It Is Easy For Our Minds To Get Stuck In Samsara
by Sandra Hammond, 2000, revised May, 2001

Before we learn any Dhamma, we are always bumping into the limits of our mind and body and don't even realize it; we think it is just Reality. Period. We are stuck in this limited view. In this conventional state of affairs, there is no movement in the mind, no spaciousness into which we can release the dukkha of this situation.
Yet we live in samsara, the continuity of cyclic existence which is the conventional reality. It is the relative world and it is mesmerizing, captivating, believable. It is also filled with dukkha because it never is or stays as a satisfying as as we hope it will be. It is the human condition to compound our problems by adding dukkha on top of the changing or unsatisfactory circumstances of samsara. Believing everything will last, we cling to our likes and dislikes, not seeing clearly what is happening - this is all dukkha. The difficulty is that we are bound to samsara through the (s)khandhas, reacting with our body, speech and mind to everything that arises, be it a movie, a roller coaster ride, a virtual reality game, or the stuff of our life.
Even in the best of circumstances as a Dhamma practitioner it is hard to realize the truth of our situation, the truth that everything is a dhamma, a fleeting phenomenal experience. To try and cling to it is like trying to cling to a handful of water. So when we speak of liberation from samsara in this lifetime, we are not talking about going up in a puff of smoke, but freeing our own minds, moment by moment, from the delusion that samsara is as substantial as it all appears to be. We need to learn how to live in samsara, moment by moment, without getting stuck there, constantly bumping into the limitations of our own mental formations. Understanding and practicing Dhamma is what can lead to our liberation from clinging to perceptions and mental formations and the inevitable dukkha that arises in this situation.
But before we learn any Dhamma, we are always bumping into the limits of our mind and body and think it is the world giving us trouble, causing us to be frightened or upset. This conventional experience gets challenged when we start to learn Dhamma. We learn that non-acceptance of the way things are makes us helpless, contracted, bound by our own ego's perceptions and desires. Often to hear this can be very confounding .... to some it feels like bad news that can shake up our world view and make us change. We are attached to our Selves, our views, our beliefs and the lives we have created out of this mental activity. We are afraid we are being asked to give up something and this does not sit comfortably in our clingy, gluey minds which are contracted and stuck on all manner of things rational, irrational and emotional.
Since people fear change, many fear practice. However, at this point whether we choose to practice or not, we are no different then anyone else - we are still inevitably bumping into the limits of our mind and body, stuck in fixed views, but now we are more concerned, perhaps even worried about or unable to accept the consequences of investigating Dhamma further. It can feel too risky and we are suspicious.
If one chooses to overcome this fear and resistance, as we have by undertaking this year of CPCL, we continue to bump into the limits of our mind and body, but awareness and meaning are beginning to unveil the deeper, non-conventional truth of Dhamma. For us, this process began with the very first assignment on anatta, ego contraction and the comfort zone.This introduced a method for approaching all appearances - including our own existence - as the experience of those very limits of mind and body.
Now we have begun grappling with the khandhas and this further removes the veils of phenomenal activity, obscuring the true nature of mind. Understanding and experiencing all of life as continuous interplay of the 5 khandhas is the challenge now. If the nature of relative reality is this constant interplay of energy patterns arising and passing into and out of form, then this challenge is to become so continuously aware of this truth that we experience the stuckness and become skilled in releasing it.
There really is no problem with the coming and going of the world - we just need to let it happen. But how to do this? There are so many possibilities for getting stuck. From the very beginning of a lifetime we fixate our attention on objects of sense consciousness, bringing perceptions into being-ness; we can learn how to get unstuck if we can remember to dissolve the seductive solidity of perceptions in our minds. This is the crucial point. It is the activity of mental formation that is our concern, not the appearance or experience of the external reality itself. To consistently attend to this makes all the difference. It is what can free us from our dependence upon the khandhas; it is what can keeps us from getting seduced, pulled in by the khandhas. If we can let the khandhas function without mental proliferation, our peace can be great and unconditioned happiness can arise automatically. It is the true heart's release.
At this point it is important for us to remember that this is a practical practice, a set of skills designed to liberate our minds from the prison, the bonds, of the khandhas. Yet, as we become more proficient at this and have released the grip of the other khandhas on our mind, it is easy to fall into the next stuck place: a subtle identification with consciousness itself. In the Tibetan discourse, three kinds of consciousness are described.
The first is what we have been investigating - sense consciousness which is absorbed by and fixated on phenomena with its inevitable companion, emotional reactivity. Khandha consciousness functions continuously, moment by moment, frame by frame, and therefore feels like a solid stream of consciousness. This streaming quality is also true of the other two forms of consciousness, but they are not khandha dependent. The other two are "ground consciousness" and a consciousness that is close to the Theravadan tradition's "choiceless awareness"and in the Tibetan tradition is called rigpa.
This choiceless awareness (or rigpa consciousness) is where the flow of direct experience opens up in the spacious, unconstricted mind, independent from the activity of the khandhas. It is transparent and open, pre-symbolic and pre-conceptual; it is aware of all activity that is occurring in body, speech and mind, yet is not glued to these activities or their objects, neither generated by the khandhas, nor stuck in the khandhas. Ground consciousness is primordial, but is usually experienced only when the mind is stuck in such a way that it is neither absorbed/fixated by phenomena nor open and freely moving as in rigpa. So our task as meditators is to become aware of these three kinds of consciousness, since they each produce innumerable opportunities to become stuck. One can obviously be caught and frozen in the relative reality of the khandhas. One can also be caught in the "dead zone" of the ground consciousness and mistake it for a good meditative practice. One can become overly attached to the state of choiceless awareness, grasping at it as an object of experience. This immediately destroys its qualities of openness, clarity and emptiness in which experience can flow unimpeded. Yet we are inclined to identify with this consciousness, setting our self concept upon it as a foundation for our ego. This can arise as a subtle feeling of me knowing, since I am experiencing it.
This leads to another kind of stuckness of mind, a backwater where we can loose our mental freedom and ease. This is getting stuck in the practice itself. At times we are fixated on practice at the expense of skillful activity in our life because this kind of knowing appears to be more important (and we have discovered how to "do it"!!). We loose interest in or become critical of the mundane world around us, in the people with whom we have relationships, and in the ordinary activities of life. In this frame of mind we stop applying good judgment or common sense, valuing only the supra-mundane, absolute, unformed reality and our wish to abide (read as: cling to) it. With this stuckness, one only wants to bother with practice and the leaking roof be damned. We want to escape the responsibility and burden of life in samsara.Yet, no matter how hard we try to escape our lives, there is no escape because what we want to escape is the human condition, and that goes with us everywhere. The formed is just an expression of the unformed; emptiness is form, form is emptiness. Samsara and nibbana are the same - the difference is in the grasping and clinging.
Samsara is where we must practice, even if we were to leave the householder life and enter a monastic sangha. There is no escape from our own minds, so once again we are back to letting go of experience in our minds, not letting go of the world. If we enter into a struggle with lay life in order to achieve nibbana, then we want to"let go" of the experiential world itself, as if its arising is a mistake. What arises is no mistake; it is just a fabricated experience that can be seen for what it is. The mistake here is in the practice. Remaining engaged in the world, but releasing the clinging, the grasping, the stuckness of the mind is all that is needed to be living in nibbana, the ultimate reality, the absolute truth.
Learning about the khandhas teaches us the insubstantiality and impermanence of fabricated experience. It also teaches us that the khandhas (and the dukkha they produce) are all there is to the human situation. To be human is to have this karmically produced capacity to experience and cognize in this particular way. Our equipment and its natural functioning obscure the omni-present ultimate truth, the absolutely free Buddha nature with which we are endowed. But this situation is just the way it is, just as the sky is the sky and the clouds form up in it. That too is just the way it is with skies and clouds. The purpose of practice is not to do away with the relative; it is to learn to live in harmony with the relative and the absolute. We have the capacity to know both - the formed through the khandhas and the unformed through pre-symbolic cognition of Buddha nature. We just have to remember how to know our own harmonious minds - and then actually do it.
In terms of practice itself, there are other sorts of clinging we need to be alert to: when we think we are being a "good" meditator and slack off in our balanced effort. This balanced (right) effort, this viriya (energy) needs to be our constant companion, yet when our minds get stuck here, it can slip away. We become complacent and cling to the practice ("I've got it !") or may be inclined to cling to the practice as better then and separate from all else (which is similar to the state of identification with consciousness). Many of us have experienced in interviews or mentoring sessions with our teachers, how it is easy to stay within our present limits, and when shown this to not like it at all. In fact it is the same not-liking we encountered when we first were introduced to practice, for it takes us out of our comfort zone, throwing us into change. But in order to not get stuck in our practice, to allow its own natural liveliness and activity, we have to face any contraction which holds our practice solidly unmovable, fixated. This can happen in an interview or mentoring session if we let it. Quite often though, we seem afraid to go forward because of complacency, fear, or ego clinging..."My sitting is fine ... its just the usual going on ... I'm practicing hard in the manner I think is a good meditation practice ... I'm not sitting enough to have anything to talk about. Translation: "Leave me alone. My mind is comfortably stuck". It could form up as "It would be too hard (or unpleasant, uncomfortable or upsetting to my habituated patterns) to work with renunciation (or whatever parami magga, bojjhanga, etc. is suggested by the teacher) so I'm not sure I am ready". Translate: "leave me alone... I think I am doing what I am capable of or what feels good/appropriate/adequate to me. Don't rock my boat." We have all been here, haven't we? The practice itself is the easiest place to lodge our minds once we make a commitment to practice. We feel we have come home, and home is, well, cozy. Yet dislodging it, no matter how unfamiliar, painful, uncomfortable or scary it seems is the only way to reap full benefit from a Dharma practice. As we cease being attached to being a meditator or trying to produce a particular outcome with it, we can see clearly that we are capable of clinging to anything in our minds. New experiences that we reify are as stuck and fixated in our minds as were to the old outcomes generated by old beliefs. A great lesson to keep revisiting. And revisit we will if we are alert, mindful and are courageous enough to examine our relationship to our practice.
So our minds get stuck in samsara by clinging to the khandhas, identifying with consciousness itself, and in establishing our ego in being Dharma practitioner. Each time we can release in any of these ways lessens our dependence on the khandhas. This release from the domination of the khandhas eventually leads to simply resting in the experience of absolute Buddha nature. Just resting in unfabricated, unfixated cognition, free from the khandhas, free of the allure of objects. Freedom is this simultaneous continuity of the khandhas and Buddha nature minus the glue between them. In this state of harmony we experience the unformed as the ground and the formed as its innate expression of the ground - inseparable, but without attachment.We can maintain awareness of the khandhas and the objects of mind while resting in our true unobstructed nature.
Dharma does not ask us to reject the conventional truth of the relative world, but to respect things as they are at all levels of experience. In order to live this way, we use the practice to refine over and over and over the experience of our true Buddha nature. We uncover and polish it, for it has been neglected for so long. This is the deepest focus of our practice, because the innate empty nature and crystal clarity of mind has been obscured by lifetimes of clinging to and believing in that which obscures it. So we must develop the essential cognition of Buddha mind, free of the khandhas, free of all objects. This is our practice. This is purification of the mind.
I offer this to you for your consideration.