At the centre of the Tibetan Wheel of Life are three animals, a cock, a snake and a pig, chasing each others tails, symbolising the “three poisons” of greed, hate and delusion. These three conditions can be understood psychologically as a pathological or “unskillful” response to the existential problems associated with time, that is, with the past, the present and the future.
Greed is directed to the future. We desire, we want, we crave something in the future that will satisfy our desire. Hate is directed to the past. We hate someone or something because of accumulated resentment and bitterness over past wrongs. Delusion is directed to the present. We misconstrue present reality because we fail to see it as it really is.
We can understand greed, hate and delusion are psychological coping mechanisms to deal with our existential anxieties about time future, past and present. In The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich explores three types of existential anxiety: the anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation and the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness. These can also be understood as relating to our existential orientation to future, past and present.
If we suffer from existential anxiety, we experience dread (existential anxiety of fate and death) in relation to the future, regret (existential anxiety of guilt and condemnation) in relation to the past and despair (existential anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness) in relation to the present. Psychologically speaking, this is a very uncomfortable place to be. So we choose greed over dread, hate over regret and delusion over despair. All this does, however, is demote our anxiety from the existential level to the pathological level, which, although more bearable, is less authentic.
There is a more excellent way: hope instead of pathological greed or existential dread; love instead of pathological hate or existential regret; faith instead of pathological delusion or existential despair. The greatest of these three is love (agape) because without compassion and forgiveness of sins, we remain slaves to a false self and cannot find the inner spiritual fount from which flow hope and faith.