Mental knots and massaging them

If you think the Buddha is a religious leader and Buddhism is a religion, you are somewhat mistaken. 

Buddha was the first prolific DIY psychologist. He spent years observing his own mind, experimenting, and coming up with astute observations and techniques to alleviate suffering and increase joy. 

According to the Buddha, the root of all unhappiness is just one thing - "tanha". You can think of it as the quick grabby feeling that arises when we just can't accept a situation and when there’s disharmony between reality and our (mostly subconscious) selves. It manifests in many forms - fear, craving, anger, desire, worry, etc. 

I think of tanha as “mental clenching" arising from “knots” or sore spots. Similar to muscular knots or kinks in a hose, they prevent the natural flow of movement and life. Almost every person in the world is knotting and clenching thousands of times every day in different ways. Reducing the knotting may be the most powerful lever to improve our wellbeing. 

When there's friction, there's suffering. Someone helpfully described this to me recently as "emotional constipation" or low “mental metabolism”. On the flip side, the more easily life flows through you, the more joyful it feels. The aptly named "flow state" is simply you be-ing, in full acceptance of the moment without any knots. 

How do you get there? Just like a physical masseuse unknots a muscle and just like an athlete stretches to avoid cramps. 

Firstly, you need to be aware of these knots. Most people can't even identify this grabby feeling because it feels like an inherent and intangible part of them. It's also really fast and can escape attention. 

As Nick Cammarata, who is very good at articulating Buddhist concepts, says"Tanha is a more complex, bc its a type of grabby thing (takes ~1/10th of a second)...The fastness means you need a lot of sensory clarity and concentration to see them. That’s basically why concentration is a thing in meditation in the first place. It’s not for its own sake, it’s just a means to be able to see things like this bc they’re unfortunately quite fast"

If you train yourself to observe the mind and operate in "debug mode", you will notice these feelings very distinctly and know that these aren't a part of you. When you meditate, journal, or talk to your pasts/parts or to a therapist, you surface your subconscious to your conscious and explore it. One Buddhist teacher's brilliant advice to me - "when have an uneasy feeling, have a cup of tea with it and chat with it."

Secondly, you massage and untangle the knots. Some of the knots untangle just by observing them because they are so illogical to the conscious mind - name them to tame them. For many knots, you need to go deeper to understand the beliefs and craving that underlies every knot (and yes, every knot as an underlying craving), and reframe them more optimistically or let them go. This is the underlying tactic prescribed in both Buddhism and several Western therapy modalities like CBT. It's common for many knots to have similar underlying cravings and then there's a long tail of unique knots. So you'll be surprised at how quickly you clear a bunch initially. As the cloth gets cleaner, you also see the stain spots more clearly which can be both discomforting and helpful. 

You can also unknot in bulk by accepting a broader philosophy. The ones I like the best are "deep okayness" or domino destiny - a radical acceptance that everything, including you and your life, is the way it is because it is meant to be. That doesn't mean you have to be apathetic - it just means you accept and pursue what you feel is right, rather than lament. 

Lastly, you need to prevent future knots from forming. You won't reduce it to 0, but you can greatly reduce the rate of new knots. Regularly reminding yourself of the philosophy of deep okayness, low craving, high wonder, and continuously training in mindfulness are great ways to do it. Buddha's Eightfold Path is also an excellent prescription for a low-knot lifestyle. 

May life flow through you joyfully without getting stuck in any knots!


1. A friend wisely pointed out that it’s one thing to know this intellectually and another to live it every moment. Intellectual understanding is a useful starting point but after that it’s a lot about regular self work and practice. Overintellecualizing is a real risk and can become a new knot. Because a lot of knotting is happening in multiple layers beneath our conscious mind and and operating at a speed way faster than you can think. And the capacity of our intellect to product insights and make change is immense but still limited against the scale and complexity of ourselves and the universe, and millions of years of mind blowing evolution. The only way to change it is to fundamentally reprogram your subconscious and instincts, which takes emotional/feelings/spiritual/experiential work that cerebral intellectual people miss completely.