Basic Anxiety Is Happening All the Time, by Chogyam Trungpa
This is an excerpt from the first book in the Root Text Project, The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation.
We are born as human beings, as we are quite aware, and we have to maintain ourselves and keep up our humanness. We do this by breathing, so that our body has the proper circulation and pulsations it needs to survive. We do it by eating food as fuel and by wearing clothes to protect ourselves from the weather. (Originally, people started wearing clothes because of the cold, but later on, human beings became more complicated. They became shy, and started wearing clothes throughout the year.) But we can’t maintain ourselves in those ways alone, just by eating, wearing clothes, and sleeping so that we can wake up with the daylight and collect more food to eat. There is something else happening beyond that level: emotionally, we feel that we need to accept and reject.
Sometimes we feel very lonely, and sometimes we feel claustrophobic. When we feel lonely, we seek out partners, friends, and lovers. But when we have too many, we become claustrophobic and reject some of them. Sometimes we feel good. Everything has developed ideally for us. We have companionship; we have clothing to keep ourselves warm; we have food in our stomach; we have enough liquid to drink to keep from being thirsty. We feel satisfied. But any one of those satisfactions can subside. We might have companionship but not a good meal; we might have a good meal but no companionship. Sometimes we have good food, but we are thirsty. Sometimes we are happy about one thing but unhappy about other things. It is very hard to keep together the myriad things that go on and on, up and down. It is very hard. It turns out to be quite a handful, quite a project, for us to keep everything at the ideal level. It is almost impossible to maintain an even sense of happiness.
Even though some of our requirements might be achieved, we still feel anxiety. We think, “At this point my stomach is full of food, but where am I going to get my next meal when my stomach is empty and I’m hungry? At this point, I’m all right, but the next time I become thirsty, where am I going to get a drop of water? Right now, I’m fully clothed and I feel comfortable, but just in case it gets hot or cold, what will I do? I’m completely well equipped with companions now, but in case they don’t keep me company, where will I find more companionship? What if the person who is presently keeping company with me decides to leave me?”
There are all sorts of jigsaw puzzles in life, and the pieces do not perfectly meet. Even if they did meet—which is highly improbable, one chance in a million or less—you would still be anxious, thinking, “Supposing something goes wrong, then what?” So when you are at your best and you feel good about things, you are even more anxious, because you may not have continuity. And often, you feel cheated by your life, because you do not have the facility to synchronize thousands of things at once. So there is natural, automatic pain and suffering. It is not like the pain of a headache or the pain you feel when somebody hits you in the ribs—it is anxiousness, which is a very haunting situation.
People might say, “I have everything sorted out, and I’m quite happy the way I am. I don’t have to look for something to make myself more comfortable.” Nonetheless, people are always anxiety-ridden. Apart from simply functioning, the way we gaze at the wall or the mountains or the sky, the way we scratch, the way we timidly smile, the way we twitch our faces, the way we move unnecessarily—the way we do everything—is a sign of anxiousness. The conclusion is that everybody is neurotic, that neurosis creates discomfort and anxiety, and that basic anxiety is happening all the time.
In order to rectify that basic anxiousness, we create heavy-handed situations. We come up with intense aggression; we come up with intense passion; we come up with intense pride. We come up with what are known as the kleshas—conflicting or confused emotions—which entertain our basic anxiety and exaggerate it altogether. We do all sorts of things because of that basic anxiety, and because of that, we begin to find ourselves in more trouble and more pain. As the afterthought of expressing our aggression and lust, we find ourselves feeling bad; and not only do we feel bad, but we feel more anxious. That pattern happens all the time. We are in a state of anxiety, and each time we try to make ourselves feel better, we feel worse. We might feel better at the time, if we strike out with our particular flair or style; but then there is a tremendous letdown and tremendous pain. We feel funny about it; in fact, we feel wretched. Not only that, but we make other people feel wretched as well. We can’t just practice passion, aggression, and ignorance on ourselves alone; we do it to somebody else as well, and someone always gets hurt. So, instead of just having our own anxiety, we produce a further state of anxiety in others. We generate their anxiety, and they also generate it themselves; and we end up with what is known as “the vicious circle of samsara.” Everybody is constantly making everybody else feel bad.
We have been participating in this tremendous project, this constant mishap, this terribly bad mistake, for a long time—and we are still doing it. In spite of the consequences, in spite of the messages that come back to us, we still do it. Sometimes we do it with a straight face, as if nothing had happened. With tremendous deception, we create samsara—pain and misery for the whole world, including ourselves—but we still come off as if we were innocent. We call ourselves ladies and gentlemen, and we say, “I never commit any sins or create any problems. I’m just a regular old person, blah blah blah.” That snowballing of deception and the type of existence our deception creates are shocking.
You might ask, “If everybody is involved with that particular scheme or project, then who sees the problem at all? Couldn’t everybody just join in so that we don’t have to see each other that way? Then we could just appreciate ourselves and our snowballing neuroses, and there would be no reference point whatsoever outside of that.” Fortunately—or maybe unfortunately—we have one person who saw that there was a problem. That person was known as Buddha. He saw that there was a problem, he worked on it, and he got beyond it. He saw that the problem could be reduced—and not just reduced, but completely annihilated, because he discovered how to prevent the problem right at the source. Right at the beginning, cessation is possible.
Cessation is possible not only for the Buddha, but for us as well. We are trying to follow his path, his approach. In the twenty-six hundred years since the time of the Buddha, millions of people have followed his example, and they have been quite successful at what they were doing: they managed to become like him. The Buddha’s teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, so that right now, right here, we have that information and experience. We can practice the path of meditation in the same way and style as the Buddha and our lineage ancestors. We have the transmission of the way to practice in order to overcome anxiety, deception, and neurosis. We have it and we can do it.
The First Noble Truth: The Truth of Suffering
The hinayana is very practical, very pragmatic. It begins with the truth of suffering: we all suffer. We rediscover that suffering or anxiety again and again. During sitting practice, that anxiety might take the form of wanting to slip into a higher level of practice, using meditation as a kind of transcendental chewing gum. During daily life, you might find that samsaric misery in your neighborhood and in your immediate surroundings; it may be connected with your relatives, your best friends, your job, or your world. Wherever you look, anxiety is always there. Your personal anxiety is what stops you from cleaning your dishes; it is what stops you from folding your shirts properly or combing your hair. Anxiety prevents you from having a decent life altogether: you are distracted by it and constantly hassled. Whether those hassles are sociological, scientific, domestic, or economic, such anxiety is very painful and always present.
Every day seems to be different; nonetheless, every day seems to be exactly the same in terms of anxiety. Basic anxiety is taking place in your everyday life all the time. When you wake up and look around, you might think of coffee or food or taking a shower; but the minute you have had your coffee or your breakfast, you realize that the anxiety is still there. In fact, anxiety is always there, hovering and haunting you throughout your life. Even though you might be extremely successful, or so-called successful, at whatever your endeavors might be, you are always anxious about something or other. You can’t actually put your finger on it, but it is always there.
Seeing our pain as it is, is a tremendous help. Ordinarily, we are so wrapped up in it that we don’t even see it. We are swimming in oceans of ice water of anxiety, and we don’t even see that we are suffering. That is the most fundamental stupidity. Buddhists have realized that we are suffering, that anxiety is taking place. We have understood that anxiety does exist; and because of that, we also begin to realize the possibility of salvation or deliverance from that particular pain and anxiety.
According to the hinayana teachings, you have to be very practical: you are going to do something about suffering. On a very personal level, you are going to do something about it. To begin with, you could give up your scheme of what you ideally want in your life. Pleasure, enjoyment, happiness—you could give up those possibilities altogether. In turn, you could try to be kind to others, or at least stop inconveniencing others. Your existence might cause pain to somebody—you could try to stop causing that pain. As for yourself, if you find your anxiety and your desire comfortable, you could make sure that you question that perspective. In doing so, there is room for humor. As you begin to see the kind of communication that goes on between pain and pleasure, you begin to laugh. If you have too much pleasure, you can’t laugh; if you have too much pain, you can’t laugh; but when you are on the threshold of both pain and pleasure, you laugh. It is like striking a match.
The main point of the first noble truth is to realize that you do have such anxiousness in your being. You might be a great scholar and know the Buddhist path from top to bottom, including all the terminology—but you yourself are still suffering. You still experience basic anxiety. Look into that! At this point, we are not talking about an antidote or how to overcome that anxiety—the first thing is just to see that you are anxious. On the one hand, this is like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, as the British say, or like teaching a bird how to fly; on the other hand, you really have to understand samsara. You are in samsara and you actually have to realize that.
Before you have been taught about samsara, you have no idea where you are; you are so absorbed in it that there is no reference point. Now that we are providing a reference point, look at what you are doing. Look at where you are and what you are in the midst of. That is a very important message. It is the beginning of the best enlightened message that could ever come about. At the level of vajrayana we might talk about the nonduality of samsara and nirvana, or fundamental wakefulness, or the flash of instantaneous liberation—but whatever we might talk about is concentrated in this very, very ordinary message: you have to review where you are. It might be a somewhat depressing prospect to realize that you are so thoroughly soaked in this greasy, heavy, dark, and unpleasant thing called samsara, but that realization is tremendously helpful. That understanding alone is the source of realizing what we call buddha in the palm of your hand—the basic wakefulness already in your possession. Such vajrayana possibilities begin at this point, right here, in realizing your samsaric anxiousness. Understanding that anxiety, which is very frustrating and not so good, is the key to realizing where you are.
The Second Noble Truth: The Origin of Suffering
The origin of suffering, künjung, is based on the belief in eternity. That belief in eternity marks the difference between theism and nontheism. Out of the belief in eternity comes the hope of maintaining oneself, of continuing to be, and the search for longevity of the self, or ego. Along with that comes a fear of death. We look for all sorts of alternatives, for some way to occupy ourselves. We keep groping around in order to survive. That groping process is connected with the development of the kleshas. We begin to look outward from ourselves to others, out into the world, and grasp at the world as a way of maintaining ourselves. We use the world as a crutch. That process leads to suffering, as a result, because the various ways we try to maintain ourselves do not actually help to maintain us—in fact, they hinder us—so our scheme begins to break down. The more it breaks down, the more we have to rebuild; and as that rebuilding takes place, the suffering returns, so again and again we go back to rebuilding. It is a vicious cycle. The process of samsara goes on and on. We have to understand its workings, for once we know how samsara operates, we will know how to work with it. We will know what to overcome and what to cultivate.
The path or journey becomes important because it breaks down fixation—holding on to oneself and holding on to others—which could be said to be the origin of suffering. There are two types of künjung: the künjung of kleshas and the künjung of karma. The kleshas are one’s state of being, one’s state of mind. Kleshas such as passion, aggression, arrogance, and ignorance are all internal situations; they are purely mental events. The künjung of karma is acting upon others as a result of such kleshas. Both types of künjung could be considered karmic; however, the second type of künjung is much more karmic because it involves making decisions, dealing with others, and actually doing something with the phenomenal world.
The künjung of kleshas could be said to be an embryonic expression of the künjung of karma. As an example, if something pops into your mind as you are meditating and you recognize it immediately, it does not have the same karmic weight as if you had acted upon it. Once you see through it, it is just a game rather than a serious plan that you have; whereas, if you write it down in your little notebook so you can remember to call your friend and tell her about it, you have already planted a karmic seed. Simply perceiving it through your mind and seeing the futility of it, realizing it is just a game, is the saving grace. That seems to be the point of the practice of meditation.
The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering
The cessation of suffering is connected with the fourth noble truth, which is the path, or lam in Tibetan. Cessation and the path work together: when there is a path, cessation automatically dawns; and when there is cessation, that allows you to follow the path. The path consists of following the example of the Buddha through the practice of meditation, through mindfulness and awareness. That practice is one of the merits of the hinayana discipline.
The reason the hinayana is known as the “lesser vehicle” is because it is straight and narrow. There isn’t much room to improvise. Since there is no improvisation, we can develop what is known as individual salvation. Individual salvation is not a selfish goal; it is self-discipline, straight and simple. It is simple in the sense that there is not much to do other than just fully being there. The path of meditation leads to shinjang, being thoroughly processed or trained, which is the result or achievement of shamatha-vipashyana meditation. Although you may not have experienced the final development yet, it is no big secret that there is a final development. You can’t pretend that the Buddha didn’t exist and still talk about his teachings, because he actually did it—he achieved enlightenment. We can’t keep that a secret. In the meantime, however, you could regard any sense of promise that comes into your mind, any hope that comes up, as another thought. If there is a strong desire to achieve a result, that will push you back. You could relate to hope as respect for the dharma, or the truth, rather than a promise. It is like a school child seeing a professor: one day she too might become a professor, but she still has to do her homework. Similarly, particularly in the hinayana, there is a journey going on all the time.
Shinjang happens in stages. It begins with the achievement of clarity. This level is like seeing one glimpse of what it would be like if you had that glimpse constantly. In order to achieve permanent cessation, you have to continue with the practice. So first you have a glimpse, which is like the appetizer; then that appetizer makes you hungrier. You want to have a big meal; therefore, you are willing to wait, maybe hours and hours, for the big meal to come.
When you develop shinjang, the sense of turmoil and misery subsides. Therefore, both physically and mentally, there is a feeling of comfort. Comfort does not mean euphoria, but the sense that things are soothing because you have simplified your life. Simplicity brings tremendous relief. Nonetheless, you don’t look for final results and you do not become goal-oriented; you just keep on practicing. Having practiced enough, achievement comes naturally. If you are constantly trying to achieve cessation, it is a problem—you will not achieve it in that way. Whenever you take an ego-oriented approach, you become allergic to yourself. There is no other way but to step out of that. So attaining individual salvation does not come from seeking salvation—salvation simply dawns.
Cessation and salvation come to you as you become a reasonable person. You become reasonable and meticulous because you cease to be sloppy and careless. Therefore, there is a sense of relief. Meticulousness is exemplified by oryoki practice, a formal style of serving and eating food that has its origins in Zen Buddhism. In this practice you are aware of everything that is being done, every move. At the same time, you are not uptight, for once you become self-conscious, you begin to forget the oryoki procedures. This logic also applies to keeping your room tidy, taking care of your clothing, taking care of your lifestyle altogether. Being meticulous is not based on fear; it is based on natural mindfulness.
As a final achievement, if you lose your mindfulness, a reminder comes back to you directly in the process of acting sloppy. Such reminders are a result of first having tremendous discipline. Because you have been with your practice constantly, reminders come up. If you have spent time with a friend, someone whom you love very much, and that friend goes away, each time you think of your friend, you develop more affection for him or her. In the same way, if you are at the more advanced level of shinjang, whenever sloppiness happens, that sloppiness itself automatically reminds you and brings you back. So a natural system of checks and balances begins to take place. In that way, you become like the Buddha. Every little detail of your life has meaning. There is a natural and dignified way to eat food and a natural and dignified way to relate with anything else that occurs in your life. Instead of your life being a situation of suffering, it becomes soothing. That is why shamatha is known as the development of peace. Peace does not mean pleasure seeking, but harmony. You don’t create chaos for yourself or for others, and you start by first working with yourself.
Traditionally, there are four ways of taking care of your body and developing wholesomeness. The first way is relating properly to food. As in oryoki practice, you don’t consume large amounts of food, nor do you eat too little. Rather, you eat enough to leave some room in your stomach. The second way is relating properly to sleep or rest. You don’t push yourself constantly, but you learn how to rest. Resting in this way is different from resting in the ordinary sense, where you are sometimes still working hard.
The third way is taking care of details, which means physically taking care of yourself: taking care of your body, taking care of your clothing, taking care of your environment. How you move physically, how you handle things, is more important than simply how you appear. Beyond mere appearance, there is a quality of meticulousness. The fourth way is meditation: without that reference point, there would be no real relief or wholesomeness. So food, sleep, taking care of your well-being, and meditation are the four ways to develop wholesomeness; and such wholesomeness leads you to develop the state of individual salvation. That is why it is said that the dharma is good at the beginning, good in the middle, and good at the end.
In working with yourself, you start with the outer form; then that outer form brings an inner feeling; and finally that inner feeling brings a deeper sense of freedom. So it is a threefold process. This same process could apply to anything you do. In the beginning, it is mostly a big hassle; in the middle, it is sometimes a hassle and sometimes it is natural; then finally it becomes natural. With sitting practice as well: first it is a struggle; at some stage it is both a struggle and a relief; and finally, it is very easy. It’s like putting on a new ring: for the first few days it feels like it is in the way; but eventually it becomes a part of your hand. It is that kind of logic.
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Truth of the Path
From the practitioner’s point of view, there’s an interesting link between the first noble truth and the last noble truth: the first noble truth could be described as the ground on which the fourth noble truth is founded. That is, the realization of suffering brings an understanding and discovery of the path. The problem with the word path is that we automatically think that the road has been built and the highway is open so that we can drive nonstop. There’s a possibility of taking too much comfort in having a path, thinking that since the path has already been laid down, you do not have to choose which path to take—there’s simply the path. That attitude seems to be the product of misunderstanding or cowardliness on the part of the student. In fact, the path does not really exist unless you are available. It is as if you are the road worker, the surveyor, and the traveler, all at once. As you go along, the road gets built, the survey’s done, and you become a traveler.
There is another kind of path that has already been built for you, which you should know about, called the “general path” or the “common path.” In the general path, value judgments and morals have already been developed, such as the virtues of democracy, the idea of a good man or good woman, or the purity of the social worker—you just enlist, become a member, and go to work. The common sense path tells you that it’s nice to be polite, that good manners always work, and that kind-hearted people are constantly loved. It might also include Buddhist teachings such as “Control your senses, control your mind, get to know yourself.” On the common spiritual path, there is an emphasis on getting psychologically high, becoming an accomplished meditator. By concentrating on a burning candle, you could develop your concentration, attain a state of samadhi, and experience the One, the realm of the gods.
The common path is not as accurate or profound as the Buddhist path, but it is not by any means the object of mockery. As Buddhists, we too follow common rules and regulations. For instance, we don’t shoplift, but we pay for the things we buy. However, in terms of dharma, such norms are just sidelines, not what we concentrate on. Many scriptures, and even sutras, talk about the common path as the starting point for students who are beginning at the beginning. For students who see the world in a very naive way and have naive attitudes toward spirituality, goodness is the issue, peace is the issue, euphoric states of samadhi are the issue; therefore, they try to cultivate those things. However, from the Buddhist point of view, that is dwelling in the devaloka, the god realm. In cultivating meditative absorptions, or jhana states, you are appreciating the advertisement rather than wholeheartedly getting into the path itself. The extraordinary thing about the Buddhist approach is that such conventionality is regarded as unnecessary. On the Buddhist path, instead of trying to cultivate the jhana states, you come directly to the mind—a mind that is developing its awareness, openness, painfulness, or whatever it may be.
The path has many stages. To begin with, it is a series of steps; then it becomes a county road, and finally a highway. At the beginning the path is just a footpath, a trail. We have to cut down and tame ourselves much more at the beginning than at the end. We have to develop a sense of renunciation. If we simply stepped out of our house into a luxurious limousine and drove along the road, there would be no sense of journey, no sense of giving. Therefore, renunciation is extremely important. We have to renounce our home—our snug, comfortable samsaric world.
There are two types of renunciation: genuine becoming and contentment. The first type of renunciation in Tibetan is ngejung: nge means “real” or “genuine,” and jung means “becoming” or “happening”; so ngejung is “real becoming.” Renunciation is true, real, definite. We are disgusted and put off by the samsaric world we have been living in. The second type of renunciation is a sense of contentment, or chok-she in Tibetan. Chok means “contentment,” “satisfaction,” or “enough,” and she means “knowledge.” We know that things are enough as they are. We do not make further demands and we don’t insist on having all the local conveniences, but we are satisfied to live in poverty. This does not refer to psychological poverty, however, for practitioners are supposed to have a sense of generosity and richness.
A Genuine Cure
Because suffering is fundamental, there is a fundamental cure for it as well. That cure is saddharma: real (sat) dharma. Real dharma can actually cure fundamental pain; that is why it is known as sat, or “truth.” It is genuine dharma. Fundamental suffering is based on a basic karmic mishap, arising from ignorance. However, when you begin to work with your state of mind, you realize the consequences of your ignorance and you see how you can correct it. Your fundamental ignorance is the cause of all karmic coincidence, but instead of stupidly going along with that, you begin to wake up by means of meditation practice. You are aware of trying to cut through twofold ego fixation—the ego of dharmas and the ego of self—and you are beginning to knock the guts out of the whole thing. You are putting lots of effort and energy into that. It is very straightforward.
Practice is fundamental. It is a genuine cure. You have a genuine ego and genuine suffering, with cures to match. It has been said that dharma is medicine, the teacher is a physician, and you are the patient. If you have a sickness that medicine can cure, the teacher can diagnose you and treat it. And as you go on through the yanas, from the hinayana to the vajrayana, that cure becomes much tougher and more accurate. That is the notion of saddharma. Saddharma is the ultimate cure because it deals not only with the symptoms, but with the sickness itself.