The Dharma of Normalization and Śaivism’s Three Roots of Suffering

Dharma of Normalization

The fields of psychology and the dharma are radically different, but we occasionally find some precious gems of overlap.

In psychology, it actually doesn’t matter all that much what technique one uses. This has been corroborated in studies over and over. It’s not the theoretical orientation or methodology of the therapist that makes a true difference. It’s the relationship. The relationship is the difference between good therapy and not-so-good therapy. Because what’s most helpful to humans who are suffering is simply being seen.

Additionally, when we are suffering, it is indispensable to have one’s experience normalized. Of course there’s a paradox here. All humans are radically unique. But the coffin nails on suffering are hammered in by the mind’s crafty lies of separate-self-fixation. I think in 12 step they call it “terminal unique-ness.” The mind tells us that no one gets us, our suffering is really, really distinct, and if we were to reveal what is on the inside, others would never understand us, yada yada yada.

So, when we are suffering, we often just need to sit with someone who can let us know that we are not alone. It’s so simple, but we just need to be seen, and for someone to affirm that we are suffering is a shared reality. Indeed, other humans experience suffering in similar sorts of ways to the way that we are experiencing it.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, normalization is a core component of the healing process. In all sorts of therapy, a core component of psych education is normalization.

In the Śaiva Tantra, this is addressed in an incredibly simple and yet nuanced manner. Let me tell you about the 3 malas – “taints” or impurities. (Not to be confused with mālā, which means garland, and colloquially means a necklace of prayer beads for japa meditation.)

The malas are processes of mind which veil our capacity to see the world and ourselves clearly. Learning about the malas really helped me. It’s radically comforting to realize that people have been striving towards self-understanding and liberation for time immemorial. These teachings are detailed in the Pratyabhijñāhṛdayam, ‘The Heart of Self-Recognition’, which is an eleventh-century treatise written by Kashmiri philosopher Rajanaka Kṣemarāja, disciple of the polymath master Abhinavagupta.

So here’s the connection. Āṇava-mala is the mala of separateness. It is the source of the other two. So essentially it is the core “impurity” in our thought process that causes suffering. Āṇava-mala is the deep-seated feeling of being separate; from others, from spirit, from Śiva — heart-consciousness, or God, or buddha-nature… essentially, separate from the flow of life. So with this foundation of confusion, the other malas grow into being.

So I’ll tell you about the other malas, but think about this — the mental process that is the most contributive to our suffering — feeling separate and unique — is the biggest commonality amongst us, and is the ROOT of all suffering. We are so not alone in feeling alone.

But we mask the alone-ness with the other malas, in ways that make it impossible to heal. Read on…

Māyīya-mala is the ignorance that causes us to fixate on differences rather than realizing our fundamental wholeness. You could argue that it’s the patterns of thinking that allow racism or any other kind of divisiveness to arise. It’s also the way that we, in a garden-variety sort of way, distract ourselves from feeling anything. And if we can’t feel, we can’t heal.

Māyīya-mala is the perception of duality; it’s an intellectual flight. Māyīya-mala is an escape from the heart-wrenching loneliness of āṇava-mala — but it doesn’t take us any closer to the truth. It may give us an illusion of clarity while actually befuddling reality even more, or it may just get us deeper in suffering.

And finally, kārma-mala is the illusion of doer-ship – the tendency to fixate on actions and behaviors that will ensure that one ‘wins’ in the illusory competition of life. Kārma-mala can both propel us into action (which, when we are in its grips, we think of as the bright side) and render us catatonic and unhinged when we feel frustrated in our inability to create the changes we’d like to see in the world.

Understanding these malas can be the key to unhooking from cycles of suffering.

Just remember that you are not alone. And remember that you are so not alone in feeling alone.

And whatever kind of suffering you are in, whether you are in touch with it or not, it probably fits into one of these three categories. And when we can see that, understand it, and dig deep in getting free, alongside others, we let go into the flow of life.

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