We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
The Realms of Emotional Fixation
There are three lower realms and three higher realms.
The experiences of the lower realms are more clouded and claustrophobic, because the conflicting emotion is so powerful that you are utterly engrossed in it and overwhelmed by it.
The higher realms are regarded as more intelligent and less painful—although not that much less painful from the point of view of a Buddha.
From a Buddha’s perspective, even if the lower realms experience the pain of their conflicting emotions more intensely than the higher realms, what all the realms—without exception—have in common is that they cling to the belief that the “I” truly exists. The Buddha taught that there can be no lasting happiness until that belief is given up.
Animals: Dogged Determination
The first of the lower realms is the animal realm, which is characterized by ignorance. The psychological mechanism of the animal realm is based on your focus on accomplishing a certain result and paying no attention to the environment around you. There is a lack of panoramic awareness. You are concerned only about achieving your goal and you simply move towards it until something blocks the way. You have a kind of steamroller sincerity about what you are trying to accomplish and you are not interested in being told that it can’t be done or that there are other ways of doing it.
In the animal realm, the basic concern is survival and enhancing it with a sense of security. You prefer your livelihood to be repetitive, predictable, and somewhat mindless. You would like cradle-to-grave security and want as few surprises as possible. There is little or no sense of humor, and therefore no potential to see your seriousness and relax a little. We laugh about something because we suddenly see it in a new way, as happens in an “aha!” experience. But the ability to laugh at ourselves is an expression of intelligence and the animal realm is too gullible, too serious. Because you are completely identified with what you want to accomplish, if you don’t accomplish it you experience tremendous disappointment.
These qualities are what my dear, departed little Scottish terrier, Magic, expressed while waiting for his dinner. For nearly 14 years—from the time he was a tiny pup—I fed him every night, which adds up to four thousand feedings. But every single night of his life, he would come into the kitchen and sit there with great intensity, waiting anxiously to be fed, fearing it might not happen. Nothing would deter him from this stubborn insistence.
Hell: A Closed Loop of Anger
The hell realm, which is characterized by the aggression of anger and hatred, is the most painful of the realms because of its relentless claustrophobia. This claustrophobia inevitably accompanies your aggression because the tension and tightness make you unable to find any sense of psychological space or relaxation. The experience contains a Catch-22 because the very claustrophobia of the anger makes you lash out in order to relieve yourself of it. And when you lash out at your world, the world responds in kind. Your projections bounce back on you because receiving the hatred is equally painful for others. It is like a hot potato that they don’t want to hold any more than you do. This simply intensifies your own anger and hatred further. You are caught in an endless no-win situation, a self-fulfilling loop of conflict—like the politics of the Middle East. As Gandhi memorably said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Here are some portrayals of how this works:
- In the classic Christian epic The Divine Comedy, Dante’s description of the nine circles of Hell is unbearably painful precisely because there is no escape.
- In Sartre’s play No Exit he said, “Hell is other people.” The Buddha would probably find Sartre’s famous closing lines a bit too pessimistic. The Buddha would revise it to “Hell is my experience of anger and hatred toward other people.”
- Recall the film War of the Roses, where the no-exit momentum of resentment and hatred between the husband and wife drives them mercilessly to a horrific conclusion.
- In the physical and psychological environment of a maximum-security prison, both prisoners and guards participate together in a closed loop of fear and aggression with no real relief. At this point, the psychological claustrophobia of anger and hatred has become visibly externalized in an environment that reflects it in every excruciating detail.
All the world’s spiritual traditions invariably describe hell as intense cold or intense heat. Either the anger and hatred freeze you so that you are unable to communicate with the world, to soften and play with it in any way; or else it burns you because the intensity of your pain is so great that it becomes all consuming. Robert Frost put it succinctly and poignantly in the poem “Fire and Ice”:
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire,
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great,
and would suffice.”
Hungry Ghosts: Desire that Nothing Satiates
The third of the lower realms is called the hungry ghost realm, and is characterized by insatiable hunger or desire. It is a passion that grasps at things without relief or perspective or resourcefulness. In this realm, you are propelled by a sense that the world has endless delights that you can’t have or enjoy, while others can. There is an immense poverty mentality because you believe that while there is so much richness and abundance all around, you are somehow condemned always to be separated from it. You are like a child pressing her nose against the window of FAO Schwarz toy store. Your whole relationship to your life is based on this poverty and hunger. The Catch-22 in this realm is that even if you get what you want, having it does not satisfy you because you are so consumed by the desire itself. It’s as if desire has become your full-time occupation. This is why the hungry ghost mentality is at the root of all addictive behaviors.
In the iconography of Tibetan Buddhist art, the hungry ghost is depicted as a being with a very tiny mouth, a thin neck, and a huge belly. The huge belly symbolizes an all-consuming appetite, but the tiny mouth and thin neck symbolize that there is no way for that belly to ever be filled. The advertising industry makes it their mission to reinforce our hungry ghost sense of dissatisfaction by perpetuating the myth that endless consumption is the true aim of life.
Gods: Blissing Out of Touch
The three higher realms are considered more desirable to live in than the lower ones because their relationship to the emotional states that propel them is less desperate, more intelligent and resourceful, and—especially in the case of the god realm—more pleasurable.
The god realm creates and sustains itself by dwelling on pleasure. This pleasure can be material, as found in Beverly Hills and the lifestyles of the rich and famous, or it can be a spiritual practice promising endless love, light, and bliss without any sacrifice or discomfort. Sustaining this is based upon a subtle kind of ignorance—much more subtle than the ignorance of the animal realm. In the god realm, you are ignoring all the subtle messages that this realm is not solid and that this pleasure is not going to last forever. You are ignoring the truth of impermanence and instead dwelling on a kind of complacent pride, a smugness of having accomplished something everyone else would like to have.
This realm reflects your preference for pleasure and your desire to maintain it at all costs for as long as possible. It is your seeming good fortune to maintain pleasurable states for a while. Because this is an extremely seductive realm, we would all be dishonest if we pretended we didn’t experience some longing to be there now and then. But sooner or later, impermanence intrudes, just as it did in the film Sunset Boulevard for Norma Desmond: a desperate aging starlet from the extinct silent film era. The residents of the god realm must sooner or later face the harsh reality that their beauty, their glamour, their status, and their fame cannot be maintained indefinitely in the face of the constant change within them and all around them. The fall from the god realm is a very long, hard fall.
Recall the life of the Buddha, who was raised in a god realm situation of great wealth and luxury. His life was insulated and protected from the harsh truth that others less fortunate than him were suffering on a daily basis. His awakening began when he ventured outside his palace walls and saw how the other ninety-nine percent lived. Because of his own intelligence and potential for compassion, he recognized that these harsh experiences were not something that he should flee from. Rather, he needed to move toward them and find out more about them.
Traditionally, it is said that there are actual god realms populated by yogis who dwell in very subtle and profound meditative states. According to the Tibetan tradition, in meditation you can fixate so deeply that you are actually reborn as a god. This is done through a profound accomplishment of shamatha’s peaceful abiding, but without the freeing and penetrating insight of vipasyana to wake you up suddenly from your sweet dream.
Jealous Gods: Scheming to Get Ahead
In the jealous god realm are beings who want to be gods but can’t quite attain that level. They actually become so entertained by competition with each other about getting to the god realm that this in itself becomes their realm. The engine that drives the jealous god realm is the aggression of paranoia, competitiveness, jealousy, and envy. Everything you encounter is regarded as a potential threat or an obstacle you must outmaneuver. It is a constant game of power plays, one-upmanship, and inside information, as found in the political game of Washington, DC or the financial game of Wall Street. It’s the game of skillful, scheming Machiavellian diplomatic types who keep the intrigues of the world going.
The jealous god realm is much more sophisticated than the hell realm because the aggression is more politically acceptable. The jealous gods let others do their dirty work for them, and walk away from their own grandiose, destructive schemes without being held accountable for the suffering countless others have endured as a result. Whereas the hell realm projects its hatred in a way that appears utterly tortured, stupid and gross, in the jealous god realm the hatred has been transformed into diplomacy. Even compassion is regarded as just another strategy. In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli writes that the ruler who wishes to consolidate his power should not really possess the qualities of wisdom and compassion, but should seem to do so if it will further his own selfish ends. If it will not, he should simply abandon such seemingly noble qualities without a second thought.
Humans: The Gift of Disappointment
The human realm, which is our very own home, has the basic qualities of heartfelt longing, the intelligent ability to create a world that is reasonably comfortable, and great inquisitiveness about how things are as well as how things work. With that intelligent kind of passion, you want to make the world better. You want to understand how it works. You want to go beyond your isolation and connect with others. You want to get the most you can out of this book you are reading right now. You want to be happy. But your efforts are only partially successful, and you experience disappointment.
This disappointment is actually essential, because it motivates you to look for a way out of your predicament, and to encounter the wisdom that may help you do so. Because you experience disappointment, the human realm provides you with the possibility of a break or gap in fixation so that you can actually begin to free yourself from confusion. By cultivating your innate intelligence, you can begin to see right through the ways in which you keep yourself imprisoned.
You can experience an alternative to the claustrophobia of your cocoon. You can experience a relationship to your projections that is more open and less gullible.
The Buddha taught that this opportunity is uniquely precious, because it is the starting point of your journey toward inner freedom.
The practice of meditation enables you to make the most of this precious opportunity to get up and walk out of the theatre of the realms and into the clear light of reality. The fact that we are currently embodied together in the human realm, with its unique opportunity to hear the teachings on liberation and put them into practice—and that we can explore this opportunity right now—is considered by Tibetan masters to be an extremely auspicious and precious karmic link with each other and with the dharma. Needless to say, they urge you not to let this opportunity go to waste. Every time my teachers would say this to me, chills would go up my spine. Even recalling their reminders now—especially as I get older—I experience those familiar chills.
In the next chapter, we will look at the experience of the human realm in depth, focusing especially on why it is traditionally regarded as the optimal realm for liberation from ego-fixation.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner