion? If I take what's impermanent so seriously and try to grasp it or push it away, then I'm only imagining as solid what isn't solid. I'm only further complicating, and perpetuating, the delusions of samsara. I won't do that! I'll use this attachment or this aversion, this pride or this jealousy, as practice." Practice isn't only sitting on a cushion. When you're there with the experience of desire or anger, right there where the mind is active, that is where you practice, at each moment, each step of your life.
Question: In contemplating impermanence I find my attachment lessening to a certain extent, but I wonder how far I should go in dropping things.
Response: You need to be discriminating in what you address first. Eventually you may drop everything, but begin by abandoning the mind's poisons; for example, anger. Instead of thinking, "Why wash these dishes, they're impermanent?" let go of your anger at having to do them. Also understand that whatever arises in the mind that sparks your anger is impermanent. The anger itself is impermanent. Whatever someone said to you that's affected you in a negative way, that too is impermanent. Realize that these are only words, sounds, not something lasting.
The next thing to drop is attachment to having your own way. When you understand impermanence, it doesn't matter so much if things are going as you think they should. If they are, it's all right. If not, that's all right, too.
When you practice like this, the mind will slowly develop more balance. It won't flip one way or the other according to whether or not you get what you want.
Question: Is there anything wrong with being happy or sad, with feeling our emotions?
Response: Reminding ourselves when we experience happiness that it's impermanent, that it will eventually disappear, will help us to cherish and enjoy it while it lasts. At the same time, we won't become so attached to it or fixated on it, and we won't experience as much pain when it's gone.
In the same way, when we experience pain, sorrow, or loss, we should remind ourselves that these things, too, are impermanent, which will alleviate our suffering. So what keeps us balanced is our ongoing awareness of impermanence.
Question: Is the self still involved as we expand the focus of our attachment to the needs of others?
Response: If you were bound with ropes tied in many knots, in order to become free you would have to release the knots, one by one, in the opposite order in which they were originally tied. First you'd release the last knot, then the second to the last, and so forth, until you undid the first, the one closest to you.
We're bound by many knots, including many kinds of attachment. Ideally we should have no clinging at all, but since that's not the case, we use attachment to cut attachment. We begin by untying the last knot: by replacing attachment to our own needs and desires with attachment to the happiness of others.
We need to understand that selfish attachment will sooner or later create problems. How? If you are attached to your own needs and desires, if you like to be happy and don't like to suffer, when something minor goes wrong it will seem gigantic. You will focus on it morning to night, exacerbating the problem. A crack in a teacup will begin to seem like the Grand Canyon after examination under the microscope of your constant attention.
This self-focusing is itself a kind of meditation. Meditation means bringing something back to the mind again and again. If we repeat virtuous thoughts and rest in mind's nature, this can lead to enlightenment. But self-important meditation will only produce endless suffering. Focusing on our problems may even result in suicide, because we can become so preoccupied with our suffering that life seems unbearable and without purpose. Suicide is the worst of solutions because such extreme attachment to death and aversion to human life can close the door to future human rebirth.
So we need to begin by reducing our self-focus and self-important thoughts. To do so, we remind ourselves that we aren't the only ones who want to be happy -- everyone wants to be happy. Though others seek happiness, they may not understand how to go about accomplishing it, whereas if we have some understanding of the spiritual path, we can perhaps help and support them in their efforts.
We remind ourselves that of course we'll encounter problems. We're humans. But though problems arise, we mustn't give them any power. Everyone has problems, many far worse than our own. As we contemplate this, our view expands to encompass the suffering of others. As our compassion deepens, our relentless self-focusing is reduced and we become more intent on helping others and better able to do so.
If we are physically sick, it's useful to be attached to the medicine that will make us well. However, once we're cured, that attachment needs to be cut. Otherwise the very medicine that cured us could make us sick again. Now we need the medicine of attachment to benefiting others in order to cut our self-attachment. We use attachment to change attachment. Eventually, if we are to attain enlightenment, attachment itself must be cut.