I’ve known Emily Hsu since she first started teaching Buddhist philosophy and meditation at the Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhism 15 years ago in San Francisco. She’s a lucid, humble, and kind teacher who speaks from both deep education and rich personal experience.
Emily Hsu completed the seven year FPMT Masters Program at Institute Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy in 2004—a condensed version of the Tibetan Buddhist Geisha studies curriculum—which qualifies her to teach subjects normally taught only by Tibetan Buddhist Lamas. She served as the resident teacher at California’s Ocean of Compassion Buddhist Center and has spent long stretches of time in solitary retreat deepening her practice.
Emily and I got together in person recently to talk about the Buddhist view of the mind, navigating disturbing emotions, and how to understand reality.
[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: Emily, it’s a pleasure to finally have a chance to talk to you. You and I have been friends for a long time, and I really appreciate you agreeing to talk to me about the mind today on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.
[00:01:41] Emily Hsu: Thank you, Scott, for inviting me. I’m really happy to talk to you about this very interesting subject.
[00:01:52] Scott Snibbe: I wonder if you could start out by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got into Buddhism and teaching Buddhism.
Emily’s background in Buddhism
[00:02:00] Emily Hsu: Well, I would say that I grew up in a family of scientists and engineers where external success was really important. So I was kind of expected to follow that path, and I did for some time, I graduated in engineering, then I worked in high tech for 10 years. But I was always looking for something else. I really felt like I was living the life I was supposed to, rather than life I wanted to. In the back of my mind, I was always searching for something and travel was one way I was searching.
I really felt like I was living the life I was supposed to, rather than life I wanted to.
Then I landed in a Zen center and I just found it was amazing and at a certain point I realized that I wanted to follow the path more deeply. So then I went to Nepal to go trekking, and I found Kopan Monastery in Nepal, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that teaches courses for Westerners. I landed in a month-long course which totally changed my life.
I found that that was what I was looking for, though I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I got that “aha moment.” Then I changed my life; I left my job and I went to Nepal and India for a while. After, I completed a seven-year master’s program in Italy, to study Buddhism more deeply. When I came out of that they told me that they expected me to teach, which was completely not my intention, but I tried. So, I’ve been doing that ever since 2006, and I’m still learning how to do it.
According to Buddhism, what is the mind and why do we need to understand it?
[00:03:59] Scott Snibbe: That’s wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed your classes and especially your approach to teaching the mind, which is a very formally delineated subject in Tibetan Buddhism.
Can you start out by answering, according to Buddhism, What is the mind?
[00:04:17] Emily Hsu: The definition of the mind according to Buddhism is that which is clear and knowing, or sometimes translated as clarity and awareness. So there’s these two different qualities. First there is the knowing, aware, or cognizing quality. The mind knows the object, not necessarily in the sense of understanding it, but it cognizes the object or perceives or experiences something. So the mind is an internal experience.
Then the second quality is clear or clarity, and there are different interpretations of what that means but in general it’s something that’s not physical. It’s like a space in which we can experience objects, situations, et cetera.
[00:05:18] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about why it’s important to understand the mind?
[00:05:22] Emily Hsu: Yeah, so I think the most important reason is that if we’re wanting some kind of a deep lasting happiness—a happiness that doesn’t come and go, an inner wellbeing, something that’s really stable—then we need to find it inside ourselves. Happiness that is dependent on external circumstances is unstable; it’s very fragile and cannot last. Because external circumstances change, relationships change, jobs change, things age, they break, they go away.
Happiness that is dependent on external circumstances is unstable; it’s very fragile and cannot last.
We live in a culture in which our happiness is so dependent on getting what we want: having pleasure, money, status, et cetera. But what happens when we don’t get what we want, when things go badly, when pandemics come? Then we become miserable. We’ve seen this a lot. By understanding our own mind, we can learn what are the states of mind, or the factors of mind, that bring about true wellbeing, inner peacefulness, inner strength, inner stability.
By understanding our own mind, we can learn what are the states of mind, or the factors of mind, that bring about true wellbeing, inner peacefulness, inner strength, inner stability.
We can also learn about those states that detract from that, interfere from accessing our inner wellbeing, interfere with a peaceful mind, interfere with genuine lasting happiness. So, there’s a study of minds and mental factors that identifies and delineates which factors bring about true lasting happiness and wellbeing and which ones interfere with that.
Another thing that I want to mention is that according to Buddhism, the mind is fundamentally pure. We all have infinite inner potential to achieve a lasting happiness and wellbeing. So any kind of obstacles we have in our mind, any negative mental states we have, are not intrinsic to the nature of our mind but they’re like clouds in the sky. They come and go and we can reduce them and even ultimately eliminate them, attaining a state of genuine lasting peace, happiness, wellbeing, and even enlightenment, freedom from suffering forever.
According to Buddhism, the mind is fundamentally pure. We all have infinite inner potential to achieve a lasting happiness and wellbeing. So any kind of obstacles we have in our mind, any negative mental states we have, are not intrinsic to the nature of our mind but they’re like clouds in the sky. They come and go.
It may sound like science fiction but it’s something that according to Buddhism is possible. And I think it is possible. So the emphasis in Buddhism is finding stable, long-lasting inner wellbeing, rather than chasing temporary pleasures.
Because the external things can only bring us pleasure for a certain amount of time and then we want something else, then something else, and then something else. So, it’s a never-ending cycle that will never bring us lasting satisfaction. If we want stable happiness, we have to look inside.
[00:09:18] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and that’s really one of the fundamental principles of Buddhism, that things do bring us some pleasure and you can enjoy external phenomena including a partner or family. But you can’t argue with the fact that they don’t last one way or another. It’s not that those things don’t have a good side; it’s just that they’re impermanent.
[00:09:42] Emily Hsu: Right, and we don’t like to think about that. And when we avoid thinking about it, then we’re so unprepared when things do change or when we do lose something that we really care about.
The innate pureness of the mind
[00:09:57] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned that the fundamental nature of the mind is pure, which is one of these very inspiring, powerful tenets of Buddhism.
Could you talk about how you became convinced of that? Did you believe that right away when you heard that or did it take some convincing?
[00:10:13] Emily Hsu: Yeah, I would have to say that I was very skeptical of that, it wasn’t what I learned growing up. I think that I became more convinced through my meditation practice. As the mind settles more and as the disturbing emotions become less powerful and less frequent, now we can see that the nature of mind is naturally peaceful.
Then we also see that the disturbing emotions and the mental disturbances, they come and go. There’s also a practice on the nature of mind, meditating on the nature of mind where we’re looking at the mind itself. Then we’re actually looking at the ultimate nature of it being insubstantial.
That practice is very powerful for getting in touch and directly seeing the natural purity of the mind and the potential for lasting peace and wellbeing.
[00:11:22] Scott Snibbe: So you became convinced through a direct experience, which also happened to me. It wasn’t necessarily a logical argument, although they exist, but it was more through direct experience that you became convinced.
[00:11:36] Emily Hsu: Yeah, and it’s much more convincing when we see it in our own minds. It’s like, Oh, okay, there’s a purity in that mind there.
Constructive and unconstructive mental factors
[00:11:45] Scott Snibbe: Could we talk a little bit about these different mental factors: constructive and unconstructive?
This is another place where I think there is some relativism in our society right now where people might say it depends on who you are, whether something’s constructive or not. But from the Buddhist perspective, there are some clearly constructive and destructive mental factors.
Can you talk about what those are?
[00:12:19] Emily Hsu: Yeah, I like the words constructive and unconstructive mental states or factors, because it doesn’t imply good or evil. In Buddhism, we’re not talking about good or evil. We’re talking about unconstructive mental states. They’re called unconstructive because they bring about undesirable states and circumstances. They bring about agitation and disturbance in our mind; they obstruct the peace and clarity of our minds.
In Buddhism, we’re not talking about good or evil. We’re talking about unconstructive mental states. They’re called unconstructive because they bring about undesirable states and circumstances.
We can’t see what is a good course of action when we’re in these unconstructive mental states because we’re stuck in some tape that is running through our heads, that’s maybe not so helpful.
These mental states agitate the peace of our minds and oftentimes lead us to unhelpful behaviors where we may say something snarky to a person we care about or even try to hurt somebody. Those are unconstructive states because they bring about unpleasant results for ourselves and often for others. It’s not about good and evil, it’s about cause and effect, what effect it brings about.
And then the constructive mental states do the opposite. They bring about a peace of mind, a wellness of mind and being, that help us progress along the spiritual path and bring about a long-term, deeper level of happiness and wellbeing.
So then naturally we want to cultivate more of the constructive and reduce the unconstructive when we see the effects in our lives and on our relationships and on our mind. So that’s a useful way of going about it.
Like the Buddha said, Don’t just believe what I say, test it out for yourself and see if it’s true. This particular presentation has been very helpful to me and if we want to make spiritual progress—like the teachings say—it’s important to know what to practice, what to cultivate, and what to leave behind.
It’s important to know what to practice, what to cultivate, and what to leave behind.
I find that one of the problems is that our habitual tendency is to seek immediate pleasure. But grasping for temporary pleasure may do exactly the opposite in a lot of cases. Instead of bringing about deeper wellness, it creates further problems in our lives.
So we need to distinguish between deep wellness and temporary pleasure; what do we really want? What do we really want to pursue in our lives? I think this is a big question. What is really important to us?
It’s not mutually exclusive, but where do we want to put our priority? We can have temporary pleasure and seek deep, lasting wellbeing at the same time, as long as it’s not destructive.
[00:15:54] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, one of my teachers once said the more you see reality clearly, the more you actually enjoy pleasures because you’re not clinging to them and craving them. Sometimes we don’t even enjoy the thing that we’re craving because the craving hurts so much.
Sometimes we don’t even enjoy the thing that we’re craving because the craving hurts so much.
First unconstructive mental state: grasping desire
[00:16:10] Emily Hsu: Right, so there’s three main unconstructive mental states or factors. According to Buddhism, the three poisons—or root afflictions—bring about all the disturbing emotions, pain and suffering, in our lives.
So the first one, I’m not sure how to exactly translate it, is grasping desire or grasping attachment. This is—put simply—being caught up or obsessed in an object of desire. We are bound by that object of desire and our happiness and peace of mind depends on getting what we want.
The mind isn’t able to rest and relax until we get and keep that object. So it can be like the newest iPhone, a Tesla, a person, money, status, or reputation. It might even be attachment to loading the dishwasher in the right way. The object of attachment can be almost anything; desire can be almost anything.
When is desire beneficial?
[00:18:02] Scott Snibbe: But you can also desire something quite beneficial, right? You could desire for a more just world, so much so that it makes you upset, just the same way you desire for an iPhone or partner. Or you could even have a really strong craving for spiritual development or enlightenment, even to the point you get frustrated.
It’s sort of obvious with desire when it’s something materialistic, like a new car, but what about when it is something just or good? Is it still irritating our mind then? And is there a way to strive for that without a craving desire?
[00:18:47] Emily Hsu: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there’s two different mental factors that are talked about: disturbing emotion—that we’re talking about here, grasping desire—and aspiration. Aspiration is something that’s healthy. We can aspire for a more just world. We can aspire for more spiritual development. We can aspire for enlightenment.
But when it starts agitating our minds, then it moves into the disturbing emotions realm because we’re grasping onto it so hard that our mind is tense, it can’t be peaceful. When there’s grasping, the mind cannot see the useful course of action. Especially when we’re disappointed, when things don’t go the way we’d like it to go. We see this with social justice, there’s ups and downs, steps forwards and steps backwards.
If we’re grasping too hard, then we may get enraged or fall into despair. Or we may burn out and become apathetic. In the long term, we try to have wholesome, helpful aspirations without clinging on so hard. We aim in that direction and don’t get so upset when there are setbacks; that’s the idea but it is not so easy.
In the long term, we try to have wholesome, helpful aspirations without clinging on so hard.
I think it’s really important for us to try to cultivate that because there are so many big problems in the world today and we need try to contribute in a positive way to solve those problems. If we give up, the problems won’t get solved; we need to try to be in it long term.
[00:21:06] Scott Snibbe: That’s what’s nice about this Buddhist model is that you have this precision of the difference between desire and aspiration. Because like you’re saying, desire has all these negative side effects. Even though it might seem propulsive and energizing, you can get burnt out and do something that’s actually quite counterproductive or destructive.
Whereas aspiration, you could keep going. I suppose the fear that people would have is, If I don’t have that craving, I won’t be as effective. But that’s not the case, right?
[00:21:42] Emily Hsu: Yeah, and we can. It’s easy to fall into one of two extremes: grasping and craving or not caring at all. So we try to find a more middle way.
Second & third unconstructive mental states: hatred and ignorance
[00:21:56] Scott Snibbe: So that’s the first, the official list has 52 mental factors. And we’re not going to go into all those today but you’re talking about craving or addictive desire.
Do you want to talk about the other two poisons?
[00:22:14] Emily Hsu: Yeah, the second one can be called hatred; sometimes they say anger but I’d like to qualify that with “harmful anger,” the anger that wants to lash out or harm. I believe there can be constructive anger, like the anger of, That’s not okay. Racism is not okay. Climate change is not okay. That can constructively motivate positive action.
But here, when we’re talking about the unconstructive mental states, we’re talking about more of an aggressive and hostile state of mind that that can’t bear a particular situation, person, or treatment. And thus leads to the urge to lash out, to harm, or to hurt someone.
I always think of this one as being similar to a volcano just about to erupt. That’s how my mind feels if I’m in this mental state. When we’re in this aggressive mental state of wanting to lash out and hurt, then it easily leads to actual physical or verbal harm; we see that with gun shootings, wars, and all sorts of violence. Of course, that’s not helpful.
[00:23:59] Scott Snibbe: So, it’s not just a sense of injustice or wrong, which is not really anger; it’s actually an important warning. It’s sort of a healthy warning that something’s wrong in the world but it’s when that transforms into wanting to harm that it becomes problematic?
[00:24:14] Emily Hsu: Yeah, that’s when it really becomes unconstructive, unhelpful, unwholesome, whatever. It’s important to distinguish between those two because in Buddhism, I think people often think anger is bad. Then there’s this indifference that can develop in regard to the injustices and the abuse in the world.
It’s like, Well, I’m not supposed to get angry. But actually, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has actually mentioned, Get angry, stay angry at social injustices. We just have to be careful not to let it slip into lashing out and wanting to harm. We need to maintain some sort of a clarity of mind and groundedness.
And remember that we are fellow human beings, don’t objectify others, remember we’re all humans trying to be happy. Then, try to cultivate a sense of caring for them and not having the issue override the humanity of people.
Then the third unconstructive (or unwholesome) mental factor (or poison), is sometimes translated as confusion or ignorance. This can be just a mental fog—an unclarity of mind—or an active misunderstanding of how things exist. According to Buddhism, all of our pain, problems, and suffering originates from a fundamental misunderstanding of how things exist.
According to Buddhism, all of our pain, problems, and suffering originates from a fundamental misunderstanding of how things exist.
All of the other unconstructive mental states arise from—or lay on top of—this fundamental misunderstanding of how we exist; there is an “I” and there are “others.” So, believing that things exist in a concrete, fundamentally separate way—having some sort of a real intrinsic essence—when actually, nothing exists that way and everything exists as interdependent and insubstantial.
So that’s a big subject, we can’t get into all of the details of that.
How is ignorance the root of all our destructive mental factors?
[00:26:51] Scott Snibbe: That one is supposed to be the root of all the others. I think that gets confusing for people who are new to the Buddhist way of thinking. The first two are quite emotional, meaty, and relatively easy to understand.
Can you talk about how ignorance is the root of all our other destructive mental factors?
[00:27:14] Emily Hsu: This is very difficult to understand. To put it simply, the other destructive mental factors—such as hatred or grasping desire—are always exaggerating something. I find it really interesting that all of these unconstructive mental factors, or disturbing emotions, are a result of our conceptual mind thinking. And second of all, distorting or exaggerating something.
So if we’re angry at our friend or partner, we can think about how they appear to our mind. They may seem tainted or tinted with wrongness or badness. It’s like the image is distorted in that moment. When we’re angry at them we forget that they have any redeeming qualities. “That person is so inconsiderate.” Then we replay in our mind again and again, how inconsiderate they are.
When we’re in that state of mind, the anger gets deeper and we forget all of the times they were considerate. And if a friend comes up and says, “Oh, they’re not such a bad guy,” we’re not open to hearing it. There’s like this refractory period in which we’re not open to hearing evidence to the contrary to the tape that’s running in our minds. So we’re exaggerating the negative qualities when we’re in hatred or unconstructive anger.
It is similar with an object of desire or obsession. They appear so attractive and without faults. If we are obsessed with a person we don’t see that they’re just a normal human with annoying habits, as well as good qualities. Or if it’s some beautiful object, then we only see how wonderful it is. We don’t see the downsides and we certainly don’t see that it’s going to age and fall apart. So there’s an exaggeration. And those are gross examples.
Then there’s always kind of a relationship to the “me” that’s going to be happy when I get that object of desire or a concrete “me” that is harmed, hurt, disrespected, or misunderstood. And that concrete “me” doesn’t actually exist. We exist in an interdependent and insubstantial way but not in the concrete, solid way that we think.
A concrete “me” doesn’t actually exist. We exist in an interdependent and insubstantial way but not in the solid way that we think.
[00:30:45] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I think this exaggerating aspect of delusion is really important. I notice it sometimes with my wife when I’ve worked up a story about her and she’s not in the room, then all of a sudden she’ll come in and she just looks so beautiful to me.
She looks beautiful—not just on the outside—and it’s quite jarring because I’ve built up this story but it’s so obviously contradicted by the kind, sweet person in front of me. Anyone who’s in a relationship can probably relate.
[00:31:15] Emily Hsu: Right, and we’ve built up this whole story, gotten so worked up, then we talk to or see that person and think, Oh wait. So that gets to another aspect that I wanted to talk about, how all of these disturbing emotions are not only exaggerating or distorting things, they’re a conceptual mind. According to Buddhism, the mind is not perceiving the object directly. It’s perceiving a made-up image that we’ve created of that object or person.
According to Buddhism, the mind is not perceiving the object directly. It’s perceiving a made-up image that we’ve created of that object or person.
When we see something directly, like with our eye consciousness, we can see the colors and shapes in the room. Or with the ear consciousness, we can hear the sounds. So the eye consciousness and ear consciousness are non-conceptual consciousnesses in that they’re perceiving the object without the medium of an image that we’re creating in our mind; we’re perceiving it directly or nakedly.
Whereas all of the disturbing emotions, all of the unconstructive mental factors, are not looking at the thing itself. They’re looking at an image that’s been created in the mind. And that image happens to be very distorted and exaggerated when it comes to all of the disturbing emotions.
Conceptual and non-conceptual minds
[00:33:01] Scott Snibbe: So this is a very subtle and fairly complicated point about conceptual and non-conceptual minds. The way we talk about it in Buddhism certainly makes it seem like the non-conceptual kind of mind is a better one because it’s less distorted.
Can you unpack that a little? I could imagine someone hearing this and thinking, Well, is there anything at all? Isn’t that a kind of ignorance because you’re not building up any concepts about what you’re seeing? You’re just letting it all flow through you. Like, isn’t that how an animal perceives things, where they don’t have any thoughts and concepts?
So can you talk about correcting that misunderstanding? Why is non-conceptual closer to the truth?
[00:33:45] Emily Hsu: So conceptual minds are oftentimes demonized in Buddhism. But we have to distinguish between constructive and unconstructive conceptual minds. The unconstructive conceptual minds are the disturbing emotions and thoughts that uncontrollably and obsessively replay in our minds. So, then the mind is not free nor clear.
Whereas, there are helpful conceptual minds: all of the scientific discoveries, solving the world’s problems, or solving relationship problems. That’s a constructive use of our conceptual minds. One of the great gifts of being a human being is this higher order of consciousness. So, there are very constructive conceptual minds, as well. Non-conceptual minds are not inherently better than conceptual minds.
I think that in movements like mindfulness, where you’re focused on the breath, body sensations, or the present moment, the purpose is to not get stuck in difficult or disturbing emotions. So, to have some distance between the observer and the disturbing emotion. That’s a way that we can not get as caught up in the disturbing emotions.
But then if we want to talk about deep, lasting inner wellbeing—if we really want to achieve our inner potential—then we need to go beyond the mindfulness. We need to use our conceptual mind to understand the nature of reality and how things exist, not just the ultimate nature of reality. We need to understand what brings true happiness and what brings suffering, where we get stuck and how we can resolve this.
If we want to talk about deep, lasting inner wellbeing—if we really want to achieve our inner potential—then we need to go beyond the mindfulness.
Ultimately, we must realize the nature of reality—to recognize the emptiness, insubstantiality, and interdependence—in order to uproot our obscurations and disturbing emotions and for these disturbing emotions to potentially never arise again. That is possible according to Buddhism.
We must realize the nature of reality—to recognize the emptiness, insubstantiality, and interdependence—in order to uproot our obscurations and disturbing emotions and for these disturbing emotions to potentially never arise again.
We can achieve a state in which we never suffer again. In order to achieve that state, we need to use our conceptual minds to understand it. Intellectually at first, then using meditation to ultimately realize it non-conceptually and directly, which becomes more powerful than conceptual realization. But we need the conceptual in order to get to the non-conceptual realization of ultimate truth.
[00:37:13] Scott Snibbe: In terms of cultivating the positive conceptual minds, can you talk about what the constructive mental factors are?
[00:37:19] Emily Hsu: There are many but one thing I find interesting is that the three roots of all that’s wholesome are negations of the three poisons: non-attachment, non-hatred, and non-confusion.
The non-attachment is not getting caught up in our object of desire, not becoming obsessed with the object of desire, not being totally stuck in that desire. It’s an understanding of what this grasping desire is and what it does to us. Also understanding how things actually exist and that the object of desire won’t bring us lasting happiness or satisfaction. There’s a clarity of mind that comes with this understanding.
So, non-attachment is not just an absence of attachment. It’s the opposite of attachment, where we’re able to actually let it go, leave it free. And it’s not indifference either. They say the near enemy of non-attachment is indifference or apathy; we’re not trying to cultivate indifference or apathy.
The near enemy of non-attachment is indifference or apathy.
We’re trying to deeply care about others and the world, but without grasping, leaving things free. The example that comes to mind is a parent with their child, the parent deeply loves their child but doesn’t try to control them. They leave the child free to discover and explore. It is about trying to find that mental balance.
[00:39:29] Scott Snibbe: With the non-attachment, it’s funny how we need negative words to describe the positive qualities. It’s a strange aspect of Buddhism. Why is that exactly? Is there some positive term to describe this first quality of non-attachment, like acceptance or something similar? Or is it because the positive aspect is so all-encompassing, therefore you can only describe it by saying what it isn’t?
[00:40:01] Emily Hsu: Yeah, I’ve thought about that and I can only share with you my own perspective. I think it has to do with our fundamental nature of purity and peacefulness that is blocked by the disturbing emotions. So in the absence of the disturbing emotion, there’s a freedom, joy, happiness, peacefulness.
So, it’s very significant to be able to let go of the disturbing emotions. And I feel like these negations really point to the freedom and liberating joy that we experience when we’re able to let go of an obsession or agitation in our minds.
I think we’ve all had the experience where we’ve been really caught up in something—maybe really angry at somebody or really frustrated at something—and at a certain point we’re able to just let it go. We’re able to forgive that person or just not let it bother us anymore. And there is freedom in that.
Especially for the second of the three roots of all that is wholesome, the non-hatred, we can use a term like loving-kindness, but this doesn’t get at the significance of not holding onto the negative or the aggression. Because we all know that we can love people and also have resentment toward them. So we have a mixture of these emotions but the key is to be able to let go of the disturbance. Let go of the affliction, let go of the disturbing emotion, and then there’s this freedom.
There are many different approaches in the Buddhist teachings on the nature of mind, it’s very focused on seeing the nature of the affliction and letting it go. Seeing the affliction arise, let it go. Seeing the thought that arises, letting it go. And when we rest in that and are able to let go of the unconstructive, then there’s a natural wellness, peace, and joy. So, I think that’s it. It is very significant that they’re named in this fashion: non-attachment, non-hatred, and non-confusion.
How does Buddhism define freedom?
[00:43:14] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and the richness of the experience of non-attachment and non-hatred maybe transcends any one positive experience. There’s so much good that comes out of that.
You mentioned the word freedom, and I think it’s worth highlighting because especially in America—where we live—freedom tends to mean the freedom to do things. You have a freedom and a right to do anything you want.
But the kind of freedom you’re talking about is of being unburdened. You are actually free from something that kind of drives you crazy all the time. I wonder if you can reflect on that? Because I think that that’s the logic of saying non-attachment or non-hatred, it is that relief of being free from those burdensome, painful states of mind. And as I got into Buddhism, that really struck me very hard that that was true freedom, to not to do something, and not the freedom to just do anything I wanted.
[00:44:13] Emily Hsu: I think you just put it beautifully, Scott. I don’t know if I can add anything there. But yeah, we’re carrying around this heaviness and these burdens, worries, troubles, and agitations; so the real freedom we’re looking for is inner freedom and lightness that comes along with not being imprisoned or bound.
Like in our happiness, to not be tied to something or need things to be a particular way, but the freedom to be happy in every circumstance, no matter what happens.
[00:45:05] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about this third main wholesome factor, non-ignorance?
[00:45:13] Emily Hsu: Yeah, the non-ignorance or the non-confusion. So it’s a mental clarity and it’s freedom from mental fog that confuses us. It’s this clear state of mind that dispels confusion about a particular situation, topic, or person; we then become ready and able to act in a constructive, helpful manner.
When we’re bound by a disturbing emotion we’re not able to do what is constructive because we’re oftentimes blindly reacting. So non-confusion is the clarity of mind to do whatever is needed in a particular situation and it ultimately accompanies the wisdom of realizing how things exist
[00:46:22] Scott Snibbe: If you have a strong belief in a separate “me” and the thing I’m angry at, even if you’re trying to not be angry at the thing, it’s still very difficult to overcome.
That’s why we have this wanting to attain non-ignorance or wisdom. I think that’s one of the challenges with mindfulness and other forms of (very beneficial) meditations. But from the Buddhist perspective, as long as you have a solid view of “me and the thing”—even that other thing is a positive—this sense of separateness is an obstacle to our healthy mind.
[00:47:09] Emily Hsu: Yeah, because as long as we have that sense of separateness or that sense of a concrete “me,” we have the desire for me to be happy and the “me” to get what I want. So, that belief in the separate “me” always carries the potential for hatred, anger, attachment, grasping, and agitation.
We need to ultimately understand that there is not that duality, that separate, concrete “me.” There is no target to be harmed or that needs to have anything. Once we realize the emptiness of that self, the insubstantiality of that self—how it’s just a mental construct, a thought—then we can find lasting peace, happiness, and the end of suffering. As long as we have that grasp on that concrete separate “me,” there’s always the potential for suffering.
As long as we have that grasp on that concrete separate “me,” there’s always the potential for suffering.
How do you cultivate the positive mental factors and let go of the negative?
[00:48:41] Scott Snibbe: All of these concepts are very inspiring. For someone who may not have a meditation practice yet, how do you concretely cultivate the positive mental factors and let go of the negative ones?
[00:49:00] Emily Hsu: There are so many different ways to counteract or reduce the unconstructive mental factors. One way is to just zoom out and see that we are exaggerating or distorting something. And to try to get a more balanced, overall perspective. Maybe by looking at the other person’s perspective and seeing what’s going on for them or remembering, if we’re angry at someone, their positive qualities. Of course, you trying to communicate constructively, which is very practical and helpful.
It’s a big question but I would say—very briefly—to try to balance out our perspective. Then another kind of magical perspective shift that we could do is to look at the situation and to delete the “me.” It’s a meditation that I often lead that people find helpful.
So, take the “me” out of it; it’s just a person and not a “me.” Look at that situation without a “me” in it and see how it shifts things. It’s an interesting experiment.
[00:50:40] Scott Snibbe: You’ve agreed to lead a meditation that will run in the next episode. Do you want to describe a little bit of what that meditation is?
[00:50:51] Emily Hsu: Well, I’d like to have us look at our minds, and the texture of our minds, as I give different prompts for distinct mental states.
So people can see for themselves if a mental state is constructive or unconstructive. Maybe they can see for themselves what the effect of this particular state has on their mind. Then maybe to see if we can notice a difference between conceptual and non-conceptual minds.
[00:51:33] Scott Snibbe: Great, it sounds like an inner adventure, I’m excited to take it with you.
Well, Emily, thank you so much for this conversation on the mind. I consider you one of the experts on this topic and I’ve always benefited so much from your classes and the way you think about this topic. You make it very warm and accessible, so thank you very much.
[00:51:56] Emily Hsu: Well, thank you, Scott. It’s been a pleasure.
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