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, Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo by Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Two: Religion: The Path Of Inquiry

People have many different ideas about the nature of religion in general and Buddhism in particular. Those who consider religion and Buddhism at only the superficial, intellectual level will never understand the true significance of either. And those whose view of religion is even more superficial than that will not even consider Buddhism to be a religion at all.

First of all, in Buddhism we’re not that interested in talking about the Buddha himself. Nor was he; he wasn’t interested in people believing in him, so to this day Buddhism has never encouraged its followers simply to believe in the Buddha. We have always been more interested in understanding human psychology, the nature of the mind. Thus, Buddhist practitioners always try to understand their own mental attitudes, concepts, perceptions and consciousness. Those are the things that really matter.

Otherwise, if you forget about yourself and your delusions and focus instead on some lofty idea—like “What is Buddha?”—your spiritual journey becomes a dream-like hallucination. That’s possible; be careful. In your mind there’s no connection between Buddha, or God, and yourself. They’re completely separate things: you’re completely down here; Buddha, or God, is completely up there. There’s no connection whatsoever. It’s not realistic to think that way. It’s too extreme. You’re putting one thing down at the lower extreme and the other way up at the upper. In Buddhism, we call that kind of mind dualistic.

Furthermore, if humans are completely negative by nature, what is the point of seeking a higher idea? Anyway, ideas are not realizations. People always want to know all about the highest attainments or the nature of God, but such intellectual knowledge has nothing to do with their lives or their minds. True religion should be the pursuit of self-realization, not an exercise in the accumulation of facts.

In Buddhism, we are not particularly interested in the quest for intellectual knowledge alone. We are much more interested in understanding what’s happening here and now, in comprehending our present experiences, what we are at this very moment, our fundamental nature. We want to know how to find satisfaction, how to find happiness and joy instead of depression and misery, how to overcome the feeling that our nature is totally negative.

Lord Buddha himself taught that basically, human nature is pure, egoless, just as the sky is by nature clear, not cloudy. Clouds come and go, but the blue sky is always there; clouds don’t alter the fundamental nature of the sky. Similarly, the human mind is fundamentally pure, not one with the ego. Anyway, whether you are a religious person or not, if you can’t separate yourself from your ego, you’re completely misguided; you’ve created for yourself a totally unrealistic philosophy of life that has nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

Instead of grasping at intellectual knowledge, wanting to know what’s the highest thing going, you’d be much better off trying to gain an understanding of the basic nature of your own mind and how to deal with it right now. It is so important to know how to act effectively: method is the key to any religion, the most important thing to learn.

Say you hear about an amazing treasure house containing jewels for the taking but don’t have the key to the door: all your fantasies about how you’ll spend your new-found wealth are a complete hallucination. Similarly, fantasizing about wonderful religious ideas and peak experiences but having no interest in immediate action or the methods of attainment is totally unrealistic. If you have no method, no key, no way to bring your religion into your everyday life, you’d be better off with Coca-Cola. At least that quenches your thirst. If your religion is simply an idea, it’s as insubstantial as air. You should be very careful that you understand exactly what religion is and how it should be practiced.

Lord Buddha himself said, “Belief is not important. Don’t believe what I say just because I said it.” These were his dying words. “I have taught many different methods because there are many different individuals. Before you embrace any of them, use your wisdom to check that they fit your psychological make-up, your own mind. If my methods seem to make sense and work for you, by all means adopt them. But if you don’t relate to them, even though they might sound wonderful, leave them be. They were taught for somebody else.”

These days, you can’t tell most people that they should believe something just because Buddha said, because God said. It’s not enough for them. They’ll reject it; they want proof. But those who cannot understand that the nature of their mind is pure will be unable to see the possibility of discovering their innate purity and will lose whatever chance they had to do so. If you think that your mind is fundamentally negative, you tend to lose all hope.

Of course, the human mind has both positive and negative sides. But the negative is transient, very temporary. Your up and down emotions are like clouds in the sky; beyond them, the real, basic human nature is clear and pure.

Many people misunderstand Buddhism. Even some professors of Buddhist studies look at just the words and interpret what the Buddha taught very literally. They don’t understand his methods, which are the real essence of his teachings. In my opinion, the most important aspect of any religion is its methods: how to put that religion into your own experience. The better you understand how to do that, the more effective your religion becomes. Your practice becomes so natural, so realistic; you easily come to understand your own nature, your own mind, and you don’t get surprised by whatever you find in it. Then, when you understand the nature of your own mind, you’ll be able to control it naturally; you won’t have to push so hard; understanding naturally brings control.

Many people will imagine that control of the mind is some kind of tight, restrictive bondage. Actually, control is a natural state. But you’re not going to say that, are you? You’re going to say that the mind is uncontrolled by nature, that it is natural for the mind to be uncontrolled. But it’s not. When you realize the nature of your uncontrolled mind, control comes as naturally as your present uncontrolled state arises. Moreover, the only way to gain control over your mind is to understand its nature. You can never force your mind, your internal world, to change. Nor can you purify your mind by punishing yourself physically, by beating your body. That’s totally impossible. Impurity, sin, negativity or whatever else you want to call it is psychological, a mental phenomenon, so you can’t stop it physically. Purification requires a skillful combination of method and wisdom.

To purify your mind, you don’t have to believe in something special up there—God, or Buddha. Don’t worry about that. When you truly realize the up and down nature of your everyday life, the characteristic nature of your own mental attitude, you’ll automatically want to implement a solution.

These days, many people are disillusioned with religion; they seem to think it doesn’t work. Religion works. It offers fantastic solutions to all your problems. The problem is that people don’t understand the characteristic nature of religion, so they don’t have the will to implement its methods.

Consider the materialistic life. It’s a state of complete agitation and conflict. You can never fix things to be the way you want. You can’t just wake up in the morning and decide exactly how you want your day to unfold. Forget about weeks, months, or years; you can’t even predetermine one day. If I were to ask you right now if you can get up in the morning and set exactly how your day was going to go, how you were going to feel each moment, what would you say? There’s no way you can do that, is there?

No matter how much you make yourself materially comfortable, no matter how you arrange your house—you have this, you have that; you put one thing here, you put another there—you can never manipulate your mind in the same way. You can never determine the way you’re going to feel all day. How can you fix your mind like that? How can you say, “Today I’m going to be like this”? I can tell you with absolute certainty, as long as your mind is uncontrolled, agitated and dualistic, there’s no way; it’s impossible. When I say this, I’m not putting you down; I’m just talking about the way the mind works. What all this goes to show is that no matter how you make yourself materially comfortable, no matter how much you tell yourself, “Oh, this makes me happy, today I’m going to be happy all day long,” it’s impossible to predetermine your life like that. Automatically, your feelings keep changing, changing, changing. This shows that the materialistic life doesn’t work. However, I don’t mean that you should renounce the worldly life and become ascetics. That’s not what I’m saying. My point is that if you understand spiritual principles correctly and act accordingly, you will find much greater satisfaction and meaning in your life than you will by relying on the sense world alone. The sense world alone cannot satisfy the human mind.

Thus, the only purpose for the existence of what we call religion is for us to understand the nature of our own psyche, our own mind, our own feelings. Whatever name we give to our spiritual path, the most important thing is that we get to know our own experiences, our own feelings. Therefore, the lamas’ experience of Buddhism is that instead of emphasizing belief, it places prime importance on personal experimentation, putting Dharma methods into action and assessing the effect they have on our minds: do these methods help? Have our minds changed or are they just as uncontrolled as they ever were? This is Buddhism, and this method of checking the mind is called meditation.

It’s an individual thing; you can’t generalize. It all comes down to personal understanding, personal experience. If your path is not providing solutions to your problems, answers to your questions, satisfaction to your mind, you must check up. Perhaps there’s something wrong with your point of view, your understanding. You can’t necessarily conclude that there’s something wrong with your religion just because you tried it and it didn’t work. Different individuals have their own ideas, views, and understanding of religion, and can make mistakes. Therefore, make sure that the way you understand your religion’s ideas and methods is correct. If you make the right effort on the basis of right understanding, you will experience deep inner satisfaction. Thus, you’ll prove to yourself that satisfaction does not depend on anything external. True satisfaction comes from the mind.

We often feel miserable and our world seems upside-down because we believe that external things will work exactly as we plan and expect them to. We expect things that are changeable by nature not to change, impermanent things to last forever. Then, when they do change, we get upset. Getting upset when something in your house breaks shows that you didn’t really understand its impermanent nature. When it’s time for something to break, it’s going to break, no matter what you expect.

Nevertheless, we still expect material things to last. Nothing material lasts; it’s impossible. Therefore, to find lasting satisfaction, you should put more effort into your spiritual practice and meditation than into manipulating the world around you. Lasting satisfaction comes from your mind, from within you. Your main problem is your uncontrolled, dissatisfied mind, whose nature is suffering.

Knowing this, when any problem arises, instead of getting upset because of your unfulfilled expectations and busily distracting yourself with some external activity, relax, sit down and examine the situation with your own mind. That is a much more constructive way of dealing with problems and pacifying your mind. Moreover, when you do this, you are allowing your innate knowledge-wisdom to grow. Wisdom can never grow in an agitated, confused and restless mind.

Agitated mental states are a major obstacle to your gaining of wisdom. So too is the misconception that your ego and your mind’s nature are one and the same. If that’s what you believe, you’ll never be able to separate them and reach beyond ego. As long as you believe that you are totally in the nature of sin and negativity you will never be able to transcend them. What you believe is very important and very effectively perpetuates your wrong views. In the West, people seem to think that if you aren’t one with your ego, you can’t have a life, get a job or do anything. That’s a dangerous delusion—you can’t separate ego from mind, ego from life. That’s your big problem. You think that if you lose your ego you’ll lose your personality, your mind, your human nature.

That’s simply not true; you shouldn’t worry about that. If you lose your ego you’ll be happy—you should be happy. But of course, this raises the question, what is the ego? In the West, people seem to have so many words for the ego, but do they know what the ego really is? Anyway, it doesn’t matter how perfect your English is, the ego is not a word; the word is just a symbol. The actual ego is within you: it’s the wrong conception that your self is independent, permanent and inherently existent. In reality, what you believe to be “I” doesn’t exist.

If I were to ask everybody here to check deeply, beyond words, what they thought the ego was, each person would have a different idea. I’m not joking; this is my experience. You should check your own. We always say, very superficially, “That’s your ego,” but we have no idea of what the ego really is. Sometimes we even use the term pejoratively: “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just your ego,” or something like that, but if you check up more deeply, you’ll see that the average person thinks that the ego is his personality, his life. Men feel that if they were to lose their ego, they’d lose their personalities, they’d no longer be men; women feel that were they to lose their ego they’d lose their female qualities. That’s not true; not true at all. Still, based on Westerners’ interpretation of life and ego, that’s pretty much what it comes down to. They think the ego is something positive in the sense that it’s essential for living in society; that if you don’t have an ego, you can’t mix in society. You check up more deeply—on the mental level, not the physical. It’s interesting.

Even many psychologists describe the ego at such a superficial level that you’d think it was a physical entity. From the Buddhist point of view, the ego is a mental concept, not a physical thing. Of course, symptoms of ego activity can manifest externally, such as when, for example, someone’s angry and his face and body reflect that angry vibration. But that’s not anger itself; it’s a symptom of anger. Similarly, ego is not its external manifestations but a mental factor, a psychological attitude. You can’t see it from the outside.

When you meditate, you can see why today you’re up, tomorrow you’re down: mood swings are caused by your mind. People who don’t check within themselves come up with very superficial reasons like, “I’m unhappy today because the sun’s not shining,” but most of the time your ups and downs are due to primarily psychological factors.

When a strong wind blows, the clouds vanish and blue sky appears. Similarly, when the powerful wisdom that understands the nature of the mind arises, the dark clouds of ego disappear. Beyond the ego—the agitated, uncontrolled mind—lie everlasting peace and satisfaction. That’s why Lord Buddha prescribed penetrative analysis of both your positive and your negative sides. In particular, when your negative mind arises, instead of being afraid, you should examine it more closely.

You see, Buddhism is not at all a tactful religion, always trying to avoid giving offense. Buddhism addresses precisely what you are and what your mind is doing in the here and now. That’s what makes it so interesting. You can’t expect to hear only positive things. Sure you have a positive side, but what about the negative aspects of your nature? To gain an equal understanding of both, an understanding of the totality of your being, you have to look at your negative characteristics as well as the positive ones, and not try to cover them up.

I don’t have much more to say right now, but I’d be happy to try to answer some questions.

Q: Lama, were you saying that we should express rather than suppress our negative actions, that we should let the negativity come out?

Lama: It depends. There are two things. If the negative emotion has already bubbled to the surface, it’s probably better to express it in some way, but it’s preferable if you can deal with it before it has reached that level. Of course, if you don’t have a method of dealing with strong negative emotions and you try to bottle them up deep inside, eventually that can lead to serious problems, such as an explosion of anger that causes someone to pick up a gun and shoot people. What Buddhism teaches is a method of examining that emotion with wisdom and digesting it through meditation, which allows the emotion to simply dissolve. Expressing strong negative emotions externally leaves a tremendously deep impression on your consciousness. This kind of imprint makes it easier for you to react in the same harmful way again, except that the second time it may be even more powerful than the first. This sets up a karmic chain of cause and effect that perpetuates such negative behavior. Therefore, you have to exercise skill and judgment in dealing with negative energy, learn when and how to express it and, especially, know how to recognize it early in the piece and digest it with wisdom.

Q: Could you please explain the relationship between Buddhist meditation techniques and hatha yoga?

Lama: In Buddhism we tend to focus more on penetrative introspection than on bodily movement, although there are certain practices where the meditation techniques are enhanced by physical exercises. In general, Buddhist meditation teaches us to look within at what we are, to understand our own true nature. All the same, Buddhist meditation does not necessarily imply sitting in the lotus position with your eyes closed—meditation can be brought into every aspect of your daily life. It is important to be aware of everything you do so that you don’t unconsciously harm either yourself or others. Whether you are walking, talking, working, eating...whatever you do, be conscious of the actions of your body, speech and mind.

Q: Do Buddhists control their prana [wind energy] completely through the mind?

Lama: Yes. If you can control your mind, you can control anything. It’s impossible to control your physical body without first controlling your mind. If you try to control your body forcibly, if you pump yourself up with no understanding of the mind-body relationship, it can be very dangerous and cause your mind great harm.

Q: Can you reach as deep a state of meditation through walking as you can through sitting?

Lama: Sure, it’s theoretically possible, but it depends upon the individual. For beginners, it is obviously much easier to attain deeper states of concentration through sitting meditation. Experienced meditaters, however, can maintain single-pointed concentration, a fully integrated mind, whatever they’re doing, including walking. Of course, if someone’s mind is completely disturbed, even sitting meditation may not be enough for him to integrate his mind. One of the hallmarks of Buddhism is that you can’t say that everybody should do this, everybody should be like that; it depends on the individual. However, we do have a clearly defined, step-like path of meditation practice: first you develop this, then you move on to that, and so on through the various levels of concentration. Similarly, the entire path to enlightenment—we call it the lam-rim— has been laid out in a graded, logical fashion so that each person can find his or her own level and take it from there.

Q: Lama, can the various negative thoughts that arise in our minds come from a source outside of ourselves, from other people, or perhaps from spirits?

Lama: Well, that’s a very good question. The real source, the deep root of negativity, lies within our own minds, but for this to manifest usually requires interaction with a cooperative, environmental cause, such as other people or the material world. For example, some people experience mood swings as a result of astrological influences, such as the vibration of planetary movement. Others’ emotions fluctuate because of hormonal changes in their bodies. Such experiences do not come from their minds alone but through the interaction of physical and mental energy. Of course, we would also say that the fact that we find ourselves in a body susceptible to this kind of change originally comes from our minds. But I don’t think Lord Buddha would say that there is some outer spirit harming you like that. What is possible is that your inner energy is relating to some outer energy, and that it is that interaction that makes you sick.

You can see from your own life experiences how the environment can affect you. When you’re amongst peaceful, generous, happy people, you’re inclined to feel happy and peaceful yourself. When you’re amongst angry, aggressive people, you tend to become like them. The human mind is like a mirror. A mirror does not discriminate but simply reflects whatever’s before it, no matter whether it’s horrible or wonderful. Similarly, your mind takes on the aspect of your surroundings, and if you’re not aware of what’s going on, your mind can fill with garbage. Therefore, it is very important to be conscious of your surroundings and how they affect your mind.

The thing that you have to understand about religion is how your religion relates to your own mind, how it relates to the life you lead. If you can manage that, religion is fantastic; the realizations are there. You don’t need to emphasize belief in God, or Buddha, or sin or whatever; don’t worry about all that. Just act out of right understanding as best you can and you’ll get results, even today. Forget about super consciousness or super universal love—universal love grows slowly, steadily, gradually. If, however, you’re just clinging to the notion, “Oh, fantastic! Infinite knowledge, infinite power,” you’re simply on a power trip. Of course, spiritual power really does exist, but the only way you can get it is by engaging in the proper spiritual actions. Power comes from within you; part of you becomes power, too. Don’t think that the only true power is up there, somewhere in the sky. You have power; your mind is power.

Q: Perception is one of the five aggregates that, according to Buddhist philosophy, constitute a person. How does it work?

Lama: Yes, that’s another good question. Most of the time, our perception is illusory; we’re not perceiving reality. Sure, we see the sense world—attractive shapes, beautiful colors, nice tastes and so forth—but we don’t actually perceive the real, true nature of the shapes, colors and tastes we see. That’s how most of the time our perception is mistaken. So our mistaken perception processes the information supplied by our five senses and transmits incorrect information to our mind, which reacts under the influence of the ego. The result of all this is that most of the time we are hallucinating, not seeing the true nature of things, not under- standing the reality of even the sense world.

Q: Does past karma affect our perception?

Lama: Yes, of course. Past karma affects our perception a lot. Our ego grasps at our uncontrolled perception’s view, and our mind just follows along: that entire uncontrolled situation is what we call karma. Karma is not simply some irrelevant theory; it’s the everyday perceptions in which we live, that’s all.

Q: Lama, what is the relationship between the body and mind as far as food is concerned.

Lama: Body is not mind, mind is not body, but the two have a very special connection. They are very closely linked, very sensitive to changes in each other. For example, when people take drugs, the substance doesn’t affect the mind directly. But since the mind is connected to the body’s nervous system and sense organs, changes induced in the nervous system by the drug throw it out of harmony and cause the mind to hallucinate. There’s a very strong connection between the body and the mind. In Tibetan tantric yoga, we take advantage of that strong connection: by concentrating strongly on the body’s psychic channels we can affect the mind accordingly. Therefore, even in everyday life, the food you eat and the other things your body touches have an effect on your mind.

Q: Is fasting good for you?

Lama: Fasting is not all that important unless you are engaged in certain special mind training practices. Then, fasting may even be essential. This is certainly the lamas’ experience. For example, if you eat and drink all day and then try to meditate in the evening, your concentration will be very poor. Therefore, when we’re doing serious meditation, we eat only once a day. In the morning, we just drink tea; at midday we have lunch; and in the evening, instead of eating, we again drink tea. For us, this kind of routine makes life desirably simple and the body very comfortable; but for someone not engaged in mind training, it would probably feel like torture. Normally, we don’t advocate fasting. We tell people not to punish themselves but simply to be happy and reasonable and to keep their bodies as healthy as they can. If your body gets weak, your mind becomes useless. When your mind becomes useless, your precious human life becomes useless. But on special occasions, when fasting enhances your meditation practice, when there’s a higher purpose, I would say yes, fasting can be good for you.

Thank you very much. If there are no further questions, I won’t keep you any longer. Thank you very much.

Brisbane, Australia, 28 April 1975