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  • Thomas Bien

Taking Care of Negative Emotional States

Dealing With Arisen Negative Emotional States

In my last blog, I discussed the first aspect of virya—discouraging negative emotional states from arising. This time, I will discuss how to deal with the second aspect of this practice—encouraging negative emotional states, once arisen, to subside into a dormant state.

If you have been practicing the first aspect, you will know that it is not always possible to prevent negative mental or emotional states from arising. Some mental tendencies are so strong, so conditioned and engrained in us that they rise up before we have much chance even to be aware of them. Once that happens, we have to deal with them.

The first thing to remember when this happens is that suppression and avoidance are ineffective. Both Buddhist tradition and practice and the science of psychology concur on this point. Well-meaning people may say things like, “just don’t think about it,” but mental states that we try to ignore become stronger and more insistent. They are like children tugging at our sleeve demanding our attention: the more we ignore them, the more insistent they become.

With this understanding, we can see that the first thing to do is actually the opposite of such an approach. When a negative state arises, embrace it fully and deeply with your mindfulness. Mindfulness then functions like a mother holding her crying baby, soothing and calming. And when we are soothed, we can look deeply into the nature of that mental state and see its origin and how to prevent it arising in future.

As you embrace your negative state, remind yourself that these are only thoughts and feelings. They are not reality, or are at best just one aspect of it. We are more than these thoughts and feelings, and they are impermanent—even if they stick around longer than we would like.

If the feelings are very powerful, remember that you don’t have to be alone in them. You can talk to someone who will help you sort it out. If no one seems available, imagine that you are talking to a wise person, perhaps a Buddha or a Christ, or even someone you invent, and ask that person to speak to you about the issue you’re facing with wisdom and kindness. It can help to write it down and read it over slowly.

Embracing the painful emotional state is the first thing taught by the Buddha to help. There is a second approach that isn’t emphasized as much, but which is sometimes helpful. This practice is called changing the peg. The name refers to a time when carpenters used wooden pegs rather than metal nails. When such a peg started to rot, you didn’t need to pull it out. All you needed to do was drive a fresh peg into the same spot, replacing the first.

In other words, and by way of example, if you have a feeling that no one loves you, you can consciously decide to remember contrary instances, raising these memories to replace the painful one. If you find yourself full of anger and hatred, raise up kindness, perhaps recalling that people who said or did something to hurt you have their own suffering, which you recall as concretely as possible.

Some care must be taken with this approach that it not become a form of suppression. For this reason, I think it is important that you first acknowledge the reality of the negative state by embracing it before changing the peg.

This practice, when done energetically, can help transform your consciousness.

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