Our insight practice is aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating mental suffering. The teachings of the Buddha tell us that suffering is caused by three basic defilements in the mind: lobha (greed or grasping), dosa (anger or aversion), and moha (delusion). If you reflect on your mental suffering, you will see that either grasping or aversion is always involved. Moha or delusion is there also, but it is harder to recognize. It is the defilement that underlies and enables the other two – the grasping or aversion.
The term “defilement” can be troubling to some. It can have a moralistic connotation in our culture – we’ve done something dirty or wrong. But, that’s not the meaning we’re talking about here. The term “defilements” is used because these factors come and corrupt our awareness, which is naturally clear and free of suffering. It’s not that we have necessarily done anything wrong, and committed some kind of sin. Rather, it is the defilements themselves that are arising unbidden, and corrupting self-awareness. People don’t decide to be angry or clinging, or deluded. The defilements just show up on their own based on past causes and conditions. The true and original nature of the mind is clear, calm, and illuminated. But greed, anger and delusion arise and cover over this clear self-awareness. This is why they are called defilements – they are sort of soiling or blocking this natural state of awareness. So this isn’t a moralistic teaching.
It is difficult to intentionally make the defilements go away, because to try to do so often creates more aversion. A more skillful approach is to remove the conditions that support the defilements. The principal support for the defilements is darkness (moha). The defilements are like mushrooms or mold that only grow in the dark. To kill this type of fungus, we only need to allow the sunlight to fall on it. In this case we are talking about the light of our present-moment awareness. All we have to do is notice the defilement when it is there, and allow our awareness to illuminate it without any judgment toward oneself or what one is experiencing. It will fall away by itself because it can’t persist in the presence of this clear present-moment awareness.
This is the deeper practice of mindfulness – to put an end to darkness and illuminate the nooks and crannies of suffering in the mind with awareness. If we can do this completely, we have solved the problem completely, and gone beyond birth and death. This, of course, is easier said than done. To be able to actualize this, one must understand what is supporting the darkness – what is hampering the light of present-moment awareness. The principal support for the mind’s darkness is the cocoon of thought that we constantly spin about ourselves. This cocoon of thought keeps us in darkness. You can verify the truth of this for yourself. When there is a defilement present, there is also conceptual thought supporting that defilement and shielding it from the light. There is some narrative the mind is spinning that justifies and encourages the grasping or aversion. The solution is not to destroy the cocoon, but to allow present-moment awareness to emerge from it.
We emerge from the cocoon, by allowing awareness to “see” thought, which means to know thought as an object that exists in the present moment separate from that which is doing the knowing. When we can do this, our awareness is no longer identified with and bound up in the cocoon, but can see both the cocoon and what exists outside of it. Awareness can then illuminate the defilements themselves so that they naturally wither away.