Our mental processes

The Abhidharma is one of the earliest texts in Buddhism. It is a thorough and detailed analysis of the mental processes, so much so that we get a complete understanding of how the mind works.

It all starts with Dukkha or 'Suffering, affliction, pain, bad space'. Once we experience pain, we experience Dukkha samudaya. Samudaya can be broken down into three smaller words; sam means ‘with’, ud means ‘up’, and aya means ‘to come’. What comes up when we meet with suffering and what happens after that happens in a split second. We don’t even know that we are going through a process because it happens so quickly. If we were to slow down this process we would be able to notice these fast connections happening in our minds and from that we would see how longing is triggered when we encounter Dukkha. The Buddha called this Dukkha samudaya which means that 'suffering' leads to trishna or ‘thirst’.

Many Buddhists have translated the second noble truth as: The reason we suffer is because of craving. This is not quite true because the first noble truth is that Dukkha happens whether we crave or not. Life includes all manner of existential suffering. We will suffer because we are living human beings, not because of craving.

The average human being tends to go around in circles, making the same mistakes over and over again. Out of a desire to avoid pain we respond to Dukkha samudaya in three levels. To read more about the three levels of escape, please read my blog post, 'The Three Poisons'. The first level is that we escape our suffering by some sort of sensory distraction. Sensory distraction can be pleasant or unpleasant. Once we have found a distraction, we move to the next level of identifying with whatever habit we have created. We love to identify and feel as if we have a sound identity. Finally, when those two levels of escape fail, we despair, withdraw, and give up.

Here are some examples to help understand this process.

When Sam was a teenager, her parents divorced. She knew that her parents weren’t happy, but the divorce was the first experience of dukkha. 

Dukkha includes many things from birth, ageing, sickness, death, as well as, not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. One of the things that we want is for things to stay the same. We like things that don’t change or if they do, it is because we have had some control over how it changes. However, a fundamental teaching in Buddhism is that all conditioned things are impermanent. 

During this time, her parents stopped talking to each other. Instead they would talk to her and pass messages on to the other parent. She was the messenger stuck between her mum and dad. She felt like crying and after a bout of crying she always felt thirsty and hungry. So she would make a cup of chocolate milk and a bar of chocolate. This gave her some small comfort and eventually her parents divorced and moved apart, but her habit of eating comfort food carried on. 

In this case, the sensory escape is eating and drinking something sweet. As time goes on, however, and the source of dukkha is no longer immediate, the habit carries on. She now has the habit of rummaging through the kitchen for sweets, chocolate, or chocolate biscuits and a sweet drink. 

Her parents made sure that she still has a good relationship with both of them, so she lives with her mum during the week and with her dad at the weekends. By the time she is a young adult she is overweight and is open about loving chocolate. Her friends are also overweight and share her love of chocolate. They know a lot about the different kinds of chocolate and she jokes with them about being a chocoholic. 

This is the second level of escape. Her escape mechanism that alleviated some of the discomfort has now developed into a habit. Her habit has become a part of her and not only does she identify as a chocoholic but has the tendency to notice all things to do with chocolate and sweets. As we take on an identity we also take on a mentality that looks out for things to reinforce our identity.

After university, she finds a job and a place to live on her own. She has a good relationship with her mum and her dad, but she knows that she can never talk openly about the other parent. She has learned how to be careful when talking to them. She is also single and although she would like to go out on a date, she is nervous and fearful of meeting someone. She is bothered by her weight and knows that she needs to lose weight but she can’t seem to manage to do it. The more frustrated she feels the more she turns to chocolate, and the more chocolate she eats the more she feels guilty and ashamed. She feels that there is nothing she can do to escape her own discomfort about her weight.

She is starting to experience dukkha again, but this time it is her escape mechanism that is the source of her pain. The sensory distraction that worked for her when she experienced the original source of dukkha has now become a prison. She now sees herself as the source of the problem. The chocolate has left her with a weight problem. Her weight is stopping her from going out on a date. If she stops eating chocolate and she is no longer a chocoholic then who is she and what will alleviate the pain? The next level is to seek oblivion. When we get to this level, we feel that we are the source of the problem and we start to wonder what is the point of living. 

Most of us are stuck going around in circles. Most times our escape mechanisms are not so extreme to lead us to the point of wanting our lives to end. However, for some, this does happen. 

The way to feeling liberated from this vicious cycle is indicated in the teachings of the third and fourth noble truths. The third noble truth is called nirodha and can be translated as ‘earth bank’. It is also close to the word nirvana which means ‘blowing out’. The teaching of nirodha is linked to dukkha samudaya. What this is saying is that when we feel ‘dukkha samudaya’ that is to say, the energy rising in us, then what we need to do is to hold and harness the energy from the feelings, not to act on them but to be with the discomfort, and eventual to feel comfortable with the discomfort. Once we have done that then we can use the energy to follow the fourth noble truth ‘marga’ or spiritual path.

To move from the extreme level of escape to the spiritual path requires a willingness to die. If we can kill the need to reinforce the sense of who we are, if we can stop needing to identify as anything, then we are willing to die. To be willing to die is to allow our habits to die off. If we see that habits, just like feelings, are impermanent, and if we can feel that we can change then we can do away with our need to be this way or that way. In other words, we can stop supporting our identity, and become more flexible with our behaviours. In this way, we can learn to react and respond according to what is going on rather than what we think will support and reinforce our sense of who we are.