Understanding Our Negative Emotions
Understanding negative emotions means that we can then understand how to transform them. We do this by learning what antidotes we need to apply. The Buddha taught us that we all have so many negative mental habits. Classic texts discuss 84,000 types! This may seem unbelievable, but once we start to investigate a bit, we soon discover all sorts of subtle negativity. But, we’re not unique; everyone has them. The Buddha explained that all of these negative habits come down to six major categories. And each of the negative emotions has its own antidote. When we apply the correct antidote for each emotion, we say that we are practicing Dharma by way of the antidotes.
The negative emotions are:
- Desire or Attachment
- Ignorance or Stupidity
Take a good look at this list. Do you see these in yourself? Are you under their influence? Here, we need to be honest with ourselves. For example, simply think, “Did I get angry today?”
Yes or no: it’s not complicated! Anger and jealousy are easy to see. Generally, these are even easy for others to see in us, right? Anger especially is hard for us to hide.
We may not automatically recognize when we are being stingy, but if we apply a bit of effort we learn to see this in ourselves. Pride can be trickier. Sometimes it is a little harder for us to recognize how pride might manifest. For example, pride can manifest as shyness or fear, but once we dig a little deeper, we understand that those emotions spring from pride.
However, Rinpoche observes that we’re often a little confused about desire or attachment. We might think, “I don’t have attachment. Not me!” It’s difficult to see.
Rinpoche uses an example from our physical body. If we think of anger as the hair on our head, then desire, he explains, is more like our armpit hair. Do you understand that subtle difference? We can all see everyone’s hair on their head, but we don’t always see their armpit hair. Desire or attachment is like that. We often hide it away, even from ourselves.
And finally, ignorance ( Tib. timuk) is very difficult for us to see. We’re not clear-minded. Ignorance also can be translated as dull or confused. We can’t recognize how things really are because we function in a hazy fog of delusion.
If we want to understand Dharma, one method to gain experience is to see the negative thoughts that arise in our own mind. If we gain some experience in observing, then Dharma practice will come to us without great difficulty. When we know and admit that these negative emotions arise, we also see how they cause suffering.
How do these six negative emotions arise? They ride on our thoughts. In our minds, thoughts are constantly arising. Our thoughts are all over the place, and when thoughts arise in this way, the negative emotions just ride on them. The emotions are based on the movements of our minds. One after the other, thoughts arise and give rise to afflictive emotions.
We can ask, “who is the one that is moving in this way?”Then, immediately, there is a thought of “I.” There is that ego-clinging. Ego-clinging is at the root of our constant distraction. Some say that thought is the “devil of ignorance.” Thought is the great devil because these constantly arising thoughts are the root of the negative emotions.
And why do they constantly arise and move? Because we have ego-clinging, there is this sense that “I exist.” So we must first recognize our own negative emotions and see how they appear as thought. Then, we see that our thoughts are endless and are constantly arising. Then, whenever a thought arises, we must see the ego-clinging in that thought. Seeing it, we can apply the antidote to that ego-clinging. We can do that immediately and in only one second. This is practicing the way of the antidotes according to Buddha’s teaching.
Even if we only meditate for 5 minutes, that meditation can reduce negative emotions, distraction, and ego-clinging. And if we notice that those factors reduce, that means we’re doing the meditation correctly. This means we are practicing in the way of antidotes. We see that our negative emotions are becoming less strong; we can actually see that for ourselves.
Rinpoche thinks that for all of us, especially these days, practicing Dharma is indispensable. We really don’t have a choice. Our minds are full of thoughts and our thoughts are full of unhappiness, so we can’t really do without Dharma practice. Right now, our minds are completely under the control of afflictive emotions, so we need to practice the antidotes.
Check in regularly on your own practice. Have you noticed that some of your negative emotions have less power? Are you seeing less anger or jealousy disturb your mind? If so, rejoice that your practice is beneficial! What about some of the trickier emotions? Is your practice of generosity loosening the pull of stinginess? In what way? And what about those thoughts of desire or attachment—do you find them as enticing as they used to be? Where do you notice that you still feel a pull toward these habits?
Take some time over the next several weeks to really look closely at one of the places your habit seems to be the deepest. Can you come to recognize the patterns more quickly and avoid getting sucked into emotion? Remember that you can do this kind of reflection throughout your day. No one will know that you are taking a few minutes to reflect!