Making Friends With Kilesas

In my blog post a couple of weeks ago I was exploring the role of habit in our sense of personality, and I have been thinking a lot about Maha Boowa’s idea that our feelings of self comes from attaching to the kilesas. The kilesas are usually translated as mental defilements, and can be as few as ten in some traditions and as many as 108 in others. They are often described as something that ‘clouds the mind’ from seeing things as they actually are. The ten kilesas in the Pali tradition are greed/desire, hatred/aversion, delusion, conceit, speculative views, skeptical doubt, mental torpor, restlessness, lack of shame, and lack of moral dread. But it is worth remembering that all of these defilements come from the same root – ignorance of how the world really works – so any action that comes from ignorance can be regarded as a kilesa.

Talk of kilesas and defilements hasn’t transferred over much into the kinds of mainstream wellbeing practices based on Buddhist ideas that we see a lot of these days, but working with them is absolutely fundamental to Buddhist practice. The path of Buddhist practice is summarised succinctly into this famous teaching from the Dhammapada: Do good, avoid doing evil, purify the mind. The purify part relates directly to the kilesas, because they defile the mind that would be otherwise pure. Talk about the defilements and purity can come with some baggage though. If you have a background in the Abrahamic religions, then notions of purity and impurity can evoke a sense of right and wrong, of sins and sinners, of God, hellfire, and eternal judgement. Many people nowadays, especially in the West, shy away from anything that sounds judgey or preachy, reminding them too much of the rigid moral teachings that they have grown up with.

Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that the focus on purity cannot be dismissed as a throwback to older, more strict cultural expectations though:

“…in the Buddha’s teaching the criterion of genuine enlightenment lies precisely in purity of mind. The purpose of all insight and enlightened understanding is to liberate the mind from the defilements, and Nibbana itself, the goal of the teaching, is defined quite clearly as freedom from greed, hatred, and delusion. From the perspective of the Dhamma defilement and purity are not mere postulates of a rigid authoritarian moralism but real and solid facts essential to a correct understanding of the human situation in the world.” by Bhikkhu Bodhi

But unlike other religions that present a view where we are born impure, as sinners who must repent, in Buddhism although we certainly develop some bad habits and tendencies along the way there is an understanding that our mind, everyone’s mind, is pure by nature:

“The heart’s nature is intrinsically radiant; defilements are only visitors.”

A. 1.6.1. Quoted in Small Boat Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu

You are not your kilesas, they are only visitors to your otherwise pure mind.
These visiting defilements are sometimes seen as being like habits, like grooves that have been worn into the mind by repeatedly going down the same path over and over again. In some Tibetan schools rather than being things that are spoiling the mind they are described as something more like processes that happen in the mind. Through my investigations of my own kilesas, I have found it more useful to think of them as something that works more like a process that has unskilful thoughts or actions as its output.

I was watching a feeling of resistance again, and this time I examined the feeling to find how it might be related to the kilesas. I recognised that the feeling of resistance was because of aversion, and that is when I saw that the kilesas worked by taking in sensory information and outputting something unskilful. In some ways kilesas are like machines, you put some raw material in one end and it comes out the other end in a new shape; we put reality in one end of a kilesa and it comes out the other side altered in some way, it is no longer the world as it is but changed in some way. When I put a thought in one end of a kilesa, like aversion, and what comes out the other end is a feeling of resistance, a sense of self, and a long story about why I’m not going to do that thing. Of course I’m not deliberately putting sensory stimuli through a kilesa, that is where the habit part comes it. It is a habit of the mind for those kilesas to be activated, or it is a groove that sensory information tends to slope down towards.

If I was to pass the same thought through a part of my mind where there were no kilesas then the thought would go in as a thought, and come back out again as a thought, completely unchanged in anyway, and entirely free from any sense of self.

I quickly saw how these kilesa processes could spin a situation out of hand. If you took the example above the output of aversion was my feeling of resistance and sense of self; if you then passed that through another kilesa – desire for example – the output could be me looking for something that will take away the discomfort of resistance, which could perhaps be thinking about some way to make myself feel better, like going to the beach. Then I might realise that I have lost my meditation object and that thought goes through a kilesa – desire in the form of bhava tanha (desire to become) – which outputs the desire to be a good meditator, which goes through aversion again and the output is me having a go at myself for losing the meditation object. Phew!

Maha Boowa gives another example like this to show how the kilesas can keep digging us into a deeper and deeper hole:

““My knee hurts. I am in pain. But I don’t want to suffer pain. I want the pain to go away.” This desire to get rid of pain is a kilesa that increases the level of discomfort by turning physical feeling into emotional suffering. The stronger the pain is, the stronger the desire to rid oneself of it becomes, which leads to greater emotional distress. These factors keep feeding each other. Thus, due to our own ignorance, we load ourselves down with dukkha.” The Path to Arahantship by Maha Boowa

The ignorance that we experience has several layers, not least the part of us that grasps onto the output of the kilesas as being real, as being part of ourselves. If we treat the output of the kilesas as just being outputs of processes, then we can see that there is no reason to treat them any differently to any other sensory experience. But to take hold of these outputs at any point actually allows even more kilesas to be activated, then the whole thing goes completely off track.

When we see the unskilful thoughts that arise in our mind as simply being the output of a kilesa, then we can appreciate how the whole process is fundamentally empty of self. We might have a lot of ideas about being a lazy person, but really there is just the kilesa of aversion; sometimes sensory information goes through that kilesa and the output is the thought that you don’t want to do something. Sometimes the same piece of information goes through the mind without meeting a kilesa and there is no reaction, you just get on with whatever it is without any resistance.

The kilesas are not ‘you’, they are just parts of the mind that have blips in them, bugs in the code. The outputs of them are also not you. If you can recognise the unskilful thoughts that come up in your mind as just being the output of the kilesas then you can really let go of a lot of ideas about yourself.

Not only that, but it gives you a huge amount of freedom to make your own choices about how to react to things. If you find that you have suddenly had a really strong reaction to something, and you can track it back to the kilesa that made it, then you understand that the strength of the reaction is in no way a guide to how big a deal this situation is. You don’t have to respond to those big reactions in the same way anymore, because you know that it isn’t you, its just the output of a kilesa.

The downside to uncovering the kilesas in action is that once you have found them, you suddenly realise they are happening all the time. Every time you wriggle in meditation, that’s a kilesa. Every time you look out the window briefly instead of concentrating on writing a blog post, that’s a kilesa. Every time you think about going to get a drink instead of finishing that email, that’s a kilesa. Kilesas are everywhere. That’s why it is so important to see them as completely empty of self, because otherwise you are going to suddenly see yourself with all of these defilements and wonder what your practice has actually been doing all this time. That would also be a kilesa too of course. And it would likely lead to a lot more kilesas being activated too.

If you did create a sense of self around the kilesas, one approach you might take to tackle your kilesas would be to try harder. But, have you ever tried to be really, really mindful, and found that the harder you tried the less mindful you were? Ajahn Sumedho did:

I was walking on almsround at Tam Saeng Pet. I was trying to be very mindful, walking barefoot and I had this very sensitive right leg. I had to be most careful of it. It was very bumpy and rocky and rooty up at Tam Saeng Pet and I said to myself: “You must be mindful while walking, Sumedho!” So I was trying to be incredibly mindful, being ever so careful – and I stubbed my toe. It was so painful and I said to myself: “You’re not being mindful, Sumedho!” And while I was saying this I stubbed my toe again. And it was absolutely excruciating. So I heard myself saying: “You’re not mindful at all! You’re just a hopeless case!” – and I stubbed my toe for the third time. I was about ready to faint. And here I was: “You’ve got to be mindful; be mindful; try to be more mindful; I wasn’t mindful.” I was so caught up with my ideas about being mindful and my poor toe was suffering along with the rest of me.”

Even though he was trying to be skilful, Ajahn Sumedho hadn’t realised that there was a kilesa at work -the desire to be mindful. Because of that desire, the only outcome that was ever possible was an unskilful one, and that was proven to be the case when he was unable to be mindful. Not only that, but the unskilful output of the kilesa kept going through more kilesas; Ajahn Sumedho was being ever harder on himself, reinforcing his self-view, making himself feel worse, and all the while becoming less and less mindful, and stubbing his toe more and more.

I often advise that using too much effort, or being too hard on yourself, will be counterproductive to your practice, and this story from Ajahn Sumedho neatly illustrates why. Wanting and not wanting, desire and aversion, are two very powerful kilesas. If we inadvertantly utilise them in our practice the result can only be more kilesas, which is a problem when the aim of our practice is to have less of them. When we talk about a middle way in our practice, in some sense you could read this to mean practicing in such a way that doesn’t activate kilesas, or use their outputs. If we try too hard we activate our desire kilesa, if we don’t try hard enough we give in to our aversion kilesa. If we activate any kilesa the chances are that we also activate a sense of self around it too, and then we are even further from wise practice.

“Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake”, as Seung Sang would say, and this is a theme that Ajahn Sumedho often explored. Unchecked kilesas can block us completely from getting the one thing out of our practice that we think we are working so hard to achieve:

I encourage people to really observe desire as experience. What does it feel like? Really get to know it. Wanting sense pleasure, wanting to get rid of something, wanting to get away from something, wanting to become something, feels like this. Practising meditation in order to become enlightened—what does that feel like? If I practise hard enough I’m going to become enlightened! That’s the worldly mind, isn’t it? At university we have to study hard so that we’ll pass examinations. Work hard! You’ll get rewarded! This is the work ethic of our society. We may apply this ethic to meditation. Meditate hard! Really get in there and meditate! Grit your teeth! Kill your defilements! Really smash through! Make yourself become something. Become an enlightened person. The desire to become enlightened, to become pure, to become a better person—it sounds very good, doesn’t it? The desire to become a good person is a very good desire; the desire to be good isn’t bad. The important thing is to recognise that the grasping of desire is the problem; that is the cause of suffering.

So even practice itself can be a source of suffering if we don’t recognise the actions of the kilesas. But that can be another source of confusion for us, how do we know if we are doing it right if we can’t recognise the actions of the kilesas? There’s no doubt that the early stages of practice can be very difficult, and actually there is a lot of trial and error involved in it. How do we come to recognise the actions of the kilesas then? We practice. Little by little, some of the parts of our mind that don’t have kilesas in them become accessible, and we start to experience the different feeling that arises from experience that hasn’t been altered by a kilesa. This feeling becomes our guide, we start to naturally incline towards that feeling and away from the stress of the unskilful outputs of the kilesas. Every time we calm the mind we make a little more space, a little more room for the pure parts of our mind to be seen. Once you can see enough of the pure mind, then it is easier to see the kilesas for what they are, and then you can finally turn all of your attention onto them.

When I practice with the kilesas, first I notice that something is the output of one of them. I might be meditating and find myself off in a train of thought for example. I take my attention away from the content of the thoughts, and I try to identify the kilesa that made it, sometimes it is aversion but often it is bhava tanha. Then I like to consider what the output would have been if it hadn’t passed through a kilesa. Quite often what I find is that there was some initial thought or feeling that started it all off, but when I reflect on what would have happened without any kilesas, I see that the thought or feeling would simply have arisen and faded away. I see that the mind would have stayed peaceful and that no sense of self, or plans, or ideas would have arisen. I see that the whole experience would have been a lot more peaceful overall, and that reminds me to incline myself towards peace more and more. The key to removing the kilesas it seems is simply to recognise them for what they are, and to let go of any sense that their outputs are reality.

When talking about the kilesas, the Thai Forest teacher Ajahn Lee said:

“Even our enemies, when we become familiar with them, can become our friends.” trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I am inclined to agree with him, but not in the sense that he was talking about. He pointed out that it is our kilesas that often motivate us to start practicing, it is the aversion to feelings of suffering and our desire to learn to meditate and have a peaceful mind that brings us to the monastery to learn. He was, I think, trying to encourage us to not make more kilesas out of the kilesas. I think though that the kilesas become our friends when we start to recognise them in action. Up until the point that we do, we can find ourselves frustrated about our practice, and asking ourselves the same questions over and over again about ‘why do I keep doing that?’ Nothing is more confusing than knowing exactly what you are supposed to do, and yet still find yourself endlessly not doing it. But once we recognise the kilesas, and their outputs, then there doesn’t have to be as much confusion. Whatever unskilful thought or action has come up is just the output of a kilesa, so there is no need to cross examine ourselves any more. At that point too though, we realise just how many outputs the kilesas have been making, and although the task ahead of us is daunting we can approach it with confidence because we can see that the task is long but much simpler – remove the defilements, and purify the mind.

Image by dae jeung kim from Pixabay

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