How to Deal with Negative Emotions
Nottingham, England, 24 May 2008
Transcribed and lightly edited by Alexander Berzin
With clarifications indicated in violet between square brackets
How do we deal with negative emotions? This is an important topic – one that brings up the question of what’s positive and what’s negative. Is there anything that’s absolutely negative or absolutely positive? I don’t really know. Everything is interdependent and everything has different aspects. One observer looks at something from this angle and sees one picture, but even the same observer, when they go to the other side, sees things from a different angle.
Why, then, does each person have a different view of the world? Well, it’s because each of us looks at the world from a different angle. Even the same object looks different even to the same person. Therefore, what is the distinction and definition of good and bad? – I don’t know. Even an ant doesn’t analyze that. But, somehow, an ant knows that something that helps its life is good and so considers it good; and something that’s a danger to life it feels that is bad and so it runs around it.
So, perhaps we can say that [the issue of good or bad] is based on survival. We want comfort and happiness. And so something that’s helpful for survival, we consider that good: that’s positive. Something that attacks us and which we feel is a danger to our survival – we feel that that’s bad: [that’s negative.]
According to that way [of defining positive and negative], then as for how do we deal with negative emotions, [we first need to deal with] how do we define them? First of all, these are things that disturb our inner peace, that’s why we call them “negative.” Those [emotions] that bring about inner strength and peace, those would be “ positive.”
From the discussions I’ve had with scientists, especially with the great scientist Varela, a close friend of mine, we concluded that strong compassion is an emotion and an ultimately beneficial one. We agreed, then, that even Buddha’s mind has some emotion in terms of compassion; so emotion isn’t necessarily something bad or negative. The infinite compassion of the Buddha – we would have to consider that an emotion. So Buddha was infinitely emotional. If we consider compassion an emotion, then it’s very positive. Fear and hatred, on the other hand, destroy our inner peace and happiness, so we’d have to consider those negative.
Now how do we deal with [negative emotions such as] fear and hatred? [We need to consider how] those harmful emotions have no sound basis. They come from an unrealistic attitude; whereas positive emotions come usually from a sound basis. For example, some emotions can be increased through reason and logic; therefore they have a sound basis. A negative emotion arises automatically, but when we apply analysis and reason then they’re reduced: they have no sound basis. Therefore, a positive emotion is something that is related to reality, and a negative one is based on some distortion of reality, or ignorance.
For example, when we are angry with an enemy, at that moment anger makes it seem that their actions can harm me. Therefore, we think that this is a bad person. But, when we analyze, [we realize that] this person is not an enemy from birth. If they harm me, it must be due to different reasons, not from the person himself. If the person were truly in the category of “enemy,” they should have been an enemy from birth and they could never become a friend. But, in different circumstances, they could become our best of friends. Therefore, anger and hatred for a person is wrong.
What’s wrong is in their actions, not the person himself. But anger [based simply on someone’s wrong actions] is directed at the person. Compassion, on the other hand, is mostly aimed at the person regardless of their actions. Therefore, we can have compassion for an enemy on the basis of that enemy being a person.
So we have to differentiate a person and the person’s actions. Toward the human side, the person, we can have compassion, but toward the action we could have opposition. Therefore, negative emotion is usually with a very narrow mind. It focuses on just one aspect: [someone’s wrong actions.]
But concerning compassion, we have to make a distinction. There’s compassion based on a biological factor. [This type of compassion is biased toward someone who benefits us, like our mother.] Or do we speak about compassion based on reason, which is unbiased? The one that’s based on reason is much better, it’s unbiased – it’s based on reason. It’s focused on the person, not the action. A negative emotion based just on the action is not reasonable and, moreover, it doesn’t bring happiness.
For dealing with negative emotions, then, the most important thing is analysis. For example, how much benefit from anger do I get? Anger brings a lot of very strong energy, that’s true. Even in our everyday facial and verbal expressions we can see this. When we get angry, both of them are very harsh. We become determined to choose the harshest words that can hurt the other person. Then, when anger ceases, the energy goes down that was so strong and violent, and the mind actually feels sharper. So the energy that brings on anger is a blind type of energy [because the mind isn’t sharp when we have it.] Because of that, anger never really helps; whereas if we always use an intelligent, realistic approach then that can help very much. Even in a courtroom, if a lawyer shouts in anger, this is of no help; whereas if the lawyer uses intelligence, then they can defeat the other.
Anger, then, destroys the ability of the intelligence to function clearly. Our judgment may be harmed by wrong words said in anger. So through intelligence, we can understand that anger is of no use. If, in a difficult, threatening situation, we can take appropriate counteractions through using our intelligence, that’s more helpful. In other words, while keeping compassion toward the other person, we open the possibility to become friends later on. If we have anger, it closes the door to any possibility of friendship later. Thinking like this, negative emotion can be reduced. Even if recurs, it will be weaker.
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