Becoming Your Own Therapist

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Australia and New Zealand (Archive #329)

This book contains public talks by Lama Yeshe on the general topic of the mind that provide a clear and accessible introduction to Buddhism. It is published in conjunction with Make Your Mind an Ocean.

See the Related Links for Chapters Two and Three to access the original audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts.

Lama Yeshe teaching at Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Three: A Glimpse of Buddhist Psychology

The study of Buddhism is not a dry, intellectual undertaking or the skeptical analysis of some religious, philosophical doctrine. On the contrary, when you study Dharma and learn how to meditate, you are the main topic; you are mainly interested in your own mind, your own true nature.

Buddhism is a method for controlling the undisciplined mind in order to lead it from suffering to happiness. At the moment, we all have an undisciplined mind, but if we can develop a correct understanding of its characteristic nature, control will follow naturally and we’ll be able to release emotional ignorance and the suffering it brings automatically. Therefore, no matter whether you are a believer or a non-believer, religious or not religious, a Christian, a Hindu, or a scientist, black or white, an Easterner or a Westerner, the most important thing to know is your own mind and how it works.

If you don’t know your own mind, your misconceptions will prevent you from seeing reality. Even though you might say you’re a practitioner of this or that religion, if you investigate more deeply, you might find that you are nowhere. Be careful. No religion is against your knowing your own nature, but all too frequently religious people involve themselves too much in their religion’s history, philosophy or doctrine and ignore how and what they themselves are, their present state of being. Instead of using their religion to attain its goals—salvation, liberation, inner freedom, eternal happiness and joy—they play intellectual games with their religion, as if it were a material possession.

Without understanding how your inner nature evolves, how can you possibly discover eternal happiness? Where is eternal happiness? It’s not in the sky or in the jungle; you won’t find it in the air or under the ground. Everlasting happiness is within you, within your psyche, your consciousness, your mind. That’s why it is so important that you investigate the nature of your own mind.

If the religious theory that you learn does not serve to bring happiness and joy into your everyday life, what’s the point? Even though you say, “I’m a practitioner of this or that religion,” check what you’ve done, how you’ve acted, and what you’ve discovered since you’ve been following it. And don’t be afraid to question yourself in detail. Your own experience is good. It is essential to question everything you do, otherwise, how do you know what you’re doing? As I’m sure you know already, blind faith in any religion can never solve your problems.

Many people are lackadaisical about their spiritual practice. “It’s easy. I go to church every week. That’s enough for me.” That’s not the answer. What’s the purpose of your religion? Are you getting the answers you need or is your practice simply a joke? You have to check. I’m not putting anybody down, but you have to be sure of what you’re doing. Is your practice perverted, polluted by hallucination, or is it realistic? If your path teaches you to act and exert yourself correctly and leads to spiritual realizations such as love, compassion and wisdom, then obviously it’s worthwhile. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

The mental pollution of misconceptions is far more dangerous than drugs. Wrong ideas and faulty practice get deeply rooted in your mind, build up during your life, and accompany your mind into the next one. That is much more dangerous than some physical substance.

All of us, the religious and the non-religious, Easterner and Westerner alike, want to be happy. Everybody seeks happiness, but are you looking in the right place? Perhaps happiness is here but you’re looking there. Make sure you seek happiness where it can be found.

We consider Lord Buddha’s teaching to be more akin to psychology and philosophy than to what you might usually imagine religion to be. Many people seem to think that religion is mostly a question of belief, but if your religious practice relies mainly on faith, sometimes one skeptical question from a friend—“What on earth are you doing?”—can shatter it completely: “Oh my god! Everything I’ve been doing is wrong.” Therefore, before you commit yourself to any spiritual path, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing.

Buddhist psychology teaches that emotional attachment to the sense world results from physical and mental feelings. Your five senses provide information to your mind, producing various feelings, all of which can be classified into three groups: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. These feelings arise in response to either physical or mental stimuli.

When we experience pleasant feelings, emotional attachment ensues, and when that pleasant feeling subsides, craving arises, the desire to experience it again. The nature of this mind is dissatisfaction; it disturbs our mental peace because its nature is agitation. When we experience unpleasant feelings, we automatically dislike and want to get rid of them; aversion arises, again disturbing our mental peace. When we feel neutral, we ignore what’s going on and don’t want to see reality. Thus, whatever feelings arise in our daily lives—pleasant, unpleasant or neutral—they disturb us emotionally and there’s no balance or equanimity in our minds.

So, examining your own feelings in this way has nothing to do with belief, has it? This is not some Eastern, Himalayan mountain thing. This is you; this is your thing. You can’t refute what I’m saying by claiming, “I have no feelings.” It’s so simple, isn’t it?

Furthermore, many of our negative actions are reactions to feeling. See for yourself. When you feel pleasant as a result of contact with people or other sense objects, analyze exactly how you feel, why you feel pleasant. The pleasant feeling is not in the external object, is it? It’s in your mind. I’m sure we can all agree that the pleasant feeling is not outside of you. So, why do you feel that way? If you experiment like this, you will discover that happiness and joy, discomfort and unhappiness, and neutral feelings are all within you. You will find that you yourself are mainly responsible for the feelings you experience and that you cannot blame others for the way you feel: “He makes me miserable; she makes me miserable; that stuff makes me miserable.” You cannot blame society for your problems, although that’s what we always do, isn’t it? It’s not realistic.

Once you realize the true evolution of your mental problems, you’ll never blame any other living being for how you feel. That realization is the beginning of good communication with and respect for others. Normally, we’re unconscious; we act unconsciously and automatically disrespect and hurt others. We don’t care; we just do it, that’s all.

Many people, even some psychologists, seem to think that you can stop the emotion of craving-desire by feeding it with some object or other: if you’re suffering because your husband or wife has left you, getting another one will solve your problem. That’s impossible. Without understanding the characteristic nature of your feelings of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, you will never discover the nature of your mental attitudes, and without discovering that, you can never put an end to your emotional problems.

For instance, Buddhism says you should feel compassion and love for all living beings. How can you possibly feel even equanimity for all beings while the ignorant, dualistic mind is functioning so strongly within you? You can’t, because emotionally you are too extreme. When you feel happy because a pleasant feeling has arisen through contact with a particular object, you grossly exaggerate what you consider to be the good qualities of that object, inflating your emotions as much as you possibly can. But you know that your mind can’t stay up like that. It’s impermanent, transitory, so of course, you soon crash back down. Then, automatically, your unbalanced mind gets de-pressed. You have to understand exactly how much energy you expend in pursuit of or in flight from mental feelings. We are always too extreme; we have to find the middle way.

If you look a little deeper, you will also find that feelings are responsible for all the conflict in the world. From two small children fighting over a piece of candy to two huge nations fighting over their very existence, what are they fighting for? For pleasant feelings. Even children too young to speak will fight because they want to feel happy.

Through meditation you can easily see the truth of all this. Meditation reveals everything that’s in your mind; all your garbage, all your positivity; everything can be seen through meditation. But don’t think that meditation means just sitting on the floor in the lotus position doing nothing. Being conscious, aware of everything that you do—walking, eating, drinking, talking—is meditation. The sooner you realize this, the quicker will you realize that you yourself are responsible for your actions, that you yourself are responsible for the happy feelings you want and the unhappy feelings you don’t, and that nobody else controls you.

When a pleasant feeling arises and then, as is its nature, subsides, causing you to feel frustrated because you want it again, that’s not created by God, Krishna, Buddha or any other outside entity. Your own actions are responsible. Isn’t that easy to see? The weak mind thinks, “Oh, he made me sick, she makes me feel horrible.” That’s the weak mind at work, always trying to blame somebody or something else. Actually, I think that examining your everyday life experiences to see how your physical and mental feelings arise is a wonderful thing to do. You’re learning all the time; there’s no such time that you’re not learning. In that way, through the application of your own know-ledge-wisdom, you will discover that the realization of everlasting peace and joy is within you. Unfortunately, the weak mind doesn’t possess much knowledge-wisdom energy; you have to nurture that energy within your own mind.

Why does Mahayana Buddhism teach us to develop a feeling of equanimity for all sentient beings? We often choose just one small thing, one small atom, one single living being, thinking, “This is the one for me; this is the best.” Thus, we create extremes of value: we grossly exaggerate the value of the one we like and engender disdain for all the rest. This is not good for you, for your mental peace. Instead, you should examine your behavior, “Why am I doing this? My unrealistic, egocentric mind is polluting my consciousness.” Then, by meditating on equanimity—all sentient beings are exactly the same in wanting happiness and not desiring suffering—you can learn to eliminate the extremes of tremendous attachment to one and tremendous aversion to the other. In this way you can easily keep your mind balanced and healthy. Many people have had this experience.

Therefore, Lord Buddha’s psychology can be of great help when you’re trying to deal with the frustrations that disturb your daily life. Remember that when pleasant feelings arise, desire, craving and attachment follow in their wake; when unpleasant feelings arise, aversion and hatred appear; and when you feel neutral, ignorance, blindness to reality, occupies your mind. If, through these teachings, you can learn the reality of how your feelings arise and how you react to them, your life will be much improved and you will experience much happiness, peace and joy.

Are there any questions?

Q: Buddhism always talks about karma. What is it?

Lama: Karma is your experiences of body and mind. The word itself is Sanskrit; it means cause and effect. Your experiences of mental and physical happiness or unhappiness are the effects of certain causes, but those effects themselves become the cause of future results. One action produces a reaction; that is karma. Both Eastern philosophies and science explain that all matter is inter-related; if you can understand that, you will understand how karma works. All existence, internal and external, does not come about accidentally; the energy of all internal and external phenomena is interdependent. For example, your body’s energy is related to the energy of your parents’ bodies; their bodies’ energy is related to their parents’ bodies, and so forth. That sort of evolution is karma.

Q: What is nirvana and do many people attain it?

Lama: When you develop your powers of concentration such that you can integrate your mind into single-pointed concentration, you will gradually diminish your ego’s emotional reactions until they disappear altogether. At that point, you transcend your ego and discover an everlasting, blissful, peaceful state of mind. That is what we call nirvana. Many people have attained this state and many more are well on their way to it.

Q: In nirvana, do you cease to exist in a bodily form; does the person disappear?

Lama: No, you still have a form, but it doesn’t have an uncontrolled nervous system like the one we have now. And don’t worry, when you attain nirvana you still exist, but in a state of perfect happiness. So, try hard to reach it as soon as possible.

Q: Didn’t Buddha say that he would never be reborn once he had attained nirvana?

Lama: Perhaps, but what did he mean? He meant that he would not take an uncontrolled rebirth impelled by the energy force of ego, which is the way we samsaric sentient beings are reborn. Instead, he can reincarnate with perfect control, his only purpose being to help mother sentient beings.

Q: You spoke a lot about pleasure and happiness, and I am trying to get clear in my mind the distinction between the two. Are they the same? Can one become attached to pleasure but not to happiness?

Lama: They’re the same thing and we get attached to both. What we should aim for is the experience of pleasure without attachment; we should enjoy our feelings of happiness while understanding the nature of the subject, our mind, the object, and our feelings. Someone who has reached nirvana is able to do this.

Q: I would like to clarify the Buddhist meaning of meditation. Am I right in interpreting it as “observing the passage of your mind”?

Lama: Yes, you can think of it that way. As I said before, Buddhist meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed. Simply observing how your mind is responding to the sense world as you go about your business—walking, talking, shopping, whatever—can be a really perfect meditation and bring a perfect result.

Q: With respect to rebirth, what is it that is reborn?

Lama: When you die, your consciousness separates from your body, enters the intermediate state, and from there it is born into another physical form. We call that rebirth. Physical and mental energy are different from each other. Physical energy is extremely limited, but mental energy always has continuity.

Q: Is it possible for the consciousness to develop in the after-death state or is it only in life that consciousness can evolve?

Lama: During the death process, your consciousness keeps flowing, just like electricity, which comes from the generator but flows continually through different houses, different appliances and so forth, occupying different things. So, it is possible for the consciousness to develop in the intermediate state.

Q: So the mind does not need a physical body to develop?

Lama: Well, there is an intermediate state body, but it’s not like ours; it’s a very light, psychic body.

Q: When you recite mantras, do you ever concentrate on any of the body’s physical organs or do you focus only on your mind? Can you concentrate on your chakras, or energy centers?

Lama: It’s possible, but you have to remember that there are different methods for different purposes. Don’t think that Lord Buddha taught only one thing. Buddhism contains thousands upon thousands, perhaps even countless, methods of meditation, all given in order to suit the varying propensities and dispositions of the infinite individual living beings.

Q: Is the consciousness that develops during our life and leaves when we die a part of some supreme consciousness? Like God or universal consciousness?

Lama: No, it’s a very ordinary, simple mind and is in direct continuity with the mind you have right now. The difference is that it has separated from your body and is seeking another. This intermediate state mind is under the control of karma, and is agitated, conflicted and confused. There’s no way you can call it higher or supreme.

Q: Are you familiar with the Hindu concepts of atman and brahman?

Lama: While Hindu philosophy accepts the idea of a soul [atman], Buddhism does not. We completely deny the existence of a self-existent I, or a permanent, independent soul. Every aspect of your body and mind is impermanent: changing, changing, changing.... Buddhists also deny the existence of a permanent hell. Every pain, every pleasure we experience is in a state of constant flux; so transitory, so impermanent, always changing, never lasting. Therefore, recognizing the unsatisfactory nature of our existence and renouncing the world in which transitory sense objects contact transitory sense organs to produce transitory feelings, none of which are worth grasping at, we seek instead the everlasting, eternally joyful realizations of enlightenment or nirvana.

Q: Do you think ritual is as important to the Western person trying to practice Buddhism as it is to the Easterner, who has a feeling for it?

Lama: It depends on what you mean. Actual Buddhist meditation doesn’t require you to accompany it with material objects; the only thing that matters is your mind. You don’t need to ring bells or wave things about. Is that what you mean by ritual? [Yes.] Good; so, you don’t need to worry, and that applies equally to the East as it does to the West. Nevertheless, some people do need these things; different minds need different methods. For example, you wear glasses. They’re not the most important thing, but some people need them. For the same reason, the various world religions teach various paths according to the individual abilities and levels of their many and varied followers. Therefore, we cannot say, “This is the one true way. Everybody should follow my path.”

Q: Are new methods of practice required in the West today?

Lama: No. No new methods are required. All the methods are there already, you just need to discover them.

Q: I am trying to understand the relationship in Buddhism between the mind and the body. Is mind more important than body? For example, in the case of tantric monks who do overtone chanting, obviously they develop a part of their body in order to sing, so just how important is the body?

Lama: The mind is the most important thing, but there are some meditation practices that are enhanced by certain physical yoga exercises. Conversely, if your body is sick, that can affect your mind. So, it’s also important to keep your body healthy. But if you concern yourself with only the physical and neglect to investigate the reality of your own mind, that’s not wise either; it’s unbalanced, not realistic. So, I think we all agree that the mind is more important than the body, but at the same time, we cannot forget about the body altogether. I’ve seen Westerners come to the East for teachings, and when they hear about Tibetan yogis living in the high mountains without food they think, “Oh, fantastic! I want to be just like Milarepa.” That’s a mistake. If you were born in the West, your body is used to certain specific conditions, so to keep it healthy, you need to create a conducive environment. You can’t do a Himalayan trip. Be wise, not extreme.

Q: Is it true that when a human is born his or her mind is pure and innocent?

Lama: As we all know, when you are born, your mind is not too occupied by intellectual complications. But as you get older and start to think, it begins to fill up with so much information, philosophy, that-this, this is good, that is bad, I should have this, I shouldn’t have intellectualize too much, filling your mind with garbage. That certainly makes your mind much worse. Still, that doesn’t mean that you were born absolutely pure and that only after the arrival of the intellect did you become negative. It doesn’t mean that. Why not? Because if you were fundamentally free of ignorance and attachment, any garbage coming at you would not be able to get in. Unfortunately, we’re not like that. Fundamentally, not only are we wide open to whatever intellectual garbage comes our way, but we’ve got a big welcome sign out. So moment by moment, more and more garbage is piling up in our minds. Therefore, you can’t say that children are born with absolutely pure minds. It’s wrong. Babies cry because they have feelings. When an unpleasant feeling arises—perhaps they’re craving their mother’s milk—they cry.

Q: We have this idea of consciousness transmigrating from body to body, from life to life, but if there is continuity of consciousness, why is it that we don’t remember our previous lives?

Lama: Too much supermarket information crowding into our minds makes us forget our previous experiences. Even science says that the brain is limited such that new information suppresses the old. They say that, but it’s not quite right. What actually happens is that basically, the human mind is mostly unconscious, ignorant, and gets so preoccupied with new experiences that it forgets the old ones. Review the past month: exactly what happened, precisely what feelings did you have, every day? You can’t remember, can you? So checking back further, all the way back to the time when you were just a few cells in your mother’s womb, then even farther back than that: it’s very difficult, isn’t it? But if you practice this slowly, slowly, continuously checking within your mind, eventually you’ll be able to remember more and more of your previous experiences. Many of us may have had the experience of reacting very strangely to something that has happened and being perplexed by our reaction, which seems not to have been based on any of this life’s experiences: “That’s weird. Why did I react like that? I’ve no idea where that came from.” That’s because it’s based on a previous life’s experience. Modern psychologists cannot explain such reactions because they don’t understand mental continuity, the beginningless nature of each individual’s mind. They don’t understand that mental reactions can result from impulses that were generated thousands and thousands of years ago. But if you keep investigating your mind through meditation, you will eventually understand all this through your own experience.

Q: Could it be negative to find out about previous lives? Could it be disturbing?

Lama: Well, it could be either a positive or a negative experience. If you realize your previous lives, it will be a positive experience. Disturbance comes from ignorance. You should try to realize the characteristic nature of negativity. When you do, the problem’s solved. Understanding the nature of negativity stops the problems it brings. Therefore, right understanding is the only solution to both physical and mental problems. You should always check very carefully how you’re expending your energy: will it make you happy or not. That’s a big responsibility, don’t you think? It’s your choice: the path of wisdom or the path of ignorance.

Q: What is the meaning of suffering?

Lama: Mental agitation is suffering; dissatisfaction is suffering. Actually, it is very important to understand the various subtle levels of suffering, otherwise people are going to say, “Why does Buddhism say everybody’s suffering? I’m happy.” When Lord Buddha talked about suffering, he didn’t mean just the pain of a wound or the kind of mental anguish that we often experience. We say that we’re happy, but if we check our happiness more closely, we’ll find that there’s still plenty of dissatisfaction in our minds. From the Buddhist point of view, simply the fact that we can’t control our minds is mental suffering; in fact, that’s worse than the various physical sufferings we experience. Therefore, when Buddhism talks about suffering, it’s emphasizing the mental level much more than the physical, and that’s why, in practical terms, Buddhist teachings are basically applied psychology. Buddhism teaches the nature of suffering at the mental level and the methods for its eradication.

Q: Why do we all experience suffering and what do we learn from it?

Lama: That’s so simple, isn’t it? Why are you suffering? Because you’re too involved in acting out of ignorance and grasping with attachment. You learn from suffering by realizing where it comes from and exactly what it is that makes you suffer. In our infinite previous lives we have had so many experiences but we still haven’t learned that much. Many people think that they’re learning from their experiences, but they’re not. There are infinite past experiences in their unconscious but they still know nothing about their own true nature.

Q: Why do we have the opportunity to be attached?

Lama: Because we’re hallucinating; we’re not seeing the reality of either the subject or the object. When you understand the nature of an object of attachment, the subjective mind of attachment automatically disappears. It’s the foggy mind, the mind that’s attracted to an object and paints a distorted projection onto it, that makes you suffer. That’s all. It’s really quite simple.

Q: I’ve seen Tibetan images of wrathful deities, but although they were fierce-looking, they didn’t look evil. That made me wonder whether or not Buddhism emphasizes evil and bad things.

Lama: Buddhism never emphasizes the existence of external evil. Evil is a projection of your mind. If evil exists, it’s within you. There’s no outside evil to fear. Wrathful deities are emanations of enlightened wisdom and serve to help people who have a lot of uncontrolled anger. In meditation, the angry person transforms his anger into wisdom, which is then visualized as a wrathful deity; thus the energy of his anger is digested by wisdom. Briefly, that’s how the method works.

Q: What do you feel about a person killing another person in self-defense? Do you think people have the right to protect themselves, even at the expense of the aggressor’s life?

Lama: In most cases of killing in self-defense, it’s still done out of uncontrolled anger. You should protect yourself as best you can without killing the other. For example, if you attack me, I’m responsible to protect myself, but without killing you.

Q: If killing me was the only way you could stop me, would you do it?

Lama: Then it would be better that you kill me.

Well, if there are no further questions, I won’t keep you any longer. Thank you very much for everything.

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