The Buddha never used words such as defense mechanisms. However, the modern psychologists use these words in the exact manner as the Buddha explained these mental attitudes in the discourses. Defense mechanisms are unconscious protections against stressful situations and they play significant roles in keeping us with safe limits. They are not something that you call useless. They have their role to play, to help us from situations of stress, distress and harmful thoughts. When we are in danger, we need immediate protection. But the problem is over-using them and not knowing how to use them. Defense mechanisms are analogous to wearing shoes. You put on your shoes to walk in muddy areas. You go and walk in the woods. These shoes protect you from muddy areas, thorns and elements. But if we over-use, or misuse or abuse them, especially if you come back with your shoes, you mindlessly enter the meditation hall with your shoes on, and you go the dining hall with the mud on your shoes. You go to your room, and take shower with them, and you go to bed with them. Can you imagine what will happen? First, your bed sheets will get dirty. You have to keep on washing them every day. And you go in shower with muddy shoes, your fellow yogis are going to complain—who brought this mud in the meditation hall?
It is very clear these defenses or coping mechanisms have a place to play in life, but the problem is to use them when they are uncalled for.
Sometimes there are techniques we use in mindfulness—coping mechanism. But the thing is that coping mechanism and defense mechanism are similar and they are also different. Copying mechanisms are conscious while defense mechanisms are mostly unconscious. You can really apply coping mechanisms like mindfulness in which actually you deal with the situation and you allow yourself to embrace the emotion and be aware of it and investigate it. However, defense mechanism can be mindlessly pushing the experience so that you do not have to deal with it. These defenses or defensiveness are: repression, aggression, projection, regression, compensation, denial, mental isolation and physical isolation.
That is when defense mechanism is not serving. Because you are thinking chairs are going to protect you.
We are going to use the discourse itself. I think we better begin with the discourse; it is called Wild Colt. So, the first one, I am just reading from the word of the Buddha.
“And what bhikkhus are the eight kinds of persons who are like wild colts and the eight faults of a person? Here, when the bhikkhus are reproving a bhikkhu for an offense, he exonerates himself by reason of lack of memory, saying I don’t remember. I don’t remember committing such an offense. I say this person is similar to the wild colt that when told go forward, and when spurred and incited by its trainer, backs up and spins the chariot behind it. There is such a kind of a person here like a wild colt. This is the first fault of a person.”
So, the Buddha here was using the word “fault” instead of “defensiveness” or defense mechanism. This is what the Buddha say the first way this bhikkhu is defending himself. Maybe I should explain what an offense is. In monastic tradition, we keep many rules. We keep 227 rules for monks and nuns keep more. When you transgress some rules, especially the first for rules, you cease to be a monk. The next 13 rules, you can make amends but you need a quorum of 20 monks to confess. There are other offenses where it requires one to one, maybe your fellow monastic. Others are just training rules and others just part of the discipline. There are various offenses, but this seems to be one to one—one monk maybe observed that he has transgressed from a certain moral conduct. But the bhikkhus here says “I don’t remember.” In modern psychology, they call it repression—you suppress it.
Maybe you have pain in this retreat and you can’t face it. You may just actually forget about it. But is forgetting about pain going to solve the problem? No. it is not going to solve the problem. So, we need to be realistic and we have to apply mindfulness. Whether it is physical pain or emotional pain, we have to practice mindfulness. We also have to be aware and understand that we are trying to repress it—suppress it, which is actually doing it more consciously; repression is unconscious. Suppression is actually trying to push away things that you don’t want—bottling them. In your meditation, maybe you have experienced those situations where you remember difficult memories in your child, and you try to suppress them, you don’t want to face them. Of course, the good thing about mindfulness is that its function is non-forgetfulness while repression is actually trying to forget. The function of mindfulness is of course to guard the mind from difficult mental defilement, but also it has this function of non-forgetfulness. If you practice mindfulness, you will be more aware of this defensiveness or protection that you are trying to put on. You should be able to really address the issue at hand— whether it is emotional or physical pain. Sally yesterday gave a talk on mindfulness of mind states—a wonderful talk. All the teachers here have been giving techniques of how to deal with difficult situations. Maybe it is a yogi job, very difficult. So, what do you do? Maybe it brings a lot of anger because you are working with somebody who is working too fast and you cannot speak. Then there is that kind of frustration—you get frustrated that you cannot talk. Usually these things happen when you really cannot come out of the situation easily. Then you can easily get a protection and just suppress things. But I think there should be a way how we can deal with these kinds of situations instead of suppressing or repressing. We find some ways of dealing with it.
But here is the question; most of the people say you Buddhist, you meditators, you don’t talk about expressing anger; you don’t talk about suppressing anger, or repressing it. What do you do? The answer is, we try to dissolve—it is about dissolving. It is not about suppression, or expressing or repressing. It is about dissolving. I always use analogy of; let’s say this is ice; there is a way to make it disappear. Either you can heat it; smash into pieces. You will use a lot of energy to hammer it. But with knowledge and wisdom, we can say, hey wait a minute. This piece of ice got into this state because of temperature. It was put into a refrigerator, then it solidified. How about putting it in temperatures lower than the ice. You then bring it from the refrigerator, and put it out. The causes and conditions for the arising of this ice is temperature so if you put it in the opposite temperature, it starts melting; it dissolves. So, most of the difficult situations we get into is because we are not mindfulness. When we have a situation and you put it in front of mindfulness, it dissolves. Most of the difficult situations we go through—I am talking about this already which includes full understanding, mindfulness itself and many other mental factors.
Most of the time I advise people to practice mindfulness to overcome anger. They say no, how can mindfulness help me overcome anger. They think they need something extra. Actually, mindfulness is very powerful. I used this analogy of ice to actually remind you that most of the problem we go through is being forgetful. Mindfulness itself means to remember. Modern psychologists even talked about repression that it pervades all other defensive mechanisms because it is about forgetfulness and pushing away things. So, this is a major defense mechanism.
2. Aggression—being aggressive.
This is assaulting the sources of frustration. May be the object of anger, so we are aggressive, that is a defense mechanism or defensiveness. I don’t know if you have ever used it. Have you ever used these mechanisms? It is very common. We can put it in simple terms because it sounds so psychological. We can maybe say ‘acting out’.
According to the Buddha;
“Again, when the bhikkhus are reproving a bhikkhu for an offense, he castigates the reprover himself. What right does an incompetent fool like you have to speak? Do you really think you have something to say? I say this person is similar to the wild colt that when told go forward, and when spurred and incited by its trainer, leaps back and the thereby damages the rail and breaks the triple pole. There is such a kind of a person here like a wild colt. This is the second fault of a person.”
Now, with this kind of background of the discourse, maybe we can relate to it very well. In the course of our meditation, so many things happen. Maybe not on this retreat but many years ago I heard that IMS (Insight Meditation Society) had a problem with the windows especially when weather changes. Sometimes some yogis wanted it cool; and some yogis from Uganda I think so like it hot. Can you imagine two of you sitting there, one yogi from Uganda and another one from Finland; one student wants the window open another one wants it closed. What is going to go around? You are all meditating well, but you see somebody opening that window, I am telling you; all the techniques you have learned about mindfulness can go out through the window. You can act out and slam it. I know you are good yogis you cannot do this kind of thing. But I am just trying to create some kind of imagination. The example about the window has actually been here. Maybe thigs are now different but there used to be a little bit of conflict regarding those windows. Now it is not there but used to be. This is very common trying to assault the source of frustration. Of course, there were no physical blows, but I know it was unpleasant. People forgot to note unpleasant and pleasant (audience chuckles).
Now you can do a few things to deal with these things of being aware of aggressiveness; you can be aware of it. Of course, mindfulness helps; metta (loving-kindness) also helps. Oh, poor thing coming from hot place; maybe needs a little bit of help. I told you last time it is better with metta always. If there is something coming out and you feel a little bit of aggression but you are afraid because you cannot talk to somebody, you try to practice and apply metta. Whenever there is a kind of urge or impulse to deal with unpleasant stuff, when I see the object or somebody who caused the problem, I found out this teaching is very helpful. When you are angry with somebody, ask yourself; which aggregate are you angry with? Is it form? Feelings? Am I angry with perception? Guy gave a talk about aggregates and told us that there is no self. In those five aggregates, there is no self. And then you find out you are angry with non-self, not with the self. A little bit of theoretical understanding of Buddhism helps. Okay, who are you angry with? With the nose? With the hair? This teaching is not from this Ugandan monk it is from Visudhimagga—the path of purification. It is a book by a monk called Venerable Buddhagosa. It is a very beautiful commentary. I think this is his PhD. It’s a book for meditators written for a meditator that next time when you get angry with somebody, instead of attacking the person, just ask yourself these questions; are you angry with consciousness? Are you angry with perception? When you go through these, your anger will go out through the window. This man reminds me of a Russian proverb which says that when you get angry with somebody, roll your tongue eleven times (Bhante demonstrates how to roll the tongue—audience chuckles). My friends I tried it. It works. When you reach the sixth time, seventh time, eighth time, you forget about anger. You maybe enjoy your saliva. Most of the time we get angry because we actually buy time; we don’t have enough time; we go on autopilot; we go with our defense mechanism; but here is allowing time.
The instructions you have already got from here are the same. When anger arises, you come back to the body. When you come back to the body, you give yourself time. I don’t have time to talk about biology, this is already explained in biology. It is explained in biology what they call sympathetic nerve system and parasympathetic nerve system. So, giving yourself time, allows the nerve system to go back to normal. So, this works by asking questions; you know all the five aggregates. You keep on asking.
There is more to talk about acting out. There is also what we call acting in. Acting out is of course to others, but this is a side information. It is not given in the discourse. Sometimes we are aggressive towards ourselves. It is called acting in. It can be remorse, guilt; self-blame. This is very common. Maybe in a retreat here; or maybe you are doing a yogi job and your fellow yogi is not cooperating; always doing the task slowly. Let me give another example. You sign up for a yogi job you didn’t like. What will happen? You start “Oh I would come late at IMS during the open day and maybe get another job”. So, you start hurrying these kinds of remorse.
In monastic tradition, since we keep so many rules, we deal with remorse and guilt. Many times, there are situations that do not support the way you keep them; traveling a lot; you go to non-Buddhist countries where they do not know you are a monk, you are bound to encroach some of the minor rules. Now, should we find out there is a sense of remorse and guilt, we acknowledge that we have done something unskillful. The next stage we determine not to do the same thing again. The third thing, we amend not end, according to the Dhamma; either we take the precepts again or we say sorry; the fourth is to do what is skillful or wholesome. I wanted to give that as a side information because in modern psychology, we have things like passive aggression where you don’t take responsibility.