Becoming our own therapist: Buddhist perspectives on attachment and delusion
By Robina Courtin
The Buddhist view is that we've all got extraordinary potential to cultivate our minds, our consciousness. It's not some special gift that only some people have; it's innate within all of us. But potential for what? Not something holy, like heaven in the sky, or next life, but potential to eliminate entirely fear, depression, anxiety, neediness, low self-esteem and to fully develop love, contentment, compassion, clarity, courage and the other qualities we want so badly.
This is a pretty radical assertion. But, for the Buddha, it's doable by all of us. And it's something very earthy, so tasty, not something vague and mystical. This potential exists, simply, in our minds, our consciousness. Therefore, we need to learn how to access our own mind. Sounds simple enough, but it's not a job we're educated to do. It is not our habit to look inside, much less know deeply and well what's going on there.
What is the "mind"?
From the Buddhist point of view, the word "mind" covers the entire spectrum of our inner experiences: thoughts, feelings and emotions, unconscious, sub-conscious, intuition, instinct, even what some might call soul - all of this is our consciousness. And this, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it, is where the workshop is. This is what we have to become deeply familiar with in order to cultivate our marvellous potential.
The tools that we use are the sophisticated psychological techniques called meditation, developed and tried and tested over centuries, which enable us to access in a precise and disciplined way levels of mind not even posited as existing in our contemporary culture.
What we're mainly familiar with, and where we look in order to understand ourselves and our lives, is the outside world and the past - the people and events and objects - which we're convinced are the main cause of our happiness and suffering. This is well and good, not to mention necessary, but certainly not enough. Our parents, our genes, the boyfriend, the boss, the external environment - they are merely catalysts for our experiences, not the main event. The main thing is our own mind, our own emotions, characteristics, personality traits, tendencies: our very being itself. Investigating, unravelling, and transforming this is the Buddhist approach to psychological work.
According to this model of the mind, psychological states fall into three categories: positive, negative and neutral. Leaving aside the neutral, the positive states, which are at the core of our being, are necessarily the cause of own wellbeing and happiness, and the basis of our capacity to benefit others. The negative, which are not at the core of our being and thus can be removed, are necessarily the cause of our unhappiness and the basis of our harming others.
The key job, then, is to develop the skill to look inside, to be introspective, in a clear and disciplined way, so that we're then qualified to do the actual job of changing our emotions, of distinguishing between the positive and negative. In other words, to become our own therapist, as Lama Yeshe puts it. This is not an easy job, for several reasons:
We're not educated to look into our minds.
We only notice we're angry - for example - when the words vomit out of the mouth, or that we're depressed when we can't get out of bed one morning.
Even if we do look at our feelings, often we can't tell the difference between the positive and the negative - they're mixed together in a big soup of emotions, and a pureed soup at that!
One of the biggest obstacles is that we don't think we can change our feelings because they're so concrete, so real: "I'm born this way, what can I do about it?" We so fiercely identify with the neuroses, believing that they're the real me. We even think they're physical.
Finally, who wants to look into their mind? "It's not my fault, is it? I didn't ask to get born! This is how we all are! What am I supposed to do about it?"
Everything, it seems, conspires against our doing this job.
Negative states of the mind are not innate
To give ourselves the confidence to even start, we need to think about how the negative states of mind are not at the core of our being, they do not define us, they are not innate, and thus can be removed.
This flies in the face of our deeply held assumption - one that's reinforced by all contemporary models of the mind - that the positive and negative have equal status; that they're natural; they just are who we are. If you ask your therapist for methods to get rid of all anger, jealousy, attachment and the rest, they'll think you're insane!
We can be forgiven for thinking the negative, neurotic, unhappy emotions are at the core of our being: they certainly feel like it! We identify totally with them, follow them perfectly, truly believing this is who I really am. This is the irony of ego.
So, if the negative, neurotic emotions are the source of our pain and the positive ones the cause of our happiness, then we'd better learn to distinguish them. This is the very essence of the job our being our own therapist. What are negative states of mind? They have two main characteristics (which the positive ones necessarily lack) and these are indicated by two commonly used synonyms:
Disturbing - Even though we can see that anger is disturbing to oneself (just look at an angry person - they're out of their mind!) we fiercely live in denial of it, or else we deflect it, so determined are we to believe that the external catalyst is the main problem. My friends on death row in Kentucky told me that they receive visits from an old Catholic man who, after thirty years of grief and rage after his daughter was murdered, finally realized that the main reason for his suffering was his rage, his anger.
Delusional - The other characteristic that these unhappy states of mind possess is that they're delusional. We'd be offended if someone accused of that, but that's exactly what Buddha is saying. The extent to which our minds are caught up in attachment, anger and the rest is the extent to which we are not in touch with reality. He's saying that we're all delusional, it's just a question of degree.
In other words, anger, attachment and the rest are concepts, misconceptions. It seems like a joke to say that these powerful emotions are based in thoughts, but that's because we only notice them when they roar up to the surface as emotion. Perhaps we can see the disturbing aspect of them, but rarely the delusional.
They are distorted assessments of the person or the event that we are attached to or angry with. They are elaborations, exaggerated stories, lies, misconceptions, fantasies, conceptual constructions, superstitions. As Rinpoche puts it, they decorate on top of what is already there, layers upon layers of characteristics that are simply not there. Bad enough that we see things this way - the worst part is that we believe that these stories are true. This is what keeps us locked inside our own personal insane asylum.
Understanding this is the key to understanding our negative states of mind and, therefore, how to get rid of them.
Attachment and the delusion of desire
The delusion that runs our lives is attachment. It's a profound dissatisfaction, neediness; a primordial sense that something is missing, of being bereft, lonely, cut off. It's just there, all the time, in the bones of our being.
And this is where aversion, anger, the exact opposite of attachment, comes into play. The split second that attachment is thwarted, doesn't get what it wants - and that's a thousand times a day - aversion arises. Then this is expressed externally as anger or internally as despair and depression. Attachment and aversion are utterly linked. Being a fantasy, attachment is not sustainable; the bubble has to burst, and it has nowhere to go but aversion (or ignorance, which manifests as boredom, indifference, uncaring).
In our never-ending efforts to keep the panic at bay, we hungrily seek the right sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, thoughts, words, but the split second we don't get them, aversion arises, exploding outwards as anger or imploding inwards as depression, guilt, hopelessness, self-hate.
At the root of this, as Buddha calls it, is ignorance - marigpa in Tibetan, which means unawareness, a fundamental unawareness of how we actually exist. The function of this "ego-grasping," as it's called, is to isolate and concretize this universe-big sense of self, a deluded sense of "I," a totally fabricated sense of I, whose nature is fear: paranoid, dark, cut off, separate, alienated, and overwhelming. This instinctive, pervasive sense of an independent, self-existent, real, solid, definite "me-ness" totally pervades everything - there is not an instant when it is not there. It's at the deepest level of assumption, beneath everything. It is always there, informing everything we think and feel and say and do and experience.
And the main voice of this I is "I want." Why? The vivid sense of a separate, lonely I manifests as a deep sense of missing something, not being enough, not having enough. And that is the irony of ego - we actually feel empty, bereft. And so that neediness, that bottomless pit of yearning, that hunger - that's attachment. And it's the main voice of ego, it is constantly there, moment by moment.
This attachment, this desire, being a misconception, makes the mistake of believing that that delicious person, that gorgeous taste, that lovely smell, that nice feeling, that idea - that when I get that, when I have it inside me, then I'll feel full, then I'll be content. That is what desire thinks. This is why it is so hard to see how desire is deluded.
This is not meant to be moralistic. As soon as we hear these words, we feel a bit resentful, "What do you mean - I'm not allowed to have pleasure?" That's how we feel. But as Lama Yeshe has pointed out, we're either completely hedonistic, and grasping and shoving everything in, or we're completely puritanical. And the irony is that they are both coming from a misunderstanding of desire - they both come from ego. Buddha is not being moralistic. He is not saying we should not have pleasure - the reality is he is saying we should have masses of pleasure, joy, happiness, but naturally and appropriately, and, incredibly, without relying upon anything external. This is our natural state when we've de-polluted our minds of the neuroses, in fact.
Right now, because of the misconception that desire has, we have got the wrong end of the stick. Desire thinks that the delicious chocolate cake, that gorgeous thing is out there, vibrating deliciousness, demanding that I eat it - nothing coming from my side at all. We don't think out mind plays any role at all. We think that it's all happening from the cake's side, all the energy is coming from the cake. The thing is that we don't see this process! The fact is we are making up the cake - attachment has written a huge story about cake and what it will do for us. It is a complex conceptual construction, an invention, an elaborate view, an interpretation, an opinion.
We're like a child, as one lama said, who draws a lion, and then becomes afraid of it. We invent everything in our reality, and then we have all the fears and the paranoia and the depression and the grasping. But we make up that cake, we make up the enemy - we made them up ourselves. This sounds pretty cosmic, but it is literally true. This doesn't mean there is no cake there - there is. And it doesn't mean that Fred didn't punch you - he did.
We need to distinguish between the facts and the fiction - and that's the hard part. It is hard to see this, but this is the way delusions function. And basically they are liars. What attachment is seeing is simply not true. What attachment is seeing simply does not exist. There is a cake there, but what we think is cake and what cake actually is, are vastly different. And because this is hard to understand indicates how ancient it is within us.
What we're seeing or experiencing, what we are grasping at - delicious cake from its own side that will make me happy - is a lie. It doesn't exist like that at all. There is a cake there, it is brown, it is square - that's valid. And this is what's hard to distinguish - the correctness, and the incorrectness. What is actually there and what is not there. That is the job we need to do in knowing the way delusions work and therefore how to get rid of them.
Attachment is the voice of the victim
Another characteristic of attachment is that it is the voice of the victim. We truly feel we have no control - cake is this incredible powerful thing, and I just have to have it. What choice do I have? That is attachment talking. Attachment gives all the power to the outside object - which is why we feel like a baby. That's the victim mentality. And victim mentality, the one of hopelessness, the one of no control - that's the voice of attachment. Attachment is giving all the power to that object. It sees this truly delicious divine thing, which in reality our mind has made up, and then we believe it and then blame it.
"We make the body the boss," as Lama Yeshe would tell us. We totally follow what the senses feel. We assume the delicious cake is an object of the senses - of course, it is, but what we think we see isn't what's there. What appears to the sense of sight, for example, is not a delicious cake but simply the shape and colour of the thing. "Delicious cake" is a story made up by the mental consciousness, specifically attachment. This is a crucial point.
What is being experienced in relation to that cake? What are the states of mind? One of them is the senses. We smell it in the kitchen, so there's our nose sense. Then there's the touch, the sight, we see the shape and colour when it comes to the table. Then we touch it, the hand feels it. Then there's the taste consciousness, the one we're wanting the most. So four of the five senses are involved in the experience of that cake.
The senses are like dumb animals. Our tongue doesn't experience the hunger for the cake, it doesn't leap out of our face and grab the cake desperately. Even our hand doesn't, although it looks like it. The hand goes out to the cake, but not from its own side. So what does? It's propelled by the neurotic need to get the cake in the mouth. The mental consciousness, in other words. The thought. It is the story about what is chocolate cake, and I need chocolate cake, all the stuff about chocolate cake that is chattering away in the mind. That is where the delusions exist. Attachment is not a function of the taste. It is simply not possible. How can it be? Our tongue doesn't feel neurotic. Our tongue doesn't feel grasping, our tongue doesn't feel, "I want to have more cake" - it is just a doorway through which this bunch of thoughts, these concepts, this sense of "I" grasps at the experience. So the senses do not experience attachment. It is a logical fact.
For aeons, we have had the mistaken assumption that satisfying the senses is the way to get happiness. So right now, we are totally dependent on sensory objects. We are all junkies, it's just a question of degree. We can't imagine having pleasure unless we get that fix. That fix is any one of the objects of the five senses. Which makes it sound quite brutal.
But unless we can start to look into this and cut through this whole way of working, we will never break free of suffering, we will never become content, satisfied, fulfilled. Which is why the basis of practice, the foundation of all realizations, is morality - discipline. It means practicing control over the senses. And it is not a moralistic issue; it's a practical one. The aim is to get as happy as possible. But this happiness, this pleasure, is not deluded. If pleasure were deluded, we might as well give up now. Pleasure, happiness, joy are totally appropriate. So where is the problem? Why do we suffer? Why are we frantic and anxious and desperate, fantasising about the cake before it's even there, then shoving two pieces in when it comes, and then being depressed when we eat too much? Why all this rubbish? Because we have these delusions.
Going beyond friend, enemy and stranger
Suffering doesn't come from pleasure, it doesn't come from the senses. It comes from neuroses in the mental consciousness. But right now it's virtually impossible for us to have pleasure without attachment.
It's the same with people. Let's look at the person we are attached to, the person we are in love with. Again, this soup of emotions, which we never analyze, never deconstruct. I can say, "I love you". That means I wish them to be happy. This is totally appropriate, even virtuous. The more of this the better. We will only get happiness if we keep thinking that. "I want you not to suffer" - that's called compassion. Generosity, maybe you'd like to give the person something. Generosity, in its nature is a virtue, necessarily the cause of happiness.
So, love doesn't cause suffering, compassion doesn't cause suffering, the senses don't directly cause suffering, happiness can't possibly cause suffering - so what does? The cause of suffering is the attachment, first of all, the neurotic sense of an "I," a hungry "I" that sees this person, grossly exaggerates their value to me, gives too much power, puts the power "out there" in that person, just like the cake, which implies that we are devaluing the power of ourselves. We're giving all the power to this person, like it's all out there, this person, vibrating, so delicious, so gorgeous. So attachment is hungry and empty and bereft and lonely. And is completely convinced that having that person is going to make me happy.
What attachment does is exaggerate the beautiful qualities of the person, it is exaggerating our sense of an "I" that needs that person, because attachment thinks that if I don't get that person then I am not happy; because we don't believe we can be happy inside, we have to have an object. Attachment then starts to manipulate this person, expects massively that this person will give me happiness.
It's the same with the person we loathe. We really believe that that person, from out there, from their own side, independently, definitely, is an awful person, as if ugliness is coursing in their veins along with their blood. We hear their name, it appears awful, we see their face, it appears awful. The discomfort in our mind is huge. We think the discomfort, the unhappiness, the hurt, the anger, the pain, we actually think and believe they are doing it to us.
But this is all a lie. It's our own anger that causes the person to look awful, the anger that makes us so miserable. Usually the only person we wish to be happy - that's the meaning of love - is the person we are attached to. And the only person we are attached to is the person we love. So we assume because they come together, they're the same thing. It is just not accurate.
We need to start going beyond those limits. When we start practicing equanimity, we try to cut through this narrow self-centred view of attachment, ignorance and aversion. We assume it is normal that when a person is mean to me, I don't like them. So we call them enemies. And we assume it is normal that when a person is nice to me, we call them friend. And when a person is doing neither, they are called stranger. That's the reality of the entire universe, isn't it? We need to go beyond this one.
What anger is, and what anger is not
The perfect answer to the question, "What is anger?" which I heard from a lama, is: "Anger is the response when attachment doesn't get what it wants." But if that is what anger is, then what is it not?
Anger is not physical. Anger is part of our mind, and our mind is not physical. It exists in dependence upon the brain, the genes, the chemical reactions, but is not these things. When anger is strong, it triggers huge physical symptoms: the blood boils, the heart beats fast, the spit comes out the mouth, the eyes open wide in panic, the voice shouts. Or if we experience aversion as depression, the body feels like a lead weight; there's no energy, a terrible inertia. And then, when we boost our serotonin, the body feels good again. But these are just gross expressions of what, finally, is purely thought: a story made up by our conceptual mind that exaggerates the ugly aspects of the person or event or oneself. Recent findings prove what is explained in Tibetan Medicine: that what goes on in the mind affects the body.
Anger is not someone else's fault. This doesn't mean that the person didn't punch me; sure they did. And it doesn't mean that punching me is not bad; sure it is. But the person didn't make me angry. The punch is merely the catalyst for my anger, a tendency in my mind. If there were no anger, all I'd get is a broken nose.
Anger does not come from our parents. We love to blame our parents. Actually, if Buddha is wrong in his assertion that our mind comes from previous lives and is propelled by the force of our own past actions into our mother's womb, and if the materialists are right in asserting that our parents created us, then we should blame them. How dare they create me, like Frankenstein and his monster, giving me anger and jealousy and the rest. But they didn't, Buddha says. (Nor did a superior being - but we dare not blame him!) They gave us a body; the rest is ours (including our good qualities).
Anger isn't only the shouting. Just because a person doesn't shout and yell doesn't mean they're not angry. When we understand that anger is based on the thought called aversion, then we can see we are all angry. Of course, if we never look inside, we won't notice the aversion - that's why people who don't express anger experience it as depression or guilt.
Anger is not necessary for compassionate action. His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded to an interviewer who suggested that anger seems to act as a motivator for action: "I know what you mean. But with anger, your wish to help doesn't last. With compassion, you never give up." We need to discriminate between good and bad, but Buddha says that we should criticize the action, not the person. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, it's okay to find fault - but then we should think, "What can I do about it?" It's exactly the same with seeing our own faults, but instead of feeling guilty we should think, "What can I do about it?" Then we can change. Anger and guilt are paralysing, impotent, useless.
Anger is not natural. Often we think we need anger in order to be a reasonable human being; that it's unnatural not to have it; that it gives perspective to life. It's a bit like thinking that in order to appreciate pleasure we need to know pain. But that's obviously ridiculous - for me to appreciate your kindness, do you first need to punch me in the nose?
Anger is not at the core of our being. Being a delusional state of mind, a lie, a misconception, it's logical that anger can be eliminated. If I think there are two cups on my table, whereas there is only one, that's a misconception. What to do with the thought "there are two cups on my table"? Remove it from my mind. Recognize that there is one cup and stop believing the lie. It's simple. Of course, the lies that believe that I'm self-existent, that delicious objects make me happy, that ugly ones make me suffer, that my mind is my brain, that someone else created me - these lies have been in my mind since time immemorial. But the method for getting rid of them is the same. What's left when we've removed the lies, the delusions, is the truth of our own innate goodness, fully perfected. That is what's natural.
Real practice is painful. Until it is painful, it is not practice - we're just playing safe. We're just keeping our nice comfort zone. Practice has to threaten something; it has to feel painful. Just like when we are overweight, we decide we are going to get thin and beautiful, and we start doing push-ups. It has to be painful at first. We know that if the second we start feeling pain from doing push-ups we stop, we will never benefit from doing them. Giving up attachment is like that: it has to be painful.
Until then, we are just playing it safe, thinking that being spiritual means smiling and being holy and having a pleasant manner. It is just not so. Until we stretch, until we go beyond our limits, we won't get better at doing anything. We really get our body strong when we go beyond our limits every day. How do we become an accomplished pianist or anything? We have to go beyond our limits. That's what spiritual practice is - we have to stretch our limits.
This means we have to be facing our attachment every day, feeling the pain of it, seeing it; and then, as soon as we start to do that, somehow we become fulfilled, satisfied. That is what is interesting. When we start to give up being a junkie, we start to become happy. We begin to taste our own potential. As long as we continue to follow attachment, which is so deep, we will never be happy.
So how to begin? It all comes from motivation. We can start the day by deciding we will begin. Be very courageous - it starts from the thought. We tend in the West to dismiss thoughts. We say, "It's only in the mind." We give no value to the mind, even though we are caught in it. We give no value to just thought. The point is that, if we really understood this fundamental and easily provable truth that every thought programs us into what we will become, we would be so happy to have positive thoughts, and be content with them.
So every day, you're saying, "I want to be compassionate. I want to be beneficial." You're aspiring, and then you'll act. It is no mystery. That's how we become pianists, footballers, a cook, or a happy and beneficial person. It starts with the thought, the motivation, the aspiration.
So we just start our practice with powerful sincere motivations. What we are is the product of our thoughts. It is simply a fact. This is what karma is saying. No one else made us into anything - we made ourselves. As Lama Zopa says, we can mould our mind into any shape we wish.
Practice is, in the beginning, motivation, motivation, motivation. When we start every day, we wish, "May I be useful, may I not shoot my mouth off at too many people." We have to value the thought, value the mind. The, like the Dalai Lama says, we are on the right track for the rest of the day. If we really understood that we would be so content, knowing we were sowing the seeds for future crops of happiness. That's practice. That's how we start.
We shouldn't fret, thinking "I'm hopeless, I'm useless." We are too concrete in our thinking. So we start with the motivation, start with the thoughts, and we go into the day bringing that awareness with us. Watch your mind, be careful of the rubbish, try not to shoot your mouth off too much, try to be a bit useful, rejoice in the good stuff. Then, as we look back at the end of the day, we regret our mistakes and rejoice in our efforts, and then go to bed with a happy mind. That's one day of practice. One day at a time. It is organic, and it's humble. We start one day at a time, and slowly, something develops.
The Venerable Robina Courtin was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in 1977. She was the editorial director of Wisdom Publications until 1987 and then editor of the international Buddhist magazine Mandala until the end of 2000. In 1997, she founded the Liberation Prison Project which works with people in prisons throughout the United States, helping them with their Buddhist practice and studies.