When I first encountered the Pali word “asava” over three decades ago, it was routinely translated as “influx” or “canker, sore.” As an influx, it was how views, sense desires, becoming, and ignorance flow into our mind stream and affect how we perceive and act. Picturing the four asavas as sores, cankers, or wounds, one can get the impression of them oozing out into the mind, tainting thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. During my time as a monk in Sri Lanka, the psychology of early Buddhism was steeped in the notion of working with your mind within meditation as something separate from other minds. So, the asavas, as influxes or wounds, were only to be found by looking closely at your mental experience. I think the Buddha was on to something incredibly deep and profound when he referred to the asavas, and the early definition we had of them was inadequate.
Recent scholarship has come up with an alternative translation for asava, based more on the etymology of the word rather than discovering some new perspective on the Buddha’s teaching. It means “outflow.” But what is an outflow? For many years, I had no idea, and then it occurred to me. Quite simply, in modern parlance, something that flows out from the mind is a projection. Asavas can be understood as our unconscious projections. Each one of us is caught up in one type of projection or another almost all of the time, especially in our thoughts and feelings about other beings. In Western psychology, projections are often recognized by the type of story found in them, while in early Buddhism, projections, or outflows, apparently were not connected to any stories.
The relationship between our narratives and our projections is symbiotic. They tend to feed each other, so it is no wonder that in the West we put more emphasis on the stories (content) and the Buddhists tend to put the emphasis on the process of projecting. The four asavas can be seen as four distinct mind-streams that flow out of us and onto (and, quite possibly on occasion, “into”) others: the outflow of views, bias, and beliefs onto other people (which they may or not hold, but we fix them in those views with our projections); the outflow of hope, ambition, and lust that we put on to other people turning them into objects of desire or as beings who can grant us what we desire; the outflow of becoming where we conceive and imagine different types of existence, such as heavenly worlds, happier lives, and even enlightened ways of being; and the outflow of ignorance, where we project delusory ideas and stories onto others and believe them ourselves. When we project these psychological elements onto others, they come from ourselves, are an expression of what we either avoid seeing about ourselves or have been completely blocked from knowing about our innermost world. What we project onto others needs to be redirected, like a mirror, back onto ourselves.
These outflows lock us into a way of being with ourselves and others. It is like being in heavy fog where nothing has distinction or contours—the world around us is blurred by our own minds. In Buddhist teachings, the Dharma provides the contrast by which we can see the outflow for what it is: a thicket of views, a romantic fantasy, a dream of another kind of existence, a distorted perception which gets taken as the truth. Depth psychology has several frameworks and methodologies for working on projections in psychotherapy, while Buddhist teachings tend to offer meditation practices whereby one can see through the outflows and dissolve them (“dry up the wounds” in the language of the Buddhist suttas) through comprehensive insights into the “wounded” conditioned, non-self, and transient nature of “action-producing” (karmic) psychological manifestations. A two-pronged approach is appropriate for our time, since the outflows are very powerful, entrenched, and deeply rooted in our culture and upbringing.
When I write about Recollective Awareness Meditation being redesigned (on the recollectiveawareness.org website) to have more emphasis on depth psychology, this is one of the key areas of exploration. We go further into our inner worlds in meditation, becoming increasingly aware of what lies alongside, underneath and within our thoughts, emotions, and sensations, while also paying attention to what flows out of the depths of our mind and into the world of beings we are connected with.