In Buddhist psychology, the word samyojana refers to internal formations, fetters or knots. When someone says something unkind to us, for example, if we do not understand why he said it and we become irritated, a knot will be tied in us. The lack of understanding is the basis for every internal knot. It is difficult for our mind to accept that it has negative feelings like anger, fear, and regret, so it finds ways to bury these in remote areas of our consciousness. We create elaborate defense mechanisms to deny their existence, but these problematic feelings are always trying to surface. If we practice mindfulness, we can learn the skill of recognizing a knot the moment it is tied in us, so that the work of untying them will be easy. Otherwise, they will grow tighter and stronger.
Ask with your whole body and mind… Ask the person who causes you the most suffering these questions: “Who are you who brings me such pain, who makes me feel so much anger and hatred?” To understand you have to become one with your beloved, and also with your so-called enemy. You have to worry about what they worry about, suffer their suffering, appreciate what they appreciate. You and your object of love cannot be two. They are as much you as you are yourself.
Continue until you see yourself in the cruelest person on Earth, in the child starving, in the political prisoner. Practice until you recognize yourself in everyone in the supermarket, on the street corner, in a concentration camp, on a leaf, in a dewdrop. Meditate until you see yourself in a speck of dust in a distant galaxy. See and listen with the whole of your being. If you are fully present, the rain of the Dharma will water the deepest seeds in your store consciousness, and tomorrow, while you are washing the dishes or looking at the blue sky, that seed will spring forth, and love and understanding will appear as a beautiful flower.
A Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Subject Five: Observing Our Feelings
- Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations.
Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations.
- Breathing in, I calm my mental formations.
Breathing out, I calm my mental formations.
Mental formations are psychological phenomena. There are fifty-one mental formations according to the Vijnanavada School of the Mahayana, and fifty-two according to the Theravada. Feelings are one of them. In the seventh and eighth breathing exercises, mental formations simply mean feelings. They do not refer to the other fifty mental formations. In the Vimutti Magga, we are told that mental formations in these exercises mean feelings and perceptions. It is more likely that mental formations here simply mean feelings, although feelings are caused by our perceptions.
Some feelings are more rooted in the body, such as a toothache or a headache. Feelings that are rooted in our mind arise from our perceptions. In the early morning when you see the first light of day and hear the birds singing, you might have a very pleasant feeling. But if once at this time of day you received a long distance telephone call that your parent had suffered a heart attack, the feeling that comes from that perception may be painful for many years.
When you feel sad, do you remember that it will not last forever? If someone comes and smiles at you, your sadness may vanish right away. In fact, it has not gone anywhere. It has just ceased to manifest. Two days later, if someone criticizes you, sadness may reappear. Whether the seed of sadness is manifesting or not depends on causes and conditions. Our practice is to be aware of the feeling that is present right now. “Breathing in, I am aware of the feeling that is in me now. Breathing out, I am aware of the feeling that is in me now.”
If it is a pleasant feeling, when we are aware that it is a pleasant feeling, it may become even more pleasant. If we are eating or drinking something that is healthy and nourishing for us, our feeling of happiness will grow as we become aware of it. If what we are consuming is harmful for our intestines, our lungs, our liver, or our environment, our awareness will reveal to us that our so-called pleasant feeling has within it many seeds of suffering.
The seventh and eighth breathing exercises help us observe all our feelings – pleasant and unpleasant, neutral and mixed. Feelings, arising from irritations, anger, anxiety, weariness, and boredom, are disagreeable ones. Whatever feeling is present, we identify it, recognize that it is there, and shine the sun of our awareness on it.
If we have an unpleasant feeling, we take that feeling in our arms like a mother holding her crying baby. The “mother” is mindfulness and the “crying baby” is the unpleasant feeling. Mindfulness and conscious breathing are able to calm the feeling. If we do not hold the unpleasant feeling in our arms but allow it just to remain in us, it will continue to make us suffer. “Breathing in, I touch the unpleasant feeling in me. Breathing out, I touch the unpleasant feeling in me.”
In Buddhist meditation, looking deeply is based on non-duality. Therefore, we do not view irritation as an enemy coming to invade us. We see that we are that irritation in the present moment. When we are irritated we know, “This irritation is in me. I am this irritation,” and we breathe in and out in this awareness. Thanks to this approach, we no longer need to oppose, expel, or destroy our irritation. When we practice looking deeply, we do not set up barriers between good and bad in ourselves and transform ourselves into a battlefield. We treat our irritations with compassion and nonviolence, facing it with our heart filled with love, as if we were facing our own baby sister. We bring the light of awareness to it by breathing in and out mindfully. Under the light of awareness, our irritation is gradually transformed. Every feeling is a field of energy. A pleasant feeling is an energy that can nourish. Irritation is a feeling that can destroy. Under the light of awareness, the energy of irritation is transformed into a kind of energy that nourishes us.
Feelings originate either in the body or in your perceptions. When we suffer from insomnia, we feel fatigue or irritation. That feeling originates in our body. When we misperceive a person or an object, we may feel anger, disappointment, or irritation. This feeling originates in our perception. According to Buddhism, our perceptions are often inaccurate and cause us to suffer. The practice of Full Awareness is to look deeply in order to see the true nature of everything and to go beyond our inaccurate perceptions. Seeing a rope as a snake, we may cry out in fear. Fear is a feeling, and mistaking the rope for a snake is an inaccurate perception.
If we live our lives in moderation, keeping our bodies in good health, we can diminish painful feelings which originate in the body. By observing each thing clearly and opening the boundaries of our understanding, we can diminish painful feelings that originate from perceptions. When we observe a feeling deeply, we recognize the multitude of causes near and far that helped bring it about, and we discover the very nature of feeling.
When a feeling of irritation or fear is present, we can be aware of it, nourishing our awareness through breathing. With patience, we come to see more deeply into the true nature of this feeling, and in seeing, we come to understand, and understanding brings us freedom. The seventh exercise refers to the awareness of a mental formation, namely a feeling. When we have identified the feeling, we can see how it arises, exists for a while, and ceases to be in order to become something else.
With mindfulness, a so-called neutral feeling can become a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling. It depends on your way of handling it. Suppose you are sitting in the garden with your little boy. You feel wonderful. The sky is blue, the grass is green, there are many flowers, and you are able to touch the beauty of nature. You are very happy, but your little boy is not. First, he has only a neutral feeling but, since he doesn’t know how to handle it, it turns into boredom. In his search for more exciting feelings, he wants to run into the living room and turn on the television. Sitting with the flowers, the grass, and the blue sky is not fun for him. The neutral feeling has become an unpleasant feeling.
Mindfulness helps us to identify a feeling as a feeling and an emotion as an emotion. It helps us hold our emotions tenderly within us, embrace them, and look deeply at them. By observing the true nature of any feeling, we can transform it’s energy into the energy of peace and joy. When we understand someone, we can accept and love him. The energy of the feeling of irritation, in this case, has been transformed into the energy of love. The Buddha had much love and compassion as far as the body and feelings of people are concerned. He wanted his disciples to return to, look after, care for, heal, and nourish their bodies and minds. How deeply the Buddha understood human beings!
by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Child Within
In each of us there is a young, suffering child. We all have had times of difficulty as children and many of us have experienced trauma. To protect and defend ourselves against future suffering, we often try to forget those painful times. Every time we’re in touch with the experience of suffering, we believe we can’t bear it, and we stuff our feelings and memories deep down in our unconscious mind. It may be that we haven’t dared to face this child for many decades.
But just because we may have ignored the child doesn’t mean she or he isn’t there. The wounded child is always there, trying to get our attention. The child says, “I’m here. I’m here. You can’t avoid me. You can’t run away from me.” We want to end our suffering by sending the child to a deep place inside, and staying as far away as possible. But running away doesn’t end our suffering; it only prolongs it.
The wounded child asks for care and love, but we do the opposite. We run away because we are afraid of suffering. The block of pain and sorrow in us feels overwhelming. Even if we have time, we don’t come home to ourselves. We try to keep ourselves constantly entertained – watching television or movies, socializing, or using alcohol or drugs – because we don’t want to experience that suffering all over again.
The wounded child is there and we don’t even know she is there. The wounded child in us is a reality, but we can’t see her. That inability to see it is a kind of ignorance. This child has been severely wounded. She or he really needs us to return. Instead we turn away.
Ignorance is in each cell of our body and our consciousness. It’s like a drop of ink diffused in a glass of water. That ignorance stops us from seeing reality; it pushes us to do foolish things that make us suffer even more, and that wound again the already wounded child in us.
The wounded child is also in each cell of our body. There is no cell of our body that does not have that wounded child in it. We don’t have to look far into the past for that child. We only have to look deeply and we can be in touch with him. The suffering of that wounded child is lying inside us right now in the present moment.
But just as the suffering is present in every cell of our body, so are the seeds of awakened understanding and happiness handed down to us from our ancestors. We just have to use them. We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, and our peaceful smile. We have to light up that lamp of mindfulness so the light will shine out and the darkness will dissipate and cease. Our practice is to light up the lamp.
When we become aware that we’ve forgotten the wounded child in ourselves, we feel great compassion for that child and begin to generate the energy of mindfulness. The practices of mindful walking, mindful sitting, and mindful breathing are our foundation. With our mindful breath and mindful steps, we can produce the energy of mindfulness and return to the awakened wisdom lying in each cell of our body. That energy will embrace us and heal us, and we will heal the wounded child in us.
When we speak of listening with compassion, we usually think of listening to someone else. But we must also listen to the wounded child inside of us. Sometimes the wounded child in us needs all our attention, That little child might emerge from the depths of your consciousness and ask for your attention. If you are mindful, you will hear his or her voice calling for help. At that moment, instead of paying attention to whatever is in front of you, go back and tenderly embrace the wounded child. You can talk directly to the child with the language of love, saying, “In the past, I left you alone. I went away from you. Now, I am very sorry. I am going to embrace you.” You can say, “Darling, I am here for you. I will take good care of you. I know that you suffer so much. I have been so busy. I have neglected you, and now I have learned a way to come back to you.” If necessary, you have to cry together with the child. Whenever you need to, you can sit and breathe with the child. “Breathing in, I go back to my wounded child; breathing out, I take good care of my wounded child.”
You have to talk to your child several times a day. Only then can healing take place. Embracing your child tenderly, you reassure him that you will never let him down again or leave him unattended. The little child has been left alone for so long. That is why you need to begin this practice right away. If you don’t do it now, when will you do it?
If you know how to go back to her and listen carefully every day for five or ten minutes, healing will take place. When you climb a beautiful mountain, invite your child within to climb with you. If you do that for a few weeks or a few months, the wounded child in you will experience healing.
With practice, we can see that our wounded child is not only us. Our wounded child may represent several generations. Our mother may have suffered throughout her life. Our father may have suffered. Perhaps our parents weren’t able to look after the wounded child in themselves. So when we’re embracing the wounded child in us, we’re embracing all the wounded children of our past generations. This practice is not a practice for ourselves alone, but for numberless generations of ancestors and descendants.
Our ancestors may not have known how to care for their wounded child within, so they transmitted their wounded child to us. Our practice is to end this cycle. If we can heal our wounded child, we will not only liberate ourselves, but we will also help liberate whoever has hurt or abused us. The abuser may also have been the victim of abuse. There are people who have practiced with their inner child for a long time who have had a lessening of their suffering and have experienced transformation. Their relationships with their family and friends have become much easier.
We suffer because we have not been touched by compassion and understanding. If we generate the energy of mindfulness, understanding and compassion for our wounded child, we will suffer much less. When we generate mindfulness, compassion and understanding become possible, and we can allow people to love us. Before, we may have been suspicious of everything and everyone. Compassion helps us to relate to others and restore communication.
The people around us, our family and friends, may also have a severely wounded child inside. If we’ve managed to help ourselves, we can also help them. When we’ve healed ourselves, our relationships with others become much easier. There’s more peace and more love in us.
Go back and take care of yourself. Your body needs you, your feeling need you, your perceptions need you. The wounded child in you needs you. Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it. Go home and be there for all these things. Practice mindfulness so you can really be there, so you can love.