print this page

Library: Member Essays

Overcoming Negative Afflictions and Building Positive States

Working with the Afflictions

The purpose of working with the Afflictions (klesa) is to make an honest appraisal of one's main negatives or neurotic tendencies and to find a way of transcending them. Working with the afflictions is not easy. It takes considerable stamina and humility.

In the Sri Hevajra-mahatantraraja we read: "Beings are Absolute Intelligence (buddha). But this has been obscured by adventitious trauma (agantuka-mala); when this [obscuration] is removed, then beings are the Absolute Intelligence (buddha), it is certain!"

For three million years or so, life has been evolving on this planet from simple sentient forms into progressively more complex organisms. The natural course of evolution has specialized the human brain, imparting certain unique advantages which distinguish man from other planetary beings. But this greater sophistication which is unique to man has some peculiar ramifications. The conception of an imaginary inner domain as an ego, or "I", and the delusion arising therefrom, which has the property of causing human's to perceive reality topsy-turvy, is the outward manifestation of deeply rooted psychological buffers. These endo-psychic buffers or afflictive obscurations (klesavarana) act to suppress objective awareness. Consequently humankind's psychic content consists almost entirely of negative feedback or afflictions, a major part of which are concerned with how one views themselves in relation to others (i.e., one's egoism).

Every individual has at least one chief affliction or mula-klesa, around which adhere a whole mass of secondary negative tendencies. And it is pointed out in our Yogacara teachings that every activity, good or bad, performed by the individual, only tends to further feed those habitual patterns and concepts that have already been crystallized in the psyche. Thus, we say that the two great labors of the Spiritual Path consist of:

  1. Work aimed at achieving deep catharsis (visuddhi), and
  2. Work aimed at achieving true realization (butyrate).

Here "catharsis" means the systematic "cleaning out" or "purification" of all the afflictions rooted in the mind, through the work of systematic spiritual transformation. A saint (arhat) is an example of one in whom all, or nearly all, the afflictions have been purified. The pious efforts of a saint, the cleansing of the heart of every negative emotion, and the awakening of genuine Love, are vivid examples of what we must do should we wish to overcome our own afflictions. And until we do overcome those defiling afflictions, we shall never know true happiness and peace, nor true Enlightenment. Modern psychology cannot liberate the individual from every neurosis, but the Spiritual Path eventually can. Nirvana—meaning, no (nir) disturbance (vana)—is when the heart is absolutely pure and free of the afflictions.

When the afflictions are humbly viewed for what they are, the essential core of the psyche, as opposed to our superficial character or mechanical personality, is able to emerge in strength. The psyche of most ordinary individuals is (as Dudjom Rimpoche used to say) generally immature and un-evolved. In contrast, the character may well appear highly developed, complex, and powerful. The character is the mask that is fashioned to protect the inner psyche. It is the continuum (santana) of this inner psyche, however, which is what is really evolving over the multi-million year course of life on this planet.

From a Buddhist perspective the character, the person, is but a single event in the continuum of what a "being" is. At the end of each lifetime that person or character is finished—is over with and done; the continuum of mind (citta-santana), on the other hand, is without beginning or end. When we understand existence from this perspective, the meaning of the Buddhist terminology for "meditation" or "cultivation of mind" (citta-bhavana) takes on a distinctly more profound meaning! We come to see that what we are doing in meditation, is directly work on the spiritual evolution (bhavana) of the entire psychic continuum of "who we are", in the fullest and deepest sense.

When we think of who we are, we generally are thinking of the character, the mask. The person. We have a pleasant image of our character. Generally we see ourselves as decent, good, knowledgeable, etc. What we do not see is that the whole structure is founded on self-advantage, or in other words, what is called ego-grasping, fear, greed, sex and dissimulation. And this ego's epiphenomena is entirely made up of those afflictions listed in our practical Dharma texts, namely, cunning, envy, hate, hypocrisy, contempt, haughtiness, servility, slyness, ambition, double-facedness, and so forth.

The teaching of the Buddhist Spiritual Path differs radically from many prevalent Western psychological systems and therapies, etc., by insisting that the negative afflictions are not something that can be overcome by acting them out. Actually the rule according to us is, "Always be polite. Never injure anybody's feelings," as Irina Tweedie's guru Bhai Sahib used to say. Never display your negative emotions.

Our discipline, which consists of suppressing all outer manifestation of the defilements (while observing them internally), is considered absolutely essential and preparatory for higher spiritual transformation. This discipline, devised by the Buddha, is performed by means of the four optimal effort.

Four Optimal Efforts

  1. The effort to suppress negative states.
  2. The effort to overcome negative states.
  3. The effort to develop positive states.
  4. The effort to maintain positive states.

The optimal effort to suppress, means to avoid being influenced by a negative affliction. For example, if a person feels envy, the first optimal effort is to suppress acting out the envy. Then, optimal effort must be applied to avoid feeling the envy. Thus one makes a supreme effort to overcome the negative sensation. The "effort to develop" means to develop an antidote of positive feeling. For example, one makes the effort to consciously develop generosity. Having done that once, it is necessary to maintain a generous attitude. This is an extremely valuable but most difficult exercise to consistently adhere to. But do not overlook its importance in the work of self-realization!

Through spiritual practice, by slow and patient degrees, the inner psyche can gradually be allowed to emerge. However, for this emergence to occur, the character, with its attachment to the defilements, must be purified. One's mask (persona) must be clearly seen through. Until that time, self-advantage acts as a blind spot, and our efforts to be good are always false or artificial. Because of the afflictions in a human being, a person's life is limited by the unconscious presence of repressions, inhibitions, pervasive apprehensions, subtle perceptive distortions, and negative emotional states such as passive aggression, anxiety, turmoil, and self-delusion.

To clarify our understanding, the Yogacara masters used to make lists of all the basic afflictions to which humanity is prone. The lists of these afflictions were studied by all Buddhists schools, and make up categories of the school's abhidharma studies to this day.

Chief and secondary Afflictions

Attachment (lobha) is said to be the root of:

  • Passion (raga),
  • Avarice (matsarya),
  • Self-indulgence (mada),
  • Excitability (auddhatya) and/or
  • Indolent-lethargy (middha).

Aversion (dvesa) is listed as the root of:

  • Wrath (krodha),
  • Enmity (upanatha),
  • Spite (pradasa),
  • Envy (irsya),
  • Aggression (vihimsa),
  • Hatred (pratigha),
  • Anxiety (kaukrtya).

Delusion (moha) is listed as the root of:

  • Hypocrisy (mraksa),
  • Depression (styana),
  • Insecurity (asraddhya),
  • Unconcern [for others] (pramada),
  • Desultoriness (viksepa),
  • Defensive-scepticism (vicikitsa),
  • Vanity (mans),
  • Forgetful-heedlessness (musitasmrtita),
  • Make-believe (maya).

Attachment, Aversion and Delusion are each at the root of dissimulation (sathya), lack of conscience (ahrikya), shamelessness (anapatrapya), and moral weakness (kausidya).

Method of Catharsis

First assume the sevenfold Buddha-posture and enter into as deep a state of Calm-abiding Meditation as possible. It is necessary to develop real confidence (sraddha), before commencing the work. Each session should last about twenty minutes. If the intellect is unduly discursive or if there is a lot of emotionalism, it will not be possible for progression (pratipadgata) to occur, therefore it is important to have developed Calm-abiding first.

There are twenty-four negative afflictions and their three roots, which are either Attachment, Aversion or Delusion. Take each of these in turn. That is, take one of these, and build your meditation session around fully coming to grips with that. In your next session, take another affliction from the list and work with that.

Taking one affliction from the list, silently recite the name of the affliction, until there is an internal feel for it.

When, in this way, the affliction has been successfully invoked, ask yourself when was the instance in one's past, in one's childhood, when this particular affliction was first experienced, i.e., when was it first imprinted in the psyche? Do not expect to know the answer intellectually. Rather, wait patiently and observantly for the knowledge to arise in consciousness. Usually the knowledge will come in the form of a symbol, a picture, or a sense-memory. This latter is called the "karma-nimitta", the active image. Once the active image has appeared, it will be necessary to focus sustained concentration on it, until its meaning spontaneously unfolds.

Sustained concentration means keeping the attention simply fixed on the "active image" which has appeared in the mind. Do not "think" about the image, do not artificially create an appropriate response. Without prejudice, without playing with the thoughts, just keep the object fixed in the mind as an object (alambana) of concentration.

It is likely that you will come up with several early experiences associated with the affliction. There will be a degree of distortion. It is not unusual for the mind to invent so-called first experiences. However, even the inventions will have symbolic value. You must be very honest with yourself, and you must be prepared to re-experience the traumatic event that imprinted the affliction. You should have enough sophistication to know when you are meeting with a resistance: there will be a certain blank feel, the meditation will not unfold. It is then important not to go into avoidance.

Do not say to yourself, I cannot feel this sensation, this affliction. That is just resistance. That sense of "paralysis" merely means that the causal experience is repressed. Keep working on it. Keep steady concentration fixed on it. Query it. Allow the karma-nimitta to unfold, naturally and automatically. Give it time. Perseverance will, in the end, always result in a breakthrough. But it may not happen in one's first or second sitting.

In so many cases where practitioners are struggling with meditation practice in the West, they are making little or no progress because of the obscuring power of the afflictions. Their meditation practice merely becomes a part of their already well-established habit pattern of avoidance. Although they are involved in spirituality or meditation or "the work", their choices of spiritual practice are unconsciously designed precisely to avoid real psychic change.

Everything from psychological analysis and therapy, going to church, or to a Dharma-centre, reading metaphysical books, attending meditation groups, doing physical yoga exercise, and all the other self-help systems, almost everything that so-called spiritual seekers are into, can unfortunately be manipulated by ourselves to feed the ego and support the status quo of who we are. Within the structure of what ever metaphysic we are involved with, we are able to weave comforting buffers that block out fear of our mortality, that avoids seeing our negative afflictions, and that therefore maintains our personal egoic isolation. Unmoved by the urgency of the situation, refusing to admit the existence of our afflictions, we actually prefer to go through life wearing blinkers.

Therefore, working with the afflictions is extremely important. It is not just through passive meditation that a person makes progress. There has to be real work on oneself, consisting of purification of all the defilements, of all one's sins. This is essential. The Path is hard labor and those who are incapable of authentic spiritual struggle quickly fall by the wayside. The failures rarely see themselves as such: instead, they move on into other pursuits, like sleepwalkers caught in ever new dreams. Disguised avoidance is one of the biggest obstacles on the Path. Thus, session by session, work through the afflictions.

When the real memory experience of a repressed state comes to consciousness, there is a real catharsis. One experiences a sense of being released. A step in one's liberation occurs.

Once there is a sense of genuine release, then apply the four optimal efforts. That is, fortify the catharsis which has occurred, by immediately replacing the affliction which has been overcome with a positive state. Don't just think in terms of getting rid of negative thoughts, feelings and sensations: replace the afflictive state with a definite positive condition.

For example, if you have been working with hate, once a catharsis really occurs, replace the hate with love and work each day to maintain that state of love in your being.

To repeat: if you are working with hate, start by taking the word hate and reciting it silently in the mind, while in a deep state of Calm-abiding meditation. Focus on the word. Hold the word or thought in your mind. Let the flow of the meditation proceed. Ask yourself, when did the sensation of hate first, in this lifetime, become imprinted in your being? Don't artificially ruminate. Just keep a steady concentration fixed on the idea of hate. And allow the appropriate "karma-nimitta" to arise.

Each person's psychological symbol, or karma-nimitta, will be different and no one can say what form it will take. But when it arises, there will definitely be an internal psychological response—you will know that, somehow, this is a meaningful image of hate that has arisen specific to your mind. (NB: There is a close approximation to this experience when working with Dream-yoga).

Once that a stable karma-nimitta has arisen, then use that as an object of concentration. Simply hold the image in mind, and keep un-scattered attention upon it. Fix the concentration upon the image.

It's its own time, not in your time, but in its own time, it will auto-liberate. If you hold your concentration, restrain wandering thoughts and avoid internal rumination, then this auto-liberation will occur quite rapidly. When the image auto-liberates, there will be a release of emotion. Likely one will be briefly flooded with memory, with scents and imagery and feelings, and catharsis will occur. In Buddhist terminology, one is thus said to have purified the affliction. Having done that, then immediately begin to work with the positive. Replace the "hole" left by getting rid of the affliction with a positive state.

This is a most direct and powerful way of working through the afflictions.

Ten universal Positive States

  1. Confidence (sraddha) in oneself: the antidote for Insecurity.

  2. Heroic vigor (virya, standing up for what is right): the antidote for moral weakness.

  3. Serenity (upeksa, impartiality), unconditional love towards all: this is the antidote for attachment and aversion, approval of some and fear of others.

  4. Conscience (hri), means an intuitive sense of right: the antidote against self-indulgence, hypocrisy, unconcern for others, desultoriness, vanity, make-believe, dissimulation and lack of conscience in general.

  5. Shame (apatrapya) is the public fear of offending or hurting others: it is, of course, the antidote for lack of shame.

  6. Non-attachment (atobha) is generosity (dana): this is the antidote to miserliness, and all those feelings against others which come under the category of envy, jealousy, spite, wanting for ourselves and not-wanting for the benefit of others, self-advantage, etc.

  7. Non-aversion (advesa) is affection or love (maitri): this is the opposite of hate and lack of concern or consideration for others.

  8. Non-violence (ahimsa), gentleness, harmlessness: the opposite of all our aggressive thoughts, feelings and acts. The antidote to violence.

  9. Alertness (praribdhi, mental agility): antidote for forgetfulness and lack of attention.

  10. Conscientiousness (apramada, concern for others): the antidote for lack of such a concern, and for a lack of love or compassion towards others.

Working with Our Positive States of Being

A practitioner should never dwell too morbidly on the afflictions. Once that they have been worked with, they should be firmly replaced with the ten Universal Positive States (kusala-mahabhumika) of the mind. These positive states will excite and nourish the spiritual seeker, because they strengthen the psyche and empower one with positive energy.

To work with the Positive States is exactly like working with the afflictions. First enter into meditation. Spend some time quieting the mind, getting into a deep state of Calm-abiding. Then invoke (by naming) the particular universal positive states you wish to develop. The naming will bring forth a sensation of the state one is trying to invoke.

Meditate on the positive state filling the whole of one's being. Query. Ask yourself when you first experienced this positive emotion. Concentrate on holding the idea of the positive state in one's mind, and also have a strong wish to know when this positive state was first experienced in one's present lifetime.

Then allow an active image to spontaneously arise. This karma-nimitta supposedly reveals your earliest experience of the state. But being a psychological image, a dream picture or symbol, it will remain impenetrable to understanding. You will want to ask what does it mean, this image? Be careful—don't conceive that you can grasp the meaning by intellectual thought or rumination. Instead, apply impartial concentration to the image. Concentrate on the karma-nimitta until the experience of the state in question completely and automatically unfolds.

An authentic universal positive state is dynamic. That is, it breaks through the paralysis, it releases the avoidance patterns in the psyche, and it introduces you to the real treasure house of wholesome sensation buried in the psyche.

The positive states, once awakened, tend toward self-esteem, health, sanity, peace, and even psychosomatic ecstasy. O yes: this exercise will certainly lead to feelings of ecstasy.

The toxic afflictions act like jailors, holding in bondage the natural joy and wisdom which is buried within the body. As the shackles of delusion (ignorance), aversion (anger, hatred, fear), egomania (pride, arrogance, vanity), attachment (greed, want, possessiveness), and envy (jealousy, personal insecurity) are loosened, room is made for the emergence of our natural embodied Innate Gnosis.

Here we use the term Gnosis (jnana) in a special way. Gnosis is an awareness not divisible into subject (knower) and object (known). This non-dual Gnosis at the core of the our being acts as the ultimate antidote for the afflictions.

Thus the more that one accentuates the positive states of Gnosis, the more that the dark defilements of the heart becomes liberated. Our demons become luminous angels. The human entity is transformed.

As we work on our self in this manner, implementing in a very real way the Four Efforts, as taught by the Buddha, we must always keep in mind that merely working on our self alone is only part of the over all purpose of the Dharma. As we work to make our self a better person, we also need to work to make the world a better place. So, keep this mind: make a genuine effort to do something that is intended to make the world a better place for others.

This is the teaching concerning overcoming the negative afflictions and replacing them with positive states of being.

top of page

Dharma Fellowship