How Insight and Loving-kindness Free Us from Mental Parasites

In an earlier post entitled “Taming Elephants-How To Transform Negative Habit Energies,” I shared teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh on how to deal with what he called “habit energies.”

As Thầy, as Thich Nhat Hanh is affectionately known by his students, writes:

“We know how strong, how powerful the habit energy is. We notice that there are times when we are not ourselves. We cannot be ourselves. We are carried away by our habit energy. We did not want to say that, we knew that saying that would create damage in our relationship with the other person.”

“But finally, we said it. We knew that we should not do it. We knew that if we went ahead and did it we would create damage in our relationship. But finally, we did it. We said it was stronger than us. What is stronger? The habit energy. So we felt helpless, powerless.”

Habit energies as parasites

Habit energies act a lot like parasites, almost like living mental objects in the mind. These mental constructs have their own agendas and purposes, always at odds with the host’s well-being and happiness. And like any parasite, they drain and weaken the host, using up our energies in expressions of anger, hatred, hopelessness, self-loathing, fear, and the like. Worst of all, we usually don’t even notice their presence. We assume the feelings and emotions they generate are us—are “I.”

Some of the most damaging and insidious mind parasites are created in early childhood. As clinical psychologist Robert Godwin writes:

“One of the reasons for the failure to appreciate mind parasites has to do with their very nature: their most basic ‘trick’ as it were—no different from any virus—is to hijack the machinery of the mind in such as way that the mind does not recognize what has happened. In addition, this early programming is mostly stored in the pre-linguistic, emotional centers of the right brain, making it beyond the reach of language, and therefore all the more likely to be acted out in an unconscious manner (indeed, all such symptoms are just a more primitive form of communication.”

Not only that, but once the parasites are hardwired in, they tend to reproduce their own dysregulated states…While it is possible for an adult to develop a psychological ‘immune system’ that can detect and minimize the workings of these parasites, it is impossible to do so as an infant, before we have any idea of what is happening to us. Therefore the most troubling mind parasites are precisely the ones that feel most familiar to us—indeed that we mistakenly identify as ‘I.'”

If you’re completely overpowered by mind parasites, seek help!

So, what to do? Clearly, in some cases, when mind parasites are wreaking total havoc in one’s life, one might seek naturally seek psychological treatment and support, even as one would go to a doctor to treat some infectious disease or physical trauma. And of course, dear people with mental illness, victims of childhood abuse and trauma, and people with post-traumatic stress syndrome, PTSD, all have special needs that require special and specific treatment and care.

But what about the more garden-variety mind parasites—the habit energies and conditioned responses and unthinking reactivities that we all have? We all know what it’s like to be taken over by feelings and emotions and swept along and overpowered just as Thich Nhat Hanh described above.

Mind parasites are also the judgmental “voices” in our head

One of the most helpful books I’ve ever read on this subject is There Is Nothing Wrong With You—Going Beyond Self-Hate by Zen teacher Cheri Huber. In this remarkably helpful book, she talks about these habit energies, or mind parasites as “the voices.” She’s not talking about a psychological disorder, or psychosis, but as she explains, the “nearly endless stream of thoughts we all experience, the constant flow of judgments, ideas, criticisms that we tell ourselves day in and day out.”

In Huber’s view, most of the negative voices, judgments, and things we tell ourselves are manifestation of self-hate: As she writes:

“Self-hate is a ‘how’ not a ‘what.’ If I’m a worrier, worrying is the ‘how,’ the process. The things I worry about are the ‘whats,’ the content. If I am judgmental, judging is the ‘how,’ the process. The things I judge are the ‘whats,’ the content. If I am caught in self-hating, self-hating is the ‘how,’ the process. The aspects of ‘me’ that are hated—body, personality, looks (the list is endless)—are the ‘whats,’ the content.

In other words, I am not hating myself; self-hate is hating me. Self-hate is an autonomous process with a life of its own, an endless tape loop of conditioning, creating, and shaping the world in which we live.”

Whether we call this “autonomous process with a life of its own” a habit energy, or a mind parasite, an endless tape loop of conditioning, or the voice of self-hate, the result is the same: our lives are continually hijacked by broken-off, unintegrated parts of ourselves that rob us of happiness.

What are some of the symptoms of being mentally hijacked?

With even a little self-observation, we become aware of our own particular mind parasites—the feelings, emotions, reactions, and habits that we do over, and over, and over again, even though we know they are harmful. If we pay attention, we can hear the constant background “voice” of judgment, self-condemnation, self-hatred, anger, or sorrow.

Worse yet, we may very well recognize our harmful habit energies, and use that (superficial) recognition of them as a way to hate ourselves even more! Remember, as Cheri Huber says, self-hate is a how, not a what. If we don’t get at the underlying self-hate, even gaining insight into our bad habits and reactivity can merely become a new way to hate ourselves!

In There Is Nothing Wrong with You, Cheri Huber lists and details some of the form self-hate can take:  sabotage (self-sabotage), taking the blame but never the credit, always blaming others, being secretive, holding grudges, not being able to receive from others, seeing what is wrong with everything, always trying to be different, attempting to be perfect, being accident prone, continuing to put yourself in abusive situations, habitually maintaining an uncomfortable physical position, habitually maintaining an uncomfortable mental position.

Because the ways we can hate ourselves is practically endless, I’m sure any of us could add to this list. The point is, whenever we do these things, we have in a certain sense ceased to be human and instead have become mindless machines acting out a conditioned tape loop response. I highly recommend There Is Nothing Wrong With You to help see how you can take back your life from the “voices” of self-hate and self-judgment. You were not meant to be a mere host for parasitical pieces of mind-stuff. You have a right to a free and clear mind and heart, and a full humanity.

How mindfulness frees us from mind parasites

Is there something we can do today, right now, to begin gaining your freedom from the tyranny of mind parasites? Yes, there is. If what the Buddha discovered, taught, and practiced couldn’t get at and unbind that mind-stuff that is stored beyond the reach of language, full enlightenment would never be possible.

If you have been studying and practicing the Buddha’s dharma, you have already begun to see the healing power of insight, of meditation, of loving-kindness meditation, of practicing the skillful means of the Noble Eightfold Path, of cultivating the Ten Perfections.

You’ve already become more conscious of what’s actually going on in your mind. You’ve begun to see how the mind literally creates its own world. You’re seeing for yourself see how freedom appears as you stop “I-ing” and me-ing” and “mine-ing” stressful, limiting thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

But is there anything concentration and insight can do, in particular, about that “early programming” we got in childhood? Is there a way to get at and heal all that mind stuff that is “mostly stored in the pre-linguistic, emotional centers of the right brain”—that stuff that is “beyond the reach of language, and therefore all the more likely to be acted out in an unconscious manner?”

How deep meditation speaks to the non-verbal mind

My experience in deep meditation is that we can actually gain healing, liberating insight into areas of thought beyond the reach of language and rational analysis. The raw feelings, emotions, and images that often arise as we quiet the mind through mindfulness of the breath are often direct communications from that hidden, dark, non-verbal area.

As these feelings and images well up, we typically get caught up in them, lose ourselves in them, and find ourselves wondering where our attention and concentration went when we “wake up” 5, 10, 20 minutes later and realize we haven’t been present with our breath, or our minds, at all.

As we practice staying present when these raw feelings and images arise, we actually begin to dissipate the urgency and push of these hidden energies and feelings. By our calm, by our quiet compassion and non-reaction to what arises, we, in a sense, sending a powerful healing message to the deep, non-verbal stuff that it is being seen and held tenderly, patiently.

In the sweet words of Thầy, “You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: ‘Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.’ “

Cultivating qualities that build up our spiritual immune system

Even one moment of such loving mindfulness is a victory, but deep-seated, long-accepted “conditioned loops” in us can take a lot of time to heal. Here is where practicing and cultivating qualities of the pāramitās, or Ten Perfections, are indispensable. (All ten of these positive mental qualities the Buddha commends are helpful, but here, for the sake of space, I’ll focus on just a few.)

To gain our freedom we will need to cultivate viriya—energy, diligence, vigor, and effort. These old ways of being ourselves will present themselves as “I” again and again—that’s why they are called habit energies! We will need khanti—patience (especially with ourselves!), tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, and endurance.

We will need sacca—truthfulness and honesty, with ourselves and with others. Especially important is a willingness to admit when we are wrong and not self-justify or excuse wrong thoughts and actions. And we will need adhiṭṭhāna—determination and resolution. There will be times when we are so discouraged about deep-rooted ways of acting and thinking that we may become very discouraged, even feel hopeless.

Here is where cultivation of nekkhamma, or renunciation, can be very helpful. Renunciation is a word that many people are wary of, but there is a healthy, liberating sense of renouncing some parasitic, energy-draining way of thinking and acting that we have mistakenly been identifying with.

What we are renunciating is letting our lives be governed and controlled by parasitic reactivity and self-destructive conditioning. We are saying, in effect, “I renounce and reject being lived by my negative emotions and feelings; I want to live my own life with a free mind and heart!” There can be great power in such a resolution!

The power of metta to heal and purify our minds

Of course, mettā, is a one of the Ten Perfections, and cultivating loving-kindness toward oneself is essential in healing deep-rooted pain and self-destructive conditioning. We don’t want to hate anything in us; that just sets up a war between one part of the mind and another.

By now, we should know that this is a battle we can never really win.  First of all, we usually don’t have mental access to the really deep-rooted mind stuff. And should we get a glimpse of some hidden, dark aspect of ourselves, attacking or hating it, is the worst possible strategy. Mind parasites hide when attacked, while actually feeding on the energy we might put into attacking them!

The more we see some part of ourselves as “the enemy,” the more real and powerful we make that broken-off part of ourselves. And yet, at the same time, passive acquiescence and submission are not the answer either. Remember, we have resolutely renounced letting our lives be ruled by truly mindless parasites.

From the very depth of our hearts, we claim our right to self-determination and self-government. We want our lives back! We want to live in the here and now, not forever be haunted and daunted by our past and by things done to us when we were powerless to do anything to defend ourselves!

Cultivated mindfulness wedded to embracing, self-integrating love are the only way to coax out some harmful habit energy so we can see it dispassionately, discern how to let go of it, and so gain our freedom from its claim on us to be “I” or “me” or “mine.”

Don’t give up! You can be free!

Humans have been plagued by mind parasites, by destructive habit energies, by “the voices” of self-hatred probably since the emergence of consciousness. They seem to be a liability of gaining self-awareness and an individual sense of self. When people are unconscious of them and project them out on others and the world, there is almost no evil thing people or a culture will not do, as the sad history of mankind all too vividly illustrates.

Happily for us, and for the future of humanity, there is a way to bring these mind parasites under control, and even eliminate them. They are not real entities or beings, though they act like that, but are mental constructs with no more ultimate reality than what we give to them, consciously and unconsciously. Even seeing this can give us hope!  We can be free of the mental chains that bind us!

The advance of science and scientific investigation into the brain and the nature of consciousness have brought great light to the problems of the mind. While there is still so much to learn and understand, treatment of the problems of the mind have largely broken free of superstition, supernaturalism, ignorance, and fear.

Taking refuge in the dharma’s way to mental freedom

Interestingly, even after 2,500 years, the insights of the Buddha into the nature of the self, of the mind, and of mental healing, continue to prove themselves valid and immensely practical. Modern psychology and brain research have not invalidated Buddhism’s insights, but rather, have tended to confirm them. And in fact, many psychologists find the Buddha’s insights strengthen and help their practice.

(See “The Problem of Egolessness” for a list of books on the Buddhism and Western psychology.)

The Buddha was after “bigger game” than the mind parasites that plaque us, though his methods do indeed treat them. His radical insight into the problem of suffering, stress, and the unsatisfactoriness of a limited, conditioned sense of self points to a complete liberation of the mind—total cure, not just palliation.

Anyone who practices mindfulness and who cultivates powerful qualities and skills like metta, or loving-kindness, can indeed strengthen his spiritual “immune system.” Even if we cannot completely eliminate mind parasites, we can bring them under the control of discerning wisdom and compassionate loving-kindness. For many of us, that in itself can be a foretaste of the bliss and happiness of a truly liberated mind!

See also:

Taming Elephants-How To Transform Negative Habit Energies

Is the Buddhist Path at Odds with Our Humanity?

Book Review—Freeing the Angry Mind-A Book for Angry Men

Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal

How to Silence Those Self-Sabotaging Inner Voices

How to Become a Loving Presence in the World


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza


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