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Dealing with Disturbing Emotions: Attachment

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, July 2004

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:10 hours)

This evening we’re going to be speaking about how to deal with our disturbing emotions. Well, first of all, what is a “disturbing emotion?” That’s the first question. I’m not calling them here “destructive” or “negative,” I’m using the word “disturbing” and that’s a very specific word that fits with the definition. Because it’s defined as a state of mind, which when we develop it, it causes us lose our peace of mind and to lose self-control. So, because we lose our peace of mind, that means that it’s disturbing; it disturbs us from peace of mind. Because when we lose our peace of mind, we are disturbed, we’re not really clear in our thinking and in our feeling. Then, we lose the sense of discrimination that’s very necessary for having self-control, to be able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s not helpful; what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate in a situation. Now, some of these disturbing emotions may lead us into acting destructively, but that is not always necessarily the case. Examples of disturbing emotions would be, for instance, attachment or longing desire, anger, jealousy, pride, arrogance, and so on.

And of course, with attachment and longing desire, that could lead us to act destructively – to go out and steal something, for example. But also, we could have longing desire to be loved and we’re attached to that. And so, we help others in order to be loved by them. So, helping others is not destructive; that’s a constructive thing, but there’s a disturbing emotion behind it: “I want to be loved, so you better love me in return.” Or anger: anger could lead us to act destructively, to go out and hurt somebody, kill them, like that, because we’re very angry. So, that’s destructive behavior.

But it could also lead – let’s say we’re angry about the injustice of a certain system or a certain situation – and we’re so angry with it that we actually do something to try to change it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a violent thing that we do. But the point is that even doing something constructive or positive is motivated by a disturbing emotion. We don’t have peace of mind and because we don’t have peace of mind, when we’re doing that positive action, our minds aren’t very clear, our feelings aren’t very clear, and the emotional state is not very stable. We want the other person to love us, or we’re really incensed and really annoyed at the injustice. So that’s not a stable state of mind or stable emotional state. And because it’s not a clear state of mind or a clear emotional state, then we are not thinking very clearly about what to do and how to actually carry out our intention. So, we don’t have self-control. And so, we might try to help somebody do something, for which a better help would be to let them do it themselves. Let’s say, if we have a grown up daughter and we want to help her cook or take care of the house or take care of the children, well, that’s interfering in many ways and the daughter doesn’t really appreciate being told how to cook or how to raise her children. But, you know, we want to be loved and we want to be useful and so we push ourselves on them. So, we’re doing something constructive, but we lose that self-control which would cause us to say, “Well, it’s better to keep my mouth shut and not help in this situation.”

And even if we do help in a situation where it is appropriate for helping the other person, we’re not relaxed about it, because we are expecting something in return. We want to be loved, we want to be needed, we want to be appreciated. So, there are conditions there and if the person doesn’t respond, we get very upset. And it’s even more obvious when we’re going to fight injustice because we’re so annoyed about it, that it really upsets us. Well, if we’re going to act on that basis, usually we don’t think very clearly what to do and often we don’t follow the best course of action to bring about the change.

So, whether we act in a destructive way or we act in a constructive way, if it’s motivated by and accompanied by a disturbing emotion, it’s going to cause problems. And we can’t really predict very precisely whether or not it’s going to cause problems for other people, but primarily what it’s going to do is cause problems for ourselves. And these problems are not necessarily things that happen immediately, but long term problems in the sense of building up habits that then repeat over and over again, to act in these disturbed ways. And so it builds up some long range set of a problematic way of behaving. We never have peace of mind.

A very clear example of that is if we’re motivated to be helpful and to do nice things for others, because we want to feel loved and appreciated. We’re very insecure. And the more we continue acting with this kind of motivation, it never satisfies, we never feel, “Okay, now I’m loved, that’s enough, I don’t need any more.” We never feel that. And so, it just builds up this habit of compulsively, “I have to feel loved, I have to feel important, I have to feel appreciated.” You just do more and more and you’re frustrated. You’re frustrated because even if somebody thanks you, “Oh, you don’t really mean it,” this type of thing. So we never have peace of mind. And it just gets worse and worse, because it repeats and repeats and repeats. That’s called samsara, by the way.

So, it’s not so difficult to recognize this type of syndrome, when the disturbing emotion is causing us to act negatively or destructively. We’re always annoyed, and because we’re annoyed and we get angry at the littlest thing, then in our relations with others we’re always speaking in a harsh way or we say cruel things. And it’s obvious that nobody likes us and people don’t really want to be with us very much and it causes a lot of problems in our relationships. There it is fairly easy to recognize what’s going on. But it’s not as easy to recognize it when the disturbing emotion is behind our acting positively. But we need to recognize it in both situations.

So, the question is how do we recognize that we’re acting under the influence of a disturbing emotion or attitude? It doesn’t just have to be an emotion, but it can be an attitude toward life or an attitude toward ourselves. For this we need to be a bit sensitive, to notice how we feel inside. And in many cases, these disturbing emotions or disturbing attitudes, as I said, the definition is very helpful: it causes us to lose our peace of mind and to lose our self-control. And so if when we’re going to say something or we’re going to do something, we feel a little bit nervous inside, you’re not completely relaxed, that’s a sign that there’s some disturbing emotion. It might be unconscious. Often it is unconscious. But there’s some disturbing emotion behind it.

Let’s say we try to explain something to somebody, and if you notice that there’s a little bit of uneasiness in your stomach, while you’re doing that, that’s a good indication that there’s some pride behind it. “How clever I am, I understand it, I’m going to help you understand it.” I mean, we may be sincerely wanting to help the other person, to explain to them, but you feel a little bit uneasy in your stomach, there’s some pride there. Especially, that happens when we speak about our own achievements or our own good qualities. Very often, there’s a little bit of uneasiness.

Or in case of a disturbing attitude, let’s say the attitude that “Everyone should pay attention to me,” which often we have, that we don’t like to be ignored, nobody likes to be ignored, so, “People should pay attention to me and listen to what I’m saying,” and so on. Well, that also can be accompanied by some nervousness inside, especially if people aren’t paying attention to us. Why should they pay attention to us? When you think about it, there’s no good reason.

But, you know, it’s a very difficult term that I’m translating here as “disturbing emotion” or “disturbing attitude,” because there are some of them that don’t really fit very nicely into either the category of an emotion or an attitude. Like naivety. We can be very naive about the effect of our behavior on others or on ourselves. Or we could be naive about a situation, the reality of what’s going on. And so, let’s say, we’re naive that somebody is not feeling well or somebody is upset and we can certainly be naive about, well, if I bother them, I’m naive about what the result of that is going to be; they really can’t handle it and they’re going to get annoyed.

And when we have that type of disturbing state of mind, let’s call it, we wouldn’t necessarily feel uneasy inside. But as I was saying, when we lose our peace of mind, our minds are not clear. And so, when we’re naive, our minds really are not clear, we’re in our own little world. And we lose self-control in the sense that because we’re in our own little world, we don’t discriminate between what’s helpful and appropriate in a situation and what’s not. And so then, we don’t act properly, so we don’t have control to be able to act properly and restrain from doing something inappropriate. So, in that way it fits this definition of this disturbing state of mind. As I say, it is a very difficult term to really find any really good translation for.

Now, in Sanskrit and in Tibetan there is no word for “emotions.” And so these languages divide things in terms of what’s a disturbing state of mind, what’s a non-disturbing state of mind. And also what’s a constructive state of mind, what’s a destructive state of mind. Those two don’t necessarily overlap with each other. So, there can be emotions and attitudes that fall in any of these categories. There are some emotions which are disturbing, some emotions that are not disturbing. And so, it’s not that we’re aiming in Buddhism to get rid of all emotions, not at all. We just want to get rid of the disturbing ones. The first step is not to come under the control of them and the second one is to get rid of them so they don’t even arise.

So, what would be a non-disturbing emotion? Well, we might think that “love” is a non-disturbing emotion or “compassion” is a non-disturbing emotion, or “patience”. Well, these are words that we have in our languages – European languages – that actually, each of these emotions could have a disturbing and a non-disturbing type. So, even here, we have to be a little bit careful. If love is the type of feeling in which “Oh, I love you so much, I need you, don’t ever leave me!” This type of love: that’s actually quite a disturbing state of mind, because if the person doesn’t love us back or doesn’t need us, then we get very upset, we get very angry: “I don’t love you anymore.”

So, love is mixed. We don’t have just one emotion. Our emotional states are very mixed; there are many different ingredients there. That type of love is obviously a type of dependency and that’s quite disturbing. But there’s a non-disturbing type, which is merely the wish for the other person to be happy and to have the causes of happiness, regardless of what they do. We don’t expect anything back from them. For example, we might have that toward our children. We don’t really expect anything back from them. Well, obviously some parents do. But usually, no matter what the child does, we still love the child. We want the child to be happy. But often again this is mixed with another disturbing state, which is that we want ourselves to be able to make them happy. And so, if we do something with the intention to make the child happy and it doesn’t work, doesn’t make them happy, we feel very bad. But we still call that “love.” “I want you to be happy, I’m going to try to make you happy, but I want to be the most important person in your life that’s doing that.”

So, the point of all this elaborate discussion is that we really need to look very carefully at our emotional states and not get so caught up in the words that we use to label different emotions, but really look to see, “Well, what aspects are disturbing, what causes us to lose this peace of mind, to lose our clarity, to lose self-control.” Those are the things we have to work on.

Now, if we want to get rid of these disturbing states of mind or emotions or attitudes, then we have to get to their cause. If you can remove the cause that’s underlying them, then we can get rid of them. It’s not just a matter of getting rid of the disturbing emotions themselves, which are causing our problems, but we actually go to the root of the disturbing emotion. So, what is the deepest cause of these disturbing states of mind? What we find is what is often translated as “ignorance,” or, I prefer, “lack of awareness:” unaware of something, we just don’t know. Ignorance sounds as though we’re stupid. It’s not that we’re stupid. It’s just that we just don’t know or we’re confused, we understand it incorrectly.

So, what are we confused about, or what are we unaware of? Basically, it’s the effect of our behavior and situations. We’re very angry or attached or upset in some way, and it causes us to act in a very impulsive way. That’s basically what karma is all about, to act in an impulsive way, so without self-control. And we didn’t know what the effect of it will be. Or we were confused. We thought that stealing something would make us happy. It didn’t. Or that helping you would make me feel needed and loved. It didn’t. So we didn’t know what the effect of it would be. “I didn’t know if I said that, it would hurt you.” Or we’re confused about it. “I thought it would help and it didn’t.” “I thought it would make me happy, it didn’t.” Or would make you happy, it didn’t. Or about situations, “I didn’t know that you were busy.” Or “I didn’t know that you were married.” Or it could be we’re confused, “I thought you had plenty of time.” But you didn’t. “I thought that you were single, unattached to anybody, so I tried to pursue a certain type of romantic relationship,” which is inappropriate. So again, situations, unaware, it’s either we don’t know or we’re confused, we know in the wrong way.

Now, it might seem from what was just presented that actually this unawareness is the root of acting improperly. What’s the root of compulsive karmic type of behavior? So, we have to look a little bit more carefully about how that is really the root of the disturbing emotions as well. The disturbing emotions and this impulsive behavior are very, very much related. It might seem that though, as if lack of awareness is the root of acting impulsively. That’s true, it is. But it’s not so obvious that it’s also the root of the disturbing emotions; that the disturbing emotions are very much connected with impulsive behavior. So, we have to look a little bit more carefully.

I’ll give a little example. I don’t need a rest at this moment. I have a lot of energy and so I may not be aware that other people in the room are getting a little bit tired and would like to stretch their legs and maybe need to go to the toilet. And so this lack of awareness is making me naive, and because of that naivety, I might act in – here it would be what is a constructive way, which is to continue to teach – but it is causing problems for you and ultimately also causing problems for me, because people aren’t paying attention so much. So it’s wasted words. So, let’s have a five minute break.

So, we were speaking about how at the root of our disturbing emotions and attitudes, the deepest cause for it is unawareness. And unawareness, as we said, can be about cause and effect – the effect of our behavior – and unawareness about reality. And unawareness about cause and effect is usually described in terms of being responsible for acting destructively, doing the wrong thing. It doesn’t help at all.

And unawareness about reality, about situations, that this could underlie any type of behavior, samsaric type of behavior. So, if we want to see how unawareness is underlying our disturbing emotions, we need to look more in terms of unawareness about situations, unawareness about reality. Now, the word “reality” is a funny word. It can have lots of different connotations. So the word that is usually used is “truth.” Truth about something. And there are two truths about things. There’s the relative truth of what something is and the deepest truth about how something exists. And it’s not that one truth is more true than the others, as the word “levels” of truth might imply. They’re both true. I don’t like “absolute,” absolute sounds like it is more true than the other; “deepest” is the word. It’s just the superficial truth of what it appears to be or what it is, and the deepest, how it exists.

And so, let’s look at this in terms of disturbing emotions; then it’ll be a little bit more clear, I hope. What is attachment or longing desire? It is the state of mind, the disturbing state of mind, which exaggerates the positive qualities of something. And then, longing desire is that “I’ve got to get it, I have to have it!” – if we don’t have it. And if we do have it, attachment – “I don’t want to let go!” Both are based on exaggeration of the positive qualities of something, or what we think are the positive qualities of something.

So, we are unaware here of the actual reality, the actual truth about what something is. In other words, we don’t just see the positive qualities or the good points, but we exaggerate them. And what usually goes together with that is that we downplay or totally ignore the shortcomings or the negative aspects. So, we’re unaware really of what are the actual good points and what are the actual weak points of something. Like for instance, a person that we know, we find so attractive, so wonderful! Or ice cream, so wonderful!

So, we are, for example, with someone that we have longing desire for and attachment for, we exaggerate, for instance, how good looking they are or whatever quality it is that we find so attractive. So, we exaggerate that, “The most beautiful person I’ve ever met!” and so on. And we really tend to ignore the shortcomings, we don’t really want to think about that too much, that they can be nagging or they can eat in a funny way or whatever. They snore. Now, they may be relatively good looking, we might find them very good looking. We’re not denying that, but it is exaggerating it that causes the attachment and the longing desire; ignoring and downplaying the shortcomings of the person. That’s going to lead to trouble eventually. Because eventually that infatuation is going to wear off. Then our love, our attachment is going to turn to real annoyance and anger at the person.

And anger or annoyance is just the reverse of that. We exaggerate the negative qualities, the shortcomings, and ignore the good points. So, we make a big thing out of the fact that they don’t keep the room neat, they are sloppy, or they don’t help enough with the dishes or whatever it might be. We make this big thing out of it, exaggerate it completely out of proportion and get angry and upset, and we tend to ignore the good points, that they’re very kind and very responsible and very steady and so on; that we lose sight of. It’s just that “I can’t stand that they leave their dirty socks on the floor.” You get angry.

So, like this, our unawareness of the conventional truth of somebody, what are the positive points, what the negative points are, our unawareness of that… either we don’t know or we ignore or we exaggerate as we get it incorrect. That is behind our attachment and our anger. And, also underlying it, on a deeper level, is our unawareness of the deepest truth about them, how they exist. And although we could discuss this on a very complicated, subtle level, for our purpose this evening let’s just discuss this on an easier level. And so, it seems to us that this person exists as some sort of entity out there; solid, big line around them as if they were encased in plastic or something like that, and there they are! It’s on the basis of that that we think of them as some solid entity from their own side. That is confused, that’s incorrect. Because in fact, their mood is constantly changing; their body is constantly changing; their emotional state is constantly changing. There’s nothing solid out there, as if it were encased in plastic forever.

That’s why it’s deeper, that basis – “you,” solid thing out there – then, based on that, “You’re always like this; you’re always leaving your socks on the floor.” It’s the basis underlying our exaggerating the good qualities and this “solid thing” out there, or exaggerating the negative qualities of this “thing” that’s on the other side of the bed annoying us. Or that I can’t keep my hands off you, because you’re so attractive, can’t let the person go to sleep.

So if we can get rid of these two aspects of unawareness, then the disturbing emotion wouldn’t arise. Then we would realize that the person is constantly changing, open to change, not at all some sort of concrete thing encased in plastic. We would understand that, so we don’t then think this thing in plastic over there has this set of good qualities, which then we exaggerate. We don’t even know the actual balance of them. And so, we would know, we would understand, well, everyone has positive points and negative points. And we don’t either exaggerate them or deny them. So, on that basis, then we can relate on a very mature, loving and kind type of way; tolerant, patient, understanding and so on. Not clinging or without getting annoyed.

It’s the same thing with the tape recorder, exactly the same thing. What’s underlying either being attached to it or getting angry with it? It’s first of all that we make the big thing out of it, it’s solid, “I bought it! And spent a lot of money” and there it is, this thing over there, big, solid line around it. And then, we could exaggerate the good qualities of it, “Oh, it can record,” we become very dependent on it. We don’t even really pay attention or take notes, and if it doesn’t work, then we get very, very angry with it. But after all, it is only a machine, and it’s made of parts and parts wear out, nothing is forever. And it could record, but sometimes it fails, it’s only a machine. And the battery runs out and so on, so you don’t make a big deal out of it. But we’re still responsible. You check to make sure that it’s working and so on. But if it doesn’t work, we don’t get upset. And we don’t become totally dependent on it.

It’s quite amazing how we can have such disturbing emotions over machines, this tape recorder, and particularly in our present age over computers, getting so angry when the thing won’t do what we want it to do. “It has a mind of its own,” we think. Come on, that’s ridiculous. And “There it is and it should work,” this thing that’s supposed to be perfect. But it’s only a machine and it’s made up of parts and it’s made by people who make mistakes and don’t know how to do things perfectly. And so, that doesn’t mean that we don’t use it. We use it, because it can be very helpful, but we don’t get attached, if it’s not working; and we don’t get angry when it is not doing what we want it to. Then you have a positive attitude toward it, a healthy attitude toward it. Not easy, especially if the machine is expensive.

So, if we look at the Buddhist methods for dealing with our emotions – our disturbing emotions, I should say – then we have temporary methods, which are basically going to help us to see correctly the relative truth about things. And then we have the ultimate or deepest component or method, which is to understand the deepest truth about the object – the object toward which the disturbing emotion is directed. So, if we look at these temporary methods, since that’s what is easier for us to apply… the deepest method requires quite a lot of study and thought, but the temporary methods are what we would apply first.

We can look at some examples. So let’s do that. If we have attachment or longing desire for someone and particularly if we are very infatuated and exaggerate the qualities of the person’s beauty, the beauty of their body, or even if we’re attached to our own body, then, what we meditate on then is what is often called “the ugliness of the body.” Well, using that word “ugly” already turns us off a bit. It’s not a comfortable word. So, I think that we can do without the word “ugliness” here, even without the word “dirtiness,” which is sometimes also used – too much of a negative connotation in our societies. And just look instead from the point of view of what we’ve been discussing, the relative truth of what something is.

So, for instance, the body of somebody else or our own body. We can use an example, an analogy here, of a package. And a package has wrapping, let’s say a present that has wrapping on the outside and then it has the contents of what’s inside it. Our bodies, or the body of somebody else, the skin on the outside, which is what we normally only see, well, that can be very beautiful packaging. And it can even have, like a package has, ribbons and things like that, nice clothes and make-up and things like that, so it looks even more attractive. But that’s the packaging. And sometimes people are very clever, like with advertising to make the package look even more attractive; so likewise, we often try to make the package of the skin look much more attractive, either make-up or hair or oil or whatever it is we use, perfume…

But package is not just the wrapper, there’s also what’s inside the package. And what’s inside this package of this body is a skeleton and intestines and organs and inside the stomach is, if it came outside again, it would be vomit. And inside the intestines is excrement and inside the bladder is urine, and there’s blood inside it. That’s the reality, that’s the truth of what’s inside the package of this skin. We really can’t deny that. And if we took out all the vomit from the stomach and all the spit from the mouth and all the mucus from the nose and all the excrement from the intestines, all the urine from the bladder and all the blood from the veins and arteries and just have the skin, well, that wouldn’t quite be our loved one, would it? The reality of the loved one is that it’s the whole package. We don’t just want the skin of our loved one stuffed with cotton or something like that like from a museum of natural history. We want the person to be alive, and so this is the reality of what’s inside the package, whether we like it or not.

So, now it becomes very interesting. What do we find beautiful and what do we find ugly? What do we find clean and what do we find dirty? Some people might find the skin very beautiful and the skeleton ugly, but what’s ugly about a skeleton? It’s just a skeleton. And if we were to watch an operation in a hospital and see everything that’s inside the body, well, what’s ugly or repulsive about that? It’s our attitude, isn’t it? Certainly, the doctors performing the surgery don’t find it ugly and repulsive. It’s just, well, that’s what’s inside the body.

So, the point is not to exaggerate the qualities, I mean, even the qualities are very subjective. Like, for instance, someone I find very beautiful, you might not find beautiful at all. Or somebody I find ugly, you might find very beautiful. It’s very subjective. And so what we try to do, then, is to, if we find the skin of the person and the shape of the body attractive, okay, it’s beautiful to us, there’s nothing wrong with that. The point is not to exaggerate it. There’s nothing wrong with it. It gives us pleasure to see the person. We like what they look like; it makes us happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what is the troublemaker is when we exaggerate that, and “Ah, I have to touch it all the time, I have to touch this person, I have to cling to them, I have to have them really close, have them with me all the time,” that’s the problem. If anybody else looks at this person with desire, then I get very upset; “The person has to be mine.” There are many very beautiful people that we see on the street. It only is disturbing, when you go, “Oh, you know, I wish I could touch this person,” or do this or that with this person. But we get very emotionally disturbed.

And if we start to really exaggerate the packaging – what the person looks like – then it’s very helpful to develop something like x-ray vision and imagine the person’s skeleton. It’s not so difficult to do, especially if we know what a skeleton looks like. It’s not an anatomy lesson; it doesn’t have to be perfect. But you can sort of imagine the skull that’s underneath the skin and stuff like that and that helps to sober us down. Or if we’re caressing somebody’s stomach or something like that, you know, and “Oh, this is so wonderful,” to be a little bit mindful of if we went three or four centimeters underneath the skin, what would we be caressing? And so, it doesn’t mean that then we’re repulsed. But what it means is that we enjoy it, it’s okay, but it’s no big deal. It gives us balance.

So, in order to actually apply this type of method… it’s a temporary method, because it doesn’t get rid of the longing desire or attachment, but temporarily, in that situation, it tones it down. To really get rid of it, we have to really understand, well, how does a person exist; not make a “thing” out of the person. But this is very, very helpful. So, we apply temporary methods… And so in order to actually be able to apply it and use such methods as this, then we go through the whole process that we discussed earlier today, which is the whole process of meditation. So, some of you were here for that discussion, some of you were not. It’s not quite the time to review the whole thing, but I can just speak very, very briefly about it.

So, first, we have to listen to what the method would be. If we’re so attached to somebody because of their body and what they look like, that method would be to also be aware of what’s underneath the skin, the skeleton, and what’s inside the stomach. And then we have to think about that and understand it, and be convinced that if we could be aware of not just the packaging, but what’s inside the packaging, we wouldn’t be so disturbed with longing desire and clinging to this person. We’d have less problems with this person and less problems in our own emotional make-up.

So, we need to examine it from the four axioms, we were speaking about, the four ways of knowing something, how we know something. So, first, what establishes this. And it’s just very obvious that people are not just their skin. Everybody is, the reality is, the truth is that we all have skeletons, we all have things inside our body: stomach has things from eating, intestines have things from eating and so on. The person is not just their skin, because the person also has things inside their body. It’s perfectly logical.

And then the axiom of functionality. And so, how does that function? Well, if I would be aware of both what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside of this person’s body, then I wouldn’t exaggerate one and ignore the other. Alright? If somebody was so, so attractive, so beautiful, then why do we only find their skin very beautiful? Why shouldn’t we find the vomit in their stomach beautiful? Obviously, we don’t. And so, if we’re aware of the two aspects, then it doesn’t destroy our enjoying their beauty and finding them beautiful. It doesn’t destroy that, it just keeps it in perspective. Okay, it’s beautiful outside, there’s what’s inside and this is the way everybody is.

And it’s very interesting, of course, when we work with this, thinking about this to become convinced of these things, because very often what happens is we really don’t want to believe this. We really don’t what to believe, you know, there’s resistance, emotional resistance that what’s inside this person’s stomach, what’s inside this person’s intestines. Very interesting to watch. And the point is that “but this is the reality, this is the truth!” Tibetans like very graphic, earthy images. And so, they would say that if you had a turd, you know, a piece of shit, you could carve, you could sculpt out of it the most beautiful statue in the world, but it’s still shit.

And the functionality of it is also that if I’m aware of both the outside and the inside, then it functions to not to have the attachment, because I’m not just denying one or exaggerating the other. So, it’s incompatible with this infatuation. And what it is compatible with is then to have patience and to have real sincere love and a stable attitude, a stable commitment to the person. Because if we’re exaggerating their beauty, then when they start to get older and they lose that beauty, we might look around for somebody else that we find more beautiful. And so if we understand and accept the reality of outside/inside, changes, the outside is going to change and so on, then that would be compatible with having a very stable, loving relation with the person.

And then the axiom of the nature of things, why is it that some people can be pretty on the outside, but they have a skeleton, and they have excrement and vomit on the inside? Well, that’s just the nature of things, we are living beings and that’s what makes up the body. So, we have to accept that that is the reality. That’s how the body works.

And then the axiom of dependency, what does it depend on in order to be able to develop this state of mind, this understanding? Well, we need some self-control. First, to be able to not just, we see the person and have our hands all over the person; but some self-control to step back a moment and some introspection to allow us to be able to see more deeply, and a willingness to do that, the openness to do that, and not to be afraid of that, that “I’m going to be so repulsed by the person that I can’t deal with them.” To apply the method properly depends on all these things. So we know what we need to prepare.

And then, once we have gone through this process of thinking, become convinced and understanding fully the method, convinced that it’s going to be helpful, convinced that it is something that I want to develop, then we actually do what’s called “meditation” on it. Meditation is to integrate it with our whole way of being. And so, with meditation, first we do the discerning meditation. Sometimes it’s called analytical meditation. And so, in a controlled situation, in other words, sitting by ourselves, not with the person in front of us, to start with, and we work with somebody that we do have that attachment with, clinging desire to what they look like. We work with a picture of the person or just thinking of the person, and then we would investigate, “Yes, they do have a skeleton. Yes, they do have something in their stomach.” And try to really look very, very carefully, and then to imagine that, to see that this is true. Like having x-ray vision, but without losing sight of the appearance, which is pretty, we do find it pretty.

And then fixating meditation, which is to try to let that just sink in. To really feel that, “Yes, this is the reality; this is the truth of what this person is, from the outside and the inside, in terms of the body.” The person, of course, isn’t just the body, he’s also the mind and emotions and everything else, but here we’re just focusing on the body. Let that sink in and really feel, “Yes, this is true.”

And then, once we’ve built up some familiarity with this, once it’s become ingrained, a bit of a habit, then we start to apply it in actual, real life situations. And we apply it when we need it, which is when I get this strong feeling of attachment, this strong feeling of longing desire, that “I don’t just want to put my hands on the person because they need some comfort or to massage them” or something like that, but “I have to touch them because I’m so clinging.” At that point, we actually apply the same thing, discern that this is the way they actually are, what’s inside the body, and feel that. So that then we have more clarity of mind and so we can see is it appropriate or inappropriate in this situation. Even if we find – I mean, because after all we’re just working with a temporary method here – that, OK, I want to touch the person, hold their hand or stroke them, or whatever it might be, that I’m doing that really because it would make me feel better – not that the person actually needs it from the other side – still, in applying this meditation at that time, we won’t exaggerate what we’re doing. And also allows us to check out, is it going to make the other person feel comfortable, is it okay with them that we do this?

And eventually, it will become natural and spontaneous that we act in this balanced type of way: we’re not exaggerating, not clinging, and so on. And the other person will feel this if they have any sensitivity to us. Because if we’re always taking their hand because actually we ourselves are insecure and we think that somehow holding their hand is going to make us feel better, that it’s going to solve our problems, then there is this disturbing vibration about us and this clinging. It’s not comfortable for the other person. If the person has any level of sensitivity, they can sense that. But if we don’t exaggerate it, “Okay, it’s holding someone’s hand; it’s nice feeling contact; I know what’s inside their hand, the bones and so on,” so it’s not “Oooohhh! This is something so fantastic!” But, well, “It is nice and it does make me feel a little bit better, it’s not going to solve all my problems in the world,” then we’re relaxed about it. It’s spontaneous, it’s natural and the other person doesn’t find it artificial; they also feel much more at ease with it. That’s what we’re aiming for. We’re not aiming for “Well, don’t touch anybody and everybody is just a bag of excrement,” that’s not what we’re aiming for. We’re aiming for balance here. So that we can really, then, work to benefit others.

When we read about such methods as this in some of the great Buddhist texts, like Shantideva, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, we need to appreciate and understand the context in which Shantideva, for example, is discussing this, and it’s in the context of gaining mental stability and concentration. And one of the biggest distractions in meditation is to constantly think about someone that we have longing desire and attachment for. That’s a very, very big distraction. And so, in order to be able to gain that stability of mind and concentration, particularly in any meditation practice, then we need to apply this method, even though we’re not with the person. That’s the context in which it’s explained in the text.

But I think it also has a very big application – I mean, it does obviously have a big application – outside of situations in which we’re trying to meditate and gain concentration, as a big application in our ordinary relationships with others. But it sounds usually very heavy in the original text because it’s in that context of this is a distraction to concentration. So, obviously, we can do this type of analysis and discuss the various methods that are used for countering anger and jealousy and so on, but we don’t really have time to do that. But I think, perhaps with this example of how we deal with attachment and longing desire for someone based on what they look like, it gives us a good idea of what’s involved here.

And this is how we deal with the disturbing emotions, by basically training to be able to apply methods. And there are many methods for dealing with each type of disturbing emotion and it’s very helpful to learn them and practice them and be able to apply them, because in some situations one method might not be so effective or we’re not really able to do it so well. So, if we have some other methods, that might be more effective in that situation. Or sometimes like medicines, you have to apply a combination of medicines, you have to apply a combination of methods. So, the more that we learn and train in, the more able we are to deal with and avoid difficult, problematic situations.

And reading and studying Shantideva’s text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, is really so, so helpful, because the whole thing is oriented toward why I am letting these disturbing emotions rule me? Why do I make it so comfortable for them in my mind? This is the real enemy. And once you get rid of them, get them out of your minds, where are they going to go? They can’t just stand somewhere out there and attack us again like an ordinary enemy; there’s nothing solid about them. And so, this is very helpful, it gives us a very firm basis for working on getting rid of these, not coming under their control, take some responsibility for the quality of our lives.

So, what questions do you have?

Question: If you’re attached not to the body or skin, but if you’re attached to some kind of soul or mind, some kind of internal contents. How to get rid of this attachment?

Alex: It’s exactly the same thing. If you look at the mind of somebody, or the personality of somebody, again, if we have attachment, we are exaggerating those qualities that we find nice and attractive and ignoring those aspects which are not so nice. And again, to try to see the reality. Everybody has strong points; everybody has weak points in their personalities, in their emotional make-up, in their minds, in their intelligence.

Question: But if all is fine and nice…

Alex: If all is fine and nice, usually we’re being naive, we’re not looking deeply enough, because it’s only going to be a Buddha, which has only good qualities and positive qualities and no shortcomings. Also, it’s only in the fairy tales that we have Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse, who is just absolutely perfect and fulfills all our dreams. So, if we’re looking for the prince or princess on the white horse or we think we’ve found one, I think we’re fooling ourselves. And certainly to think that we’ll ever find one is just the road to pain.

Question: One of our largest disturbing emotions is this craving for security, and it seems that actually we have to get rid of expectations and fear and then basically we’ll be much safer, we’ll feel much more relaxed. How do you see that?

Alex: It seems as though one of deepest disturbing emotions is our insecurity, which is fed by fear and so on, and so how do we get rid of that? For this we need to really understand the deepest truth and the deepest reality about “me,” that there is no solid “me,” packed in plastic and a solid line around it and so on, that could be made secure. There’s nothing that could be made secure. So we’re trying to make something secure, which is an exaggeration of how we actually exist. And so it is constantly changing and the mental state is constantly changing and the body is constantly changing and the emotions are constantly changing. And conventionally that’s “me,” but there’s no solid “me” that’s there that has to be made secure. It’s all changing all the time. And so, if it’s all changing all the time, then all we can try to do is to have a clear direction, safe direction – what refuge means – which we’re going, and working realistically to have more positive attitude, to improve ourselves, and so on. And there’s nothing to be made secure, there’s nothing to defend. That way the problem goes away. There’s nothing to be afraid of, in a sense. Fear goes a little bit deeper; we’re dealing here with insecurity.

Now, this of course is dealing primarily with emotional insecurity, and there are other aspects of insecurity – financial insecurity and so on. And so of course, we need to also recognize the relative truth about “me,” and my responsibilities, and take responsibilities, and try to take care of the economic side or whatever other aspects that are there that would give a certain sense of security, but also not exaggerate the reality of it. The reality of it is that it’s not completely under my control. The economic situation of the entire world is going to affect my own financial security, and the social system, and so on. If communism falls and there’s a new form of government… Things are going to change. And so the only thing that gives us stability and security is having a safe direction that we’re going in and picking up more and more of the tools to be able to deal with whatever comes up, with whatever happens. Only if life were absolutely static that then we could be secure, because we know what’s going to happen.

Also, we need to have contentment, to know when enough is enough. Not like people who, I know people like this, they have a million dollars and they feel insecure, because they say, “I don’t have ten million dollars. If I had ten million dollars, then I’d feel secure.”

The next question is, how do we get rid of this unawareness, because, basically, if I can paraphrase what you said, we are limited and we’re not Buddhas so we can’t see or know all the consequences of our actions and like that. So, are we doomed? No, we’re certainly not doomed, because it is possible to get rid of that unawareness. It’s not going to be easy and it’s a long process, but the mind has the ability to understand things, and it has the scope to be able to put everything together. And so, what we do is try to broaden our understanding. Get more and more insight, understand more and more things, so that although we don’t know exactly what the effect of our behavior will be, because we don’t know all the variables that are involved, we know more and more and more. So, we can make an educated guess, based on probability and based on experience and continue to work. Continue to work on it.

So we try to take in as much information as we can, about the other person, about the circumstances, and so on; we try to see the patterns of what usually happens, what’s the pattern of how this person reacts and so on, and also take into account the individuality of the situation and the individuality of the person. And then, based on this, we have some idea of at least what to try, how to relate to it, what to do.

And we have all of these abilities… that’s how the mind works. Naturally. We take in all the sense information and so on. We may not pay attention to it, we may not be interested in it, but all that sense information is there; it’s coming in. And we are perfectly capable of seeing patterns. We can see that what this person and this person and this person are is all women, and so we can see the pattern how things fit together. We can put the information together into patterns and make sense out of it. We can recognize that my right hand is not my left hand. We’re aware of the individuality of things, and we also have the ability to relate to different things – we know how to speak to the baby and how to speak to an adult, and we don’t speak to the two exactly the same way, unless we’re really insensitive. So, we have that flexibility. So, all the basic materials are there. This is some of the material that’s referred to as “Buddha-nature,” all these Buddha-nature qualities, we have all of that. It’s just a matter of training them.

Question: Just from using these skillful means we can’t actually eliminate unawareness. That can only be addressed through direct perception of emptiness and habituation. Is that correct? What is the relationship between these skillful means and that?

Alex: So, the question is. “What’s the relation between these skillful means that we have been mentioning and actually getting rid of the unawareness, and don’t we need the non-conceptual cognition of voidness and so on to really get rid of that unawareness?”

Well, what we’ve been speaking about are temporary methods, so that’s not really getting rid of the unawareness about the deepest reality of things. Just to get rid of the unawareness of the conventional reality, the conventional truth of things, is not enough. So, it is true that we do need the deepest understanding of voidness. Voidness means the absence of impossible ways of existing; impossible ways of existing aren’t referring to anything. They’re impossible, not referring to anything real. So, yes, we need to get that understanding in order to really get rid of the disturbing emotions and the unawareness that is underlying it.

But all of this happens in stages. So, there are two levels of disturbing emotions and attitudes. There are those which are doctrinally based. They arise because we’ve learned a certain philosophical or religious tradition. And then there are those which automatically arise. Nobody has to teach us anything in order for them to arise. And so let’s we learned from a non-Buddhist tradition about “me,” that the “me” is actually a soul that goes from one body to another body, and is an unchanging thing and unaffected by anything, and so on. So, we learned that. Somebody taught us that, and we believe it. And based on that, we have doctrinally based disturbing emotions, which is attachment to that view. We get angry and defensive about anybody who challenges it; we become very aggressive in terms of that; we can become very arrogant about it, “holier than thou” and so on.

So all of these are disturbing emotions that are doctrinally based, they’re based on having learned some sort of system. And so when we first get the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, we get rid of those. In other words, we realize fully that this explanation that we were taught and believed is just not true. And so we no longer believe that, and if we no longer believe that, then we no longer get upset or defensive or aggressive or anything like that concerning it. And we become what’s called an “arya,” a highly realized being. And if we’re following the Hinayana path, working just for our own liberation, it’s at this point you become what is called a “stream-enterer.” Mahayana doesn’t use that terminology. But both Hinayana and Mahayana use the terminology of an arya, highly realized being.

So both Hinayana and Mahayana use the term “arya.” Hinayana has another term, in addition to that, in their classification scheme, and in their classification scheme, you’re called a “stream-enterer.” Mahayana doesn’t use that classification scheme, so they don’t have that name. But we still have the automatically arising, what a dog would still have, and for that we have to work further and further and further, with that same understanding. And when we get rid of that, then we become free of the disturbing emotions. So we really have to become habituated. We become a liberated being, an arhat. So we don’t have any disturbing emotions – no anger, no attachment – but we haven’t gotten rid of the habits of them: the habits of this unawareness, the habits of the confusion, the habits the disturbing emotions.

And so the habits, they no longer are going to cause the disturbing emotions to come up. But what they do is they make things appear as though everything was encased in plastic, solid. And we’re very limited; that’s how we view things, and that prevents us from being able to benefit everybody, prevents us from being a Buddha. Because we only see what’s in front of our eyes, and it appears as though everything is encased in plastic, even though we don’t believe that and we don’t get any disturbing emotions because of it, the mind still makes this garbage. And so you have to work further and further with that nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and when it goes really, really further and further, familiarity with it, then eventually the mind stops producing this garbage and then you become a Buddha. That’s a Buddha.

Question: So skillful means until you reach that point, then you finish it off with…

Alex: Well, from the arya stage up to Buddhahood all we’re doing is familiarizing ourselves over and over and over again with nonconceptual cognition of voidness, so that eventually we can have it all the time, not just during meditation sessions. I mean, it gets a little more complicated, but we’re able to see the two truths of things simultaneously. In other words, it’s a long process, and it takes steps, stages. Just to get the first moment of nonconceptual cognition of voidness is not enough.

So, why don’t we end here then with a dedication. We think whatever understanding we’ve gained, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment, so we can be of best help to everyone. Thank you very much.