Prisoners to our Passions

The burning flames of anger have parched the stream of my being.

The thick darkness of illusion has blinded my intelligence.

My consciousness drowns in torrents of desire.

The mountain of pride has flung me into the nether worlds.

The driving blizzard of envy has dragged me into samsara.

The demon of the belief in the ego has me firmly by the throat.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

The human intellect is powerful shaping factor in our lives. The ability to reason and make decisions has contributed greatly to the advance of humankind. But the quality of our lives is more determined by our emotional response to the world than our intellectual response to it.

In the West, obsessed by a disease model of mental health, we have long forgotten that happiness is a state of mind and so its main cause must be psychological. As a result we imagine that we can find happiness outside ourselves in success, wealth, fame, relationships or whatever. The truth is the extent to which we are happy depends mainly on our emotions. What we encounter in the external world serves merely as a catalyst for what we experience in our inner world – it is not the main event. The theatre that our minds are provides a tapestry for both positive and destructive emotions. Our well-being is assaulted by our destructive emotions and enhanced by our positive emotions.

The good news is, as Buddhists have known for centuries, the mind can be trained to improve its capacity to dispense with the afflictive emotions and enhance our sense of happiness. The French geneticist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard explains it this way:

“…it is about disentangling oneself from the unsatisfactory and moving with determination towards what matters most. It is about freedom and meaning – freedom from mental confusion and self-centred afflictions, meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

Ricard is a role-model for he is, as the psychologist Daniel Goleman attests, “one of the happiest people I know!”

The French monk goes on to say:

“I have also come to understand that although some people are naturally happier than others, their happiness is still vulnerable and incomplete, and that achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness and altruistic love.”

Although this “mind training” has been a skill of Buddhism for more than a thousand years, it is not essentially religious. It relies on no particular belief system or theology. It is in effect a very practical approach to improving the subjective quality of our lives. The Dalai Lama calls it “secular spirituality.” Its objective is a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. It provides a helpful way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.

If I were to ask you to recall your happiest moments, the request will more than likely promote memories of times when you were in harmony with the world, devoid of inner conflicts. Your reflections on unhappiness on the other hand is likely to conjure up moments of anger, guilt or grief. These destructive emotions were probably overwhelming you, distracting you from the world at large and causing you to be totally immersed in the emotional turmoil they had triggered.

We probably know people whose life circumstances have been unfortunate and yet have been able to sustain a sense of inner well-being. Ricard quotes the remarkable young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum. One year before her death at Auschwitz, she was able to proclaim,

“When you have an interior life, it doesn’t matter which side of the prison fence you’re on….I’ve already died a thousand times in a thousand concentration camps. I know everything. There is no new information to trouble me. One way or another, I already know everything. And yet, I find this life beautiful and rich in meaning. At every moment.”

How can you compare this state of mind with that of someone who feels hard done by because their lover has left them, they have lost their job or they believe someone has wronged them? It is patently obvious that someone with such an enlightened point of view must see the world in a substantially different way. But changing the way we see the world does not imply naïve optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. Etty Hillesum had no illusions about the future that faced her. She had learnt that even in the direst circumstances a human being can choose to face the world with equanimity and not fear.

[It is interesting that Mahatma Ghandi had a similar view:

“The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment. And if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within.”]

There are many who deny that happiness is even a possibility for humankind. This results from the concept of the world and those that people it as being fundamentally evil. This belief stems largely from the notion of original sin. Martin Seligman points out that Freud dragged this concept into twentieth century psychology, “defining all of civilisation (including modern morality, science, religion, and technological progress) as just an elaborate defence against basic conflicts over infantile sexuality and aggression.”

Even if we don’t subscribe to the foolish notion of original sin, attaining such a state of mind as Ricard proposes is made more difficult because most of us believe that conflicted states of mind are innate and that there is nothing we can do to prevent our minds being overwhelmed by negative emotions.

But we don’t have to be Buddhists to know that this is not the case. We know that humans learn many behaviours from socialisation. The good Dr Phil, many years ago, introduced me to a great little book by Narcisso and Burkett called Declare Yourself. It showed how the use of such emotional responses as anger, suffering and withdrawal helped us “get our way”. As a result we learned such emotional responses because of the payoff we got. Consequently there is very convincing evidence that the use of such emotional responses is learned from significant others and reinforced because they worked!

The opposite of happiness (or as I prefer to call it – well-being) is suffering. Suffering comes largely as a result of mental toxins such as hatred and obsession. These afflictive emotions poison the mind. To avoid this dilemma we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works. Suffering is intimately related to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.

Whilst most of us believe that our happiness is dependent on the nature of our external world, research shows otherwise. For example those who win the lottery initially, in most cases, experience some sort of euphoria. But within twelve months their sense of personal well-being is no greater than it was before the win. Conversely a study of paraplegics found that initially most acknowledged contemplating suicide, but a year after being paralysed 90% described their lives as “good”.

So then it is apparent that our happiness is not determined by our external circumstances but more by how we choose to respond to them. We will come back to this in a little while.

The trained mind has strategies for:

  1. Repelling negative emotions, and
  2. Facilitating positive emotions.

In this essay I will only have the opportunity to explore the former strategy.

If our afflictive emotions are the source of our pain, then it is important to learn how to distinguish them. They have two main characteristics, they are disturbing and/or delusional. Perhaps it might be useful to give examples.

An example of a disturbing emotion is anger. A person overtaken by rage is very disturbed. They are often irrational, physically agitated, and unaware of their impacts consciously on others.

An example of a delusional emotion is attachment. Attachment would lead me to believe that my well-being is dependent on something in the external world – an attractive partner, wealth, an essential personal relationship, or whatever without which I cannot be happy. This is delusional because as we saw above we have found that in essence our happiness comes from our state of mind and that we can in fact be happy even under the most unfortunate external circumstances.

Buddhism has compiled a long list of afflictive emotions. But just let me give you a representative sample. Afflictive emotions include:

  • Anger
  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Attachment
  • Desire

It doesn’t take much thinking to come to the conclusion that all negatives emotions are a manifestation of the destructive nature of the human ego.

Buddhist sages have devised antidotes for each of these destructive emotions. But rather than bore you with each of these let me outline the general strategy for dealing with negative emotions.

Firstly you might recall above I talked about the “theatre of mind”. Constant players on the stage the mind provides are our thoughts and our emotions. But we have seen many times before (particularly in our discussions about the “Witness”) whilst we almost universally identify with our thoughts and emotions we are not our thoughts and emotions but that which observes them.

As you observe your life from the perspective of the Witness you begin to feel that what happens to your personal self – your wishes, hopes desires, hurts – is not a life and death matter anymore. As Ken Wilbur wrote, “…when the individual realizes that his mind and his body can be perceived objectively, he spontaneously realizes that they cannot constitute a real subjective self.” Similarly as we learn to disidentify with our emotions we are able to observe them objectively rather be overwhelmed by them. Most of us unfortunately take on our afflictive emotions automatically without the understanding that we are not our emotions and that it is possible to put aside our destructive emotions.

So the first step in dealing with our negative emotions is just to realise whether we allow ourselves to be governed to by their harmful and perverse is essentially a matter of choice. If we don’t come to this realisation there is no choice and we are prisoners of our passions.

The second step in the process is to cultivate our self-awareness or what the Buddhists call mindfulness. Those of us who are fully self-aware are able to sense the potential onset of negative emotions rather than just allow them to run their course and overwhelm us. This creates a “gap” between the environmental stimulus and the personal response which for someone who is not mindful would normally result in acting out one of the negative emotions. Once we have created such a gap, we are able to intervene purposefully and make a conscious choice about how to respond rather than to passively be inundated with the afflictive emotion.

The mind training then, that we have referred to earlier, is the cultivation of mindfulness. As we have seen in previous essays meditation techniques that allow us to still the mind are helpful in this undertaking.

There is a very prevalent myth that indulging in our negative emotions is cathartic and therefore good for us. Research shows however that this is not the case and that indulging our negative emotions prolongs and strengthens them. (See for example that fine book, Anger:The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris).

Another downside of indulging in your negative emotions is that because our mind becomes preoccupied with them (we are in fact capitulating to the ego) we are incapable of altruism. The converse however is that being able to clear our minds facilitates our altruism and gratitude, which are the positive emotions most strongly linked with personal well-being.

3 Replies to “Prisoners to our Passions”

  1. Well, Ted, I have to say that this is probably the best short, but comprehensive, summary on the subject – and what to do about it – that I have ever read. Thank you. Emotions are indeed a wonderful servant but a terrible master!

  2. Ted – I’m with Phil Harker! The older I get, the more people I meet who need this background. Having just wrestled with some “relatives” at a family gathering, I am even more conscious of the impacts of “learned behaviours”!!

  3. Thanks for this Ted. I also believe that some physical factors can affect our emotions (but not of course how we respond to them). The book “The Crazy Makers: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Brains and Harming Our Children” I thought gave compelling evidence that the food we eat can affect our emotions. Also sleep deprevation can cause an increase in negative feelings. I guess that if we have fewer negative emotions (due to eating healthy and getting adequate sleep), then the process of witnessing and dismissing the smaller quantity of negative emotions is easier.

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