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.

Repression is our worst enemy

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.

Recovering from stressful times

All of us will have periods in our life when we are under extreme stress or emotional strain. This could be due to caring for somebody who is very sick or emotionally wrought, having been in major conflict with close friends or family, losing our job or experiencing significant financial difficulties, going through major changes in our life, or simply feeling overwhelmed with everything we are responsible for. We live in samsara, and samsara is a stressful place. During the periods of significant stress, we often find ourselves “getting in the zone” and just dealing with everything coming at us. We know it is stressful and hard, but we are in a heightened state and focused on dealing with the external crisis at hand. But then after the crisis has passed, we find ourselves crashing down.

It is not uncommon at such times to feel depressed, excessively frustrated with everybody around us, or to become uncharacteristically selfish. We become depressed because the stress hormones are no longer sustaining us and everything we had been repressing while we were in crisis mode comes roaring to the surface. We become excessively frustrated with everyone around us because we have been dealing with so much for so long, we have reached our limit and just can’t deal with anything anymore – we are simply sick of dealing with problems, and want them all to just go away. We become uncharacteristically selfish because while we were in crisis mode we were completely focused on helping others with their ordeal, but then when it is over we become acutely aware of our own needs and wishes that we have been repressing while caring for others. Working through all of this is what recovery from stressful times is all about.

The first thing we must realize is all of this is entirely normal. We oftentimes expect ourselves to be perfect, and then feel it is some sort of failure when we come crashing down. We are not yet Buddhas, we are humble practitioners making our way along the spiritual path. Stressful situations are just that – stressful. They push us beyond our comfort zone and beyond our capacity to deal with easily. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to handle the stressful situation perfectly, nor to not have to go through a recovery process once the crisis has passed. We need to accept where we are at and view the recovery period as an opportunity to fully process all that we just went through. If truth be told, from a spiritual point of view, the recovery period is when we experience the most growth. Crashing down or becoming excessively irritable or uncharacteristically selfish are all the natural byproducts of having repressed some of our delusions during the crisis period, and the recovery period is when these come back to the surface to give us a chance to work through them. This is when the real spiritual growth occurs; and when we get to the other side of it, we will be spiritually stronger than we have ever been before.

Second, we should not feel guilty about taking care of ourself during our recovery period. We sometimes mistakenly think because we are would-be bodhisattvas, it is selfish of us to engage in some self-care. This is completely wrong. If we think about it, the entire spiritual path is a process of self-healing. We have been deeply wounded by aeons in samsara, and the spiritual path is one of recovery from that trauma and its causes. What matters is our motivation for taking care of ourself. If we are doing so with a desire to recover and therefore be in a better position to care for others even more in the future, there is no fault. Sometimes our pride starts to kick in where we think we shouldn’t need to recover or have some self-healing time. As Jonathan from Queer Eye would say, “sorry sister, it doesn’t work that way.” Admitting to ourself we need to rest and recover and heal is is the first step to getting better and not a sign of weakness or failure, but rather a sign of inner wisdom.

Third, we need to tend to the basics of our bodily needs. It’s normal that we are exhausted, so there is no fault in catching up on our sleep. Fatigue is cumulative and it can become a chronic condition if we don’t take the time to rest. We don’t need to feel guilty about this, thinking we should be up and about helping others. We are helping them more in the long-run be recovering our strength through rest. Likewise, it is important to get some exercise and move our body. It’s enough to go for long walks out in nature, the point is physical activity helps reset our inner winds and get us out of spinning in our head with our thoughts. And we should make sure we eat. Sometimes when we are recovering or are very down, we lose our appetite and eat less and less. This can further deplete our strength, and with it our confidence and ability to recovery. It doesn’t matter if you eat your comfort foods you normally try avoid when you are trying to eat healthy. In other words, recovering from stress is probably not the time to begin that kale diet! Ha ha.

In this regard, there is also no fault in using medications to help us recover. We do have bodies, and bodies have hormones that can get out of balance. It is not some failure of our spiritual practice to sometimes need medications any more than it is to take regular medicine when we become physically ill. Sickness – whether physical or mental – is sickness, and medicines can help. We created the karma to live in a world where medicines exist, and Geshe-la says clearly there is no fault in taking that aspirin while we simultaneously work on our patient acceptance. This is especially true after a period of extreme stress. The stressful period created an imbalance in our hormones, and when the stress is over, things come crashing down and we swing to a different kind of imbalance. These are physiological facts, not spiritual failures.

Fourth, remember your guru at your heart and your Sangha at your back. Gen-la Dekyong’s favorite prayer is “please remain at my heart always.” There is no failure in needing or seeking help. We take refuge in all three jewels, not just the Dharma jewel. Our guru stands ready to bless our mind and fill it with the strength and wisdom we need. All we need to do is remember him at our heart and request his help with faith. Keep your prayers simple, such as “give me strength,” “help me see the light,” and “please heal my mind.” We likewise need to make an effort to reach out to our Sangha friends who we trust. Sometimes our pride is the biggest obstacle to doing so – for some reason we don’t want them to know we still suffer and become deluded. That’s ridiculous, we all fall down, and we all could use some help picking ourselves back up. Oftentimes, what we need more than anything else, is simply somebody who will listen to us without judgment. Simply verbalizing what we have been bottling up inside often helps to see it all in perspective, find our own answers, and let it all go. So remember your guru, talk with your spiritual friends, and hug your teddy bear without shame.

Fifth, take the time to reflect back on the stressful period to unearth and work through everything you previously repressed. When we are in crisis mode, we are often so busy “helping others” deal with their situation, that we don’t stop to check how we ourselves are doing in those stressful situations. This is normal because when others are in crisis is sometimes not the most appropriate time to be saying, “but what about me!?” But after the crisis has passed, we need to ask ourselves the question, “how did that situation make me feel?” “What was I and what do I think about all of that?” We need to ask these questions to bring to the surface everything we repressed. Once on the surface, we can the use our Dharma wisdom, the blessings of our guru, and the support of our spiritual friends to gradually work through it all. In many ways, the primary task of the recovery period is to deal with everything we have repressed. Our feelings of depression, irritability, or selfishness are actually all just everything we repressed coming back to the surface.

Give yourself the time you need to work through all of this. It is hard work. It is a bit like spiritual retreat. Those who have never done retreat often think it is going out into the woods and getting away from it all for a blissful period of relaxing mediation. HA! It’s usually quite the opposite. Retreat is often spiritual surgery we are performing on ourselves. We go deep into our mind, find the cancer that has been spreading within, we take it out, and then sew ourselves back up again. After long retreats, people are often quite sensitive to the slightest thing and then think, “I guess I failed in my retreat because now I am more sensitive than I was before I entered into it.” Others, expecting us to come back from retreat all zen are likewise equally surprised by our heightened sensitivity. But when we recover from a physical surgery, it takes time, we are sore, and often very cautious and sensitive. It is the same after a long retreat.

The recovery period after stressful times is, in the final analysis, a form of spiritual retreat. It’s hard work, but when we get to the other side of it, we are stronger, healthier, and much more empathetic to those who suffer. By working through our struggles we learn how to help others work through theirs. This is how we gain the wisdom we need to help others, and is an inescapable part of the spiritual path. Recovering from stressful times might not be fun, it might not be easy, but it is definitely spiritually worth it.

How to avoid sinking with those we love when they suffer

We need to make a very clear distinction between attachment to others not suffering and compassion for those who suffer. Attachment to others not suffering is we believe our happiness depends upon others not suffering. We try help them not suffer because when they do, we do. There are two key problems with this. First, it is fundamentally concerned about ourselves, we need them to be happy so we can be happy. Second, and more importantly, when they fall, we fall with them. Our attachment is like chains tying us to them, so when they sink, we sink with them. If we sink with them, we are worthless to them and those dependent upon us sink with us.
We can only develop pure compassion wishing others were free from their suffering by first gaining a mind of patient acceptance that they are suffering. If we can’t accept they are suffering, they can’t accept that they are suffering, and then their suffering becomes intolerable, accelerating the sinking of all. Just because they are suffering does not mean we have to suffer as well because of that. This doesn’t mean we don’t care, and it doesn’t mean we don’t act to do something. Quite the opposite, when our compassion is free from attachment, then we can genuinely care and actually do something because we are not drowning with them.
Pure compassion is also a wisdom mind that understands what are the causes of suffering – delusions and negative karma – and what are the cause of happiness – wisdom and virtuous actions. The person suffering will almost always be blaming something outside of their mind for their suffering, and thinking what needs to change is something external. Of course, sometimes external changes are needed, and we should make all that we can reasonably do, but fundamentally whether they are happy or not depends upon their mental outlook. Pure compassion therefore seeks to transmit appropriate wisdom to help the suffering person also, and eventually primarily, change their mind. As they change their mind, they will naturally start making better external choices, and then both the inside and the outside start to get better.
None of this is easy. In fact, this is some of the hardest parts of the path. But if we truly want to help lead our loved ones out of their suffering, we must learn to make these distinctions.

How to break free from abusive relationships

Many abusers maintain control over their victims with a combination of three manipulations. First, they blame the victim, trying to convince them it is their fault the abuser gets angry. Second, they make the victim feel incompetent and incapable so that the victim feels they can never escape. Third, they offer the occasional act of love and kindness so the victim keeps coming back chasing after those moments of relief. These three manipulations are all questions of degree, like volume knobs turned up and down to maintain control.

Why does the abuser do this? It’s all about maintaining control. Because they have extreme attachment thinking their happiness depends upon what the other person does, they feel they need to control their victim to get them to do the “right” things. It is sometimes even motivated by confused form of caring. The abuser cannot bear those they love suffering, so they get mad at them to prevent their victim from doing things that the abuser thinks could cause them suffering. For example, a child gets hurt on the playground and a parent beats them for having played recklessly. 

Virtually all dysfunctional relationships have similitudes of such abusive manipulations. Often victims of abuse turn into abusers themselves despite vowing to never do so.

If we find ourselves a manipulator of others, check and see if we are doing these three things and ask ourselves why. Realize your happiness does not depend upon what other people do, but depends upon the inner conditions of your own mind. If your mind is happy, you will be happy regardless of what others do. If your mind is unhappy, you will be unhappy, again, regardless of what others do. Blaming others for your unhappiness doesn’t help you because you spend your time and energy controlling others instead of healing your own mind. And you create a tremendous amount of negative karma in the process, which will one day come back to bite you. Also, learn to accept those around you will suffer, and there is often little to nothing you can do about it. Their suffering is an opportunity for you to care for others and improve your qualities of love and compassion. Accept each person must learn to travel their own path in their own way, and sometimes the best way to learn lessons is to have life teach them.

If we find ourselves the victim of these three forms of manipulation, we need to train in learning to disarm them. To disarm any of them, we first need to realize clearly how they are harmful to both ourselves and to the person using them. Then we need a method for actually disarming them.

Disarming others blaming us for their unhappiness: When others get mad at us, they are blaming us for their unhappiness, saying it is our fault they are angry or miserable. If we assent to their view, thinking they are right, we can quickly develop self-hatred thinking how awful we are. We also then think it is our responsibility to change ourselves or manage all of the external conditions around the angry person so that they don’t get angry. We become terrified of them getting angry, and exhaust ourselves trying to arrange everything to avoid their wrath. This doesn’t help the angry person, rather it just encourages them to continue to get angry as a means of getting what they want; and, more deeply, it wrongly confirms their mistaken belief that their happiness depends upon what we do. Further, it doesn’t help them because our assenting to their view that we are to blame enables them to continue to create all sorts of terrible negative karma for themselves by continuing to abuse us. To disarm this, we need to remember each person is responsible for what happens in their own mind and their own experience of life. This is true for the abuser and it is true for us, and it is true for everyone. We need to be crystal clear about this and internally categorically refuse to assent to their assignment of blame. Just because they blame us for their unhappiness doesn’t mean they are right.

Disarming others making us feel incompetent: The abuser is often largely motivated by attachment thinking that the other person’s actions are an essential condition of their own happiness. They actually fear us leaving, so they have to prevent our escape, even if they are doing so only sub-consciously. One of the most effective ways of them preventing our escape is convincing us that we are incapable of doing so. They tell us we are weak, we are stupid, we are incompetent, we are worthless, and we are powerless so that we convince ourselves we can’t get out and we resign ourselves to our fate. Once we assent to this, we are “broken,” like a horse who submits to its master. To disarm this, we need to once again not assent to their view of us. Just as we are not to blame for their experience of life despite them vividly thinking we are, so too we are not the enfeebled person they make us out to be. Here we need to make a clear distinction between ourselves and our delusions. Our true self is our pure potential that one day will ripen in our full enlightenment. While this may seem impossibly far off in the future, it is nonetheless the destiny of all of us. The only question is when it happens. When it happens depends upon us choosing to embark upon the path of ripening that potential. Our delusions are like clouds, and our true self is like the sky. No matter how violent the storm, the sky itself is never tarnished by what passes through it. The same is true with our true selves. The laws of karma are definite, so if we start to create new karmic causes and we make effort to purify our negative karma, it is 100% guaranteed we will eventually succeed in changing our karma and dispelling the clouds of negativity from the sky of our mind. All we need is perseverance and correct spiritual methods for purifying our mind. Simply recognizing that the other person is making us feel incapable of escape as a method of control helps break the spell – we see what is going on, so its power over us is broken. We should awaken the inner French person in us and set out to prove wrong those who say we can’t escape.

Disarming being duped by occasional acts of kindness: When the victim of abuse has had enough and is starting to make the decision to leave, the abuser will often then say things like, “I’m sorry, I’ll change, I promise.” They will then be kind and offer some love. Because we have been so hollowed out by their previous abuse, their kindness and love comes as this huge relief to our inner pain, and we go running back. These acts of occasional kindness are like drugs which give us the occasional relief, or even feelings of ecstasy, which we then start chasing after. We seek their validation that we are not so awful, not so incompetent, and that we are worthy of love. We think, maybe the person is redeemable and I can help them. I can save them. So out of “compassion,” I need to keep going back. They need me. To disarm this manipulation, we need to identify clearly how every time we go back, things almost immediately start to return to the past patterns and the abusive behavior starts up again. These occasional acts of kindness are part of the cycle of abuse, and should be viewed as such. They do not exist outside of the abuse, they are part of it. When we see it as part of the cycle, we are much less likely to be fooled. It’s just like spam. When we first receive the email from the Nigerian princess who wants to transfer us money for safe keeping if only we give her our bank account numbers, we might be tempted; but once we see it for the scam that it is, even though it might still show up in our inbox, we will no longer be fooled by it. Likewise, we need to realize we can never fill the void we feel within through external validation. Quite the opposite actually, the more we chase external validation and love, the more we amplify the void within. The only way to fill the void within is to ripen our own pure potential and realize we actually lack nothing. As Buddha said, do not seek enlightenment outside of your own mind. We need to be kind to our true selves by escaping from these three manipulations.

Escaping from abusive relationships is never easy. It always seems easier to go back. We know as soon as we try to start to get out, they can harm us in so many ways and we fear that, so we remain trapped in fear. It is true, if we try escape, they will throw everything they have at us and it will hurt. But the short-term pain of getting out is much less than the long-term misery of forever remaining trapped. It is no different than somebody who is addicted to drugs. Breaking addictions is hard, but those who succeed in doing so never regret having broken free. The same is true for escaping abusive relationships. Breaking free begins with deciding to do so. It ends with disarming completely these three forms of manipulation.

Once we have made the decision to break free, our problems become largely material in nature. We may lack the material means to be self-sufficient where we are not dependent upon our abuser for our basic survival. This is particularly true for children, or for wives who have no means of supporting themselves financially. Overcoming this obstacle can be difficult. The solution is often some combination of (1) learning to need less, (2) becoming humble enough to ask for help, (3) gradually developing means of self-sufficiency, and (4) praying conditions arrange for us to escape.

None of this is easy, and all of this takes time. But escape is possible. As they say, “it does get better.” We just need to believe while we may be trapped now, one day we will escape. Then we work to build the outer and inner conditions necessary for us to do so.

I pray that all those who read this find release.

How do we get to the pure land?

Escaping from samsara or attaining enlightenment often feels beyond reach, and so while we talk about it, we don’t really believe we can do it, so we never fully apply ourselves to the task. But attaining the pure land is entirely doable. If we are clear on what we need to do, it is not hard to generate the necessary effort. As Venerable Tharchin explains, if we know that Dharma is doable, effort comes effortlessly.
So what, exactly, do we need to do to reach the pure land? There are four main things: We need to want to for the right reasons, have unwavering faith in Guru Heruka or Vajrayogini, have sufficient merit, and we need to use our life to train in how to die. These will now be explained in turn.
First, we need to want to. Christians explain at the time of death we will go to one of two places, heaven or hell. As Buddhists, we scoff and say, ‘ah, but there are six realms of samsara, countless pure lands, liberation and enlightenment.’ But from a practical point of view, the Christians are basically correct. Statistically speaking, 99.99% of the karma that remains on our mind from our countless past lives is negative, and if this karma ripens at the time of our death, we will fall into the lower realms. Once in the lower realms, it is almost impossible to get out and just as all rivers end in the ocean, all paths in the lower realms end in hell. And if we make it to the upper realms, we will burn up all our merit on meaningless pleasure, and then fall into the lower realms after that. Virtually all paths in the upper realms also end in hell. The only exception is a precious human life, but the odds of us putting our head through the golden yoke again are infinitesimally small. So while there may be exceptions, the Christians are basically right. We should feel either at the end of our life, there are basically only two possibilties, the pure land or hell. But it is not enough to just want to reach the pure land to escape hell. Geshe-la is very clear, to reach the pure land we must die with a mind of compassion wanting to take rebirth there so we can complete our training and then fulfill our bodhichitta wish to free all beings from samsara. If we attain the pure land, our eventual liberation and enlightenment is assured. Reaching it is like entering in a slip stream that inexorably leads to the city of enlightenment. A pure land is like a bodhisattva’s training camp. There, we can complete our spiritual training. Then, we can help all others.

Second, we need unwavering faith in Guru Heruka and Vajrayogini. Once again, the Christians basically got it right. They say if faithful practitioners remember Jesus at the time of death, they will be reborn in heaven. We essentially say the same thing, except we try remember Guru Heruka or Vajrayogini with a mind of faith at the time of death. Why is this important? To reach the pure land, pure karma must be activated at the time of our death. Negative minds activate negative karma, leading to lower rebirth. Positive minds activate positive karma, leading to upper rebirth. Pure minds activate pure karma leading to a pure rebirth. Just as merely seeing a Buddha image creates pure karma regardless of our motivation, so too remembering Guru Heruka or Vajrayogini with a mind of faith at the time of our death activates pure karma on our mind. Our mind of faith opens up our mind to be able to receive the sun-like blessings of our guru, which then enter our mind and activate the karmic seeds to take rebirth in the pure land. Buddhas attained enlightenment to guide living beings out of samsara. We can be certain our remembering them at the time of our death will invite them all to accompany us through death and to the pure land. Doing so is why they attained enlightenment in the first place. They then take us by the hand and lead us to their home.

Third, we need sufficient merit. Nothing can happen without first creating its cause. Every action has four karmic effects, one of which is the ripened effect. The ripened effect is the substantial cause of a future rebirth. Once again, negative ripened effects result in lower rebirth, positive ripened effects result in upper rebirth, and pure ripened effects result in a pure rebirth. If we do not have pure karma on our mind, we will not be able to take rebirth in the pure land. Therefore, we need to accumulate a vast reserve of pure karma so there is lots of material on our mind that the Buddhas can bless. How do we create such pure karma? There are many different ways, but they all come down to connecting with something that exists outside of samsara. Seeing an image of a Buddha creates pure karma because Buddhas exist outside of samsara. Relying upon the spiritual guide creates pure karma because he is a portal connecting our mind to all of the pure lands. Engaging in actions motivated by renunciation or bodhichitta create pure karma because the final intention of the action is beyond samsara. Making mandala offerings or self-generating as our highest yoga tantra deity create pure karma because we are quite literally creating pure worlds with our mind. Geshe-la teaches in multiple places that making mandala offerings is the most effective way of creating the karma to be able to take rebirth in a pure land. This makes sense because generating a mandala is a mental action of generating a pure land, and offering it to our Spiritual Guide invests that merit in the portal out. The practice of self-generation itself is, for all practical purposes, a mandala offering, the only difference is the basis of the offering is ourself transformed into the pure land.

Finally, we need to use our life to train in how to die. Just as water consistently flowing can eventually create grand canyons, so too our persistent training in how to die and take a controlled rebirth in the pure land will carve within our mind a spiritual Grand Canyon leading all of the waters of our mental continuum inexorably to the pure land when we die. There are three things in particular we should do. First, is practice the yoga of sleeping every time we go to bed. Falling asleep and dying are very similar processes, so as we fall asleep we should strongly believe we are now going to die, generate the compassionate wish to take rebirth in the pure land so we can complete our training, engage in the yoga of sleeping, and then fall asleep with that mind. By gaining familiarity with this every night, we will know exactly what we need to do at death. Second, we should train in the three bringings of generation stage. The three bringings are really a method of self-powa of exactly what we need to do at the time of our death to take rebirth in the pure land. We are essentially practicing how to die and take rebirth in the pure land. Third, we should practice powa for others every opportunity we get. Doing powa for others not only creates the karma to take rebirth in the pure land ourselves, it also creates the karma for others to do powa for us. And let’s be honest, we will need all the prayers we can get. If we do these three – yoga of sleeping, three bringings, and powa for others – throughout our life, when death comes we will be ready.

Through almost impossibly good karma, we have encountered these methods through which we can guarantee our eventual enlightenment. Perhaps we doubt we can complete all the grounds and paths in this life, but it is not hard to understand how it is doable to attain the pure land. If we attain the pure land, we can complete the rest of our training. We have the opportunity and we have the methods. What more important thing could there possibly be for us to do with our life?

Setting limits: Dealing with difficult people is not easy, but still necessary

Dealing with difficult people is not easy. But learning how to do so is how we develop skillful means. 

Much of it comes down to learning how to establish limits. We avoid doing so because we know when we do, it will provoke a fight with the difficult person, and we don’t want to deal with that, so it seems easier to just go along. But because we just go along with their dysfunction, it keeps coming again and again and again. The sum of all these little dysfunctions far outweighs the more extreme, but short-lived problem of them being upset when we establish limits. 

It also doesn’t help them for us to allow them to continue to create negative karma for themselves; so setting limits, if done correctly, can be an act of compassion. 

“Everybody welcome” is the essence of the Kadampa way of life, but that does not mean their delusions and harmful behavior are welcome. There is no contradiction between saying “you are welcome, but these delusions or negative behaviors are not” because we make a clear distinction between the person and their delusions. If the other person says, “if you are going to establish such limits on me, then I’m outta here,” you can say, “that is your choice. If you change your mind, you are always welcome back.” 

All of that being said, of course we need to pick our battles. It’s usually best to focus on small things that are highly representative of larger patterns. But if that is too hard, start with the most harmful and the most disruptive behaviors.