Emotions are “exciting or moving” moments of one’s mind of both positive
and negative nature. Generally they arise in relation to a stimulus. When
those internal states are strong enough to initiate mental, verbal or physical
activities, they are called motivations.
What are negative emotions?
Mental states that bring about affliction are negative emotions. Mental
states can be afflictive in two senses, i.e. afflictive for oneself and afflictive
Emotions are generally judged in the West as good or bad according to their
usefulness in structuring social life. Happiness, sadness, love, friendship,
forgiveness, gratitude, regret, guilt and shame are considered as positive
since they contribute to better interpersonal relationships. Whereas anger,
contempt, indignation and fear are considered negative since they tend to
break down the social fabric.
Buddhist view of emotion takes both social and personal or inner aspects
into consideration in judging emotions as good and bad. It seems that
Buddhism place far more importance on effects of mental states towards
oneself. Therefore, Buddhism views negative or destructive emotions as
something that bring affliction to those who have them. Particularly, mental
states are regarded as negative
1) because they impair our judgment, our ability to make a correct
assessment of the nature of things., prevents the mind from
ascertaining reality as it is, causing a gap between the way things
appear and the way things are.
2) because they cause you to experience less happiness, less wellbeing,
less lucidity and freedom, and more distortion
For instance, Buddhists view desire, or excessive attachment, as destructive
because it makes it impossible for us to see a balance between the pleasant
and the unpleasant. Instead, we view the object of our desire or attachment
as one hundred percent attractive. Aversion, on the other hand, blinds us to
some of the positive qualities of the object, causing us to feel one hundred
percent negative toward that object, wishing to repel, destroy, or run away
There is a long list of negative emotions found in Buddhist discourses.
However, they can be classified into three categories, i.e. greed, hatred
and delusion. Very common negative emotions that we experience are
desire, attachment, or craving; hatred, anger, ill will; confusion, ignorance,
or delusion; pride, conceit and jealousy. In addition, the mental states of
afflictive doubt and afflictive views are considered destructive.
Managing Negative Emotions
There are two common ways of responding to negative emotions, that is, 1)
blind expression and 2) suppression. When certain negative emotions arise in
our mind we will either express them outwardly or will suppress them
inwardly. In Buddhist viewpoint both of these common responses are not
successful with regard to negative emotions. When we blindly express them,
we will do harm to others or create problems in our social life. Buddhism
further shows that when we express negative emotions again and again,
they become strong in our mind. Our mind creates tendencies to have them
often. The more we express them more they come to our mind. That will
create more frustration to the person.
When we suppress negative emotions they will create other personality
problems within oneself. Those suppressed emotions will create turbulence
within one’s personality which is going to be more harmful for both oneself
and others. Furthermore, in Buddhist viewpoint, suppression of negative
emotions is a missing of an opportunity to understand them. That will keep
us blind to the actual nature of negative emotions. Then negative emotions
will continue to dominate the individual.
Buddhist method of dealing with negative emotions is neither blind
expression nor the unwise suppression but the managing them with
understanding. Buddhism advises us to be aware of nature of emotions and
to train to watch them when we have them. Then we may transform them.
We may decide to not to act out of them with an understanding or to
express them in a different way after transforming them. This is called
“managing” negative emotions.
Buddhist teaching offers an integrated approach to manage emotions. Since
emotions are seen as complex phenomena, various techniques are given to
address different factors that give rise to emotions. Those techniques can
be divided into mainly two parts.
1. Preventive measures
2. Remedial or curative measures
Buddhist method proposes a change in one’s perspective of oneself as the
most important preventive measure. Egoistic perspective is regarded as the
root for many negative emotions. Buddhism sees a close relationship
between wrong cognitions and negative emotions. All unwholesome states of
mind are preceded by egoistic perspective which is, according to Buddhism,
a wrong view. Buddhism advises us to see ego as a construct which does
correspond to reality. Buddhism admits an empirical self, but cautions that
self is not real in the way we used to consider. Although “I” appears, it does
not exist in the way it appears.
When we loose a strict ego sense within us, we interpret our experiences in
a very different way. Many experiences may not disturb us as they did
earlier. Then we will be able to move away from unnecessary negative
The Sabbasava Sutta, the Discourse on All the Taints (MN I, 7) shows the
complex nature of emotions and preventive strategies to overcome negative
emotions. The Sutta emphases the importance of a perspectival change to
overcome negative emotions. The Sutta elaborates how negative emotions
arise in an ordinary person’s mind when he thinks and ruminate in egocentric
perspective. “ By attending to things unfit for attention and by not
attending to things fit for attention, both unarisen taints arise in him and
arisen taints increase.” The things unfit for attention are various ways of
imagining and confirming the view of ego. The things fit for attention,
according to the Sutta, are seeing experiences as they arise without an egocentric
perspective. This radical change of viewpoint in appreciating one’s
experiences results in a shift from egocentricity to detachment and moving
away from negative emotions to positive ones.
The Sutta also show that restraining senses and keeping oneself away from
situations that provoke negative emotions are also as methods of
overcoming them. These steps belong to the practice of morality. By
keeping certain principles and precepts in life one can protect oneself from
the circumstances that are vulnerable for the arising of negative emotions.
We generally identify emotions with ourselves. (I am angry) We feel
emotions as real, sometimes, more than actual experiences. But in reality
emotions are mental states appear and disappear from moment to moment.
They are not inherent part of consciousness. Buddhism advises to see
emotions as momentary mental states and dis-identify them with ourselves.
Buddhism admits that human beings posses six senses (not five) to relate to
the world. The structure of six senses facilitates to create a fresh view on
Eye Visual objects
Emotions are just as same as visual forms that we see and sounds that we
hear. They are not necessarily part of us. They come and go just as visual
forms and sounds come and go. We do not regard what we hear or what we
see as ours. We should train ourselves to regard our thoughts or emotions in
the same manner. They are just one category of sensory objects. Then we
do not feel emotions as a part of ourselves or more real than other things.
With this understanding we will be able to watch our emotions without
being overwhelmed by them. When we create this distance, it is easy for us
to decide how to response to them. We can make informed decisions on our
emotions rather than reacting blindly to them.
Cultivating Positive Emotions
Cultivation of positive emotions with personal effort is also regarded as a
successful preventive method in which one can replace negative emotions
with positive ones. Purposefully developing a calm state of mind reduces
the effect of unwholesome emotion to one’s life. The Sabbasava Sutta
points out that one should develop seven actors of enlightenment, i.e.
mindfulness, investigation of mental states, the effort, the rapture, the
tranquility, the concentration, and the equanimity. With the development
of enlightenment factors and mental states of “sublime abodes”, i.e.
unconditioned love, compassion, sympathetic joy, the individual will elevate
himself to a happier state where he is completely free from all the
disturbances of negative emotions.1
These are the techniques that help us to manage emotions when we have
them. Preventive measures prepare ourselves to overcome negative
emotions before they disturb us. Having a training in preventive methods
helps one to transform negative emotions or at least to reduce the weight of
negative emotions. However, when we are already under the influence of
negative emotions, we should know how to handle them. Buddhism also
provides practical tips to deal with them. The Vitakka Santhana Sutta,
Discourse on the Removal of Distracting Thoughts (MN I, 188) proposes five
gradual techniques to overcome existing negative emotions. One should
utilize these techniques in a gradual manner. The first technique should be
utilized first. Then you may be able to overcome the disturbances of
negative emotion. Only if it fails he may proceed to utilize the second one.
One may proceed until the last technique only if the preceding technique
I. Replacing the disturbing thought with another thought
“Giving attention to some other sign connected with what is
Simile: Just like a skilled carpenter might knock out, remove,
and extract a coarse peg by means of a fine one.
II. Contemplating consequences
“Examining the danger in those thoughts thus: ‘Those thoughts
are unwholesome, reprehensible, resulting in suffering.”
Simile: Just as a young man or a woman, fond of ornaments,
would be humiliated and disgusted if he or she realized that a
carcass of a snake is hung around his or her neck.
III. Disregarding the thought
‘Should try to forget those thoughts and should not give
attention to them” Do not entertain them.
Simile: Just as a man with good eyes who did not want to see
objects that had come within range of sight would either shut
his eye or look away.
IV. Analyzing the origin and causes of thought
“Should reflect on the thought- formation of those thoughts”
Simile: Just as a man walking fast might consider: “Why am I
walking fast ? What if I walk slowly? and he would walk slowly;
then he might consider: “Why am I walking slowly? What if I
stand?” and he would stand……”Why am I standing? What if I
sit?”…Why am I sitting? What if I lie down” and he would lie
down. By doing so he would substitute for each grosser posture
one that was subtler.
V. Using strong will power with physiological changes
‘With his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the
roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind
Simile: Just as a strong man might seize a weaker man by the
head or shoulders and beat him down, constrain him, crush
The above techniques are immensely helpful for today humanity to make
their everyday lives peaceful and happy. In modern context where people
have wider network and higher expectations, they need higher skills to deal
with the issues of life. Most importantly, they should be ready face the fast
phase of change happening around us. Buddhism with the above techniques
provides practical guidelines to deal with their emotional life make their
modern living more satisfying.
Genuine well-being in Buddhism is not a state that is contingent on the
presence of pleasurable stimuli, either external or internal but an
achievement through an inner transformation. It results from freeing the
mind from negative emotions, cultivating mental balance and realizing
one’s fullest potential in terms of wisdom, compassion, and creativity.
Buddhism admits that one can utilize his power of will to transform his or
her habitual patterns of attentional, conative and emotional spheres.
Human being is not a victim, forever, of his own prolonged patterns of
thought and emotions. He can be free from unwanted negative emotions
and directs him for the cultivation of mental balance. Indeed this
cultivation involves a sustained training. The above techniques, when put in
to practice in one’s daily life, bring the mental balance which is essential in
achieving genuine happiness and well-being.