Of the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)
Monsters in the cellar
It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.
We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)
Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.
Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.
We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.
Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.
For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.
One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not there. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.
The next installment is here, Saying bye bye to the painful, limited self. Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.
Many years ago I was suicidal when some dreadful, painful emotions started to rear their ugly heads. I’ve never been so terrified in all my life. Unfortunately I made a pact with myself never to let those feelings appear again. It now seems I’ve thrown away the key to that room in my mind, and I’m not sure where to start looking for it nor do parts of me even want to, because that out of controlness was so…terrifying, I nearly lost my life (and no doubt incurred some awful karma for what I did to myself). Just a comment to note that it’s a very complex thing, to revisit old wounds.
Yes, thank for sharing this — it is really important that we only look at our delusions with the mirror of Dharma, while identified with our Buddha nature, and in refuge so we are receiving blessings.
Thanks for sharing this article Luna.
Its been very inspiring.
I was touched by the person who found teachings at times difficult and felt unsupported. Im glad that person never gave up and had such resiliance . I hope they see that as great potential.
I really enjoyed what you said about connectivity and potential that IS inspiring me already.
Ive had my ups and downs in practice the profoundness of these experiences seem vast to me and the struggle is on going.My life my practice.
Dharma can seem so clear cut and simple on paper and un achievable ..to me at times. But
I am realising that these clear words come from so much practice so much experience.
The time away from teachings is the real task.. Faith to walk the walk believing this is the best method for me. Trusting the previous experiences and blessings and exhausted every other method.
I hope we all have the time we need to engage with Dharma until no more suffering
Thanks for keeping us thinking Luna.
I know this is great advice for dealing with stuff that’s accessible, but for the hard stuff with deep roots… I think we sometimes need a guide, probably in the shape of a good therapist. During my time attending teachings, failure to resolve delusions was characterized as laziness or pride or inauthenticity, and i notice you use some of the same language here. I realize this is probably motivational for some, but for me it was really unhelpful, and frankly destructive. Ultimately it turned me off completely. I was struggling a great deal at the time. In my case failure to resolve the delusions that were really harming me had nothing to do with any of these things. I knew what to do, I simply couldn’t do it. I went to extraordinary lengths to reinforce myself enough to keep attending teachings in the hope that when the sadness lifted I’d be ready — which from where i am now seems pretty tragic. I was paralyzed with grief at the time and was doing everything i could to find my way back to a sense of myself that I could recognize. Anyway, as a result of this experience I tend to think all of the negative pressure can be pretty damaging, cruel even. I suppose I wonder how many other people who could really benefit from these teachings walk away because this kind of assumed resistance turns them off.
Thank you for your comment, Madeline, and for helpfully raising these points. First I want to say that I am really sorry you have been going through this hard time.
To try and answer your points, I think the key to avoiding any idea of “assumed resistance”, which was not the intent of the article, is to make sure we identify with our potential and try to experience at least some peace and self-confidence before we start to identify which delusions are causing us harm. Until we can get to a relatively healthy state of self-identification, it is not easy to correctly or skilfully identify our delusions without identifying WITH them, and hence feeling overwhelmed by them and/or guilty. Then it can also be easy to feel inside that others are putting stuff on us — maybe they are, maybe they are not, but our own lack of self-worth can be our own most judgmental critic I think. That’s why i spend so much time in these articles encouraging people to connect to their inner peace at their heart, however slight, and know that is who they really are, and that it can grow. Ideally if we feel that the peace is mixed with the utterly non-judgmental unconditional love of enlightened beings, as i also describe in various places, we have some supportive space then to do the work.
I also agree that it can be very helpful to have a guide, if such a person is available, and if they know us well enough.
If anyone else has anything to add to this discussion, it would be useful to take it further I think.
I can identify very much with Madeline’s point of view: I have been there. And I will probably be there again. When I am feeling low, lacking self confidence and self worth then it is easy to take good advice as criticism. And of course, sometimes what is intended as kind advice sometimes is criticism. When things are going well I can take quite strong advice, but the rest of the time it can be hard. But over the years I have come to the conclusion that the best advice is Dharma. But sometimes I just need to feel I am appreciated and loved for who I am, no questions asked. And I have been remarkably fortunate to have had many good friends over the years who have done just that (and family of course). But then sometimes I look back at times of crisis in my life and wonder if those people were emanations – because those people arrived just at the right time, said just the right thing (or sometimes just listened and said nothing), just as an emanation would. And so many times, in retrospect, I learn how my wisdom has increased through difficult situations. And even more rarely I am able to see when I am experiencing something unpleasant, how to apply Dharma. One example was at summer festival recently, just after a talk on how to identify the I that normally appears by remembering when we felt embarrassed (that happens lot), something happened that made me feel embarrassed and right in the moment I just looked at my mind to see how the I appeared. And it was quite a strange feeling to observe the embarrassment without identifying with it. For so long as that lasted I felt quite empowered ( not sure that is the right word, but it’s the best I can do).
In short, I find that different things work at different times, but the only thing I keep coming back to is Dharma. I pray for the day when I don’t even feel the need to look elsewhere, because deep down I know it is what works, and all my other attempts to find happiness outside of myself are doomed to failure. I would love that inner light of wisdom, that enabled me to know which teaching to apply at what time and then to actually do it. One day….
I relate to Madeline in attempting to apply advice at the time of grief in our lives and I found then I was going through a really tough time I found a delusion of judgement raising up when I couldnt apply the teachings successfully. I feared I was failing and it added to my sadness at the time. I found self confidence is one thing that I was stripped of at this time and looking back it was a good thing because it wasn’t an authentic confidence i had lost but a worldly one that didnt serve me that well any way. I was in such a dark sad place that I grabbed onto the words in dharma of “REFUGE” and I found myself visualising myself resting my head on Geshla’s lap and him stroking my head. I also found self compassion there as I saw myself through Geshla’s eyes … just remember I was desperate to find help/refuge as I was deeply depressed. Some how this comforted me day after day (3 months or more) and I began to be able to care for myself again enough to start to apply dharma once I was nurtured enough by the loving compassion of buddha, Geshla and then experiencing self compassion.
beautiful! I hope others read these words so they are inspired to do something like this when needed.
Thank you for this article and describing the mind of “self protective aversion”. I found it very helpful (and quite powerful) to meditate on our real nature of ” connectivity and affection”. It created the space I was seeking to work with this particular (SPA) mind. Brilliant advice! Thank you!
What works for me whenever most delusions rear their ugly heads is first thinking that countless others are experiencing these same unpleasant thoughts. Then I just imagine that I’m not experiencing it myself, I am not my unpleasant thoughts, I’m merely aware of what all these other people are dealing with and I wish for them to find freedom from those painful ways of thinking. Immediately I feel better. The trouble is a few minutes later I get distracted and forget to keep doing that.
That is a very good way to do it 🙂
We can’t do anything without remembering to do it, it’s true! That’s mindfulness.
cool piece. i just recently dealt with some “monsters in the cellar” and am in that light, airy, free feeling that comes after. ahhhhh!
I like the sound of that 🙂
Excellent and helpful blog Luna – thank you. Also very timely as my mother died very suddenly a few days ago.
I find it helpful (with all monsters and terrors) to get them out into figurative broad daylight, examine them closely and let pure, clear light show them up for what they are. I imagine them shrivelling up in this beautiful light and dwindling away to nothing.
If this doesn’t work – and there are some tenacious ones which put up a good fight against the shrivelling process – I try to analyse what function (good or bad) they are serving. This takes away much of their power to disturb my mind when they are reduced to a functional level. It stops them being all pervading as well.
Finally, if neither of these 2 approaches helps, I allow the delusions to rampage for a while and then tell myself “right, you have taken up enough airspace for now. I draw a line under you and refuse to spend any more time thinking about you.” This step can be repeated as often as they go on the rampage!
Hope these thoughts may be helpful to others too. If you are in the wrestling ring with your delusion, and getting the worst of the struggle, stop wrestling and walk out of the ring. Match over. A wrestling demon left on its own with no one to oppose soon begins to look pretty silly.
This is a wonderful comment, thank you for sharing it.
I am very sorry for your loss. I am going to make prayers for your mother. How wonderful that she brought you into this world.
I have found it is good to address our delusions head-on! But first we must identify them rather than be afraid of them or think we aren’t a good ‘Buddhist’ because we have these inner demons. This may / will seem odd, but I once asked the mind of fear “Why do you torment me”? The reply: “Because I can”. Well, that will be my challenge to prove that mind that it can’t! It is my decision whether or not I pay attention to its rambling. I appreciate you addressing this subject Luna. Thank you for your blog and social media presence.
good point about what it means or doesn’t mean to be a “good Buddhist” 🙂
What a wonderful article, so applicable. My experience is the same though I forget it often! Thank you for sharing.
Hello Cameron 🙂