Restraining Our Emotions

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Cultivating restraint

If you know that your afflictive emotions are triggered by phenomena — the people and events you encounter — where is the logical place to begin countering negative thoughts and emotions?

To actually counter negative thoughts and emotions, the Dalai Lama suggests avoiding those situations and activities which would normally give rise to them. If, for example, we know that we tend to respond to someone with anger, it is wise to avoid them, at least until we have learned how to restrain our negative emotions and generate positive emotions.

Think of a person who triggers anger in you. Might you be able to skillfully avoid the situations that you know trigger your response?

Obviously we can not always avoid things and people that trigger our negative emotions, so we need to learn, as well, to avoid the actual conditions which bring about these afflictive thoughts and emotions.

Recognizing afflictive emotions

These tactics presuppose that we have learned to identify negative emotions as they appear, which is often not easy to do. But if we can't recognize them, how can we avoid them or counter them?

Why is it hard to recognize emotions such as anger if they are so powerful?

While hatred is a very strong emotion when fully developed, in its beginning stages the aversion we feel toward a particular object or event may be quite subtle. And even at their most advanced stages of development, afflictive emotions do not always manifest dramatically. Ethics for the New Millennium

Therefore awareness is required. We must cultivate our awareness:

. . .of our body and its actions, of our speech and what we say, and of our hearts and minds and what we think and feel. We must be on the lookout for the slightest negativity . . . We need to think, think, think. We should be like a scientist who collects data, analyzes it, and draws the appropriate conclusion. Ethics for the New Millennium

How do we learn to do this? Developing insight into our own negativity is not something we can do quickly. It's a long-term process with the potential for deep refinement. The only way to learn to control our impulses and find contentment is to begin this process and commit ourselves to it.

In addition to being aware of the seeds of afflictive emotions, you can ask yourself questions about the nature of such emotions:

"Am I happier when my thoughts and emotions are negative and destructive or when they are wholesome?" "What is the nature of consciousness? Does it exist in and of itself, or does it exist in dependence on other factors?" Ethics for the New Millennium

Can you approach afflictive emotions, in yourself and others, as indications of fragility or weakness? Does characterizing them this way allow you to treat yourself and others less judgmentally and more compassionately?

Denial and restraint

Do we need to deny our feelings in order to control anger and other negative thoughts and emotions?

The Dalai Lama makes an important distinction between denial and restraint.

The latter constitutes a deliberate and voluntarily adopted discipline based upon an appreciation of the benefits of doing so. We are not suggesting rule following or suppressing emotion out of a need to present a facade of self control or out of fear of what others think. Such behavior is like closing a wound which is still infected. Ethics for the New Millennium

While there are certainly emotions that are important to express openly, even negative ones, it is essential that we learn how to do so with skill and discernment.