When afflictive thoughts and emotions strike, we need strategies. We need a psychological toolbox to defend ourselves. Buddhist meditative practices offer a profound resource for arming us with effective tools to deal with disturbances of the mind. Mattieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk, famously labelled ‘the happiest man in the world’ offers three methods for dealing with negative emotions as prescribed in the Buddhist literature: antidotes, liberation, and utilisation.
“The first method consists of neutralising afflictive emotions with a specific antidote, just as we neutralise the destructive effects of poison with venom, or of acid with alkali. One fundamental point emphasised by Buddhism is that two diametrically opposed mental processes cannot form simultaneously. We may fluctuate rapidly between love and hatred, but we cannot feel in the same instant of consciousness the desire to hurt someone and do him good. The two impulses are as opposed to each other as water and fire. As the philosopher Alain has written: ‘One movement precludes the other; when you extend a friendly hand, you cannot make a fist’”.
This means that the more we cultivate loving-kindness the less room there will be in our hearts for hatred. It is not a matter of suppressing negative emotions, but that the cultivation of their opposite naturally diminishes their effect. Ricard says that “these antidotes are to the psyche what antibodies are to the body”. It is therefore important to recognise which antidotes correspond to which emotions so that we can cultivate the former to counter the latter. For example, patience acts as the antidote to anger, love to hatred, humility to pride, calm to agitation etc.
The second method offers one universal antidote to all mental afflictions. With this approach, rather than attempting to curb the effect of an emotion or thought with the cultivation of a specific antidote, instead we seek to go to the root of the problem by examining the very nature of mental phenomena.
“When we examine the emotions, we find that they are dynamic flows without any inherent substance of their own – in Buddhist terms ‘empty’ of real existence. What would happen if, instead of counteracting a disturbing emotion with its opposite…we were simply to contemplate the nature of the emotion itself?”
Ricard points out that anger is nothing more than a thought (and a corresponding sensation in the body experienced as emotion). He compares anger and other emotions to great black clouds in the sky. From a distance it looks solid enough to sit on, but on closer examination we realise it is nothing more than air and vapour. Anger is a temporary condition, much like a fever, that we do not need to identify with. By looking directly at the emotion of anger rather that allowing our attention to be propelled outward to the object of our anger, we are able to dissipate its energy and the power of its effect:
“The more you look at anger in this manner, the more it evaporates under your gaze, like white frost under the sun’s rays”.
When we recognise the empty nature of thoughts and emotions (i.e. that they arise in the mind, linger, and dissolve back into the mind) we strip them of their power over us. As a result of this realisation “They cross the mind without leaving a trace, like the trackless flight of a bird through the sky”.
3) Using the emotions as catalysts
Ricard describes the third method as the most tricky of the three. He notes that negative emotions are comprised of many elements, in the same way that a musical note is made of different harmonics. Negative emotions can contain useful or positive elements or strands in them that can be put to creative and wholesome use. For example, anger contains within it the elements of focus and clarity and an energy that can rouse us to action and help us overcome obstacles. Likewise desire has an element of bliss; pride an element of self-confidence. The art here is to learn how to extract these positive qualities without succumbing to their negative effects. This is compared to trying to snatch a jewel from a snake’s head.
Ricard points out that negative mental states are not harmful in and of themselves but only become so when we identify, cling to, and fixate on them. If we can avoid fixation the emotions themselves can act as a catalyst to free ourselves from their negative influence.
“This happens because our point of view changes. When we fall into the sea it is the water itself that buoys us and allows us to swim to shore. But we still need to know how to swim – that is, to have enough skill to exploit the emotions to good effect without drowning in their negative aspects”.
Using these three strategies can offer us a variety of skillful ways to deal with negative emotions when they arise, and help us to cultivate the qualities of compassion, equanimity, and understanding in ourselves.