During the month of January we’ll be reading Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Yogas of Body, Speech and Mind at the Tricycle Book Club. Pick up a copy and join the discussion. Here are some excerpts from the book’s introduction.
In the absolute sense, what we hope to find through the three doors of body, speech, and mind is self-realization: realization of who we truly are.… Who we really are is the unconditional experience of being, in the absence of the grasping mind. Who we are not is what we usually identify with, for example, “I am a mother,” “I am a lawyer.” We identify with our roles, our thoughts, our emotions, or other conditions we are trapped in. When we go beyond that mistaken view of self, we can discover who we truly are: the inseparable state of openness and awareness.
But before we can begin to understand this larger self, we need to explore who we are in the smaller sense. Who is the one here, now, the one who is manifesting in this identity through body, speech, and mind? … Most of the time our view of ourselves causes us pain. We feel the pain of needing and desiring what we don’t have, the pain of fear or anxiety over losing what we do have, the pain of being separated from our loved ones, the pain of encountering our enemies.
The main causes of this pain and suffering are the conceptual mind, karmic conditions, and negative emotions. The teachings speak of an enlightened sense of body, speech, and mind, but for now, in the negative sense we can be said to have a conceptual-karmic-emotional pain body, conceptual-karmic-emotional pain speech, and a conceptual-karmic-emotional pain mind. I refer to these three more simply as “pain body,” “pain speech,” and “pain mind.”
Whether physically, energetically, or psychologically, we experience ourselves mainly through our pain. It is hard to recognize rigpa, the enlightened nature that is our self, the nature that we share with the deities. The small self is more familiar to us. The small self is the one through which we express our pain, and because it is so familiar, it becomes an important door through which we may discover our bigger self—and through this discovery, release our pain.
Some years ago on a commuter plane from Charlotte to Charlottesville I found myself sitting near a young couple with their toddler, and this young couple presented some vivid examples of pain body and pain speech. The young woman was very angry and disappointed with her partner because he did not acknowledge or respond to her, and she expressed this to him verbally through her pain speech in a high, emotional tone almost nonstop during the entire flight. The young man was probably as stressed out as she was, but instead of reacting with pain speech, he reacted with pain body: he held all of his stress inwardly and refused to respond, either in word or gesture. At one point he closed both his ears with his fingers—and when he did so, she finally stopped talking. But as soon as he released his ears, she started up again. Her speech was explosive and scattered; his body was closed and rigid. They were both experiencing similar pain, but as far as their awareness was concerned, both seemed totally disconnected from their true thoughts and feelings.
Some people are characterized more by pain body, others by pain speech, and still others by pain mind. The pain body is not just about the physical body. It can also be seen as the foundation, or ground, of our smaller unenlightened self, like a sense of identity. Think of someone who has been through many severe hardships in life but who has never managed to process the accompanying psychological, karmic, and emotional pain—the character played by Mickey Rourke in the film The Wrestler is a good example. Randy “The Ram” Robinson was once a star in the professional wrestling circuit, but when we meet him twenty years later, he is well past his prime, ailing with advanced heart disease and struggling to revive his identity as a wrestler. Randy spends a lot of his time in silence, seldom expressing any emotion. His ego is so dense that it almost manifests on a physical level: we can see the pain in his facial features, in his posture, in his measured way of moving, in his failing health. To loosen his dense identity, he medicates himself with alcohol and cocaine.
As the story progresses, Randy tries to rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter. When the two meet, she touches his pain, and he begins to wake up a bit and to interact. As we observe this small awakening, we sense that this is a precious opportunity for Randy to connect not only with his daughter but also with a more genuine sense of self that can release his pain. But he is ultimately unable and unwilling to transform. He chooses instead to remain on his dead-end path; at the close of the film we are left with a feeling of deep sadness for him.
It is so important for the person characterized by the pain body to recognize the body through which the pain is flowing. Until one can discover the bounded, stuck self, there is no way to realize the deep, vast stillness that is free from pain: the aspect of oneself that is unconditioned and unbounded.
To understand pain speech, think of someone you know who seems always to be talking and talking but never has a point to make. This person does not realize that the pain itself is the one who is talking, and the pain becomes externalized in a scattered or confused way.
A classic example of pain speech is Frances McDormand’s character Linda Litzke in the movie Burn After Reading. A fitness trainer in a health club, Linda is constantly explaining to everyone around her that she needs money for plastic surgery so she can attract the right man. She is so obsessed with verbalizing that she does not notice when her doting boss, who seems like the right man, says he cares deeply for her just as she is. She misses the opportunity to gain insight into the pain underlying her speech and through this recognition to find the feeling of connection she so clearly desires.
When you have an internal dialogue constantly running through your mind, this is another form of pain speech: the words go on and on, yet they never get you anywhere. Anyone characterized by pain speech can benefit from understanding that all these pain-based words are fruitless; for if you are not hearing your own words, why would you expect another to hear them? The first seed of doubt can help recognition to unfold: maybe what you are really trying to communicate is quite different from what you are expressing. With all her verbalizing, Linda might ultimately be saying that she felt hurt, unloved, and uncomfortable in herself.
When you start to connect more with the deeper truth at the source of pain speech, you can find the peaceful, pain-free place that is wordless, soundless, and where there is no expectation that someone must hear you. But first you must realize that your speech is an expression of pain—and the voice itself is what obscures the silence.
The person dominated by pain mind has too many scattered thoughts, too many emotions, too many mental images. Each time the mind moves to yet another emotion, thought, or image, that’s what the mind becomes. When it doesn’t move—when it gets stuck in one place—it becomes dense and dark, sometimes depressed.
Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain is an example of someone with pain mind. Ennis Del Mar is a troubled and troubling character, a man whose denial of his love for another man is causing him devastating psychic pain. His posture is rigid. He speaks very little, and when he does he speaks through a clamped jaw and barely gets his words out. He is trapped in his uncontrollable thoughts and emotions and spends a lifetime trying to deny them.
The pain mind is convinced it is achieving some purpose by all its activity and imagery. But if you look closer you can realize that all of these thoughts and emotions are mainly an expression of pain. This identification with thoughts is the small self, and in order to discover the big self you have to discover the small self. The pain itself becomes an entryway to self-discovery. The moment you catch yourself in a repetitive thought—for example, thinking over and over, “I hate the world”—in that moment you can realize “This is not me.” In this moment of awareness, the pain begins to release, and something else is allowed to unfold. It is all a question of recognizing that moment.
The racing thoughts and emotions of pain mind—the infinite imaginings of the ego—have at their source the deep identification with pain known as pain body. Pain speech, too, arises from the pain body’s mistaken sense of core identity. Thus, it is natural for a person to exhibit overlapping characteristics of pain body, pain speech, and pain mind— such as a tight jaw accompanied by churning thoughts. Ultimately, once we release ourselves from the pain body, then pain speech and pain mind will no longer be an issue. But sometimes the pain body is not clearly challenging us, whereas pain speech may be quite actively and obviously destroying our relationships, or pain mind may be immediately miring us in destructive thoughts or emotions and leading us to destructive actions. Our challenge is to identify the most advantageous place to begin the process of self-transformation.
Whether it is pain body, pain speech, or pain mind, moving past the small self is a matter of having some clue as to why you are doing, talking, or thinking as you are: deep inside you need a connection to your big self. Deep inside is your source of joy, but you go about searching for that joy in the wrong places and in the wrong activities of body, speech, and mind.