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Neutrality traps

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

A core business of the practice presented in the discourses is to reach a form of dispassion and emotional neutrality. This means that no matter what is currently happening, one is fully capable of understanding its significance, and yet is not disturbed (or at least, less disturbed) by it. It's not difficult to express this attitude of neutrality in words, but it might be more difficult to implement it in practice, and in this attempt one might fall pray of a number of traps. Reviewing them might be helpful at some point.

(1) Unconditional acceptance trap. One views neutrality as unconditional acceptance: anything that happens should be accepted and welcomed regardless of any further consideration. But genuine dispassion arises as a result of having previously discriminated between wholesome and unwholesome thoughts and intentions (MN 19). To put it in other words, when one is pray of aversion, that's not the moment of settling on the though: 'aversion arose in me, I should accept it.' Quite the contrary, one should reflect: 'aversion arose in me, this leads to my affliction, I should step outside of this tangle!' (cf. AN 3.65). Unconditional acceptance arises only after one has preliminary set aside anything unwholesome and worth abandoning.

(2) Conceptual fuzziness trap. A reason why one might fail to discern what needs to be accepted and what should rather be abandoned is because of a certain conceptual fuzziness. If one does not have a good way of carving up different components of experience, then everything blurs and become the same amorphous blob. The key conceptual difference that one should learn and implement is that between perceptions, feelings, and intentions.

When I see chocolate, the darkish piece of food I see is my perception. On top of this perception, there might be a feeling; for instance, the anticipation of some pleasure due to past memories of having tasted chocolate. On top of this feeling, there is the intention of getting that chocolate and eating it for the purpose of enjoying that pleasure more. Perceptions do not entail feelings (the same chocolate might appear repulsive to someone else), and feelings do not entail intentions (the same pleasure associated with chocolate does not have to trigger craving, especially if one committed to abstain from chocolate at some point). These three levels need to be distinguished carefully, up to the point that one can see that most of the problems run at the level of intentions, while feelings are mostly fine, and perceptions do not matter that much. Dispassion or neutrality has to do with abandoning intentions of greed, aversion, and ignorance, leaving untouched any feelings or perceptions that might be there.

(3) Insulation trap. Failing to discern between feelings and intention might lead to conflate intentional neutrality (not indulging in intensions based on greed or aversion) and emotional neutrality (feeling a neither painful nor pleasant feeling). The two are clearly different, and usually one feels aversion against neutral feelings (boredom). But intentional neutrality is practiced in the presence of any feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) as a consequence of one's understanding that there is nothing actually that one needs to worry about in any feelings. However, it might happen that one starts to reduce intentional neutrality to the idea of feeling neither painful nor pleasant feelings, and hence one tries to induce a state of emotional neutrality to cover up any other feeling. Or else, one might also try to dissociate and alienate oneself from one's own feelings, in such a way as to stop feeling anything at all. But these and any similar strategies are dead ends, since they betray a form of aversion towards what cannot be handled otherwise than by ignoring it. Dispassion is not insulation.

(4) Will-power trap. Since the goal of dispassion is reached by operating at the level of intentions, one might think that dispassion is achieved by deliberately wanting to remain neutral and equanimous with respect to any feeling that might arise. In a sense, it is true that in order to counter aversion on needs to stop indulging in intentions based on aversion. However, this cannot be done by simply and abruptly wanting it, since when aversion is present, this means that one's own will is already shaped and moved by aversion, so one is not actually neutral or equanimous at all. In order to counter aversion (or any other hindrance or unwholesome intention), one needs to disengage from the story and interpretation of experience that that same intention entails. In other words, one needs to look at the way in which aversion works, see that it leads where one does not want to go, and use this reflection in order to steer attention away from the patter that aversion prescribes. One must counter aversion with wisdom and understanding (MN 2), by seeing things more clearly, and not by sheer repetition of a mantra ('I'll be equanimous!') or by simply wanting it to happen ('Just do it!').

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