Getting to the Heart of the Matter

“The Buddhist approach is not to use any reference points at all—none whatsover. Then we are not finding out whether we exist or not, but we are simply looking at ourselves directly, without any reference points—without even looking, we could say. That may be very demanding, but let it be so. Let us get to the heart of the matter.” —Chögyam Trungpa


When I first encountered the dharma, I was excited to be encountering an entirely new way of looking at things and a new method of doing so, through the practice of meditation. Little did I know that this new way of looking would lead me to question my understanding as to who I was at the most fundamental level. This kind of questioning is at the heart of the teachings of Buddhist psychology, or abhidharma, a Sanskrit term meaning “highest dharma.”

When I began the path, I thought I knew who I was, but I soon found out that I really had no clue. Of course, I had a name, experiences, and assorted roles and credentials, and I was busy doing this and that all the time, but I had not stopped to look directly at the nature of my own experience. I was lost in the busyness. It was as though I was going through life just skimming the surface of reality and uncertain as to what lay below.

As I began to practice meditation, and slow down from time to time, it became apparent that I was constantly engaged in weaving a story that suited who I thought I was or should be. I saw that my story needed constant attention. Inconsistencies needed to be weeded out and improvements needed to be added in. Such upkeep was essential, for this was a story I depended on and that I was afraid to drop.

To keep my story going, I had to keep telling it to myself, and fueling it with entertainment and countless distractions. To feed this story and give it solidity, I had to be vigilant for any leaks, and be prepared to ward off external threats as well as my own doubts. The problem was that meditation practice began to get in the way of this maintenance project.

It kept interrupting the fixations, attachments, dramas, and distractions that kept the whole story flowing merrily along.

In the meditation experience, such mental-emotional patterns become obvious. But what inspires that distractedness, mental theater, and search for credentials? Why are we like that? Why do we do that all the time? Perhaps it is because we are so estranged that our own raw experience has become threatening to us. If so, we need to look into that. And that is what Buddhist psychology is all about—taking a direct and detailed look at the nature of our own experience.

We could view the practice of meditation as a way of making friends with ourselves at a deeper level—with no stamp of approval from anyone but ourselves. But we don’t even know where to put our stamp of approval, because we don’t know what is there. We are hidden from ourselves because we have built up so many layers of confusion that we no longer see clearly. And we continue to build up those layers and prop them up in all sorts of ways, shapes, and forms.  So another way of looking at meditation is that it is a peeling away of all these layers and seeing what is there.

Buddhist psychology is based on the insights people have developed through meditative practice. By examining the nature of thoughts, emotions, and the development of habits and fixations, it helps one explore fundamental questions of self-nature, duality, alienation, and egotism. The abhidharma teachings provide a kind of map to help us explore our own nature. It is said that by exposing the mechanisms that entrap us, and examining them thoroughly and carefully, we can open a path to liberation, for like anaerobic bacteria, these mechanisms only thrive when they are are hidden from the light.


Get to the heart of the matter with Acharya Judy Lief during a special weekend of Abhidharma teachings at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York.

Clearing Clouds From Sky-Like Mind: A Buddhist Approach to Thought, Emotions & Perception is Friday night and Saturday, October 5th & 6th.

For more information and to register for Friday night or Friday + Saturday, click here.