Recognizing clinging is the key to mental health

If I were asked to define wisdom (prajñā) in a Buddhist psychological sense, my response would be, “recognize clinging and rest easily, fully aware of its arising, existing and passing away.” This one instruction holds the key to stimulating and maintaining mental health. So let’s deconstruct it.

Recognize means to know, observe, recollect, distinguish, notice, determine. Recognizing—the critical first step in any moment of distress—is a two-part process of observing actual states of mind and recollecting past moments of similar mind states. Often the brain’s efficient pattern recognition apparatus will kick in and recollecting happens effortlessly. Other times, recollecting must be intentionally initiated. The next step is the deliberate distinguishing and determining causes of distress. (Modern psychology would probably call this entire process mindfulness. Unfortunately, sati (Pāli)/smrti (Sanskrit)/dran pa (Tibetan) is often mistranslated as mindfulness. A more accurate translation is recollecting or recognizing.) Once distress is known, we can then discern the presence of clinging.

Clinging is a conscious or unconscious holding onto misapprehension of the way things truly are. This is where Buddhist psychology gets really interesting. Western psychology tends to lump all negative emotions together as distressful states of mind. Buddhist psychology accepts that anger, sadness, disappointment, hatred, greed, any negative mind state will arise in a human mind. But its arising is not necessarily a cause of distress. Mental and emotional disturbance is instead caused by clinging to the misperception of these cognitive-affective states as anything other than impermanent, dependently originated thoughts and feelings with no inherent solidity. Furthermore, these states often arise in concert with inaccurate mentally generated scenarios about experience (people, events, circumstances) to which we grasp as though they were real and true. So recognizing clinging is actually a process of discerning the difference between inaccurate mentation and accurate reception of actual phenomena. That is wisdom (prajñā).

Resting easily, fully aware: Awareness is the ultimate container and supreme vehicle for knowing things as they truly are. Actuality is like this: thoughts arise and pass away; body sensations shift and release naturally; emotions arise, exist and pass of their own accord. In the groundless ground of ‘just knowing’, clinging has nothing to hold on to. This awakened presence, ‘just knowing’, ‘just feeling’, ‘just being with’ spontaneously potentiates the psyche’s ability to recognize false inner narratives and easily distinguish them from actual experience. The inner freedom of resting in the mereness of phenomena brings a clarity and openness that gives rise to wise knowing and skillful action. So negative cognitive-affective states can be known, felt, even cared for, yet never be reactively acted upon. That is genuine mental health.

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