Mind Nature: Red Pill or Blue Pill?
Writings | Life

The experience of mind nature is, for almost everyone, a turning point in their practice. The utter groundlessness of experience, when you know it directly, not conceptually, is profoundly meaningful, and it affects people in different ways. For most people, there is a feeling of deep joy and extraordinary freedom, and a humble appreciation that that experience or shift is only the start of a journey. In that groundlessness, you know that it is possible to experience whatever life throws at you, and not react. That is freedom—freedom from the tyranny of reaction. But it is precisely here that you have to make a choice.

In the movie The Matrix, the protagonist, after finding out that he lives in an illusory world, is offered the choice between taking a red pill and continuing to learn about reality or taking a blue pill and returning to an illusion of life. For Buddhist practitioners, that choice is equivalent to whether you use a glimpse of what you actually are to begin a journey into the unknown or you use it to define and solidify a sense of self. (Please note that I am using the red pill/blue pill imagery as it was originally presented in the movie, not as it has been co-opted by certain groups to advance their views of male and female oppression.)

If you feel your experience makes you different and better than other people, you have chosen the blue pill: you continue to live in an illusion. On the other hand, if you see that fundamentally you are no different from every other person who has walked on this planet, that greater awareness actually presents you with less choice, not more, and that you have to shoulder the responsibilities of that awareness, you are taking the red pill.

Choosing the red pill requires a certain strength of character. You can no longer ignore or indulge your own reactivity. Whenever it kicks up, you have to meet the turmoil, find a way to not be consumed by it, and, as your practice matures, see through it and do whatever is called for in the situation.

In many traditions, this strength of character is not talked about explicitly. In Mahayana Buddhism, for instance, it is covered by the cultivation of compassion and the corresponding cultivation of the first five of the six perfections: generosity, ethics, patience, energy, and meditative stability (the sixth is wisdom). In Vajrayana, it is what samaya [commitment to awakening] is about, a commitment to make use of whatever you encounter in life to be present and aware. (Unfortunately, the term samaya has been much abused and exploited for other purposes, and it is often conflated with feudal fealty.) In the Taoist classic the Tao Te Ching, Tao refers to the way and to knowing the way, which is largely a function of insight. Te, on the other hand, refers to the strength of character needed to follow the way, because, as one person wrote, in Chinese society (as in our own) the world does not reward the life worth living.

When you choose the blue pill you feel that your experience of mind nature makes you someone special, that you have transcended ordinary human existence, that the norms of society no longer apply to you, that you are not accountable to mere mortals, that you have access to a higher or deeper truth, and that that access means that your authority and wisdom cannot and should not be questioned. When you have taken the blue pill, you do not look at your own reactivity. You attribute any adverse effects of your counsel or actions to the ripening of the injured party’s karma, as purification, or as a mystery beyond ordinary comprehension. The patterns of self and self-cherishing have taken over the experience of mind nature and are only reinforced by it.

In contrast, when you choose the red pill, you choose not to indulge your own reactivity or confusion. You respect the norms of society, even though you may see through them. You do not see yourself as privileged or entitled, and you take even greater responsibility for your actions because you know intimately what it is like to suffer. These shifts can create difficulties when it comes to navigating the world. If we go back to The Matrix for a moment, taking the red pill does not make Neo’s life easier. In fact, the choice puts him in great danger precisely because he sees that society is illusion. The cohesion of any society is based on shared illusions. When we see through those illusions, we often find that it is no longer possible to do what is conventionally expected of us—to look the other way, perhaps, or to say nothing in certain situations, or to do what everyone else is doing because that is what is done—and that can be a problem.

The direct experience of mind nature is a critical moment for all of us. Many people see it as an end of a journey, when it is better understood as a beginning. Celebrate this beginning, by all means. It is vitally important. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you have arrived. There is a whole new world open to you now, and you have just started to see it with new eyes.