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Bad moods and self-criticism

Bad moods and self-criticism

Part of a series of teachings given during the Manjushri Winter Retreat from December 2008 to March 2009 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Working with attachment
  • The benefits of living in community
  • Using the Dharma as a telescope instead of a mirror
  • Using the Dharma to work with the mind when under the influence of afflictions

Manjushri Retreat 15: Q&A (download)

It’s gone by very quickly hasn’t it? Very, very quickly.

Recognizing attachment early

Audience: I was thinking this week about working with attachment. And I thought about how I work with anger or try to, is when it arises to use the flash of that, the energy of that, to ask the question, “Who’s getting angry?” Then it really goes right away. I’m pleased. But I was having some difficulty with that, trying to apply that to attachment. I think it’s because attachment is so much subtler than the big flash of anger. And so the best I could come up with was when I start feeling, because attachment its that sticky, sticky, icky stuff, when that starts arising, to try to just keep my mind really kind of still.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You’re saying when you get a flash of anger, because the anger energy’s strong, it’s easy to take that energy and say, “Who is getting angry?” But attachment creeps up in a much more subtle way so it’s harder to identify when you’re having it. And then you’re thinking that maybe an antidote is to try and keep the mind still.

It’s very true. The thing with attachment is, first of all, when we’re angry there’s an unhappy feeling, our feeling aggregate. The accompanying feeling for anger is unhappiness so we notice that. The accompanying feeling for attachment is happiness. When we don’t get what we want then it turns into dissatisfaction and anger and stuff like that. But initially, when we like something and we’re attached to it and we want it and we’re getting it, because attachment isn’t just when we haven’t yet gotten what we want. It’s when we actually have it, then the mind feels happy. So the mind doesn’t even think there’s affliction manifest in that moment. That thought doesn’t go there because of the happy feeling. So we’re not used to identifying attachment until it gets to the point where it has become sticky and painful. Actually, there’s been a lot of attachment there before it got to the point of getting sticky and painful. So it’s noticing it when there’s that pleasant feeling and identifying, “Oh, this is attachment.” This mind is exaggerating the good qualities of that object or person or situation or whatever it is.

Audience: So to figure out the discernment between just the happy mind without going to the grasping, that’s the key. That’s ballpark.

A small girl showing angry face

The thing with attachment is, first of all, when we’re angry there’s an unhappy feeling, our feeling aggregate. The accompanying feeling for anger is unhappiness so we notice that. (Photo by Jeyheich)

VTC: So figuring out the difference between just a happy state of mind because you’re peaceful and calm or loving, and a happy state of mind because there’s attachment. To figure out the difference between those two, it’s not always so easy.

Audience: I’ve been looking at that recently and I find that we lump them together very much. Like pleasure and happiness, and like they’re the same thing: the happiness being like peace of mind and tranquility which is a gentle sort of mind. And so for love, wouldn’t that be happiness and then like sense pleasure? We kind of put them together. It’s like a positive in my experience. It’s like it’s a positive so close to happiness. But when I start looking at them they’re really quite different. In experiencing the moment it’s hard to try to separate them, but when I really look at them, the texture of my mind, they’re very different. It’s very clear. It’s like oil and water, there’s no difference. So if you shake it up they look the same but ….

Audience: Yes, I was going to comment somewhat the same. That somewhere back you said to start noticing in your body, like it’s not even just the way your body’s feeling in the body. And this week again, working with attachment, I was trying to catch it earlier. And that feeling, I think the word I’d use for it is excitement, but it’s really pre-excitement. It’s before that but there’s kind of a little zzzzzz buzz that starts and I have identified that as good. And now when that is quieted and my mind is in that more peaceful gentle place I go, “Oh no, that’s ruining my peaceful gentle place.” But it’s physically buzzing so it’s like a ….

VTC: Tingle

Audience: There’s no word for it but zzzz … zzzz … zzzz. There’s just this buzz that starts and then it’s like, “I’ve gotta have that, gotta have it,” whatever it is. And it’s all ruined then. I mean from right there. It doesn’t matter if you get it, you don’t get it. It’s already gone. It’s so fragile, that peaceful gentle place. You get a retreat for two months and I feel it a little, and then the fudge can ruin or whatever, you know. It can be anything. It can be anything. It’s so, so fragile.

Audience: Speaking of the fudge, the motivation of laughing about it at lunch today. Yesterday I had some of it, I was expecting chocolate, not fudge. And I tasted it and it was awful because it didn’t meet my expectation. I got a little frustrated and then I went okay and then I had another one because I knew what it was and I was like, “Maybe this one will be better.” And of course it wasn’t. But then today I had some and I knew what to expect and I actually enjoyed it. I started laughing because I was thinking about the motivation you gave about expectations.

On another note, I just wanted to really thank you because I feel like I’m benefiting so much from living at the Abbey and in the community. It’s been challenging but my Dharma practice has grown tremendously. I can’t imagine ever getting to a place where I feel I’m at now, which is still, of course, not good enough. A virtuous dissatisfaction with where my practice is.

VTC: You can’t imagine it ever having gotten to the place where it’s at.

The judging mind

Audience: I can’t imagine having my own practice where I’m at such a deep place without living at the Abbey. There’s no way to do what we do here without this environment and this container, so thank you so much for that. And then the other piece was, and you touched on it today, was I noticed after last week’s teaching. I meditated on it the following morning. I started seeing where I have this irresistible urge that is resistible, but is really tingling and exciting. To use the Dharma as a telescope instead of as a mirror and to look at other people’s behavior through this looking glass of the Dharma, which I didn’t used to have just two or three years ago. And so I used my own book of ethics and what appropriate behavior was to look at people. But now I have the Dharma. I’m seeing where I replaced my book and with the lamrim and the Buddha’s teaching and how wrong that is. And I just appreciate the teachings because that’s helping me see it even more (as I throw it on the floor) even more clearly, so thank you so much.

VTC: It does help to look at other people’s lives through the eyes of the Dharma but not with judgment. That’s the key.

Audience: I continue to work on the judgment in my mind. What seems to help me work with it is that I decided that it would be impossible to transform oneself into a buddha without seeing all the others as buddhas or with the potential to be buddhas. Whenever a judgment comes up I’ll just say, “That’s a buddha,” and it’s been very helpful and my judgment’s gone down quite a bit.

VTC: Potential buddha. That’s a potential buddha. Good.

Audience: It was nice just to make the transition back into the hall today. And maybe a little bit in contrast to others, it’s like it’s not that level of depth, but it’s nice to be able to be fairly engaged in offering service and then to go back into the hall and feel like you can click in. To be there is inspiring in a sense and even working some in between sessions but it was encouraging to be able to be there and to make a determination to use this last week for reflection.

Life review of the ten nonvirtues

Audience: I’ve been using my continuing retreat to just to look at the ten nonvirtuous actions over the course of our lives and see which ones were threads that ran through long periods of time. This past week I’ve really done a life’s review of that, looking at it a little bit more with some distance and perspective. I tend, one of my basic traits is, to overestimate other people’s bad qualities and to underestimate my own, when I’m not beating myself up and being self-denigrating. I was able to look at … there were some things that came up in my life particularly when I was in my 20s and 30s: some pretty unethical, dangerous behavior; my relationship to some members of my family; some grudge holding and some hard feelings that I’ve been holding for decades. Also the unrealistic expectations around, particularly, my brother and how I wanted him to be the twin everybody said twins should be, and the fact that he never has been and may never be. And to work through how expectations of him have colored a lot of my expectations of others.

I can see that common thread of how it sets me up for a lot of resentment and disappointment and pushing on people. I really want them to be other than who they are. So that was very powerful. Last year I had that conversation with him and told him how I had been relating to him. And that I apologized and told him that I really do love him for who he is. He actually said, “You know I’m really sorry that I haven’t been the brother that I know that I really want to be, but I can’t.” So there was a real healing place for me, fessing up to the expectations, and then him also saying that even through his own heart he felt that he had fallen short in some ways. So we kind of had this meeting.

If I had done that a lot with most of the people in my life: see that those expectations just push me away from people. So I’m making a commitment to look at people more realistically and to look at myself realistically. This sickness has really put me in touch with how I set myself up and that the low level of anxiety that I’ve experienced in my life is due to these very unrealistic expectations. Even the fact, “How do I deal this sickness? When am I going to get better?” I can see the anxiety when the days start clicking away. And, “You’re not better yet, you’re not better yet.” And this anxiety starts to grow. It’s like, “What’s this about? You don’t have any determination. You’re doing the best you can, just drop it.” The anxiety’s not helping me to heal this process, but how I set those things up in my own mind. It’s been very helpful to just have to sit and lay in bed and just watch it. Watch the distraction, watch the expectation, watch the anxiety, and then go through the emptiness meditation and the meditation on compassion. It’s been very fruitful, incredibly fruitful. This has been just a very remarkable month. And there’s more to come.

Working with bad moods

VTC: What does everybody think? Why does she stay in a bad mood?

Audience: It’s natural.

Audience: It’s not natural, it’s habit.

Audience: It’s grasping at ideas. Making ideas fixed. Like, okay, it’s retreat so nobody should talk and maybe a few people talking and (growls) Venerable’s in retreat so nobody goes to Venerable (more growling). It’s simple grasping at fixed ideas, making ideas fixed.

Audience: For me, I find I’m enjoying, not really, but it’s seems like I enjoy being that when I’m in it. That there’s some comfort and familiarity, and so I hang out there far longer than I need to.

Audience: The part that I get sometimes concerned about is that for whatever reason you find yourself in these places and I can almost sense how hard you are on yourself by the fact that you are there. And it’s even more painful to see the suffering of what you do to yourself when you find yourself in that place rather than being in that place itself.

Audience: I find my self just weeping sometimes. It’s crazy.

Audience: There’s something about you, you just terrorize yourself when you fall into these places and I think that’s what keeps you there longer than. I just worry about you and I wanted to share what I hadn’t before.

Audience: My practice is much better than it’s been in a year or more. Actually better than my whole life because I’m learning how to do things that I could never do before. For the last longest time I feel like I’ve been seeing things and I could work with them and I still fall in these holes. But I have to say all in all I feel like I’m finally learning how to use the Dharma to work with my mind; whereas before, I mean, I don’t know, there are certain things that don’t come easy. But the things that have been hard for me the last year I’ve learned how to work with better. I was listening to Bhikku Bodhi and he was like, I have figured this out just by trial and error and a little bit of reading. But he just laid it out straight about working with doubt, and how you do it and it’s like, “Wow!” This is what I finally kind of came to and he just explained it, these two kinds of doubt. And I feel like the tools are being developed now. That’s why I can get so … I get so pissed off basically when I sabotage it by just giving in to this.

I guess there’s a part of me when it gets happy it’s gotten so shot down to the earth, because it’s the kind of happiness that I had when I was a kid, too. Like the day it was my birthday and I was really happy about something and my dad clobbered me with a board because I’m not supposed to be doing … acting like that. And it’s the same kind of feeling, a certain kind of like bouncy excitement that doesn’t fit, you know. I went through this long period of living here which really I think it’s some kind of discouragement that I haven’t really had for the same length before in my life. But there was a part of it that functioned to make my mind more sober which was useful.

I pull myself way, way too much inside because I’m having anger. Where as what I want to be is just like peaceful. Like the whole thing about attachment to friends, I kind of decided that because my family was so chaotic that for me one of my biggest attachments besides I think, was friends. Because I didn’t have like a family that was very … supportive was not something that I learned in my home. I learned that in my friendships and later in life. And so now this thing of being attached with friends is something I work with on a daily basis now, trying to not hang onto that place. But I don’t have it yet. It still goes to anger and just you know closing doors rather than just creating virtue and seeing the kindness of other people. But I’m working … I feel like I’m kind of working at the right place.

Audience: I know that there are things that you’re understanding about yourself. I can see that the level of your practice and it’s transformed so much of what was hidden from you previously. But what I pick up sometimes is perhaps just like when you’re saying this is really dumb it’s really impatience with yourself that … and I know it all too well. And that’s probably why I’m honing in on it a little bit is that you’re finding the things that you need to work with and working with them that you … I sense sometimes your impatience with life, “Alright already!” and that’s the part.

Audience: What to you do with that?

VTC: Yes, you have to be very accepting with yourself and very kind and compassionate to yourself. Instead of you know, “I’m so stupid because I’m hanging onto this anger.”

Audience: I realized I have never really had this modeled too much.

VTC: You never what?

Audience: I have not had this modeled very much. People saying to me: “Gentle, do this and do that.” I tend to learn a lot of things by watching people and then not necessarily judging so much but just watching and realizing, “Hey, I want to do that and I don’t want to do that.” It’s just been working it out for myself, but I don’t have a lot of good modeling for this.

Audience: You have a gentleness inside.

Audience: Yes, I do. I mean I’m quite aware of that, but I don’t know how to access it sometimes when I need it I guess. It’s really is so harsh sometimes. I am so aware sometimes. Like I’ll be in this certain, you know, crappy kind of mood. What’s been good about this retreat is I’ve actually found a method … I mean I’m like starting to turn into Lama Zopa in the sense of spending lots of time on motivation at the beginning of the sadhana. This has been really good for me. I kind of need to hit it from a lot of different angles and one of them is, I’ve realized from this experimentation, is trying to flavor my mind with something positive. And there are so many ways you can do that. There are so many choices of what you can take that are virtuous and just try flavor. But when I’m in a really crappy mood and I’m putting myself through these same paces, it’s really hard to find it. I just know that I just need to do that but it’s like I can’t find them, because I usually try do this kind of spontaneously. “What is it I want to flavor this meditation with?” you know, it’s really quite joyful because is it like okay, this one’s going be this one and this one will to be that one and you just try to hold it as the thing you come back to. And it’s been really quite inspiring and good but then I have to have a different mode if I can’t access.

Audience: The step with that is, at least what I did was just name it. Just name what’s going on like, “I am so pissed off.” Because then you have somebody acknowledging and witnessing and then you’re not alone. Because when I had that mind, when I would stay in that place, I felt so separate. Do you feel separate?

Audience: Oh yes, and that’s what drives me crazy about it. I separate myself.

Audience: So, name it. Then you accept it. Then you’ve got to turn it.

Audience: What do you call it?

Audience: “I’m pissed off. I’m in a lousy mood. I don’t even know why.” You just start finding the words.

Audience: Like a third party.

Audience: Yes, you just find the words. It doesn’t matter what it …. And in this place who’s going to judge that? Nobody. It’s like, “Oh,” you can see … at least feel it anyhow. Like I knew all day today there was this thing. I didn’t have any idea what it was but I knew. It was like you say, suffering so. You could just even put a note on it when we were in silence.

Audience: Watch out.

Audience: Just that. That will bring people to you

Audience: That would be 180 degrees from what I want to do, so it probably is what I need to do.

Audience: Smile, smile, smile. What do you mean smile, I’m this angry child.

Audience: I spent my whole life doing what I want to do and it didn’t happen.

Audience: I think that transparency helps.

VTC: Yes. When you talked about not having models, you know, Manju [one of the Abbey cats] wherever he is, I thought Manju, after he had his leg amputated that was that was so strong in me because the way he modeled it. I’ve never seen a human being do it. I mean he was in misery and he didn’t know what happened to him and it hurt and you could tell he felt insecure. He just you got up and hobbled around and he curled in my lap a lot. He just got up and went up and down the stairs and did things. And you know and he just really struck me because any human who lost their leg would go, “Oh, I lost my leg and I am damaged. Nobody’s going to love me. I don’t love myself. I’m useless. What’s going to happen in my life? I lost my job, I can’t make a living. Everybody’s going to hate me. I’m so ugly.” Manju didn’t do any of that to himself, he just went, “Oh, it’s different. Okay, let’s find another way to get up and down the stairs.” And then he did it.

Audience: Thank goodness for his tail.

Audience: I noticed that when I’m in a crappy mood … when something is with me a lot, not in the moment usually, but afterward when I have a little bit more stable mind I spend a lot of time thinking about the positive aspect of having those afflictions in that I’m going to learn to deal with those afflictions very well. I don’t tend to be very angry. Most likely you’re going to be better equipped to deal with anger than I am. I tend to be very lazy and so I might be very equipped to deal with laziness more than you. At some point anger is going to come up in me, and at some point laziness is going to come up with you. Sometimes I look at other people and they’re dealing with some really, you know, something very difficult and I think like, “Hey, they’re going to learn to deal with that really well and one day that’s going to be very helpful.” I just try to think of a situation. Someday they might have to deal with someone who’s really, really aggressive and right now they’re dealing with all this anger and they’re going to learn to deal with that. They’re going to approach the situation and really be able to shine through it in a way that I probably won’t. So now almost I hope that I have the opportunity to have those things come up so that I can really learn to deal with that also, and that in the moment with that sort of affliction that I will have a calm mind. I try to think of a reason.

Audience: I reach that kind of aspiration sometimes. Like aspirations to overcome at some point.

Audience: And that’s where the Dharma becomes so enlivened in us, because we’re talking and we talk to anybody about it and it’s totally from our direct experience, and it just overpowers us.

Audience: My inclination is to just go into the retreat cabin and do retreat so I don’t have to deal with any of this. I don’t think that’s the solution. I think about … I would like to be able to get to a place where I don’t feel judged, you know.

Audience: How would you get to that place?

Audience: To not feeling judged? Well actually when my mind gets clearer I can just realize that it’s all completely fabricated. Like every thing that’s going on I’m just fabricating. That’s how I feel about it. I can’t do this its because just a fabrication. It’s your own thinking that you’re reacting to. Everything else that you’re seeing outside of you … it’s like you’ve just colored it.

Audience: There’s something wonderful about asking a person if they’re judging you and they say no or whatever they say. It’s very helpful.

Audience: I know for me it’s finding somebody that I feel doesn’t judge me. The reason why I think the community has helped me so much is actually because I can talk to Venerable and I never, ever, ever feel judged. I can say anything and everything, no matter what. There’s an assessment of where I am in my mind or anything but me as a person isn’t defined by any of that no matter what. I’ve noticed after I’ve talked about something that’s very important or intense whatever it was that was like inside, my secret or something that I want to defend. It doesn’t matter any more and I don’t mind telling you and it’s a non-issue to talk about it with somebody. It’s like, “Well so what? She didn’t judge me so ….”

Audience: It’s very important too, and this is a propensity of mine, is that I’m assuming people are judging me when in fact I’m responding to my own thoughts and saying that people are judging me.

Audience: That’s one of the qualities in this community and someone has said this to me when I was struggling with my emotions. They said, “Always remember, there are no enemies here, everyone in this community, remember that there’s not one enemy in this community.” And that just opens up because a lot of this projection is from my side. When I’m in a crappy mood and I’m upset there isn’t an unkind heart in this room. And it’s as you said, its all fabrication. How do you know where the judgments come from? What’s your basis of information? You don’t actually approach somebody and say, “I’m picking up something and can we talk?” So I know my own side, but I make up a lot of what I think are qualities of people that don’t exist, they’re coming from my own mind because of where I am. I know that’s something that I have to be careful about when I struggle with my emotions, is what I make people out to be.

Audience: When you stand away from it you can see the crazy thinking, but when you’re in the middle of your stuff, it’s so real.

Audience: I’m just coming out of this intense week of actually crashing in on myself, and if I for a second put up a note that said, “I’m feeling unloved and I hate myself. I think I should leave because I don’t deserve to be here.” Do I think the whole world would have come to my aid? Well, I didn’t then, but now I do. So maybe we should just put up notes.

Audience: It’s not a bad idea.

Audience: Also, in answer to your question, is that every one is at different levels. I mean, that’s the beauty of community. Not that anyone is better than anybody else, it’s just that we’re at different levels. So what you can do I can’t, but I can learn from you. Maybe what I can do, you can’t. You can learn from me. And that’s true of all of us here.

Audience: Venerable gave me an assignment yesterday of something that I could do and am going to do. In the next few days when I’m in retreat … is to make an effigy of the screaming self-centered person that I’m hating so much when I’m in that space, and put it in the dining room so everybody can see it. And I’m quite excited to do this, so if you’re up for making and effigy we could do it together

VTC: Because I’ve done this, in this one practice I do where you imagine making offerings to spirits. And I would take these parts of myself and imagine them like what they would look like if they were living beings. And then make offerings to them. And it was so much fun and it was extremely helpful.

Audience: Yes, I’m very excited.

VTC: I had little Miss Self Pity. Oh, she was so cute she put this little lacey hat on her like these old fashioned things. She had that. And because I have this tendency to self pity and so, her little pink carnations and she was kind of the shape of a blob because she couldn’t do anything for herself. Good looking. We were really getting into it. It was really lots of fun

Audience: So did you draw it?

VTC: No, I can visualize it in my mind. And then there’s this practice you do where you imagine offering your body to the spirits. So she was one of the spirits. So I changed my body into blissful wisdom nectar and then gave it to her and it satisfied all of her needs. And then there was the ferocious angry monster who looked quite a bit different, who had fire and you know … (snarls) noisy and everything.

Audience: Is that connected to Chod practice? Like feeding demons?

VTC: It’s kind of like that, it wasn’t ….

Audience: It’s not that technically.

VTC: Yes, it’s kind of that same idea.

Audience: It’s still that thing of naming, naming and witnessing, either internally or externally.

VTC: But to me especially visualizing it, it made me able to also laugh at it. Because I mean like Little Miss Self Pity I just really embellished her. Yes and it was great.

Audience: They are caricatures.

VTC: Yes, they are very much.

Audience: The fact that they’re no longer you, when we hold them they’re us. Like when I’m in a bad mood that’s me! So there’s no space to deal with it.

Audience: There’s a therapy technique called narrative therapy where you actually do that. And you have the person … like somebody is always the responsible one. So you have them think about that they move where they usually sit and now the responsible one is there and I ask responsible one questions. They answer but I’m directing my attention to the empty chair, “When did you come onto the scene? How do you help her?” All these things. And it transforms that part because you can get some distance from it, and you can see where it came from. It always comes from when you were a kid. You didn’t get what you needed, or you had to hold a lot, or whatever. And so it just is very helpful, you can let go of it then. You’re not a slave/master anymore.

Audience: What’s interesting is when you first said what your experience has been the last week, any frustration, any icy heartedness that I had towards you melted.

VTC: No, but, it’s very true because when somebody says it and owns it, then we can’t have anything against them. Because we all know what it feels like.

Audience: We’ve all done it.

Audience: It’s that elephant in the room that we all try to deny and as soon as you acknowledge it then it’s like, “Oh yes, there it is. So what’s the problem.”

Audience: And you know in Ken McCloud’s book Wake Up To Your Mind, one of the things he talks about is just exactly what you said so well there. Is what we don’t know about ourselves and don’t manage ourselves, that’s what other people experience. They’re experiencing it because we’re not. And the minute we get it, know it, it just goes. Then they’re not going to be so moved around by it or whatever. But it’s the places we don’t know, so we don’t know them. Our shadow, we don’t know its size.

Audience: Yes, I think the challenge and the beauty of being here is that all the other ways, at least for me, is all the ways I’ve managed it are gone. I’ve just run out of running space. They’re gone and it’s not very pretty but, you know.

Audience: It’s necessary.

Audience: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary, it’s absolutely necessary. The other piece for me, it’s really making me think is, “What can I bring to create a loving environment where I or anybody who’s in this kind of space can really feel safe? Because I know that’s our intention, is to create a safe place so we can all do what we have to do and be helped. So even articulating that as stating the intention helps.

Audience: Well, it’s also different being in the retreat kind of space. I think our community meetings offer that. So when we’re retreating, we’re in a different kind of a mode with each other and there’s not the same kind of avenue. In a really good way, I think we do a really good job in processing that. I think we’ve all come here with that sense of trying really to put it out there. Or a least test the waters and try it. So in some ways I mean for me it’s a testimony to how that works. And retreat is a different mode: and how we do that, how we handle, and what I can hold in that space and being more quiet where I need to go and take it to somebody in whatever way I want to go. And I think about it a little bit longer than I might outside of it. It’s just a little different dynamic, my experience in retreat time.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.