Defense Mechanisms

Notes on the talk Facing the Tormentor, Wat Yannawa Sept 1008. Defense Mechanisms.

No set of talks on Buddhism is complete without mention of Dukkha – suffering. This time, in a departure from the sutta based talks, we looked at the defense mechanisms that were introduced to the world by Sigmund Freud, and developed by his more earthy daughter Anna. The defense mechanisms are ways in which humans avoid the dukkha that arises in daily life. Once they become ingrained it is very difficult to relearn your way out of them. When you employ a defense mechanism in an inappropriate situation, it is called neurosis. Neurotic refers to fear that is not justified in the situation. Real fear by contrast is a response to genuine danger – a wild animal or aggressive attacker.

In so far as the defense mechs. avoid the feeling of pain, or dukkha, they represent emotion that you are not admitting into consciousness, and therefore are emotions and unwholesome mind states that are below the level of consciousness. In the previous talk (and blogs) we looked at the right efforts – where you strive to abandon unwholesome (akusala) states that have arisen. But you have to see those states first. When they are below the radar, you are not going to see and abandon them. In this way you actually are lying to yourself; and there is no ones lies you would rather believe than your own.

Change of Direction

Usually people run and hide from unpleasant feeling, and seek out the pleasant. But Dukkha is to be understood (investigated) and so you have to move towards it, not away. The analogy the Buddha gave is a dog that is shot with an arrow – it bites at the proximate suffering which is the arrow. But a lion shot with an arrow, will attack the hunter. This analogy means that you should look not to alleviating the present dukkha or painful situation that has arisen, but should look deeper at the root cause. You should go directly towards the suffering and not run aways from it.

Not So Bad

When you do that, the suffering you find is generally not that bad. So you failed. So you lost something or messed something up. So someone is insulting you or telling lies about you. It is not so painful as your subconscious might have you think if you are willing to be aware of it. Vampires, remember, cannot stand light. Vampires, those brooding parts of your psyche that lurk in dark places, represent your fears and bad qualities, and when you shine the light of awareness on them, they will perish. So the dukkha, is never that bad if you are willing to see what is really there. When you want a cigarette, or food, or to get angry … the dukkha really is no more than a tickle in the heart. Look at it directly and it is not hard to bear.

Avoidance Behaviour

Experiments on rats shows that if you sound a buzzer before delivering a negative stimulus (punishment) the rats will quickly learn to avoid the punishment by whatever behaviour the experimenters desire, such as running to a different place, or hitting a lever etc.. Once a behaviour is learned, the rats will keep that behaviour indefinitely – every time they hear the buzzer they will produce the action even long after the negative stimulus has been removed. What this means for human beings is that the ways you have used to defend yourself in the past become ingrained, and you continue to produce the same neurotic behaviour in the future. We have the capacity to learn and to use wisdom, so the value in looking at the Defense Mechanisms is to highlight this behaviour so you can relearn and act according to the wisdom principle (dhammachanda) rather than the pleasure principle (kamachanda).

The Defenses

You can see the full list of defense mechanisms at the web site of a very good psychologist in the US who, coincidentally, has a good understanding of Buddhism. His explanations are clear and in layman’s terms.

The defense mechanisms are listed part way down the page, but for those interested the page gives a good summary of standard Freudian psychology including many terms that have entered the modern lexicon such as ego, superego, unconscious, subconscious and more. It’s worth a read.


The job of a meditator then is to tackle the dukkha head on. Buddhism is about beautiful states too, not just dukkha. But dukkha, which we might translate as dis-ease, unrest, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering, is something that needs to be investigated. Like any gremlin – once you know its name it will not have power over you. So take up the burden, and don’t defend yourself against dukkha.

Two Kinds of Fool

One who shoulders a burden he should not.

One who does not shoulder a burden he should.


About Cittasamvaro

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2 Responses to Defense Mechanisms

  1. Pingback: What Do You Do, When You Do What You Do | Open_Secrets

  2. sovann boun says:

    Thanks Ajarn for your posting this text

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