Why are negative emotions harmful?

In the last few days I have been continuing to reflect on negative emotions. What does it really mean that negative emotions take my freedom? How do they manage to do this? I have been asking these same questions for a while now, but I find it helpful to reflect on them again and again from different angles. While the central message of the teachings of the Buddha —that we need to overcome negative emotions if we want to find freedom from samsara— stays the same, different teachings approach this topic in different ways. Looking at the different aspects helps me to understand better and see more clearly how my mind works. It  helps me to develop more confidence and certainty in the truth of Buddha’s insights.

Every time I ask this question, different points from the teaching come to my mind. What came back to me today was that the lack of freedom comes from allowing my emotions and habits to be in charge of my decisions and actions. Instead of having my inner wisdom supervise and be in control of my life,  I have handed over control to my habits, concepts and emotions.

Ultimately there is nothing wrong with having emotions. For example, the great master Tilopa gave the following advice to his disciple Naropa: “Son, it is not the appearances that bind you but your grasping to them.” Thoughts and emotions are the natural expression of my mind. Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “as long as you have a mind there will be thoughts and emotions.” The problem comes when I cling to them as solid and real and believe them to be objective and accurate information about my world. In the Bodhicharyavatara Shantideva points out that we trust our emotions and think of them as our friends. I am allowing my habits and emotions to be in charge of my life because of this unquestioned and mistaken trust.

Why are negative emotions are considered to be negative states of mind? Let’s first look at what is meant by negative emotions. They are many manifestations of destructive emotions but the teachings say all these different states mind can be summarized into three: ignorance, attachment (or desire) and aversion (or anger). Ignorance is not being able to see things as they are and instead taking them at face value. It is believing things how they appear at first sight, without verifying and investigating. Another form of ignorance is dullness, ignoring things. It is a kind of selective perception that blocks out and ignores whatever seems irrelevant or uninteresting. Desire arises whenever something feels pleasant and initiates actions to obtain the object. Whenever something feels unpleasant aversion comes, sometimes just avoiding the situation and sometimes giving rise to anger or even launching an outright attack to put an end to the unpleasant experience. At times, just the fear of a harm can trigger a violent response. The patterns of emotions are conditioned patterns of operating, one could almost say they hard wired into my brain. They are part of our survival mechanism in animals and humans.

So why are they considered to be negative? Their initial intention of securing survival, well being and happiness is not bad. The problem is that they are not particularly intelligent. They work on a very simple basis: go after whatever feels pleasant, push away whatever feels unpleasant and ignore whatever feels neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant).

The first problem with their approach is that the well-being, pleasure and happiness they aim at is very short lived. It becomes an endless preoccupation to maintain and protect. There is always another object of desire to attain or another problem to remove. Secondly,  when negative emotions urge us to act they do not take into account the far reaching and long term consequences of these actions. They do not integrate the idea of karma when they urge us to act.

These emotions are considered to be negative because they do not bring lasting happiness and instead bring me tremendous harm. Their intention and the result they achieve are at odds with each other. That’s one way Sogyal Rinpoche explains how samsara works! If I just let my mind operate on its own and be controlled by these emotions, it will just keep being busy in its habitual ways. There will never been an end to its ordinary activities.

How do these emotions take my freedom? Actually they do not take my freedom, I let them take it. I let them be in charge of my life. I am the one who is not looking at the world freshly, inquiring deeply what is true.  I am the one who is looking at the world through the colored glasses of my concepts and emotions. I operate on autopilot, do not pay attention to what is going on in my mind and trust that it is in my best interest to act based on the input of my habits, concepts and emotions. Can it be surprising that the long term result of this approach is problems and suffering? To let my emotions be in charge and entrust myself to their judgments and decisions is clearly not the best choice.

This human life is considered to be so precious because I have the capacity to self-reflect on what will be truly beneficial for me and others on the long term. I have also the ability to make choices based on the true and authentic insights that arise from this kind of reflection. Instead of going along with the short term oriented habitual ways I can dedicate my life to a higher more long term purpose. However, if I idle away my life being busy and preoccupied with all sorts of activities that bring at best questionable short term pleasure but no lasting benefit, aren’t the teachings right when they say that I let a previous opportunity to reclaim my freedom go to waste?

In my next posts I want to quote passages from teachings that describe how the negative emotions are creating suffering in more detail. In the meantime you are invited to join me in reflecting and to add your comments.

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