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The Three Poisons


In Buddhism there is a fundamental teaching called the Three Poisons. These are the fundamental basis for all primary negative states of mind, or states of mind that do not serve us. They are ignorance, attachment, and aversion. I shall go over each in detail.

Ignorance is the root cause of all states of mind that do not serve us, since they are by nature disturbing, cause suffering, and are without an understanding of how to accomplish peace, satisfaction, and wholeness. This ignorance may also apply to not knowing the truth of our outer circumstances, but the real ignorance lies in how we understand who we are. Usually we associate ourselves with the concept “I” “me” or “mine”. This concept is not who we truly are but rather is an image, a thought, which we believe ourselves to be in our mind and we cling to it. This concept or notion of ourselves is called the ego. This ego is believed to have the qualities of being separate from everything and everyone else, being more important than everyone else and being unchanging and solid. It is the root of all selfish and self-indulgent states of mind, and is also the basis of the two other poisons, which is why in meditation and mindfulness practice it is essential to practice letting go of our ego and instead cultivating love and compassion.

The second poison is attachment. Once we have a basis of ego in ourselves, a sense of solid and separate, we can then project in the things we want an ego as well, believing that they are permanent and solid emotionally and therefore we have the ability to attach to them. Attachment means grasping at something, not letting go, with a neurotic, ungrounded state of mind. The most extreme case of attachment is addiction, where we find ourselves unable to stop craving for something even though it harms us. We can be attached to how others think of us, to money, to power and control, to our views, to our race, gender, etc. The more we are attached to something, the less fulfilling it becomes, since we don't have the quality of mind to appreciate. Also, attachment is always a “for me” state of mind, and therefore doesn't know how to empathize and have regard for the validity and sovereignty of others. The antidote for attachment is letting go, which can either be done by relaxing into a sense of completeness in yourself, or by being loving instead.

Love and attachment can be commonly confused, but there are key distinctions that are helpful to recognize. True love is always for the sake of who or what is loved, and not merely to fill a void in yourself. Attachment is always self-interested, and never fulfilling in its nature. It always makes you feel ungrounded, nervous, craving, or vacuous, needing more to feel normal. Love is always fulfilled, from beginning to end. Love loves freely, and does not possess others or things out of fear. Love wishes for freedom and fullness of self and others. Attachment is never fully true, whereas love is always grounded in the truth within yourself.

The last of the poisons is aversion. It arises when ego is in place, and attachment to ego and what you want is in place. When something threatens what you are attached to, you get angry, frustrated, or even feel hatred. Or as opposed to feeling aggressive, you may feel passive in fear, anxiety, and worry. All of these states are forms of aversion, since they all have resistance to the moment. Once we take a deep breath, let go of resistance, feel into a centered place in ourselves, come back with a wholesome attitude, we'll be able to overcome the obstacles that cause us to experience aversion. Patience, tolerance, compassion, love, acceptance, surrender, all of these states of mind cannot be simultaneous with a state of aversion. They are its antidote.

The most important part of overcoming the three poisons is awareness cultivated through a regular daily mindfulness practice. This means that you are going to be there when you enter a state of mind that doesn't serve you. Then you will recognize in the moment that you are coming from a state of ignorance, attachment, or aversion, from which you can cultivate understanding, letting go, and love. May you come to know the three poisons, that you may recognize them in yourself and others and be able to apply the best antidotal attitude accordingly.

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