“The three poisons are passion (this includes craving or addiction), aggression, and ignorance (which includes denial or the tendency to shut down and close out).
We would usually think of these poisons as something bad, something to be avoided. But that isn’t the attitude here; instead, they become seeds of compassion and openness.”
In her most recent book, The True Secret of Writing, Natalie Goldberg quotes a conversation I had with her about how resenting someone just poisons the person doing the resenting. Its in a chapter on Dogen, a very important and ancient Japanese Zen teacher, and the “close paraphrase” she uses is something I attributed to Henry Rollins*:
Hating someone’s guts is like shitting in your own hand and then eating it.
When, in classical Buddhism, dharma speaks of passion, aggression and ignorance being poisons, it does not mean, as it is sometimes interpreted, that we should not want for anything or ever be angry. Instead, the teachings point to how we keep a short-lived emotion rolling for longer than it actually lasts (as Jill Bolte Taylor points out, a matter of seconds), which is what fundamentally keeps suffering going.
In other words, the shit may hit the fan. The question is: Do you then eat it?
Because I’ve been struggling with some relationships lately where there’s a lot of confusion and hurt, I’ve been thinking about the paraphrased Rollins line a lot. In particular, I’ve been noticing how all three of the traditional Buddhist poisons: passion, aggression and ignorance, manifest in my body. Here are some reflections on how these specific kinds of self-fed poisons have felt in my body over the years.
Resentment, or, its slightly less-ugly-seeming cousin: righteous indignation, does, in fact, feel like eating shit. It doesn’t feel that way at first, of course.
First it feels good, like a steak, nice and solid and full of protein. After I’ve been eating it for awhile, though, I begin to regurgitate parts of it and then chew and re-swallow them. Finally, when the thoughts have been re-processed enough, they come out as poop and I eat it all over again. At this point, I become so suffering-based that I am sure it is the fault of the person who got me going in the first place. Yet, at this point I am definitely eating my own waste, not theirs.
Meditation training really helps: I start, somewhere in the shit-eating phase, to realize that is, in fact, what I am doing. I have to realize it is up to me. That I am now feeding myself off the remnants of my own aggression. Only I can stop this fetid feast.
Passion creates different bodily results, but in the end, still distresses my digestion.
I remember walking along an Austrian village road in my late teens, and composing in my head a passage for a poem I still think of often: “the grit of lust grinds in my gut.” I was longing for someone I had made out with, wanted to go further with, and savoring the fantasies so much that I would chew and spit them back out again just so I could suck all the flavor out.
On that trip, nothing I tried tasted like it should have—everything tasted like sex. It seemed awesome, so all-consuming as to be magical, but after awhile, it started to burn itself out. The passion faded, the stories I told myself got redundant, and the grit started to scrape against my intestinal wall and hurt me. By the time I returned to where my potential lover was, I was so sick of myself and the potentialities that I couldn’t even look them in the face.
Again, mainly meditation has helped me to see this for what it is: the final, failing death of throes I tried to keep going despite all odds. Of course, one way to handle this is to dive back into the relationship and try to rekindle it, or go looking for someone else. However, I have discovered other options as I sit with space and watch my need to be confirmed by someone else fade.
I find ignorance the hardest of all three to trace in my body.
First of all, ignorance is self-secreting. If I am ignoring something, how do I know it even exists? It’s maddening to try and locate, but if I listen to my body in meditation, in yoga or in silence, I can usually, eventually, find it.
Ignorance is an insoluble lump in my throat, or a rock of constipation in my gut. Usually, it waits just off to the side, a block that can’t been seen through but is still invisible. Ignorance—pretending I am not angry or excited, pretending there’s no problem at all—fuels the fire of passion and aggression, and so I usually don’t notice it until the other two have begun to take off. If I can catch that lump early enough, though—a friend asks me how I am doing and they are sincere, my wife wants to know how my day really was—I can stem off any further issues.
Ultimately, locating these self-poisonings in my body have given me an agency I didn’t used to have. It’s not a perfect system—but I don’t need to be perfect. The sooner I can catch the loop, the more sleep I get and the less sick I feel—in all senses of the word. And the less likely I am to eat my own shit.
Try it out:
Notice when you take a grain from someone—an argument, an indictment, abusive words or injuries – and keep feeding on it. Learning to stop your own shit-eating won’t stop abuse incurred by others in life. However, it can help make sure that you don’t keep poisoning yourself with the very things you blame them for giving you in the first place.
Is there a difference between what you digest and what you crap out and eat again?
Let me know.
*Actual quote from Henry Rollins turns out to be this.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise