Antidotes for Afflictive Emotions Part I: Courage, Compassion & Wisdom

0903b-mpj042760400005b15dIn this multi-part blog post series, we will explore afflictive (or disturbing) emotions and look at more helpful ways to approach them.

Afflictive emotions are feelings that create suffering like anger, hatred, greed, fear, lust, jealousy, and even passion.  They are usually accompanied by physical sensations as well as habitual patterns of thinking and responding that only serve to intensify the discomfort.

Although they can be very powerful, emotions are not necessarily reflections of reality or objective “truth” (feelings aren’t facts). They are merely responses to the way we interpret events and sensations. The way we think about things and the messages we send ourselves shape our feelings, which in turn direct our actions.  For example:

  • If you are assuming things “should” be or “must” turn out a certain way and they don’t, you will likely feel disturbed in some way.

  • If you judge things as bad or wrong or unfair, you may feel discouraged, hurt, self-righteous or angry.

  • If you are looking only outside yourself for responsibility or blame for your discomfort, you will likely feel disempowered or even resentful.

Emotions frequently result from thoughts that are conditioned and habitual. We learn from others or through experience how to interpret events and this becomes deeply ingrained in us.  Feelings and responses become automatic with very little consciousness or clarity behind them.

This means that the winds of stormy emotions can buffet us about and blow us off course. At the very least, they can cloud judgment and cause us to respond in unhelpful ways, which often only causes greater distress.  We may even bring harm to others in the wake of afflictive emotions.

Fortunately, there are a number of “antidotes” that can help us be more aware of what is happening and relate more skillfully to our afflictive emotions, reducing suffering.

Courage, Compassion and Wisdom

Most unskillful (hurtful) behavior arises out of ignorance and fear. We often inadvertently do hurtful things because we don’t know any better – we are being mindless and not paying attention to the consequences – or we think we are “right” – or we don’t know what is “right”. This is ignorance, which is different from a lack of intelligence. There is no real intention to harm, but through misguided action, the damage is done regardless.

Other times we are trying to protect or defend ourselves against something we perceive as dangerous or uncertain (including threats to our self-image or to other people, things or ideas we hold dear). This is fear. There may be intention to do harm, but it feels justified or necessary.

Knowing this, how can we hate someone who acts out of ignorance? Much like a child, they have little understanding of the causes and consequences of their actions. Does it make sense to take revenge on a person who lashes out in fear and pain? Like a wounded animal, they only wish to stop their own hurting.

In Jack Kornfield’s book Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are, Alan Wallace relates the following story about anger:

Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, “You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?” But just before you catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumps into you actually is blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: “Are you hurt? Can I help you up?” Our situation is like that. When we clearly recognize that the source of disharmony and misery in the world is ignorance, we can open the door of wisdom and compassion.

Many times, afflictive emotions arise from our interpretations of others actions. Understanding that ignorance and fear underlie hurtful actions allows us to observe what is happening with a clear mind, helps us feel empathy rather than hatred, and allows to respond from a place of wisdom and compassion. This makes it more likely we will decrease our own and others’ suffering, rather than adding to it.

When we are unaware of the harm we do or when we feel justified in it, we continue to hurt ourselves and others over and over again. Fortunately, ignorance and fear are not permanent conditions and can be changed. So there is always hope human beings can improve and become more skillful in our actions.

We can address our own ignorance by viewing all experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or boring, as opportunities for learning.  Knowledge is the opposite of ignorance. Adopting a “beginner’s mind” and seeing oneself as a lifelong learner will help increase wisdom.  In part III of this series we will be discussing curiosity, which is an openness, a “turning toward”, and a desire to know that is essential to learning and gaining wisdom.

We can relate more effectively to our feelings of fear and uncertainty by cultivating courage. Acting with courage requires trust in our innate potential, a willingness to face and accept fears and uncertainties, and an intention of benevolence even under the most difficult and ambiguous of circumstances.

 It is probably becoming apparent that courage, wisdom and compassion are interrelated and reinforce one another.  Courage allows us to be open and curious so we can learn and gain wisdom and so we can face adversity with benevolence and compassion rather than acting out in a harmful way. Wisdom, in turn, gives us the understanding that leads to greater compassion.

Since we find ourselves here in this human existence, we have the opportunity to decide how to use the limited time. We could spend it in fear and ignorance, contributing to the cycle of suffering for ourselves and others. Or we could spend it being open and curious observers who act with wise compassion and benevolence wherever we can.

In the next blog post in this series, we will explore another antidote to the afflictive emotions, acceptance.

  4 comments for “Antidotes for Afflictive Emotions Part I: Courage, Compassion & Wisdom

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