Meeting Difficult Emotions with Mindfulness
Talk given by Bhante Buddharakkhita on August 26, 2018 at the Uganda Buddhist Centre
Mindfulness is a quality of the mind that pays attention to what is going in the present moment. It has to be connected with understanding, ethics, and thoughts.
Another word we have here is emotions. Emotions can motivate us but they can also agitate us.
So anybody who has had emotions can see something moving, agitating. But also, emotions can motivate us like gladness, delight, happiness. But there are also difficult emotions that can get in a way; we can hijacked.
If you have difficult emotions, or planning to have difficult emotions, this talk is good for you. I know some of you, maybe you have never had emotions in your life. Raise your hand if you have never had emotions in your life! Huh! All of us? What are those difficult emotions? Fear? Anger? Irritation? Resentment? Emotions are mind states.
We have what we call wholesome emotions like happiness, delight, and joy but there is also what we call unskillful or unwholesome emotions like fear, worry, anger, grudge, road rage and all that. We distinguish them as wholesome and unwholesome for a good reason as opposed to positive and negative. Of course in Western positive psychology we talk about positive and negative, but in this tradition, we talk about unwholesome or unskillful because it leads to your suffering. It leads to the suffering of others and leads to the suffering of both. We also call them wholesome emotions because when you have joy, it leads to your happiness, to the happiness of others, and leads to the happiness of both. So that is by way of distinction. Are we all together on this?
Now, in daily life, how many emotions do you have in daily life? As you wake up, you raise your hand how many emotions have you gone through today? Just to make sure we all know emotions. “One emotion”, one of the participants responds.
Bhante: Only one emotion since morning! What is it?
Participant: I was very sad when discussing a house. The answers where very difficult. So my mind was captured to move away from the normal life.
Bhante: So what did you do with the sadness?
Participant: I just tried to control it until I let me move away, then I came here. I leave all what I was doing.
Bhante: So you are in the right place. Because by the time you go, your emotion will be gone.
Okay, that’s very good sharing. Let’s get one more person. How many emotions have you got today? Ten? Hundred? Million? Or what? How many emotions have you gone through today? No emotions? That means we end the talk. You don’t need the talk. We end the talk now.
Participant: Today I had at least five emotions.
Bhante: five! Really?
Participant: Yes. I started the day very badly. But I now feel better.
Bhante: How did you deal with them?
Participant: I deal with that in the middle. It’s not yet happiness but it is not something bad.
Bhante: It is something in between?
Participant: When we did mindfulness, what was that? We are just focusing on the breath. The sort of emotion I have is calmness?
Bhante: Yes, yes that is calmness. You don’t have to name it, it is an experience. So sometimes you feel neutral feelings.
You see most of the time people confuse feelings and emotions. In English, most people think feelings are emotions. Feelings are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. In this tradition we don’t have mixed feelings. Ooh I have mixed feelings about this monk. Feelings are very clear: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
When it comes to emotions, they are very disorganized. At one moment, we have anger another moment we have joy. So it is just random. So they are really very disorganized. Emotions are mind states. They don’t tell us that they are coming usually. They don’t announce. Those who have stayed in Africa, when you have a visitor, they don’t say they are coming. They just show up. But in Europe I noticed while in Sweden for three months, we always had to call. In USA, you have to make arrangements. In Africa in general, we have just started making arrangements. But when I was growing up back then, you want to go to your grandmother, you just show up no problem. So emotions are like that. They don’t ring us that anger is coming, please get ready for me after 2 o’clock. Especially when you are not mindful, they just come and hijack us. You are really angry and you even don’t know how you became angry. That’s when you don’t have mindfulness. That is a bad news. But when you have mindfulness, you actually see when anger is starting to come. The body is starting to getting heat, sweating, breath increasing, heart rate increasing. So you can see the signs and then you know, ‘oh! Anger is about to visit me’. Or Fear is about to come, then you can get prepared. That is the beauty of meditation- that you can get prepared so that it doesn’t take a big toll on you.
I remember one time I was in Washington DC at Dulles airport. I was going to teach in California. I was going to give the five precepts to open the retreat. When I arrived, of course I delayed to get to the airport, and the plane was about to take off. I went to the security check and there was only a female assistant. I looked at the place…. people boarding. Guess what? The people who dropped me have gone back to the monastery and it is a 2hrs drive from the monastery. And where I am going, people know that I am coming. But I am in between where I am not going back. I am stuck at the airport because no male assist is there to check me. Until finally a male assist comes and he started checking me. At that time, I could see something building in me. The heat building. The fear that I am not going to board the airplane, that I will be hungry. So I felt these emotions started to come because I was mindful. When the male assist started touching me, I said no thank you very much for the massage. And then they started pressing my feet and I said to him thank you for the reflexology. They told me to turn around…I remember doing gymnasium in primary school. I thanked him for the gymnastics. So by the time I finished the security check, I was just laughing and security personnel laughing. I did not allow emotions to hijack me. I was the last one to board. But if I wasn’t mindfulness, I would start boiling and yell to this security officer. I would say please take me out of this place, I am about to miss my flight. I have seen people yelling when their flights are cancelled. Can you imagine when they cancel the flight due to bad weather, and somebody starts yelling to the office…
“I have a meeting! I am going to miss my meeting”. Well, good luck, board the airplane. So people prefer to vent their emotions to innocent people. I have seen it happening. I have spent 7hrs at an airport one time in Boston. United Airlines kept on giving delay announcements and finally we boarded the plane going to New York. When we were about to land, the Captain announced, “On behalf of mother nature, and United Airlines, we are very sorry for the delay.” So you cannot get so much angry at Mother Nature. Many things happen out of our control.
Anyway, that is my personal experience. We are going to go through some of the ways of how to meet difficult emotions with mindfulness. There are going to be 9 techniques, but I don’t know if you have enough energy to listen to them after lunch. Are you ready for this?
- —————-The first one is very simple. You are required to meditate every day. Because if you don’t meditate on daily basis, you are going to become a breeding ground for difficult emotions. If you meditate every day, I am not saying you are not going to get any emotions, but actually you will know how to wisely respond to them. You can even change these emotions into a fertile soil for gaining patience and wisdom. So the first one is very general. It even prevents emotions from coming. It is called mindfulness of the six senses.
We have six senses as opposed to five in biology: thinking, touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing.
As the first Buddhist monk in Uganda, I faced a lot of problems. Everywhere in I go, people look at me and say I am either going to a mental hospital or I am coming from a mental hospital, Butabika. But I am coming from this meditation cushion. So every time I would hear them say I am going to a mental hospital, I would repeat to myself, “hearing… Hearing….”. Or they would say, Oh! He is a Shaolin master, “hearing….!”
Ugandans have a special character. They can talk even if you are not hearing, they don’t mind… something I haven’t found in United States. In Uganda, people can tell exactly what is going on with you. You see this tall man…they say “Masai Masai”. But when people call me all these names, I just repeat to myself “Hearing, Hearing, Hearing.” so you can say whatever about me, but I will just become aware of hearing. So what does this do? It helps me not to react…it helps me to respond.
Sometimes people say something and I say “Oh! Thank you very much.” Masai! I love Masais. I went to Kenya and they are actually very good friends. I found one in Uganda recently and he kept on following me. Because they know that we are brothers. Until Anya said please stop. So you call me a Masai and you think I am going to be disappointed! No. So next time someone say something that is going to trigger your anger, just become aware of hearing, seeing. If you pass a place where there is a lot of smell, and you are going to have a lot of anger and aversion towards the smell, just become aware of smelling…smelling…smelling.
I was traveling with a friend of mine from England, and we reached a place with a lot of smell. He wrapped a handkerchief around his nose. He asked why I am not putting a handkerchief. I told him, “I am putting a handkerchief of mindfulness”. For me every time the smell came, I was mindful of smelling, smelling smelling. Of course not just words likes that, but actually mindfulness of smelling. That actually helps to nip it in the bud; to stop even emotions from arising.
So number one is called mindfulness at the six senses. If you don’t do that what will happen? Let’s say you hear someone saying you are a “Masai” yet you are not mindful, and you get angry…what will happen? Whenever you see that person who called a Masai, you will always be angry…and you keep on m multiplying your anger and depending on the senses. That is the bad news. The good news is that when you are mindful of emotions like hearing, and at the moment of hearing you become mindful of hearing, maybe you will be disappointed once. But if you miss that point, your emotions will keep on multiplying; Hearing, seeing, thinking, and even smelling. When you hear people who disappointed you coming, you are like…”Ahhh! This person is coming”. How about seeing? When a person disappoints you and you are going to meet them in the road, what do you do? You have to take another road? Don’t you feel the urge to take another road because you don’t want to see them? That is why number one method is very important, otherwise, you are going to keep on multiplying your emotions.
- —————Number two method is called mindfulness of the emotion itself. Let’s say anger or fear, you make it the object of your attention. So when fear arises, you become mindful of fear in the mind. You become mindful of fear in the body also. You can feel the body getting tense. Just like the breath, when you are practicing meditation, you focus on the breath isn’t it? So when fear comes, focus on fear…when anxiety arises, focus on anxiety.
- ————–The third method is attitude. What is your attitude when there is emotion? Most of us, when we have difficult emotions, we tend to push away what we don’t like. We indulge in something, let’s say anger, or we ignore it. That is not what you want to happen when you have emotions. The proper attitude is to understand, “oh! This is anger… this is fear… this is anxiety… we understand the condition when it arises.
What is the condition for sadness to arise? The cause of fear, anger, and all emotions is that you are paying unwise attention to the theme of irritation. When there is something irritating you, you don’t pay wise attention to it. Let’s say somebody said that I am a Masai, and I pay unwise attention to the theme of irritation, I will start thinking that I am a Masai. One time I came back from my international travels, and my caretaker called me at around 9pm. He told me that he was angry. I asked why he is angry. He said you know “I am angry because of your cousin. Your cousin called me a dog. That’s why I am angry and I am going to leave the temple. I have been working for you for the last 8 years, but I am leaving. Yes. All the time he has been calling me a dog.” I asked him to calm down a little bit. Then I asked him, “Are you really a dog?” he said “no I am not a dog.” Then I asked him “why are you then angry?” So people who pay unwise attention, when they are called a dog, they really believe they are a dog. I told him that next time somebody tells you that you are a dog, look behind if you have a tail. If you confirm that you have a tail, then you have all the right to get angry. Paying unwise attention to the theme of irritation brings anger….brings fear…brings anxiety…and so on…brings the sadness, because we are paying unwise attention. But if we pay wise attention to the theme of loving-kindness, then we are not going to have problems. So this is more of the attitude. What attitude? Are we pushing away what we don’t want? Are we indulging in what we want? Are we ignoring what we don’t know? Or are we understanding? Because when we understand, then we can understand conditions. What drove me to be angry? Understand the conditions or causes, and when we know the cause, we can actually address the problem. Otherwise, we are going to be angry about being angry all the time. We are going to have fear about fear all the time.
- ——————The fourth method requires a little bit of deeper mindfulness whereby we start to investigate whether the emotion is arising or passing away. Raise your hand if you have been angry the whole year! Most people tell me that they have been angry for the whole day…for the whole month. The reason is that we don’t investigate to see where the anger is starting…its causes…when it is arising…we don’t pay attention to that. And that’s why everything get convoluted, then we just start becoming angry about the memory…remembering the events why we got angry.
Okay today you told me that I am a Masai. Am I a Masai? No. the next day I will then get angry because yesterday somebody said I am a Masai…the person who called me a Masai is already gone…so I am just remembering what happened. So these are memories. But in actual reality, this is a mind state that is arising and passing away. This is why you need to bring in the investigation aspect to see if is it arising, or staying the same. As a matter of fact, you can’t be angry the whole day because you will go and have lunch. I don’t think that time you are going to be angry. At that time you are going to have a good meal. So we can now say that the way to manage difficult emotions with mindfulness is to bring in the aspect of investigation to know the gaps when we are angry. And these gaps are very important when we are free from emptions.
I don’t know people in Europe, but in Africa we have a game where we light fire and swing it to draw a circle. Have you had that? But is that a circle? It is because you are moving it very fast, that is why it becomes a circle. It is one moment after another moment.
When you are driving and you see an arrow sign from far away, and you say detour, don’t you see those bulbs making an arrow? They make an arrow and you detour. Is that an arrow or one bulb after the other? It is actually one bulb after one bulb – there are gaps. But when we are far away we call it an arrow. So now, when we are not mindful, we think the whole thing is one anger. But when we are mindful, we can see those moments arising and passing away…and there is a degree of freedom actually. When we feel those gaps and we can really tap into them, then we can see the film of those moments. That also help us to know the impermanent nature of the emotions and also the impersonal nature of the experience. Any difficult emotion is impersonal, but we tend to take it so personally. Why are we saying it is impersonal? Because you are not 100 percent responsible for it. Can I demonstrate this? You see this bell? I am going to ring it and it will produce sound. [ringing bell] Now, where is sound? Sound is dependently arising. It is because I hit the bell and then it made sound. So is anger. Anger cannot come independently. It is because somebody spoke to you, and triggered it…and you had anger yourself….and the two came together…which means you have a hand in your anger.
Most of the time you say someone made you sad, correct? Is it really true somebody made you sad? Actually somebody just triggered your sadness. When you have matchbox, and a match stick…it is only when the two come together that we can see fire lighting up. And if the box didn’t have the surface for making fire, you wouldn’t get the fire. Or if the matchstick is missing, you wouldn’t get fire. So this illustrates that in the event you get angry, you are not alone. In other words, it is not right to say that somebody 100 percent made you angry. We can maybe say 50 percent us and the other person 50 percent. So when we see that there is a combination of the two, then we don’t take things too personally. It doesn’t mean that people are not making you angry, but at least it makes us take responsibility. The message here is to take responsibility of your anger…do something about it. Any emotion, take responsibility for because there are always conditions coming together, so it is impersonal.
- —————-Number five is about depersonalizing anger or emotions. Most of the time we tend to own emotions. This is my anger…this is my fear…this is my anxiety….this is my disappointment…. I….my….myself… so we make them personal. But once we do what we have already mentioned above, we see that it is impersonal and that helps you to slide into depersonalization. It is just a mental state. Of course in ordinary language we say that “I am angry” but technically speaking anger is arising due to causes and conditions. There is no need to own it. In other words you don’t have the copyrights to anger or any other emotions. Most of the time I tell people to forgive and they say they can’t because it is their anger. It is not a property. It is something that you can work on. It is something that you can meet with mindfulness. So any emotions, try to see it as a process, don’t own it.
- ————–When you have anger what happens when you want to meet it with mindfulness? You can substitute it with the opposite. The opposite of anger for instance is loving-kindness…the opposite of fear is courage. So this method is called replacement method. You replace the difficult emotion with its positive opposite. The opposite of greed is giving (generosity)…the opposite of confusion is clarity or wisdom.
- —————–The seventh one is called reflection. You reflect on the effects of the emotions. When you have fear let’s say, how does it affect you? You get tension. When you have anger what happens? When I was young, I had an effect of anger. It is like you are swallowing a frog. Nobody is happy when he or she is angry. So when you reflect that anger it is going to bring unhappiness…fear is going to bring tension or unhappiness, then we can actually meet these difficult emotions with mindfulness.
Let’s say you are driving here in Uganda, and you meet a traffic police officer, especially on a highway. So when you see the police when you are driving so fast, do you continue at the same speed or you slow down? Why do you slow down? You slow down because you are afraid of getting a ticket and you are going to pay. Andrew was driving me to the airport and then we were stopped by the police. I had only few minutes to my flight. And every time he reaches that spot, he reflects. So is the message of reflection because you don’t want to get a ticket? What ticket do we get when we have a lot of difficult emotions? We lose peace of mind. You don’t want to lose a peace of mind because it is very difficult to get it back. So when we reflect, we slow down on our emotions and then we are no longer racing.
- —————Another method is called redirection. You redirect your mind to something wholesome. Let’s say you are talking to someone, and then something interrupts you. You could be talking to someone and another person shouts “excuse me, I would like to talk to you”. And you tell him/her please we are talking here. But he insists he wants to talk to you and the he is leaving. You somehow convince the person you are with so you can talk to the other person for about five minutes. And then you talk to the person for about 5 minutes…10 minutes…15minutes. What happens by the time you finish? You come back to your previous conversation. You go to the person and ask “what we were talking about?” Does this happen to you also? So you can also do it in meditation. When you get anger, put your mind on something else. You can maybe think of the wonderful time you had in the Netherlands or some place in Uganda. Specifically however, you turn your mind to the breath. Take a deep breath…you can count them 1, 2, 3 and if you see that you are still angry, go up to 100 breaths.
There is a Russian saying that before you say anything, roll your tongue eleven times. Can you try? Your tongue will get tired, but at least it will save you from speaking out things you will regret about for the rest of your life. Is it not what people do? The good thing we have a couple of lawyers here. Do you hear your clients blurting out things? Next time tell them to roll their tongue 11 times; or tell them to breathe ten times. By the time they finish the rounds, they will ask you “can we have a cup of tea?” Actually this has a biological basis. Those who studied biology, there is the sympathetic system and parasympathetic nervous system. When you get angry, adrenaline kicks in and then it puts your body into what we call sympathetic nervous system whereby you feel tensed and tight. It is all good because it prepares you to run, fight, or freeze. This is good news but if you don’t meditate, you are going to stay in that mode and you are going to say things from that state whereby you are tensed and all words are going to be charged. You are going to shout at people as if they are staying in Entebbe and you are in Jinja.
I have not seen someone angry and speaks romantically. They will shout. You see how anger distorts our peace. When people are in love, they don’t shout at each other. Because they are parasympathetic system…they are relaxed. When you are angry, buy some time and allow yourself to relax. When people are angry at me, I tell them we will talk tomorrow. In doing so, I am telling them to buy time. Because I know buy tomorrow, someone will be parasympathetic system and relaxed, and instead of quarreling will say, “Bhante can we have a cup of tea”. You are not going to shout. Therefore, this redirection method has a biological basis of changing yourself from sympathetic nervous system to parasympathetic system and relaxed…so is counting, and rolling your tongue 11 times.
- —————-Another method is called retracing. While redirection is forward looking, retracing is going backward. In Uganda and other countries, when you know yourself, you look back to see what knocked you. But when people get difficult emotions, they don’t do that – I don’t know why. Look back why are you knocked….why are you always the person having fear, anger, anxious and so on? Look back and see what really knocked you. In other words, find the springboard…find the nourishing root. Once you find the nourishing root, then you are meeting difficult emotions with mindfulness…”Ahhh! It is because of my attachment to my views because I don’t want to give up my views.” “Oh it is because of my aversion”.
For instance for fear, why do you always have fear? The Buddha says, the cause of fear is craving. Where there is no craving, there is no fear. When we find out we always have fear, we also find that have aversion somewhere. And then we go back, why do I always have aversion towards things? Maybe we are attached to something. And why are we always attached to something? Maybe there is ignorance. Why there is ignorance? Maybe there is unwise attention. Now it becomes an issue of the chicken and the egg, which one came first? So you really need to find out. Because this helps you to really find the root to your suffering.
- ———–The last method is called resolution. Make a strong resolve every day. Every morning as soon as I wake up, I make a strong resolution. I say “I am grateful. I am awake. I am healthy.” I got it from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is like my prayer every morning for the last 20 years.
“I am grateful. I am awake. I am healthy. I am going to use all my energy to practice generosity, loving-kindness, understanding, courage, and attain awakening for the benefit of all beings including myself.” I don’t want to miss the boat. “I am not going to get angry, I am not going be greedy. I am not going to get confused. I am not going to get fear or talk bad about others. I am going to be grateful. I am going be kind, and I am going to benefit others as much as possible.”
I do this every day. This is very important to remind of the big picture of why you are here. Because it is very easy to get lost in petty issues.
Do we have road-rage in Uganda? Those who driving in Uganda, what is your experience? How do you find driving here? Even when we make resolution, we might get some triggers. But you can renew your commitment. One day you will see the futility of really getting angry to these people. You will one day get it, don’t give up. Even when you leave Uganda and go to another place, whether a cave in Scotland, I have found wherever you go, there you are. This time it is not going to be drivers, it could be your cook…or something else.
One time I thought I was going to dodge something in USA. I wanted to meditate for one month but there was a lot of noise from the tractors cutting trees from the neighborhood. It started the time the retreat started and ended the time the retreat also ended. I started taking it so personally. This can’t happen to a monk. This is a forest monastery and I have been teaching about mindfulness of hearing…hearing…hearing. I had never seen such tractors, in fact, they were monsters. They brought monsters who were devouring trees because they were clearing trees to pass a power line. Every single tractor in the world was there making noise every day and night. I left, and went teach in Brazil. I said “next time I will not meditate in this monastery”. Next time I went to a kind of five start meditation center in Massachusetts. I started to meditate. Food was there, and as a monk, everything was provided. But after two or three days, my stomach started bloating. The food was great, but nobody knew where the stomachache was coming from. For the next 7 days, I could not meditate. I dodged the sound in the previous monastery, and here the stomach is making sound. That’s why I say, wherever you go, there you are. So the best way my friends, is not to wait until you get a perfect place where there are no Ugandan drivers because you are going to go to other places and there will be some other triggers. Until you learn to deal with emotions in a very skillful way, wherever you go, you will still have a problem in one form or fashion. It may come from external or internal or even memory.
So those are the skillful ways of dealing with difficult emotions. Let’s just go through them very quickly.
- Mindfulness at the six senses
I will give an acronym to remember, RAID:
- R = Recognition of the emotion
- A = Attitude you bring to the emotion
- I = Investigation, bring some investigation where there is an emotion raging.
- D = Depersonalization
The others are all of R’s:
This bring us to the end of this talk and I hope by the time you w leave, you will have ten ways of dealing with difficult emotions. If you don’t have a bag, I will pack them for you. Don’t leave this center without these tools because I know they are going to be very helpful.
Thank you very much for listening!