The hell, hungry ghost and animal realms are both too full of suffering and too lacking in self-awareness to encourage spiritual practice. The beings of the god realms and jealous god realms are too preoccupied and self-absorbed to engage in spiritual practice. Everything is so easy for them that they do not consider practice, or they consider themselves as realised beings already.
From a linear perspective, the ‘highest’ are the god realms, and the ‘lowest’ are the hell realms. Moving down the realms, the speed of perception and response becomes faster and faster, and experience becomes increasingly claustrophobic. In the perceptual space of a god realm, time moves extremely slowly. When something is perceived, it hovers and response gradually arises. There is plenty of space for consideration, but this spaciousness is not useful for spiritual development and awareness, because it is the spaciousness of self-referentiality. Everything exists within its own sphere of being. There is no possibility of gaining another perspective on perception because it all exists within the context of myself-in-the-god-realm. At the other extreme, in the constricting perception of a hell realm, beings experience perception and response as simultaneous. There is absolutely no space. There is no possibility of glimpsing another view because the speed and violence of response is so immediate and overwhelming.
The realms are self-perpetuating, because we tend to continue to create the causes for whatever perceptual state we find ourselves in. We maintain this state until the point of exhaustion and we have to let go. At this point of relaxation it is possible to move from the restraints of one perceptual realm into another one, or to relax into realisation. However, once we start to feel uncomfortable with the emptiness of the unfamiliar, there is a strong tendency to re-create our former state. We are always drawn to the safety of the familiar.
It may be useful to look at an example. If I am annoyed about something that has happened I may go over it again and again in my mind. I will ruminate and regurgitate what happened and the emotions experienced. I will run through things that were said, and things that I wished I had said. I may mentally enact various versions of the event where I come up with more impressive speeches and put myself on top of the situation. This can continue for hours, days or even years. I may never re-establish friendly relations with the person involved in the incident because I will not let go of my anger and hurt.
There is a sense of permanence and definition that I crave through maintaining this cause for anger. I hold on to the form of the anger because I see it as preferable to the emptiness of letting it dissolve. By continually reviving the perceptual realm of my emotion, I give myself a sense of definition which—although uncomfortable—feels better and safer than letting it go. The emptiness of letting it go, of not knowing who I am anymore in that spacious moment, is too threatening, so I retract back into the familiar.
By continually reliving the experience and justifying my emotion, I maintain the cause of dwelling in the realm of my anger and pain. Eventually however, the perceptual state will exhaust itself and I will let go of my repeated regurgitation. Then I can discover myself in a different state of being – in a different realm. Exhaustion enables me to escape from the perceptual realm of my anger, even if this relaxation is temporary. At this point I may find myself in a happy frame of mind, or a regretful frame of mind. The cause for existing in that realm of anger has been relinquished.
Unfortunately my dualistic view causes me to actually feel more comfortable with the definition of anger through regurgitation, than with the lack of definition of freedom from anger. When I feel emotion I am a substantial being feeling anger. I know who I am. When I let the anger go I have no definition, no reference point for my existence. If the urge to re-establish form through emotion proves irresistible, I return to the definition of myself as the person who is angry. I wilfully resurrect the emotion and conceptual content of the situation to re-enact the scene one more time so that once again I feel my existence to be more solid.
Perceptual realms are also self-conditioning in the sense of our expectations of the world. If my own reality is anger, I will tend to expect others to be angry as well. I have to fear others’ anger and aggression because I know all about my own perceptual state of anger and aggression. I feel I have to express my own aggression before others have the chance to express theirs. In this way we create our own universe. We create the kind of world we want to live in through our expectations. We will justify our responses and hold onto our self-righteous indignation, but this narrow justification undermines the possibility of liberation.
A simple example of self-perpetuation is the litterbug. The person who drops litter is making the statement that they wish to live in a littered world. It is impossible to separate the act of dropping litter from the existence of a world in which there is litter. Not all the litter in the world is created by one litterbug, but if every individual in the world decided never to create litter, there simply would no longer be any. It is because we feel ‘it’s not in my neighbourhood…’ or ‘it’s only one little sweet wrapper…’ or ‘there are people who need the paid employment of clearing up litter…’ or whatever justification we can create, that the problem of litter exists.
In a similar way the realms create their own reality. It is only when doubt in that reality arises that it is possible to move into a different perceptual realm – through exhaustion from maintaining the reality, or through seeing the possibility of a different reality.