Restraining Our Emotions

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Afflictive emotions

Such fear is an example of what in Tibetan is called nyong mong. This describes negative and emotional situations that literally "afflict from within"— what we usually refer to as "afflictive emotion."

Which emotions that you experience would you consider to be afflictive?

All those thoughts, emotions, and mental events which reflect a negative or uncompassionate state of mind inevitably undermine our experience of inner peace. All negative thoughts and emotions - such as hatred, anger, pride, lust, greed, envy, and so on - are considered to be afflictions in this sense. Ethics for the New Millennium

Can you identify with this characterization of such emotions as "afflictions"? Reflect on your experiences of pride, greed, hatred, envy, etc. Do these afflict your life? What situations trigger negative emotions in you?

Are you aware of afflictive emotions in others? Reflect on how you respond to negative words and deeds — in your thoughts, your emotions, your words and your actions.

Why does the Dalai Lama focus on negative emotions and their causes?

Although they have the power to "afflict" us (even in extreme cases to drive us to madness or suicide) we tend to treat negative emotions as natural aspects of our mind over which we have no control. Taking them for granted, we ignore their destructive power and fail to understand the importance of challenging them. Ironically, we actually seem inclined to nurture and sustain them.

Why focus so much on the effects of afflictive emotions? By developing an appreciation of the destructive nature of afflictive emotions, we become more disinclined to follow them. This alone would have a significant impact on our lives. edited

Why do we have afflictive emotions?

If we all have the capacity for empathy, what then causes our afflictive emotions?

If we are to avoid the negative emotions that harm ourselves and others and block our ability to act empathetically, it is useful not only to realize afflictive emotions but to clearly see what causes them. The Dalai Lama points out several factors that give rise to afflictive emotions.

  • thinking of ourselves before others
  • our tendency to project characteristics onto things and events above and beyond what actually is there (as in the example of mistaking the coiled rope for a snake)
  • our negative thoughts and emotions do not exist independently of other phenomena,
  • the very objects and events we come into contact with have the potential to trigger negative thoughts and emotions. Anything can be a source of afflictive emotion — not just our adversaries but our friends and our most valued possessions, too, even our own selves. Ethics for the New Millennium

The destructive power of afflictive emotions

Negative thoughts and emotions are the basis of anxiety, depression, confusion, and stress, which are such a feature of our lives today. They are what obstruct our most basic aspiration - to be happy and to avoid suffering. When we act under their influence, we become oblivious to the impact our actions have on others: they are thus the cause of our destructive behavior both toward others and to ourselves. The undisciplined mind — that is, the mind under the influence of anger, hatred, greed, pride, selfishness, and so on — is the source of all our troubles which do not fall into the category of unavoidable suffering (sickness, old age, death, and so on). Our failure to check our response to the afflictive emotions opens the door to suffering for both self and others; they are the very source of unethical conduct. Ethics for the New Millennium

While it may be easy to see how these emotions are harmful to others, it may be more difficult to see how they afflict us.

The Dalai Lama says that that our actions — both positive and negative — have profound repercussions within us. How might this be so for you?

The Dalai Lama further suggests that even if one suppresses the feeling of empathy that would check one's harmful behavior, the repercussions are still felt at a deep level.

Afflictive emotions destroy one of our most precious qualities, namely, our capacity for discriminative awareness. Robbed of what enables us to judge between right and wrong, to evaluate what is likely to be of lasting benefit and what of merely temporary benefit to self and others, and to discern the likely outcome of our actions, we are no better off than animals. Ethics for the New Millennium

Afflictive emotions are so difficult to even identify because they fool us, appearing to provide satisfaction when in reality offering the opposite, suffering.

In addition to destroying our experience of peace, how might negative thoughts and emotions affect your health?

As one example, anger is the primary source of many illnesses associated with high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and degenerative disorders. As the Dalai Lama observes:

According to my personal experience, mental stability and physical well-being are directly related. Without question, anger and agitation make us more susceptible to illness. On the other hand, if the mind is tranquil and occupied with positive thoughts, the body will not easily fall prey to disease.

How does succumbing to negative emotions affect the expression of your good qualities, for example kindness and compassion? How does it affect your ability to solve our problems?

There is no occasion when these disturbing thoughts and emotions are helpful either to ourselves or to others. Ethics for the New Millennium

How about "letting out" my emotions?

What of Western psychology's encouragement of expressing feelings and emotions, even anger? The Dalai Lama recognizes that experiencing emotions such as anger and desire is entirely natural.

Certainly many people have endured traumatic experiences in their past, and if these emotions are suppressed, they may indeed cause lasting psychological harm. In such cases, as we say in Tibet, "When the conch shell is blocked, the best way to clear it is to blow into it." Ethics for the New Millennium

That said, he is encouraging us not to feel powerless in the face of emotions, as if we can't do anything about them.

I do feel that it is important for spiritual practitioners to adopt a stance against strong emotions such as anger, attachment, and jealousy and devote themselves to developing restraint. Instead of allowing ourselves to indulge in occurrences of strong emotions, we should work at decreasing our propensity toward them. If we ask ourselves whether we are happier when angry or when calm, the answer is evident. . . The troubled mental state that results from afflictive emotions immediately disturbs our inner equilibrium, causing us to feel unsettled and unhappy. Ethics for the New Millennium