Managing Negative Emotion

“No self, no suffering.” – Buddha

Buddha is said to have stated, “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and the path to its transcendence. That’s all I teach,” but what this is also saying is that The Buddha taught entering into a deep examination into negative, problematic human emotions – what causes them, and the means to effectively managing them.   This is so important because no matter how “smart” we may be, there seems very little correlation between the kind of intelligence that makes a person an expert in some field of study, in the academic or professional worlds, and emotional stability.  There may even be, in many cases, an inverse relationship where with higher and more complex intelligence, there is little practical wisdom and little of what is sometimes called “emotional IQ.”

The Buddha taught that in all of Nature, humans, because of their evolved brains, are unique in their ability to create a virtual reality called culture and to develop techniques and tools for living in a complex and exploitive relationship with Nature.  This is a good thing from the standpoint of greatly freeing humans from the dangers and limitations of Nature while releasing us to be creative, making ever-more complex culture and tools.  But Buddha also realized there is a very big problem connected to this evolutionary human trait of complex brain function.  To borrow from a modern paradigm drawn from the very complex tool of cybernetics, humans live in very much what are virtual realities constructed of information manipulated by these complex brains, and this virtual reality generates a sense of a virtual-reality-sense-of-self that psychology calls ego that is quite disconnected from our true nature and from Nature itself with serious consequences for both us humans and for Nature. 

Buddhism teaches a model of mind that considers thoughts and emotions to be mind-objects or forms that exist within the formless energy of mind-consciousness that individuates into awareness, the faculty for directing consciousness energy with its inherent intelligence into the examination of experience.  In recognizing this multidimensional model of mind, Buddhism then gives us a methodology from which we can train in building skill at managing the contents of the mind by directing awareness into this examination.  The Buddha further taught that having realized this dimension of awareness that can examine the contents and activity of mind, the insight becomes natural that we then must not be the contents, the thoughts and emotions, as most people assume and our culture reinforces.  Rather, if awareness can examine the contents and activity of the mind, then who we fundamentally must be IS this awareness and not the contents and activity.  We are not egos that have awareness; rather, we are awareness that has an ego structure so as to engage the world.  This shifts our experience of mental activity from one that seems helpless in its management to one that is interactive and opens the way for skillful management.

While Western education focuses intensely on feeding the mind full of information and ideas along with methods of logic for putting these ideas together effectively for utilitarian application, it teaches nothing about managing these contents in a manner so as to maximize mental stability, serenity and wisdom.  The Buddhist model, on the other hand, emphasizes that we can manage mind through meditative techniques where mind examines mind, shining the light of awareness on the content of mind giving us perspective and insight, while developing awareness of awareness, allowing us to explore its potential for intuitive insight into the nature of existence.  We discover that as awareness, we are free of the contradictions and imbalance of the egoic mind, and we can deepen the exploration of life lived as awareness, the dimension that is the true source of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and insight.

To continue borrowing metaphor from the cybernetic world, as the saying goes: “Garbage in, garbage out” and any crazy thing can be programmed into these computer-brains of ours, much of it being completely contradictory and at odds with actual reality.  Most importantly, these reality-virtualizing brains generating a virtual-self experiences itself as unique and separate from all else in the world, and this virtual-self is acutely aware of its vulnerability and its mortality; living in a story of itself in time, the past defining us and the future challenging us.  This sense of limitation, vulnerability and dependency on the external world for stability and validation, and the too-often failure of the external world to provide consistency and validation, causes the contents of mind to be all too often marked by anxiety, frustration and unhappiness.

At the core of most negative emotional experience – of depression, anxiety, anger and loneliness – is an exaggerated sense of this virtual-self in personal isolation along with a time-focus in the past or future.  Most of the time, our focus of attention is on our “self” in our story-line in time that is too often distressing.   Even anger, which in a given moment seems to be present-moment activated, has a strong component of residual past distress and disappointment brought into the present situation and is often carried quite inappropriately into the future, the ego chewing on its grievance over and over.  The world, with the exception of whatever or whoever may be the focus of stimulating the emotion, has receded far into the background of our attention.  Even the stimulating event or person is being experienced principally in its distressing connection to self, not in its larger context which would give the experience more sense and proportion, and thus greater acceptability.  The world has to some inappropriate degree collapsed into the situation, thoughts and emotions orbiting our focus on our self.  

Buddhism recognizes this and teaches us to realize the antidote to such a perception is to expand the field of awareness to deliberately include what is NOT about our virtual-self and our distressing situation, thus preserving context and perspective.  It teaches us to give full awareness and attention to what is NOT our emotional quagmire, our self-imposed exile from Life.  Rather, Buddhism teaches that we must direct attention into the sublime everyday with such presence that the miracle and wonder, the interconnectedness of who and what we are with everything, begins to be increasingly apparent.  Here, we re-enter the flow of Life, and the emotions associated with our perceived isolation then fall into the background, realized as either illusory, or now, much more manageable.

Very importantly, when a human is in this flow of Life, there is very little of the preoccupation with the ego or virtual-self.  Awareness blends like a surfer riding a wave with the present moment.  These are the moments of our greatest adaptivity, balance and skill.  In a very real sense, the ego-self disappears, leaving behind what is a genuine and intelligent human organism that IS the moment in flowing consciousness.  There is no isolated “self” struggling with “out there.”  There is only the blending of self and the moment, of meeting the challenge.

With training in Buddhist meditation we begin to transfer our sense of self from the activity of the mind reacting to the world “out there” into the awareness that witnesses the activity of the mind.  We move our sense of who we are from the virtual-self to the authentic-self, a unity with what is happening.  Once this state of being as witnessing discerning awareness begins to actualize as our operational self, we increasingly can engage the world in a manner that Buddhism refers to as “mindful,” and we can begin to live more and more in a sane and adaptive manner.

 We will continue to have negative emotional states, but now rather than being helpless in their grip, we know them for what they are and what they are not.  Most importantly, they are not who we are.  We know ourselves as awareness, and this awareness is trans-personal.  In a very real way we become what Zen refers to as “nobody,” not identified with the virtual-self.  And where there is no virtual-self, there is, as Buddha said, no suffering.  Yes, there will be pain.  Pain is a natural part of Life, but there will not be as much suffering over our experience of physical and emotional pain.  Nor will there be this self telling itself over and over of the unfairness of having to endure pain.  Pain translated into suffering will not blot out all the beauty and miracle of Life, but rather the painful takes its appropriate place in the dance of everything that is real Life, and we can manage the emotional pain with much greater skill and acceptance.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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