The Six Realms as Psychological States
© 2023 Richard Chandler, MA, LPC, Masters in Psychotherapy, Licensed Professional Counselor
Although Tibetan Buddhism has depicted the six Realms as actual places we go to after our death as humans, many people, including me, don’t think of them as material locations but rather states of consciousness. What follows is my psychological interpretation of the six realms.
The God Realm - Having arrived at a state of pleasure, but that pleasure is static and has a quality of complacency
For me, in our wealthier western society, this is like living in a magnificently beautiful place with celebrity-worthy beautiful people. The whole purpose of those in that realm revolves around having become sophisticated connoisseurs of consumption.
There is no longer a sense of contributing to the lives of others, particularly those that don't share the same degree of wealth and beauty. As pleasurable as it is, there is little excitement and feelings of vitality in that psychological space.
The God Realm seems to embody many people’s notion of retirement, it is the feeling of having arrived. Striving is over. Static pure enjoyment is the only thing on the menu. Over time, inevitably, this realm will lose its shine, leaving those residing in this realm confused and disillusioned.
Warrior Gods - Having a great deal of one's time, commitment, and energy focused on fighting one's way into the God Realm
It is not necessarily just the problematic aspect of continual striving. For me, it is the failure to enjoy and appreciate what I have accomplished. I have lived too much of my life postponing happiness, putting off enjoyment until after achieving the next "big thing."
Long before attaining the next one, more new big things have dwarfed what I have accomplished, preventing me from relaxing into acknowledging and even celebrating milestones.
The Human Realm - There is an ordinary quality about this realm that feels more wholesome
Could I do this, or might I do that? It is about taking care of the business of living, being responsible and responsive to ourselves and those in our lives.
The human realm is dynamic; we experience sadness, joy, loss, and gain, often all of them, and most everything in between, and sometimes within the same day!
Perhaps due to that vast variability, we are more likely to experience greater humility and humanity more assuredly than in any of the other realms.
The Animal Realm - I noticed that I was in this realm when I have acted pig-headed
When I was a kid, I was around pigs during summers and learned that it is hard to change a pig's mind.
Animals act in instinctual, habitual ways, ignoring information that doesn't support what they have already decided to do, like trample over a fence. Pigs repeatedly ram their heads into barriers despite the wear and tear on those constraints and themselves.
How often have you and I had animal-like behaviors or hurtful communications? For years or even decades, we have likely had too many habitual, compulsive, or addictive actions, with predictably poor results. And yet, in our pig-headed tunnel vision, we had not considered a more expansive and spacious way, realizing that we had many unconsidered other options.
The Hungry Ghost Realm - There is never enough for them, and their hunger cannot be satisfied
Hungry ghosts are depicted in Tibetan art with huge bellies, and small necks like one sees in severely malnourished children.
For me, it is like people who primarily occupy the role of victims. Someone or something is withholding what they want, need, and deserve, but even when they can get what they want, it is not satisfying and is not nearly good enough.
It is like a bottomless pit of need. Have you been a hungry ghost at times? Have you had a relationship with a person whose fundamental stance is the demand that you and the world have not fed them enough, the right stuff, and at the right time?
Have you been accused of insensitivity because you became fatigued and stopped supporting material or emotional entitlement?
The Hell Realm - Hot Hell & Cold Hell
Hot hell is traditionally depicted by Tibetan art like Christian Hell; lots of searing, burning pain.
Consider the incendiary nature of anger growing into rage. Severe anger has destructive, traumatizing results to the person who is angry, and perhaps even more to those whose lives that person affects.
Cold hell is about isolation and loneliness. Frozen, stuck, and paralyzing fear, remorse, or isolating grief can bring the experience of living in a cold hell.
Utilizing the Construct of the Six Realms
How may we use this information about the six realms to wake up to a more enlightened way of thinking and living? For me, the main benefit of understanding the six realms is first to recognize when one is occupying any one of those realms. Second, to believe that we can exit that realm quickly.
As psychological states and habitual ways of thinking and engaging with the world, we choose to step out of any of them once recognized. Reoccupying the human realm can benefit us and those for whom we care.
But we might go even farther by momentarily stepping out of the entirety of the Six Realms. Since we frequently cycle through many, or sometimes all of the realms over time, we can ponder how we can have greater compassion for ourselves and all of us as we cycle around the realms.
However, we have to be careful of having a more enlightened understanding as an aspiration. Warrior God's thinking and behavior could easily hijack the part of us that wants to be more enlightened.
If we find ourselves feeling a little smug about how well we now understand the world, we haven't necessarily stepped outside of the Six Reams; we instead may have entered the God Realm disguised as enlightened thinking. Telling the difference, for me, involves remaining curious and a little unsure of myself.