The Three Poisons: Ignorance

From the beginning of life the body is constantly striving to survive. It does this by finding nutrients from outside of itself and transforming them into usable forms to promote and sustain itself. In this process it also learns to discern what is not usable and either avoids or rejects it. Internally it is also discerning, transforming, attacking, and expelling. The body develops habits and conditioning that simplifies the process and makes it efficient. In my utterly layperson’s understanding, the brain is the storehouse for the information gathered from these body experiences and directs this process through the nervous system. 

Somewhere along the line, this natural, efficient and necessary process bleeds over into the learned experiences of pleasure and displeasure and the consciousness of those experiences. We begin to link survival of the body with pleasure, and death of the body with displeasure. As infants, especially in the preverbal stage, we only have our physical being to communicate this pleasure and displeasure, or to grasp for comfort and push away discomfort. As a result of the memory of these experiences the developing consciousness also becomes conditioned to maximize the efficiency of getting what we sense/think/feel will sustain us and keeping away what we sense/think/feel will harm us. We learn that crying, pooping, crawling, talking etc. will all get a response or not; give us pleasure or not. As this capacity of consciousness matures and a sense of self and other begins to crystallize, the habits and conditioning of this early developmental stage, as well as the continuing developmental processes of coming to adulthood, continue to function and calcify throughout our lives. The efficiency of the processes of physical survival are imprinted in our consciousness and we are able to skip the conscious, linear process developing unconscious habits of thinking and feeling associated, correctly and incorrectly with survival.

Over time and through repetition, these unconscious habits of sensing, reacting, feeling and thinking stimulate the development of conditioned reactions of passion with its expressions of grasping, clinging, craving and greed as well as aggression with its expressions of aversion, hatred, anger and violence. The lack of awareness of the origin and function of these habits is one part of the poison of ignorance. 

A few of the most apparent expressions of this behavior out of ignorance for me are when I have an aversion to being around someone or some situation for no obvious reason, or when I am spontaneously yelling at a driver who won’t drive the way I want them to, or judging another or myself for not doing “it” right. This is unconscious aggression. Using concentration and insight in contemplation, leads to bringing to light the hidden conditioning or habit that runs the engine of the aggression. Upon deeper inquiry, I am able to see how my unconscious grasping or clinging or lust (passion) for something is the sparkplug igniting the start up of the engine engine of aggression. More aggression leads to more intense and unconscious passions, and the endless cycle of suffering. The process of shining a light of awareness on unconscious habits and conditioning allows me to be able to then make choices and offer responses out of understanding the reality in the present moment, rather than out of ignorant, conditioned habit.

For example I may discover that the behavior or speech patterns or dress of the person that I have an aversion to, are the same expressions that I have been trying to eliminate in my own behavior; expressions that have caused some kind of suffering for me or others or have been detrimental to my craving or holding on to friendship, position, acceptance etc. 

Over time with consistent, regular, contemplative practice and open ended inquiry (inquiry without expectation of results)into what is happening in these instances, the light of awareness reveals the unconscious knots of aggression and passion that cause so much suffering in our lives and the lives of others. This awareness liberates thinking, feeling and acting from the prison of ignorant reactivity, allowing true freedom of choice in the present moment. Shining a light on conditioning and unconscious, habitual thought patterns, reveals our ignorance of the reality of the causes of suffering, slows down the process and opens up space for clarity.

This open, spacious, clarity reveals the other part of ignorance; the ignorance of our intrinsic  nature. 

As the clutter of unconscious habits dissolves, the spacious freedom of present reality opens up and there is an awakening to the realization that we and all those we share the cosmos with are intrinsically good, generous, kind, compassionate, joyful and non-judgmental beings. The more that we are able to cultivate this knowledge through practice, the lighter our experience of reality is. This lightness is generative and the boundaries between self and other also begin to dissolve.  The resulting space expands to include not only personal suffering and freedom from that suffering but also opens space for the understanding of the suffering of others regardless of how it manifests; in hatred, clinging, anxiety, despair, or violence. It also clears a space for mutual joy, kindness, and ease of being. The capacity of strength that comes with this experiential knowledge slows the conditional processes down enough that there is time to respond appropriately rather than react habitually in the face of suffering or joy. 

As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught: “Everything is working working.” The three poisons that cause so much suffering are also the medicines that initiate the healing of awareness of the suffering. The suffering of the three poisons cause us to seek out the end of suffering because it is the intrinsic nature of all beings, not only to be free of self suffering, but to long for for all beings throughout all times and in all directions to  be free from suffering.

May it be so.

These thoughts and practices are dedicated to all wisdom elders in all traditions, and to all beings throughout all times in all directions, with the intention that they may ignite the flame of self awareness and provide a little solace and ease.



The Sangha of the Pandemic offers several opportunities for a safe, inclusive, free, virtual community contemplative practice. Everyone is welcome regardless of meditation experience or spiritual lineage.

The Zoom link is:

Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays: 7 AM CR Time

Monday: calm abiding, Samatha, Tuesday: body awareness, Thursday: Tonglen

Sunday at 7 AM CR Time: Four Brahmaviharas


Monday and Thursday evenings at 5:30 PM CR Time : Practice and Inquiry                                                   

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