Working with emotions from the Mahayana Buddhist perspective is a lot like composting. The basic idea is that nothing in our emotional world is to be discarded. The practice is to refrain from rejecting or indulging any aspect of our experience and learn to face it directly. By welcoming our challenging emotions and channelling the energy in useful ways, we see how emotions are like messengers, telling us something about our relationship to ourselves and others. Emotional maturity is not about creating more interesting stories about your feelings, but rather is about mastering the ability to be with the continuous flow of emotions as they rise and fall. In other words, emotions are to the psyche as waves are to the ocean. Emotions bring energy and information forward. If you learn to listen and stop resisting, they will simply fall away. The Buddhist tradition offers excellent remedies for the five kleshas, turbulent mental states, which include all of our challenging emotions. Here are some practices and things to consider when these feelings arise:
None of us like to feel jealous, but if we can accept the truth of our experience enough to work with it, there are some important questions to ask. For example, are you jealous in the sense of envy (wanting what others have) or are you jealous in thinking that someone you are committed to has betrayed your trust? Try to listen and reasonably evaluate what your feelings are telling you to determine the proper remedy. Should you trust your intuition that suspects your relational boundaries have been crossed or are you feeling lousy about yourself, impoverished, and depleted? Sorting through the truth of your experience in this way will help you resolve your feelings and create more stability for yourself and your relationships.
The remedy for jealousy is to practice rejoicing in the happiness of others. This is harder to do than the first line of inquiry, but you get more results from even just trying. The practice starts to chip away at the self centeredness that believes there is only a limited amount of happiness and if someone else has it, than you won’t. We know this is not true when we remember what it feels like to be around genuinely happy people. We can appreciate the generosity of their experience as a reflection of our own potential to enjoy our life as much.
Anger is probably the most challenging klesha to work with. To be able to feel your anger and express it skillfully to someone you love is a sign of great trust. The tricky thing about anger is that it comes out in so many subtle ways. For example, we silently reject and push people away, or express our aversion to them by making them wrong and forever distrusting them. Anger causes us to feel isolated and propels our judgements and projections of others. Anger misdirected in this way shows up as resentment, contempt, disgust, prejudice, and hatred. These mental states are red alerts for us to look into our own shadow which most likely is being reflected back to us in our projections of others.
The flip side of this aggression is when it turns inward and is directed at the self. This is apparent in people who feel depressed, apathetic, codependent, and enmeshed with others. People sometimes hate themselves because of bad things that happened around them. This is a sign that they are suffering from the repression of anger.
When anger arises, it’s important to check in with your personal boundaries. Is there something that needs to be protected? Is there a need to speak to your emotional needs in your personal relationships? Are you too enmeshed with others to avoid facing yourself? This line of inquiry can help you channel the energy of anger into corrective action. By not indulging or rejecting, we can begin to sort things out from a larger perspective. Healthy interpersonal boundaries protects you and your loved ones. This is especially important for people who weren’t allowed to express anger as children.
The practice here is nonviolence, which means not reacting. At the very least, we can pause for one breath before we launch into our habitual patterns. Anger is often hidden under the surface, which makes it difficult to get a handle on. We need to bring it out into the light of our awareness and learn to work with it skillfully. We can feel it in our bodies, count to ten, take a walk, run around the block, whatever we need to slow the whole thing down. We need to calm down. You can imagine turning a pot of boiling water down and letting it simmer. This is how we practice with anger.
Attachment, grasping, and clinging have to do with the pain that results from clinging to temporal pleasure. The problem is not the enjoyable experiences, but rather the reality that nothing lasts forever and human life is sometimes painful. Sadness is included here because it teaches us how we are holding on. The expression of sadness through tears is helpful to restore our natural flow through life. Most people feel better after a good cry because there is a sense of letting go. Grief is a natural result of loss. There is really nothing else to do, but move through the feelings until we have fully released that which has died.
Renunciation in the Buddhist tradition doesn’t mean we give up pleasure. It means we realize the truth of impermanence and stop trying to hold onto things. We welcome pleasure and goodness into our lives, but we can also find our ground when things change. We accept all of our experiences without indulging or rejecting and this includes pleasure and pain. The practice here is cultivating contentment with yourself and your life as it is. This includes having your feelings when things are really hard. Remember, this too shall pass. We can release our terrified grip enough to feel the space in the situation.
Arrogance and pride have to do with thinking that we’re special and the incessant need to get others to agree with us. It doesn’t matter whether we are building ourselves up or putting ourselves down. Both states have to do with being excessively self absorbed and get in the way of a certain relaxation that comes from being ordinary. People who are narcissistic (everyone is looking at me) and narcissistically wounded (no one sees me) suffer from arrogance.
The practice here is to be humble. It is not about drastically changing your behavior. It means being where you are and feeling comfortable in your own skin. I have watched my ego change from very small to very big to very small so many times over that the whole thing became so ridiculous. The truth of arrogance is that at some point, you will fall from grace and if you haven’t learned to be humble, the pain will be unbearable. However, when we bring ourselves to the level of ordinary humanness, we can appreciate other people as we have no more need to prove ourselves. We don’t need other people to confirm our identity so we can get along better with them. We feel less isolated and more connected to everyone on our good days and our bad days.
Ignorance has to do with a dull state of mind where we have lost touch with our instincts, our intelligence, and our intention. It can be thought of as a state of confusion, bewilderment, or stupidity. Addictions, eating disorders, and unhealthy relationships are all signs that we are suffering from ignorance. People know that what they are doing causes them pain, but they can’t stop themselves from repeating the same patterns. There is a total disconnect in the mind. The practice here is to connect with the pain that results from our behaviors. Until, we directly the face the suffering that our behaviors are causing ourselves and those around us, we can’t slow down the momentum. Something needs to stop us in our tracks, whether it’s a period of sobriety, a family intervention, or we hit bottom in some major way. The direct experience of pain can be acute enough to get our attention to come out of our zombie like state to at least notice what we’re doing. Bringing awareness to our unconscious habits takes time and repeated effort. But this much needed time-out can help you ask yourself what are you doing, where are you going, and what was your original intention?
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-- Jelaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks