The Buddhist teachings explain that we are not free because we are controlled by our negative emotions. For example, in the reflection on the suffering nature of samsara, which is part of brief version of the Four Thoughts from the Ngöndro practice, it says:
“Driven by anger, desire, and ignorance, gods, men, animals, hungry ghosts and hell-beings foolishly go around, like the turning of the potter’s wheel.”
—from the Lalitavistara Sutra
If we want to be free of samsara, we need to put an end to being controlled by our negative emotions. But this is not easy!
A good question to start with is this: How do these emotions control us? One answer is that we do not see their destructive nature. Instead of seeing negative emotions as something to be avoided, we see them as our friends. My teachers have said that we often make the mistake of considering negative emotions as our allies. For example, we see desire as a trusted friend or advisor that tells us what is good for us. We see anger as a bodyguard that protects us from harm and enemies. But in the Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva explains that the real enemy is not outside but resides in our heart. He says that the real enemy is our negative emotions.
Although I have heard this and understand it intellectually, I find it difficult to embody this understanding. I am so used to trusting my emotions and unconsciously believe that they provide me with a true and objective view of the world. Because my habits are very strong, I find it difficult to see how much harm they create.
The answer to this problem is to begin by developing more mindfulness and awareness of what is occuring in my mind. By watching my mind more closely, I will see how much harm my negative emotions create and begin to understand why they are called ‘destructive’ emotions or ‘poisons’ in the Buddhist teachings. Once I understand this deeply, it will become far easier to change how I relate to my emotions.
This post is part of a series of reflections on “freedom, happiness and ignorance.” If you are interested in the previous posts click here. You might also be interested in checking out a recent post on my wife Sandra’s blog about working with anger titled “It’s no one’s fault”