Looking in the Mirror of Dharma: Understanding how negativity functions in our mind

Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but it is not long before their good intentions are forgotten or overwhelmed by their negative tendencies. On the surface, it may appear that our mind is relatively free from negativity and for the most part we lead a morally healthy life, but we should not fool ourselves. When we lift the surface rock, we discover underneath all sorts of mental cockroaches or other disgusting creatures bustling about. Our normal reaction is to quickly put the rock back down and run away, but this just leaves the negativity to fester. We cannot bring impurity with us into the pure land, and we must eventually leave all negativity behind. If we are to once and for all root out the negativity from our mind, we need to have the courage to stare into the abyss of our mind and understand clearly how our negativity functions.

The heart of the matter is we are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do what we desire. At present, we still have negative desires, so it is inevitable we will eventually act upon them. The solution is not will power, because if we still desire negativity and simply use will power to hold ourselves back, eventually our defenses will be worn down and we will succumb. Someone once said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done so at least a dozen times.” The only lasting solution is to change our desires, where we genuinely do not want to engage in negativity and we want to engage in virtue. If this is our desire, our actions will naturally follow. The main function of the Lamrim is to change our desires from negative to positive, from ordinary to spiritual. But this takes time. The question is how do we manage the transition when we have mixed desires – some negative and some virtuous? To answer this, we must have a clear and honest understanding of how negativity functions in our mind. Only then can we dismantle the mechanisms of negativity within our mind.

Gaining the ability to look in the Mirror of Dharma

Why do we find it so hard to look objectively at our negativity? It seems there are three main reasons. First, we don’t think what we are doing is negative, so we don’t find a problem with our behavior. Second, our pride refuses to acknowledge our mistakes because doing so would challenge our exalted view of ourselves. And third, for a variety of cultural reasons, we have internalized an ethic of guilt that beats ourselves up when we make mistakes, and being beat up hurts (even when we do it to ourselves).

To overcome these three obstacles, we need to engage in this investigation like a scientist. We need to objectively investigate any discrepancies between what the Dharma explains as negative and what we think is negative. We need to check if we are right and under what circumstances we are wrong. If we don’t know a behavior as negative, we won’t abandon it. We also need to objectively examine our own behavior and see how it stacks up against what is prescribed in the Dharma. Sometimes our downfalls are obvious – even epic – sometimes, they are very subtle. We need to be honest with ourselves, not exaggerating our negativity, but also not rationalizing it away as nothing. Perhaps most importantly, we need to stop blaming ourselves or judging ourselves for our mistakes. When we beat ourselves up with guilt, we reduce our confidence berating ourselves as an idiot for having engaged in the negativity, etc., or we feed a self-perception of being a failure, which undermines our ability to succeed next time. Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean that we are bad. In the Dharma there is no bad, there is only good and even better. Just because there is something even better doesn’t mean we are failing, it simply means we have further room to grow.

Pride and guilt in particular are a dangerous combination. Our pride causes us to expect perfection from ourselves, or at the very least, it expects us to already be better than we are; but our guilt then beats ourselves up for any deviation from these expectations for ourselves. Trapped between pride and guilt, we cannot win and are never good enough – we are not as good as our pride expects us to already be and then our guilt makes us feel like a horrible person for not living up to these unrealistic expectations. This can get so bad, even looking at the negative tendencies in our mind can trigger some sort of breakdown. Because all delusions exaggerate, our pride exaggerates how good we should already be, and our guilt exaggerates our departures from our self-imposed expectations. We then see the negativity, feel we “should” already not be like that, and our guilt then judges us as a total incompetent failure incapable of confronting, much less overcoming our negative tendencies. We then see only our total incapacity in front of a monumental problem, leaving us with the feeling we are hopelessly doomed.

The solution to this trap is we need to have compassion for ourselves (otherwise known as renunciation). We have inherited aeons worth of negative tendencies, and swimming upstream against them is not easy. We do not need to already be better than we are, rather we are where we are at and we simply take the next right step. Negative tendencies will arise in our mind and mistakes will be made, but we never give up, and with persistent effort, step by step, we will definitely get there in the end. This is the mind of definite emergence – a deep feeling of joy knowing we are definitively on our way out and all of our suffering will soon come to a final end. We will emerge on the other side into an infinite expanse of permanent inner freedom from all suffering. The mind of definite emergence knows if we never give up, we will inevitably succeed.

Renunciation, I believe, is one of the hardest minds for Westerners to generate because we instantly interpret it through the lens of aesthetic-style deprivation of any joy and self-flagellating judgment and guilt. In truth, renunciation means self-care or true self-love. The difference between the self-love of the narcissist and the self-love of renunciation is the former loves our non-existent self of our ignorance and the later loves our true self or our pure potential. My wife once got sick with pneumonia, and she was beating herself up over it because she wasn’t able to take care of her five children at home that needed her. We wrote Geshe-la requesting his prayers, and he wrote back telling her, “you should take care of your self so that you can get better.” What a perfect description of the balanced mind of renunciation.

Stages of the path to negative actions

Having hopefully gained the ability to look honestly (and happily) at the negative tendencies in our mind, we can now examine how they function.

Downfalls almost always begin with an impulse to engage in negativity. We have within our mind countless negative tendencies from our past lives to think, speak, or act in negative ways. We have spent the vast majority of our eternity in the lower realms where we engaged in almost exclusively negative actions. It is said it is easier to attain enlightenment once born human than to be born human once we have taken rebirth in the lower realms. Why? Because while we are there, virtually all of our actions are negative. These tendencies tempt us now to once again engage in negativity. If left unchecked, these desires grow and grow until they become unstoppable.

As they grow, we first rationalize why our negative desire isn’t really that negative. We might come up with some sort of justification for why we “deserve” to engage in the negativity, as if it was some sort of reward for our good behavior or as compensation for some past injustice we have experienced. To paraphrase Shantideva, we run towards negativity as if it were a pleasure garden and avoid virtue as if it were the plague. Why? Because we are still fundamentally confused about what are the causes of our happiness and suffering. In Request to the Lord of All Lineages, Geshe-la says, “the cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions and the cause of happiness is virtuous actions. Since this is completely true, I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.”

While the negative desire is building in our mind, we will also find ways of minimizing the consequences of the negativity. “It’s not really that bad,” we convince ourself. Typically, we will only consider the immediate consequences, such as the contaminated happiness we might get from engaging in the negativity against the likelihood of getting caught or others finding out what we have done. There will definitely be times when we can “get away with” our negativity and nobody will ever know, so we think, “why not?” But we can never escape our karma – its laws are definite. We might think to ourselves, “who am I hurting?” Finding nobody, we then think it is OK, but we are forgetting about how it is hurting ourselves. Is the short-lived pleasure or benefit we are likely to get from our negative action worth it when we consider the long-run karmic consequences? Surely not, but we don’t really believe in karma that much anyways, and besides, we wrongly think, we can always engage in purification afterwards, so once again, “why not?” If we don’t think our action was wrong, we can’t generate genuine regret; and without regret, we cannot actually purify. Purification is not complete without the power of the promise, but if we think we can always purify later so it doesn’t matter if we engage in negativity, our “promises” lack any power and no purification will actually take place.

As our negative desires continue to build, at some point, we make the decision that we will engage in the negativity, but we will then try find ways of minimizing how negative it will be. “I’ll just do it this once,” or “I’ll only do this, but not that.” We then start rationalizing how that would be OK and not so bad, and eventually we execute on our negative plan. Whether this process from the initial impulse to the final deed is a matter of weeks, hours, or mere seconds, we almost always go through these stages.

Post-negativity self-deceptions

Once we engage in the negative action, it almost never works out in the way we hoped. We didn’t get the reward or benefit we were hoping for. At this point, usually one of two things happens. Either, we start to beat ourselves up about what a terrible, stupid person we are for having engaged in the negativity, and we go down the path of guilt thinking our punishing ourselves will somehow deter us from engaging in negativity in the future. But guilt never works because it erodes our capacity and confidence. Or we start to identify why we didn’t get the reward we were hoping for, and we start to plot how we can be more skilled in our negativity next time so that we do. We think, “I have already started down this path and got nothing, I want to at least get something out of it,” so we double-down on our negativity and start planning for next time. In this way, we start to chase the rainbow of our negativity until we eventually fall off a cliff into the lower realms. This is actually the most dangerous aspect of engaging in negative actions – each time we do so, we create the tendencies to do so again. Our checks on our behavior grow weaker and weaker until eventually there are no checks at all.

After we have engaged in the negativity, we will start to get flashbacks recalling what we have done. Our negative actions are often like ghosts that haunt us by reminding us of our transgressions. At such times, we engage in all sorts of evasive tactics. For example, we will just look the other way and shove it back under the carpet pretending it isn’t there. Or we will rationalize to ourselves why the negative action wasn’t that bad and it is no big deal. Or we start to beat ourselves up with guilt. Or we give in to hopelessness, thinking we will never be able to get out of our negativity, so why bother trying anymore. We might as well enjoy ourselves with our negativity since we can’t escape it. Or we revert to “will power” trying to consolidate our iron-clad determination to not do that negative action again, even though we still “want” to do so. All of these tactics inevitably fail. The worst of these is giving in to hopelessness, because then, quite obviously, we have no hope.

Or perhaps we genuinely do feel regret for our negative action, realize it was a mistake, understand its karmic consequences, and really don’t want to engage in the negative action again. But we grasp at our negative actions and karma as being inherently existent and immune from purification. We think our actions are so bad and our purification practice so weak and insincere, that it won’t ever be purified. We have total faith in the laws of negative karma, but none in the power of purification. This can then quickly lead to despair, hopelessness, and guilt. Worse, it can lead to us not even trying to purify, because “what’s the point, it won’t work anyways.”

Seeing all of our negativity and how it functions in our mind can very easily lead to us feeling discouraged, thinking it is simply too hard to overcome our delusions and negative habits. We then can conclude the spiritual path is just too hard, and we settle for some vague self-commitment to generally be a good person. Or perhaps we give up on the path altogether or find another spiritual path which seems less demanding. When we are at this stage, it is easy to develop negative views towards the three jewels, thinking they are judging us or punishing us or rejecting us. At such times, all of the hypocrisies and shortcomings of our Sangha friends and teachers become quite vivid. They are judging me, but look at what they are doing! What they are doing is far worse, yet nothing ever happens to them. This whole tradition is a big sham full of spiritual phonies. It’s not enough for me to just leave this evil tradition, I need to tear it down to “protect” others from being ensnared by it.

Let me spare everyone the surprise: we are all the same. We are all hypocrites and we are all making one mistake after another. But that is not a reason to abandon the path, that is a valid reason for redoubling our efforts to practice it purely and skillfully. The teachings themselves are flawless, it is our ability to practice them that is flawed. But that is entirely normal! We are practitioners, not Buddhas. Of course we are making mistakes. It doesn’t matter what mistakes others are making, it doesn’t even matter what mistakes we are making. All that matters is that we are learning from every mistake that appears to our mind. If we do, then no matter what appears, we will learn and grow. Our job is not to change others or expose their hypocrisies, our job is to change ourselves and overcome our own. But we need to be patient with ourselves, understanding this will take time. When we are patient with ourselves, then we will learn to be patient with others’ imperfections as well. But here too lies a potential trap. We think, “slowly, slowly, try my best,” but we understand this to mean I don’t really have to change, I can just keep telling myself I am trying my best when in reality I’m not really doing anything.

Cutting the power of negativity in our mind

So how do we escape all of the above? What is the solution to all of this? In the end, each wrong turn described above comes from believing our delusions. Our delusions tempt us, rationalize, beat us up, or leave us discouraged. But they are all lies. The solution here is simple: see through the lies of our deluded tendencies. We need to make a clear distinction between the arising of a deluded tendency in our mind and the mental action of a delusion. A deluded tendency is the ripening of a past karma in our mind that causes us to think in a particular way. A new mental action of a delusion only occurs when we assent to or believe the lies of the deluded tendency. In other words, deluded tendency + belief = delusion. If instead when our deluded tendencies arise we use our wisdom to see through their lies and we identify clearly their deception, then the power of that deluded tendency over us is cut. The deluded tendency is still there, but it has no power. In other words, deluded tendency + disbelief = moral discipline. Slowly but surely we break the hold our deluded tendencies have over us until eventually we are no longer their puppet. They flail about, but we remain not just unmoved, but un-fooled. Christians say the “devil” works through deception. He tricks us into believing that following him will lead to some happiness. We break his hold over us by no longer being fooled by his deceptions. This is exactly correct, we merely need to replace “devil” with “delusion” and the meaning is the same.

When we find ourselves being haunted by our negative actions in the way explained above, view it as an opportunity to once again engage in purification for the negative action. We generate a sincere regret, we rely upon the three jewels, we engage in some virtuous action as an antidote, and we renew our promise to not go down that road again recognizing it as – quite literally – the highway to hell. Our particularly strong negative actions may haunt us for many years, but that’s OK, each time they do, we again engage in purification practice. Eventually, they will haunt us no more.

It takes great courage to honestly admit our negativity. We don’t have to go around and publicly declare everything we have ever done wrong, but we do have to be honest with ourselves and with our spiritual guide in our heart. Purification practice is sometimes called confession practice. Confession is not just stating (even internally) our negative actions, rather it is done with a wisdom acknowledgement that they are indeed negative conjoined with a sincere promise to not repeat such actions. Again, the Christians are very close, they just sometimes get side-tracked in guilt or thinking some external God is determining their fate, when it simply comes down to the internal laws of physics, otherwise known as the laws of karma.

Staring into the abyss of our own negativity can be daunting, but it is worth the effort. We need to work gradually to dismantle the obstacles of ignorance, pride, and guilt which prevent us from doing so. We need to request wisdom blessings to be able to see how negativity functions in our own mind in a way that we can gradually disarm and deconstruct it. Our negativity is not an intrinsic part of our mind, it is rather merely a current of bad habits and their karmic waste. Ultimately, it is just a question of changing our desires, and Lamrim is the tried and tested method for doing so. With persistent effort, we can eventually clean up our mind completely. Then, we will know a freedom and happiness beyond all others.

5 thoughts on “Looking in the Mirror of Dharma: Understanding how negativity functions in our mind

  1. Thank you for explaining this so well. Lately my angry and impatient mind has been getting the best of me. Then I feel ashamed and mad at myself for failing in my spiritual practice. My delusions tell me “Your too old to understand these teachings”. But, I keep the promise of Buddha and Geshe that if I just have faith and keep practicing Dharma I will be ok. I know if I give up, I will be forever unhappy and lower rebirth could be the result. I’m 68 years old and have been practicing Dharma for a little over 7 months. I go to lots of classes and read Dharma books which really helps. Your writings are a great help since I don’t always have anyone to talk to when I’m fearful and confused. Thank you again. Greg

    • My view is it doesn’t matter when in our lives we find the Dharma because we can always take the Dharma wisdom we have learned and look back on our life and re-interpret it from a Dharma perspective. In this way, we can learn a whole life time’s worth of Dharma lessons no matter when we start our practice. Then, it will be as if we have been practicing our whole life. There are all sorts of on-line discussion groups where you can ask whatever questions you might have or connect with other Kadampas around the world. On Facebook, in particular, there is “Students and Followers of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso,” “New Kadampa Tradition,” and “Kadampa Prayer Request” groups. May your every experience become a cause of your enlightenment!

  2. Thanks Kadampa Ryan, I love this article. The power is about to go out, snow and very cold temperatures are forecast. I don’t have any firewood, but, I won’t give in to my delusions. It will be hard, but your words inspire me to at least try. Bless you, Kadampa Ryan, your advice is spot on. I wish you all the best. Love to you, your wife and kids from a weather-beaten Canadian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s