When I left Los Angeles more than 20 years ago, I had a meeting with my teacher Gen Lekma to ask her for some parting advice. She said, “train in the first of the three difficulties.” For those of you unfamiliar with this, Geshe Chekawa gives various precepts for training the mind, one of which is to train in the three difficulties. They are: identify your delusions; apply opponents to reduce them; and finally eliminate them with the antidote, the wisdom realizing emptiness. Identifying my delusions seemed like such a basic practice, and I fancied myself as an “advanced practitioner,” so I felt kind of let down by this and didn’t quite see its value. Now, so many years later, I’m beginning to realize how we can’t even really get started with our practice until we do this first step right. It is the foundation of everything, and something a lot of us really struggle with. I know I do.
What does this have to do with repression? In Buddhist terms, we define repression as “pretending we are not deluded.” We basically don’t admit, even to ourselves, that our mind is deluded. There are lots of reasons why we do this, which I will get to below. But when we do this, we shove the delusions we have underneath the carpet where they grow and metastasize, until one day they blow in some dramatic fashion. But even before they blow, they eat away at our happiness under the surface, and drag us down like carrying around lead weight. If we have repressed attachment, we will never feel satisfied and will feel we are always lacking something; if we have repressed anger, we will be easily irritable and always blame outside things for our general state. If we have repressed jealousy, we will tend to grumble with bitterness when others experience some good fortune. Life will generally be miserable.
More profoundly, if we do not admit to ourselves we have delusions in our mind, then no matter how much we seem to be practicing Dharma, we will actually make no progress whatsoever. We will externally appear to be “doing Dharma,” but our mind will remain as deluded as ever, even after decades of so-called “Dharma practice.” Our failure to accept and admit the existence of delusions in our mind robs us of our spiritual life just a thoroughly and completely as distractions do. Worse, we can easily fall into the trap of religious self-righteousness of using our spiritual teachings as a lens through which we judge everyone else’s failures, instead of as personal advice for how we ourselves need to change. Repression can frequently lead to burnout as we push ourselves too hard, or to depression as we never deal with what is happening in our own mind, or to anxiety of fearing everything, but not really knowing why. Repression allows the enemies of our delusions to roam freely in our mind hidden from view, undermining everything. It is like entering into battle blind-folded, and then being surprised when we keep getting hit by surprise.
Why do we repress? Why do we pretend that we are not deluded? There are many common traps, and I have fallen into all of them at different times. The biggest is pride. We have an inflated view of ourself, and our sense of self-confidence and self-worth is wrapped up in this inflated view. When this view gets challenged – and admitting we are sick with delusions definitely challenges the view of our awesomeness – we feel threatened and then seek to rationalize away our delusions, deflect blame onto others, and feel we are being unfairly attacked. A prideful mind necessarily represses. It takes a humble mind to admit our mind is sick.
Another major cause of repression is guilt. When we identify delusions in our mind, we view it somehow as a major failure, and we then start beating ourselves up over it. Often times if our parents or teachers would try make us feel bad or guilty about our mistakes in an effort to get us to do the right things, we then adopt the same approach with ourselves – beating ourselves up over our mistakes thinking doing so will somehow get us to change our behavior. But self-hatred is still hatred and a delusion. And being beaten up hurts, whether it is others doing it to us or us doing it to ourselves. Guilt fails to make the distinction between “my mind is sick with delusions” and “I am a bad person who deserves to be punished.” Since guilt hurts, it’s easier to repress.
Misunderstanding of Dharma can also frequently cause repression. For example, the Dharma explains we should forget about ourselves and put others first, so we think it is somehow a fault to focus on healing ourselves. We are so busy “helping others” overcome their delusions, that we never bother to look at our own. Likewise, when we are sincerely serving others and helping them deal with their own crises, we can sometimes simply not have time to think about ourselves while helping others. For example, there was a time when there was a lot of emotional drama in my family and I was trying to be there for everyone to help them navigate through their delusions, but I was getting down and frazzled and burned out. I then wrote a very good Sangha friend, asking for his advice on how to help my family, etc., and he said, “you seem to be understanding quite well what is going on in their minds, but you are neglecting the real issue of what is going on in your own mind as you help them.” By reframing things in this way, I began to see how I was making the same mistakes in my mind that I was seeing them make in their minds. With mind as creator of all, the cause of the problem became more clear.
Dharma also tells us we should “never accept delusions,” and so when delusions arise in our mind, we feel like we need to either deny they are there because we are such a “good Dharma practitioner” or we quickly try shove them back under the carpet without deconstructing their power. Kadam Morten once made a wonderfully helpful distinction. He said we need to “accept the existence of delusions in our mind without accepting their validity.” So we accept, “yes, delusions are arising in my mind; but I know they are wrong ways of thinking.” Just as we can admit there are clouds in the sky, but realize they are not the sky; so too we can admit the clouds of delusions in our mind, but realize they are not our mind itself. This enables us to not pretend we are not deluded, while not assenting to the wrong views of our delusions, thus cutting their power over us. What gives our delusions power is we believe them to be true. When they arise, but we know they are wrong, they are no more dangerous to us than a spam email we know to be a scam. It is annoying, but it has no power over us. No matter how violent the storm, the sky remains equally untouched.
Dharma teachers and advanced practitioners also can develop a very peculiar form of repression. They know that their ability to help others depends upon others having faith in them. We tell ourselves, if others knew just how deluded we are, then they wouldn’t have faith in us anymore, and then they would not receive benefit from us. So we need to pretend we are somehow more advanced or more holy than we are, and we put on this show of being such a great and advanced practitioner. Ridiculous!!! But it is actually quite sad because many very experienced teachers have fallen into this trap, and then eventually spiritually imploded in some way when their repressed delusions caught up with them. Because we are desire realm beings, we do what we want. If our desires are deluded but we hold onto the outer appearance of Dharma, our delusions will then hijack our Dharma understanding to rationalize getting what our delusions want. This most commonly manifests as sex scandals of teachers misusing the teachings on tantra to justify satisfying their sexual attachments, but it can also take the form of abuses of spiritual power such as our anger hijacking our Dharma understanding to try control and change others or our pride hijacking our Dharma to encourage others to venerate us.
Most cult-like behavior fundamentally comes from repression by teachers and senior leaders. Such cult-like behavior then undermines others faith in the tradition as a whole, thus harming the Dharma in this world. Because of repression, when others point out our mistakes as a tradition, we feel unfairly attacked, deflect blame, and make those we have harmed feel like it is their fault because they lack sufficient pure view. Cult-like behavior, and we all have traces of it, arises directly from repression. If we fail to admit the extent to which we are making these mistakes, we will continue to do so and thus undermine our fundamental wish to help spread the Dharma for the benefit of all. But it can also come from influential practitioners in a Dharma center. There are all sorts of manipulative tactics people in Dharma centers use to try get people to come back to the center or come to the teachings or go to festivals, or whatever. On the surface, it is because they know the value of the Dharma and want others to enjoy its healing power; but that pure motivation is easily mixed with an attachment to people coming to the center or others recognizing us for all the work we have done to spread the Dharma. We then start getting upset at everyone in the Sangha for not coming enough or not doing enough to help out, and quickly the harmony of a center is destroyed. Because we can’t admit we are the problem, we blame the students and those who come to the center. They sense that, and may do more in the short-run, but over time they will grow resentful themselves and say, “I’m out of here.” The center administrators might even feel relieved that the person leaves since they were just a trouble-maker anyways and that was secretly their desire that the person leave because they are a “cause of our unhappiness.”
Distractions are often called the thief of our spiritual life, and this is true. But I’m increasingly of the view that repression is the real thief of our spiritual life. Repression and Dharma practice are actually mutually exclusive. If we are pretending that we are not deluded, then our “practice” of Dharma just becomes another way of repressing our delusions by shoving them back under the carpet without actually addressing them. Distractions are, fundamentally, repressed attachments. Why does our mind keep going to our distractions? Because we still mistakenly think our happiness can be found by thinking about them. Why do we think that? Because we haven’t acknowledged our attachment and then used our wisdom to deconstruct it.
Gen Lekma was right. Train in the first of the three difficulties.