January 5, 2015

How Ego-Fixation Creates the World we Experience. ~ Frank Berliner

Frank Berliner

We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis


Chapter 25.

Painful Hallucinations of Your Daily Life

In the teaching on the development of ego-fixation through the Five Skandhas, you saw how the repetitive process of projection works, and how it fools you into believing that you really exist in some solid, enduring way.

This mistaken belief requires constant reinforcement. It requires a world that keeps giving you messages of solidity, as if you are looking at your reflection in a mirror to make sure you’re still there. The reflection is vivid, colorful, and convincing. It feels like home; it feels like “me.” You have created a psychological realm that you can live in, and maintaining it is now your full-time occupation.

The Buddha taught that there are six of these realms, and that each of them comes into existence through the power of a particular emotion, or klesha, which you inevitably experience as painful.

The Emotions that Torture You

My teacher once said that your emotions are really just thoughts with a lot of energy inside them. The thoughts here are ongoing dualistic projects that ask the questions:

“How am I relating to this situation?”

“How might I be hurt by this situation?”

“How might I gain from this situation?”

These are your storylines, your personal soap operas. Kleshas are constantly fueled by this compulsive relationship that “I” have with all my experiences. You use them to protect this sense of “me,” to keep it in business day and night. Because you are completely identified with the storyline “What about me?” you are unable to work skillfully with the energy that drives it.

When the energy of a klesha becomes so powerful and so habitual that it affects your whole way of relating to your life and generates the ongoing environment for all your dealings with the world, it becomes a realm. It is like a play you are wholeheartedly acting in without ever remembering it is merely a play. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, these negative emotions and the realms they create are described in two ways: as literal and as psychological.

The psychological understanding of the realms is probably more accessible (and acceptable) to us in the modern Western world. Psychologically, the realms are states of emotional fixation that you cycle in and out of constantly.

What this means is that, though you have literally taken birth as a human being, at the same time you have the potential to become subject to the kleshas of all the other realms. As a result, you can create worlds within your human life that have many of the characteristics of the other five realms.

It’s useful to think of these realms as the styles with which you interior-decorate your cocoon, where you live inside a world you built from your projections. Whether living there is painful or pleasurable, you find it preferable to the process of shedding your emotional armor and coming out into the open space of warriorship.

How Ego-Fixation Creates the World You Experience

The six realms are closely linked to the five skandhas, and as a result also have three basic energetic styles:

1. You can draw your projections toward you because of your attraction to them.

2. You can push them away because of your aversion to them.

3. You can ignore them altogether because of your lack of interest in them.

Passion, aggression, and ignorance are also called the three poisons, because they are toxic to your basic sanity and your ultimate happiness.

In the development of the five skandhas, it is in the second and third skandhas of Feeling and Perception/Impulse that this toxic relationship begins to take root. You have developed a primitive relationship with the fundamentaldualistic projection you created originally in the first skandha of Ignorance/Form. Next you perceive it as friend, enemy, or neutral—and after that you either draw it in, push it away or ignore it completely.

It is on this primitive foundation that you build the realms. The underlying bias and territoriality of the second and third skandhas is reinforced by the fourth and fifth skandha’s logical categories and persuasive storylines.

The realms themselves occur at the level of the fourth and fifth skandhas—Concept and Consciousness. This is the conscious level where the game of ego-fixation has become more precise, more articulated, and more visible. It is this level that is most accessible to you in meditation practice, because it is the level at which you can most clearly hear yourself endlessly repeating the story of your life and your personal world, and telling yourself why it has to be the way it is.

Varieties of Experience and the Nature of Projection

While reading the descriptions of these realms in the next chapter, it is important to keep in mind that from a psychological perspective, the realms are states of fixation that all human beings experience at one time or another. You cycle in and out of these states all the time, but tend to be more drawn to one than the others based on your karmic inheritance and habitual patterns. Altogether, the six realms create a psychological environment that pervades your waking life, not to mention your dreams. In fact, you can relate to any theme or issue in your life from within the perspective of one of the six realm mentalities.

Traditional Tibetan teachings express this insight by using an analogy of water. A being in each of the six realms experiences water in a unique way. For humans, water is something to drink that satisfies thirst. For hungry ghosts, water is something to drink that never satisfies anything. For fish (an animal) water is something to live in, for jealous gods it is something precious to keep others from having, and for gods it is transcendent nectar to derive pleasure from. For hell beings, water is experienced agonizingly as molten iron. This teaching is a potent reminder that rather than being a solid thing “out there,” the phenomenal world is made out of your projections.

Because the realms depend entirely on projections of a certain kind to create the level of fixation through which they can maintain themselves, they are shifty. Interestingly, this shifty play of perception is a further demonstration of the Buddha’s teaching on egolessness. Your inner world and its reflection in the world outside just don’t exist as solid separate entities—they are purely the product of the mind’s projections.

The Emotional Realms in Relationship

You can enter into different realms depending upon whom you are hanging out with or what social environment you are relating to—a further demonstration of the egoless aspect of experience. No doubt you are familiar with the experience of feeling like a slightly different person in varying scenarios and company. Because ego-fixation doesn’t exist as a solid, continuous thing, the mind is free to shift in and out of projections of different kinds, and these projections tend to be reinforced by the projections that are coming back from “the other out there.” This dance of relationship, also known as “interconnectedness” is the fundamental experience you continually have. In this sense, you mutually create the realms with others.

Mind can be fixated, yet fickle at the same time. As soon as you leave a particular psychological environment, your mind may be freed from the mentality you were so caught up in.

From the point of view of practice, such experiences can serve as reminders that, although you may have temporarily escaped the intense power of an environment that activated a particular “torturous emotion” in you, the seeds for that painful distortion are still present in your mind. They can only be fully uprooted by the gradual, gentle application of warrior practice.

The Literal Existence of the Realms

Many Tibetan masters describe these realms in a very matter-of-fact way as actual places. They teach that, as human beings, most of us can see only the inhabitants of the human and animal realms. We can’t see the others, they add, because of karmic limitations on our vision, but there are also beings that literally inhabit the realms of hell, hungry ghosts, gods, and jealous gods.

My own teacher taught this material to Western students from a purely psychological perspective because he understood that this was the way we could relate to the subject. But if you pressed him about it, he would sometimes describe his own perception of beings in these realms as literal manifestations. He would do this with the same matter-of-factness that you might use to describe the last time you caught sight of your next-door neighbor. So while their literal existence may be a matter of belief—or disbelief—for us, Tibetan masters seem to experience them with direct perception.

This ability to perceive beings in other realms directly is said to be one of the accomplishments of the profound realization of vipasyana. Time and again, in the presence of my teachers—especially Chogyam Trungpa—I was made aware, gently but shockingly, of the karmic limitations of my own vision of reality.


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Frank Berliner

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