84 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go – Part 2
86 - Samvega and Pasada: Two Buddhist Emotions Indispensable for Practice

Buddhism teaches that you can change the nature of your experience by changing your own mind and behaviors – increasing the proportion of your life spent feeling calm, confident, positive,and compassionate. Sometimes, after many years of effort, we experience negative thoughts and emotions and find ourselves thinking, “I shouldn’t feel like this.” I discuss how to practice with this conundrum, and suggest that sometimes our internal experience can’t or shouldn’t be changed, but simply tolerated.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Changing the Nature of Our Experience
I Shouldn’t Feel Like This
When Our Internal Situation Resists Change
Maybe I Can’t – or Shouldn’t – Change How I’m Feeling
When the Cause Isn’t All Negative
When You Don’t Want to Change the Cause: Practicing Tolerance

 

Changing the Nature of Our Experience

One of the core truths – if not the core truth – of Buddhism is that you can change the nature of your experience by changing your mind. Our external and internal circumstances don’t condemn us to suffering the wide gamut of human misery, from subtle discomforts like boredom, dislike, and judgmentalism to more acutely unpleasant experiences like anger, self-loathing, insecurity, depression, and despair. It’s not easy, but through practice – that is, working with our own minds and behaviors – we can significantly increase the proportion of our lives we spend feeling calm, confident, centered, positive, appreciative, and compassionate.

Over the course of years, our conviction deepens that practice actually works. Maybe it doesn’t work quite as quickly or completely as we’d hoped, but it doesn’t take much improvement in our lives to make practice seem worth it. We’re profoundly encouraged by even a slight decrease in our reactivity, or an ability to get through bouts of depression a little more quickly, or a small increase in our capacity to receive criticism without sinking into a pit of self-doubt.

We turn to practice when we find ourselves caught, once again, in things like fear, worry, anxiety, obsession, resentment, judgmentalism, insecurity, preoccupation, or catastrophizing. (Or even we’re faced with relatively mild things like aversion, boredom, dissatisfaction, dullness, loneliness, or a sense of disconnect from loved ones.) A conventional, non-practice response to such a situation is to accept our internal experience as legitimate, and try to figure out what external changes to enact so 1) the unpleasant thoughts and feelings will go away, or 2) our internal experience will be justified and verified, thereby making us feel more important or secure. As practitioners we diligently take a different tack and question our thoughts and emotions: What, in our own bodies, minds, and behavior, is contributing to this negative experience? How can we shift our view or expectations, what can we let go of, what can we do differently, in order to make our experience more positive?

I won’t go into great detail about this process of practice because most of my other episodes address exactly that, but let me give a quick example of how this can operate in daily life. Recently, a good friend of mine ended up having to move to a nursing home because of declining health and the onset of dementia. When I first visited her in the facility, I felt a fair amount of sadness, aversion, and depression – not because of my interactions with my friend, but because of being immersed in an environment full of people experiencing a high degree of loss and debilitation. Like Siddhartha on his excursions from the palace before he set out on his spiritual quest, I was painfully aware of the fact that I and all my loved ones will end up experiencing the same loss and debilitation – and much sooner than we expect. It made life seem pretty bleak and scary, and my first inclination was to get out of the nursing home as quickly as possible.

On subsequent visits to my friend, however, I shifted my attention to another aspect of life in the nursing home that was every bit as real as all the loss and misery: Compassion. Everywhere I looked, staff, family members, and friends were lovingly and patiently attending to the residents. In the midst of their loss and debilitation, the residents were not alone. We were willingly entering into an environment that reminds us of our own mortality in order to accompany them on their journey and make them feel as comfortable and happy as possible. Once I shifted my perspective so it included the compassion present in the nursing home, my visits there have felt much more positive (and therefore I’m probably much better company when I’m there, as well).

I Shouldn’t Feel Like This

Ironically, our success in practice, however limited, may subsequently lead to a practitioner’s conundrum: When we experience negative thoughts or emotions, we may think, “I shouldn’t feel like this.” If you’re immune to this kind of expectation about yourself and your practice, congratulations! I have no idea how likely it is you relate to my experience, but I’m going to take a chance and share it in case it helps, or at least gives you food for thought.

After many years of practice, I sometimes find myself thinking, “Why do I still think or feel this way? Or: I’ve found a way to deal with this kind of experience in the past, why is it arising again? I’ve learned how it can completely transform a situation when I shift my perspective, let go of a particular expectation, or see through a delusion. I know my thoughts and emotions come and go, and don’t necessarily reflect reality. By exploring the foundational teaching of Buddhism, I know from personal experience how I generate my own dukkha – dissatisfactoriness or suffering – by longing for things to be other than how they are, and I’ve learned how to gain release from dukkha by giving up that longing.

So why do I still feel like this? Why am I still caught up in a distressing narrative about myself or my life? Why am I still ill-at-ease?

Of course, if you wonder, as a Buddhist practitioner, why you still experience negative thoughts and emotions, you may simply conclude you haven’t practiced long enough or hard enough yet to be free from them. (Note: I’m using the phrase “thoughts and emotions” as a catch-all term for all of our subjective experiences, including mind states, basic feelings, etc.) Depending on our personality, we may get down on ourselves for our inadequate practice, or we may just accept ourselves and figure we’ll get around to overcoming this particular negative phenomenon at some point in the future. The second approach is preferable, but, in a way, both conclusions may miss the subtler aspect of the question, “Why do I still feel like this?”

In the very moment we recognize our experience is negative, funky, or miserable, the thought “I shouldn’t feel like this” makes a certain kind of sense for a Buddhist practitioner. Setting aside the judgmental overtones of the word “should,” what we’re really thinking is, “Through my practice I know it’s not necessary, or desirable, that I continue feeling negative, funky, or miserable. What internal changes can I make in order to improve this situation?”

When Our Internal Situation Resists Change

The thing is, of course, sometimes it’s not so easy to figure out how we should practice in order to gain some relief or freedom from negative thoughts and emotions. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do – even when we apply our tried and true practice principles and methods, certain negative internal experiences persist or recur. Often, the negative thoughts and emotions themselves interfere with our ability to practice, clouding our minds or holding us captive with their drama. Other times we know, at least in theory, how to respond more positively, but we can’t bring ourselves to take the necessary steps to remedy our situation. And then there are times when we find ourselves in social, moral, or practical predicaments, and we may lose our bearings and forget – for a time – what it even means to practice.

What do we do when, despite our best efforts, we still experience negative thoughts, emotions, mind states, etc.? I wish I had a magically effective answer for that – one that’s guaranteed to relieve you of all unpleasant symptoms quickly and reliably. Alas, Buddhist practice is not a pill you can take to access instant equanimity, happiness, patience, and compassion. However, I can take you through three steps I use in my own practice, although one of them may not sound much like Buddhism at first.

First, once I realize my negative thoughts and/or emotions aren’t magically disappearing with my practice efforts, and once I stop beating myself up for that fact, I remind myself not to take myself so seriously. Sure, I want the negative stuff to be over pronto, and I like to think I’m an accomplished Buddhist practitioner, but there it is. No need to add an extra layer of suffering to the situation with whininess and ego.

Second, I remind myself to be patient. The negative internal experience won’t last forever, especially if I keep practicing with it. And it’s pointless to wish I was more spiritual adept than I actually am.

Maybe I Can’t – or Shouldn’t – Change How I’m Feeling

Third – and this is the tricky step – I consider the possibility that at least some of the internal causes of my negative thoughts and emotions can’t or shouldn’t be changed. Whoa! What I just said may come as close to Buddhist sacrilege as we Buddhists get. The Buddha’s first and fundamental teaching was the Four Noble Truths, and the third truth was about the cessation of dukkha. Essentially, once we’ve recognized some action of body, speech, or mind that perpetuates suffering, we stop it. Another way to put it is we renounce the causes of suffering and dissatisfaction. And according to Buddhism, such renunciation is always possible, at least in theory, for any of us, at any time. It’s the one thing we actually have control over.

So – given that I’m not trying commit Buddhist sacrilege – what do I mean when I say maybe some internal causes of negative thoughts and emotions can’t or shouldn’t be changed? I’ve got two points to make about this, so bear with me.

The first point is pretty obvious: Sometimes our thoughts and feelings are valuable information about something external that needs addressing, or they provide valuable motivation for action. Now, this is the conventional assumption we make about our internal experiences without practice, so we have to be careful not to believe our thoughts and emotions too readily or completely, and avoid getting pulled into the drama of justifying them. Still, denying unpleasant thoughts and emotions have any validity just because we don’t want to feel them is commonly called “spiritual bypassing”(a term introduced by John Welwood) – using a spiritual technique to avoid your feelings.

Sometimes my discomfort with another person means there’s something difficult we need to discuss. Sometimes my anger means I should take measures to protect myself. My sadness may be a sign I need to do something different with my life. When our unpleasant thoughts and emotions are pointing toward something external it would be good to change, it may be best not to get rid of those thoughts and emotions by spiritual or any other means, at least until you’ve been motivated to take action. In a sense, you shouldn’t change your internal experience independent of your external circumstances, unless you’re committed to taking wise, appropriate, and compassionate action. Again, though, this is tricky territory because it can put us back in the situation where our internal experience depends on our external circumstances, and Buddhism strongly states this need not be the case. Basically, the point is to avoid spiritual bypassing even if it means you need to endure some unpleasant internal experiences for a bit.

When the Cause Isn’t All Negative

My second point is a little more interesting, I think: At least some of the internal causes of our negative thoughts and emotions can’t or shouldn’t be changed because they’re a valuable part of who we are. Okay, this is another risky and thorny subject for a Buddhist, so let me state right away that I’m not suggesting we have an inherently existing, enduring, independent self-nature. I’m not suggesting my irritability might be a special part of my inherent self-nature and therefore indispensable. I’m not suggesting I use this “valuable part of who I am” as a lame excuse for being rude or selfish.

I am suggesting that in a relative sense we’re all unique, complex beings who are the result of countless causes and conditions. We have personalities, tendencies, talents, and strengths. What might be a positive characteristic in one situation may very well give rise to negative experiences in another situation – so the characteristic or tendency itself isn’t something inherently bad. In fact, it might be one of our best qualities!

Let me give you an example. I once confessed to my teacher that even after many years of practice, it’s not uncommon for me to get irrationally irritable (and occasionally, briefly wrathful) when I encounter practical obstacles as I go about trying to get everything done. The more stressed I am, the more likely I am to experience a flash of anger when I get stopped by a red light at the last second, or encounter a printer that won’t cooperate. This was a bad habit I desperately wanted to change. However, my teacher pointed out that the same part of me that reacts to being stopped or slowed down also a source of great energy and ability to accomplish. Did I want to get rid of that source of energy and motivation? No. Maybe I can learn to manifest it more skillfully, but that’s a fairly subtle process I’m still working on.

It’s not that we ever should shrug and accept our negative thoughts and emotions. Even if they don’t cause obvious suffering to ourselves and others, even if we kind of enjoy them, they still compromise our clarity and ability to respond with skillfulness and compassion in the world. We may also be able to shift our negative internal experiences enough that they cause much less of a problem than they used to. For example, it helps me to simply recognizing my momentary rages about silly setbacks are due to stress and a sincere desire to get stuff done. It’s not that I have some terrible flaw as a human being, my impatience is a side-effect of a part of myself that’s neutral, if not actually positive. Recalling this in a moment of anger helps it subside much more quickly.

Similarly, you may be introverted and experience many negative thoughts and emotions when you have to socialize too much. You may identify as having low self-esteem, but this actually might just be a side-effect of having an open mind and deep humility. I know some people who seem rather harsh and inflexible sometimes, but who also hold a very high standard for certain things in a way that benefits many people. It’s a little like superhero powers: A story is only interesting and realistic when a superhero’s powers have a comparable cost. The more potent and impressive the power, the higher the cost. I think this superhero tradition reflects life to some extent; generally speaking, the stronger neutral or positive aspects of our personality are likely to come with certain costs. We can practice to cope with our weaknesses and mitigate the harm they sometimes cause, but to some extent we’ll always experience the costs of strengths – sometimes as negative thoughts and emotions.

In terms of what this means for your daily practice, I suggest you might want to examine recurring negative thoughts and emotions and then ask yourself, “How might this internal experience be a side-effect of one my strengths?” Like I mentioned earlier, just this might help you relate better to your negative experiences and relieve some stress about them.

When You Don’t Want to Change the Cause: Practicing Tolerance

When you realize negative thoughts and emotions are tied to some aspect of your character you don’t really want to get rid of, how do you practice? It’s very tempting to concretize your “characteristic” and become attached to it, so beware of that. For me, it’s best to be rather vague about it all, simply thinking of it as, “I have tendency X, which makes it more likely for me experience negative thought or emotion Y.”

So, how do you practice if you don’t want to get rid of tendency X? I find it useful to exercise what’s probably the most underrated Buddhist virtue: Tolerance. This is the paramita, or perfection, of Kshanti, also translated as forbearance, endurance, or patience. Tolerance involves holding more or less still (or staying on track) even though discomfort. When we manage to do this, our negative thoughts and emotions have minimal repercussions because we don’t fall for them or act on them. We endure the negative internal experience, patiently waiting for the storm to subside.

But here’s the catch: As we practice tolerance, we experience the negative thoughts and emotions. It’s nice to think practicing the virtue of tolerance will magically transport us into an ethereal realm where we’ll no longer be bothered by anything, but alas, once our experience is no longer negative, funky, or miserable, we’re also no longer practicing tolerance. And seeing as Tolerance is one of six fundamental Buddhist perfections, it’s clear the Buddha anticipated we’d be needing a lot of it on path of practice. Sometimes there’s nothing that should or can be done that will fully dispel or transform our negative thoughts and emotions in a given situation.

Somehow, though, tolerance does transform our experience in a surprising way. The moment it occurs to us to tolerate something, we’re no longer completely identified with it. We recognize it will have a beginning and an end. Our perspective gets somewhat larger. Like we teach in Buddhism 101, there’s a big difference between saying, “I am angry,” and “I am experiencing anger.”

So… in conclusion, here’s the take-home lessons for today, if you ever find yourself thinking, “I shouldn’t feel like this:” Be patient with yourself. Let go of ego-attachment to being above experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. Look around and make sure there isn’t something external that actually needs to change. And then consider the possibility that your negative internal experience is a side-effect of one of your strengths, and it’s best to simply tolerate it.

 

84 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go – Part 2
86 - Samvega and Pasada: Two Buddhist Emotions Indispensable for Practice
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