The trick to untangling mental knots

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It’s not magic, but it may feel that way!

When my attention gets entangled in tight knots of thoughts and emotions, it’s worth taking time to take a look and see what’s going on. But I can’t do this effectively if I look at the tangle in the same state of mind that created them. That only makes it worse. So what can I do?

We all get stuck in mental knots, however we think about them. I like using the metaphor of knots because they acknowledge that something’s blinding us, but the image allows for the possibility of softening and releasing the tangle into the easy weave of the veils of thoughts we all have about all kinds of things, including ourselves, our loved ones, and the world as a whole.

And I like the metaphor of veils because they are light and flowing. They can be gauzy and even transparent. We can play with them, dance with them, and, most importantly, by their very nature, we can drop or lift them. Letting go of them is a natural part of the experience of veils.

When we notice a knot in one of our veils, we can feel how it weighs the veil down, how our attention circles around the heavy place and settles there. The knot makes dancing with life more difficult. It breaks up the flow of the veils, and as it grows, it causes blind spots.

So, what created the knot? The mental state of fear in its various forms: greed, aversion, and delusion. Buddha called them the Three Poisons. Before I share the ‘trick’ of how to untangle a mental knot, we need to be able to recognize these mental states when they show up. As they will, again and again. Get used to it! They are part of the human condition. But we can relate to them more skillfully, and that makes all the difference. And we can disengage them enough to explore mental knots without making things worse. So here they are:

When the Three Poisons Investigate a Mental Knot

Greed is grabby by nature. It wants to amass more and more solid sense of self, so when greed investigates a knot, it spends a lot of time there, almost taking comfort in its density. The Knot becomes the grand to-do project we feel we must address before life can go forward, and thus we never live.

Aversion makes a knot tenser and tighter. It makes an enemy of the knot and attacks it. Not useful! It takes the form of anger, criticism, and hatred. And not surprisingly, the poor knot gets further entangled.

Delusion fails to notice the knot or pretends it doesn’t exist. In a state of delusion, our attention wanders along less challenging thought threads. Delusion is also called ignorance because it ignores what’s right in front of it. Or it makes us think we have all the answers when none of us do. Believing we do makes us turn away, or stick our fingers in our ears and go la-la-la, I don’t want to hear it. Or it gets lost in the knot itself, not realizing it’s just a knot of thoughts.

As I describe these three poisons and how they interact, you may recognize them in your own experience or in someone you know. When you know what to look for, you discover that the Three Poisons are always on display, hiding in plain sight.

If we deactivate greed, aversion, and delusion in our moment-to-moment experience, the knots have a chance to soften and unravel on their own. So before any inner exploration, we cultivate spaciousness primarily through meditation and being receptive as we spend time in nature. Reading inspiring poetry or listening to uplifting music may also be beneficial. As we activate awareness of the nature of life, we can recognize that it’s not about self-improvement, remaking ourselves to meet some obscure measure. Instead, it’s about coming home to the aliveness of being.

One pitfall to avoid is thinking that the Three Poisons are a way to label ourselves. They are not personality types we glom onto to build a sense of identity. They are simply patterns that arise. All three patterns are present in all of us. Maybe we find ourselves more often in one pattern or another, but it doesn’t make us solidify an identity trait. It’s important to understand that none of us is a greedy, hateful, or deluded person. Instead, we notice that right now greed is present. This is how the poison of greed feels. Ah, now here comes some aversion. It’s interesting to see how they collaborate sometimes. And here comes a little fog of delusion. Wha???

All three poisons divide us from life. Greed tries to amass a fortress of self. The more stuff we have (whether physical objects, achievements, praise, activities, friends, followers, etc.,) the more solid we may feel. I exist. I’m real. But it’s just an unskillful way to attempt to experience the fearless interconnection our inner wisdom tells us inherently exists, something we experience by letting go, not by grasping and clinging.

Aversion also creates a separate fortress of self. But instead of amassing like a collage artist, it cuts and scrapes away, like a sculptor chipping away at marble, all the things and people of the world that are not acceptable, hoping to define and defend that perfect self.

Delusion isn’t trying to build or chip away, but when we’re in that state, our attention floats along in a cloud of unquestioned assumptions, spacing out, getting lost in a fog.

One way I’ve heard the Three Poisons described is that there is no fire hotter than greed, no ice colder than hatred, and no fog thicker than delusion. Pretty intense! Which only speaks to the importance of noticing them as they arise. But it also reminds us that we can’t extinguish a fire with fire, melt the ice with ice, or clear fog with fog. So to address the knots that blind us, we pause to practice being present and cultivate awareness.

Here is a brief recorded practice you can try right now. 

Stephanie Noble guided meditation for releasing the Three Poisons

Breathing in. Breathing out. And noticing whether the three poisons are present. With our attention fully present, they disappear. How comforting is that? What a lovely reminder to meditate. Not as an escape but as a practice to train the attention to be present in this moment. To stop chasing down the next delight or live in dread of the next encounter.

As we practice mindfulness, we notice that the three poisons begin to dissolve. Since our practice is to cultivate beneficial qualities, we can notice how the cultivation of ease and contentment dissolves greed. Lovingkindness dissolves hatred. And the clarity of mind that comes from the practice dissolves delusion.

So before any inner exploration, take the time to breathe. Then use that breath awareness to allow the knots to soften and dissolve in the safety of your compassionate and expansive embrace.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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