Most of us start to practice Buddhism because we feel dissatisfied and disillusioned with life, in a general way or for some specific reason. Indeed, it is rare to meet someone who has turned to the dharma simply out of curiosity and not because of a real need to alleviate some discomfort or a painful situation.
What else do we dharma practitioners have in common? The fact is that most of us have done everything we can to alleviate our unhappiness, but we have been unsuccessful at finding the happiness we thought possible. One reason is that we are often mistaken about the true cause of our unhappiness.
For example, we may think that our unhappiness stems from having to face a barrage of unwanted situations, even though we are making every effort to have the kind of life we want. Most of us know that at some level we can’t control the people around us or the unfolding of events in our lives. But even when armed with this knowledge, we still experience a lot of pain and unhappiness.
The Four Noble Truths of Emotions
In Buddhism we call this the first noble truth: the truth of suffering. I have met some Buddhists who want to avoid talking about the truth of suffering. They say it will discourage people from wanting to practice the dharma because it sounds depressing. They want to find some more uplifting way to describe the human experience.
But let’s call a spade a spade. All of us are suffering every day in a multitude of ways—physically, mentally, and emotionally. And while we may feel happy about something in the moment, we never know how long it will last. Next year, next month, next week, tomorrow, or even five minutes from now, the very same situation might bring us sadness, anger, jealousy, or resentment. Our emotions change from moment to moment and bring with them a cascade of moods, feelings, and thought patterns—many of which increase our unhappiness and some of which are self-destructive.
Our emotions can really be a lot to handle. Many of us recognize that our emotions are out of control—or in control of us. We long for close, intimate relationships with others, but our feelings are often so overpowering that we can’t find the way to open up to others and relate to their experience.
Because we are so focused on how we feel, we may become self-protective and defensive, constantly worried that others will hurt or take advantage of us. These feelings of self-protection can be part of an ongoing emotional cycle, feeding even stronger emotional reactions that cause chaos in our minds and in our interpersonal relationships.
In the Buddhist teachings, we call strong emotions like anger, attachment, jealousy, and arrogance “poisons.” They poison not just our own happiness but also our connections with loved ones, friends, coworkers, and our local community. Sound familiar? That’s because we are human beings, and the truth of suffering cannot be avoided.
When we actually take a look at all of the problems our emotions cause us, we might be surprised. We usually put the blame for our unhappiness on things outside of ourselves, such as when we are treated or spoken to in a way we don’t like. In that situation, our ordinary reaction is to resent the person we feel has wronged us.
But we should take some time to examine the truth of the matter. No matter how another person treats us, how difficult a situation might be, or which of our personal needs we feel wasn’t met, we actually have the power to transform our own state of mind from resentment to peace and contentment.
When we reflect in this way, we see that it is actually our own emotions that are the problem. They are what is causing us so much pain. This is the second noble truth: the origin of suffering. We suffer because we do not know how to deal with our emotions and emotional reactions. We don’t realize that blaming others for our own unhappiness can never bring us happiness, so we continue to deal with our problems in the same way we always have, which only brings more suffering.
We suffer because we continually choose to identify with and focus on how we feel. But identifying with our emotions is like throwing fuel on a fire. If we choose to identify with our anger, it will burn even hotter and take longer to die down. The same is true of the other poisons, such as attachment, jealousy, or arrogance. Identifying with our emotions is a sure recipe for even more unhappiness.
The truth of the origin of suffering can be freeing. We realize that at each and every moment, happiness is available to us if we choose to let go of our strong emotions and relax. This is the third noble truth: the truth of cessation. If we come to accept that our own emotions are the cause of our suffering, we can eradicate the attachment to and identification with them that causes us so much suffering.
Then we will be motivated to practice the dharma authentically and enthusiastically. This is the fourth noble truth: the truth of the path. All the masters of old tamed their emotions using the tools and techniques presented by the path of dharma. If we practice the path in the same manner they did, we can be sure that positive changes will come. And we can share those positive changes with the people in our lives.
You Are What You Feel: A Formula for Unhappiness
Our suffering may look different from the sufferings of others, but all human beings experience painful emotions and unwanted situations. We all face separation from loved ones, falling out with friends, and the death of family members.
This may raise the question, “Is everyone all over the world full of emotional turmoil?” Actually, based just on my upbringing in Tibet, I would answer this question in the negative. Of course, we Tibetans have emotions just like every other human being, but there are aspects of Tibetan culture that help Tibetan people handle their emotions in a way that makes them less dominating and demanding.
As a boy, whenever I was interacting with my family, my village, and my sangha, we always put our focus on others. The most important thing was not how each person felt individually, but how the group felt together. In Tibet, as well as many other Asian Buddhist cultures, there is much value placed on putting the happiness and well-being of the group above our own personal feelings. In that kind of cultural environment, it spoils the mood and the energy of the group whenever anyone focuses on themselves too much.
Many Americans comment on the joyful disposition of Tibetan people, especially when they travel to my home country. I believe this happy disposition comes from how we Tibetans enjoy our family and community connections and do not spend too much time focusing on our own personal emotions.
I did not realize that this was a unique aspect of Tibetan culture until I left Tibet. When I came to America more than ten years ago, I noticed the strong relationship Americans have with their emotions. People here focus on their emotions much more than we Tibetans do, and they are encouraged to do so. As a result of this, I have noticed that the way people do things here is quite the opposite of how we do things in Tibet. This culture places value on focusing on our own feelings more than the mood and energy of the people and situations happening around us.
What is the consequence of this way of relating to our emotions? First, it can cause us to be extremely sensitive. We react emotionally to almost everything and everyone around us. Emotions have become the core of American identity—almost literally, you are what you feel. Even the English language expresses this idea. We identify directly with the emotions, saying, “I am angry” rather than “I have anger,” as they do in other languages like Spanish. In the Tibetan language, we actually say, “Anger is present” and do not connect the emotion with “I” at all.
What is the problem with connecting our identity or ego—our very sense of self—with our emotional state of mind? In addition to all of the pain and suffering our emotions cause us when we focus on them, rehash them, and obsess about them, we also lose our ability to connect with others. We lose our compassion for others and have trouble understanding how they feel. We may express things that hurt the people we love without realizing our words are hurtful.
Our personal identity takes up a lot of space. We may have trouble relating to communities because of the demand to compromise our needs for the needs of others. Or we withdraw because we need to feel we have enough space to breathe and do not want to be influenced by the ideas, words, actions, and energy of others. Many people feel isolated, misunderstood, and lonely as a result.
In the end, we have done just the opposite of what we set out to do. We thought that protecting ourselves and paying attention to our feelings would make us happier, but actually, our unhappiness increased. In the dharma we have a saying, “All people desire happiness, but instead they chase after suffering.” When we reflect on our relationship with our emotions, we can see just how true this is.
The Buddhist path has tools that help us train our mind so we don’t put so much energy into our emotional responses. By gradually reducing the focus we ordinarily place on our emotions, we begin to identify with them less. As we identify with our emotions less, we become more willing to let small situations go, and we begin to feel more relaxed. This starts a different kind of emotional cycle. As we start to see that letting small situations go actually brings us peace of mind and happiness, we become willing to let other situations go too. When we relax and let go, we identify with our emotions even less. When we identify with our emotions less, we are less self-protective, less emotionally reactive, and we feel happier.
Meditation Practice: Changing Your Relationship with Difficult Emotions
How do you transform the relationship you have with your emotions? I suggest a few different techniques, all of which fall into the category of lojong, or mind training.
First, I suggest working diligently to develop mindfulness toward your emotional reactions. I am not suggesting that you identify with your emotional reactions, but simply try to notice how changeable your moods and feelings are.
One way you can do this is to contemplate the impermanent nature of life. By cultivating mindfulness, you notice the energy of your mind changing from moment to moment. In one moment you feel calm and relaxed, in the next agitated or afraid. You might feel comfortable sitting outside in the sunshine, only to notice five minutes later that the same sunshine is now burning us.
Our minds might jump from the past to the future, from here to somewhere across the planet, all in a matter of moments. Our emotions are unpredictable, momentary, and fickle. You should ask yourself: why am I so willing to believe that every feeling I have is true?
After you watch your mind for some time, you start to notice that sometimes your emotions arise as a reaction to a certain situation, and other times they arise for no apparent reason at all. You might be sitting on a cushion in a quiet room, with no one around, and suddenly feel angry or sad.
One way we ordinarily react to this kind of emotional energy is to look for its cause—or for something to blame. However, as part of your lojong training, you can start to break the habit of linking your emotional feelings and reactions to outside causes. Rather than looking for a cause or someone to blame for how you feel, notice instead how prone you are to certain types of emotional reactions and how deep your emotional habits are. After all, you can have intense emotional feelings even when there is nothing present to trigger them.
As you begin to notice that you have certain dominant emotional habits and are prone to certain kinds of feelings, you begin to identify less with them. You can relax more and find more contentment in the moment.
All the masters of our Buddhist tradition have shown us that true happiness comes from pacifying our emotions and accepting the people and circumstances around us. When we feel relaxed, comfortable, and confident in ourselves, we no longer need to interpret unwanted circumstances as attacks on us. We can simply see the interplay of events, people, and circumstances around us and feel free to make the choices that suit us best. This is a step on the path to freedom.