Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Three Poisons of the Mind: Addictive Craving

I wanted to add a few notes about the second noble truth of the Buddha. When the Buddha, in the first noble truth, taught that suffering, dukkha, exists. He was naming the disease that humanity and all sentient beings endure. The word he used, "dukkha", does not have a good translation into English. It is usually translated as "suffering" or "sorrow". The word "dukkha" has the meaning of "split action" or "two actions" (du=two, kha=doing). The word implies a tension or a contradiction, an activity that is struggling with itself and causing some pain or tension. I feel that "sorrow" is a good word for "dukkha", but the second word is more encompassing of more states of suffering than the English words. This is why the Buddha gives empirical instances of all kinds of sorrow, like the pain of birth, the pain of dying, the pain of losing loved ones (either to death or to divorce), the pain of getting hurt by stones or harsh words, pain of feeling anger, feeling fear, and feeling grief. The Buddha then goes on to describe two large categories of sorrow. One is not having what we want and the other is having what we do not want. These two categories match up with the word "dukkha" in that they describe the tension or contradiction at the heart of dukkha. There is a desire energy and there is our experience not matching it, not fulfilling it.

Many translations of the Buddha dharma mistakenly translate "tanha" or "asava" as "desire". It should be translated as "craving" or, even more precisely as "addictive craving". Not all desires lead to dukkha. If I desire orange juice in the morning and find I have run out of orange juice, this does not produce any deep sorrow. There might be a moment of mild frustration. But ordinary desires have many qualities that really keep them out of the category of dukkha. One is that they are flexible. As I see that there is no orange juice, then I might drink some water instead or I might drink some apple juice or have some tea and be satisfied with this. I might be able to let go of the desire or, if I am more advanced in meditation, visualize the experience of drinking orange juice and enjoy the visualization, or even touch a glass of water and energize it with the experience of drinking orange juice and enjoy drinking this. The point behind this is the craving has a more driving compulsive fixated energy than ordinary desire.

The Buddha later on teaches that there is a web of interdependent causes that interact with each other to sustain the experience of sorrow. He names them as the 3 poisons of the mind, the 12 nidanas later on, and even goes into 100 mental factors that interlock into different patterns of sorrow, 52 of them being peaceful factors and 48 being intense factors. He gave these various teachings as markers to look within and verify the patterns that sorrow moves through us. He also gave exact points where we could release the chain reaction of sorrow so that we could be free, the main point is "remaining with the sensation", staying with our experience without reaction, being awake and aware, and, if possible without trying to fix it and without mental thoughts about our experience (often called "our story" that we build around our sorrow). In other words, just staying with our unpleasant painful sensation, being aware, and breathing until the reaction subsides. If we replay a story in our minds, we can sustain the experience of pain almost indefinitely.

The second noble truth is about the causes and conditions that sustain the experience of sorrow in our lives, while the third noble truth affirms that sorrow can come completely to an end through uprooting the deepest causes of sorrow and entering into the peace of nirvana (letting go, nir=out, vana=wind). Behind the three poisons of the mind is a subtle internal psychological movement which could be called "selfing" or "self clinging". We create through thought and identification with thought a "feeling of self" and assume that this feeling of self has something real within it and behind it. But this feeling of self is very transitory and unreal. It changes its content moment to moment, attaches itself to many internal changes sometimes so fast that it is hard to keep updating to its present report. In 15 minutes, it can attach and identify with anger as in "I am angry", then go to "I am afraid", "I am upset", "I am confused", "I am sad", etc. Yet when we look within, we will notice the anger, the fear, the upset, the confusion, and the sadness, but never encounter this fictitious self that somehow "owns" all these experiences. In other words, there is an energy pattern called an emotion flowing through a field of awareness, with no self attached to the emotion, no self found anywhere in the emotion, no self found in any combination of patterns of emotion, there is just the emotion itself whirling along and constantly changing as new causal forces shape our experience. The emotion itself is not a solid thing that exists from its own side, but has "dependent existence" on transitory causal factors, mainly the other four of the five skandhas which it is a part of. These are thoughts, sensations, body, and attention (cognition). The last factor is, again, another one that is hard to translate, since the Buddha named 12 basic levels or kinds of consciousness and even named 366 different kinds of consciousness in a later discourse. English is slowly evolving more precise words for "consciousness" and "mind" through the growth of psychology, but even here there is some difficulty. The scientific materialist orientation likes to name kinds of consciousness as brain events which are primarily described in terms of EEG patterns and chemical reactions, while Buddhist teachings decribe them more phenomenologically, in terms of how they are actually and directly experienced when you go within and look. Awareness and attention are instruments that are fine tuned to observe and understand internal contents and how they are put together to form our experience. The two approaches are not contradictory. I love to study what regular science has to say about consciousness and brain states, but from the standpoint of Buddhist psychology what regular science is looking at is the reflection of the causal factors in consciousness appearing in the body (which is interdependent upon consciousness, thought, emotion, and sensation) or visa versa.

The Buddha taught that unless the "teaching of no self" is understood, there is no end to sorrow. Unless the fiction of a self that is sprayed on to all our experience, attaching to objects in our experience, resisting other objects in our experience, and being confused about other aspects of our experience is seen to be an illusion, something completely nonexistent, merely constructed by thought, identification, and imagination, then we unwittingly sustain our sorrow, form samskaric patterns of reactions of sorrow, and feel those samskaras activate by our sensory experience or even internally trigger ourselves by "thinking about thinking". In terms of meditation, it takes a fairly sensitive and subtle mind to notice the patterns of identification (attachment) and alienation (resistance) that form our illusory and transitory ever changing experience of self moment to moment and to notice how it generates and sustains states of sorrow. The implication behind the teaching of no self is that when "no self" is realized, then the deepest root of sorrow is uprooted and ended. The teaching forms the basis of permanent freedom from sorrow. I say "basis" because when the illusion of self is seen through, you will have an experience of enlightenment and directly understand the nature of the mind and reality in a deep way. But it does not mean that all sorrow finishes in that instant. It is like the understanding starts to operate within and dissolve all sorrow and the complexes of sorrow in present time. All the patterns of samskaras within the subconscious mind need to be brought to the understanding and awareness in order to be dissolved. They will arise and spontaneously dissolve within awareness. We need to do nothing but simply ride this process (fugen kensho).

The reason why Buddha chose to start talking about sorrow through talking about "addictive craving" is that this is the "active element" in the formation of sorrow. From addictive craving we seek fulfillment, drive ourselves into action in life, get wrapped up in events, attract and repell certain elements of our experience, often get into power struggles with others, and set up habits that continue below the surface of our lives which are supported or frustrated by the unfoldment of our experiences. Curiously, when a person struggles with an addiction, they can easily verify nearly every teaching that the Buddha taught about sorrow, except maybe the teaching of "no self" (though people are usually dimly aware that their ego is causing a lot of problems for them and have a hard time seeing this, the Buddha taught something even deeper than "ego" or "non-ego", it is about a whole experience of self being an illusion and having this drop away, what is called "the ego" is the illusion becoming very intense and painful for us to carry, but when the illusion is milder we do not notice it as easily and even take pleasure in this illusion to keep it going).

We keep setting up the karmaic patterns of our life through addictive craving. It is a hard pattern to change in some sense, because we do need an active element to shape our lives. What replaces addictive craving is compassion, kindness, empathy, peace, joyfulness, wisdom, and creativity. We replace reactive patterns with a moment to moment wakefulness and its intuitive wisdom compassionate responding (or not responding) to the moment. In the process of learning how to live this way, we learn how unconscious and robotic our reaction patterns are. We learn that there is a way that we have never really lived that we have been a pattern of mental conditioning which very predictably gives a certain reaction to a certain stimulus, like a button being pushed to turn a light on or off. We learn what a lot of our friends know, that we have buttons that can be pushed and we will react, sometimes with such exact replicas of past behaviors that they can mouth our exact words, tones, inflections, hand gestures, and facial expressions back to us. This reaction pattern is the "self" and when it ends the illusory self ends with the pattern. One Sufi group called this pattern the "chronic". If we can notice our chronic and release it as just a reaction pattern and "not self", if we can even just say, "Oh, there is my chronic getting activated again" (and even laugh about it), then we have cut into a deep root of our sorrow and have weakened its grip on us (BTW the Sufis do not recommend that you try to immediately get rid of your chronic, but to just notice it without judgment, even if your chronic is about judgment...there are deep psychological reasons why, mainly because you will just create another chronic in its place, and it is better to have a chronic that you are aware of than one you are not, until a certain kind of awareness and understanding is strong inside, one will build up a chronic and live from it...if one notices without judgment, then the chronic will slowly fade away by itself and will be replaced by a sensitive aware presence).

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