The main focus in Buddhism is to work on overcoming our own shortcomings and realizing our positive potentials. Shortcomings include lack of clarity and emotional imbalance, causing us confusion about life. As a result, we behave compulsively, driven by disturbing emotions like anger, greed and naivety. Our positive potentials include our ability to communicate clearly, to understand reality, to empathize with others, and to improve ourselves.
[See: How to Develop Love]
The starting point of Buddhist practice is to calm our minds and be mindful, which means constantly remembering to be aware of how we’re acting and speaking with others, and how we’re thinking when we’re alone. It’s not that we just observe them and leave them as they are. When we stay mindful, we can discriminate between what is constructive and what is destructive. This isn't self-preoccupation: we actually become more caring and open to others.
The purpose of our introspection and self-awareness is to find the causes of our problems. External factors and people certainly provide the circumstances for our difficulties to arise – but the Buddhist approach is to try and identify the deeper causes, and for this we need to look at our own minds [See: What Is Mind?]. Our mental habits, as well as our positive and negative emotions, affect the way we experience life.
When we’re experiencing stress from work, depression, anxiety, loneliness and insecurity, our difficulties in dealing with them come from our mental and emotional states, not from the problems themselves [See: How to Deal with Anxiety]. The best way to deal with the nonstop challenges of life is to calm our minds down and gain emotional balance and clarity of mind.
Once we become mindful of the emotions, attitudes and behaviors that are causing us distress and difficulties, we can apply remedies to them.
We need to apply a kind of emotional hygiene based on a clearer understanding of reality and the workings of the mind. – The 14th Dalai Lama
All of us care about our physical hygiene, but it’s just as important to take care of our mental state. To develop emotional hygiene, we need to stay mindful of three things: we need to remember the antidotes to our disturbing states of mind, remember to apply them when required, and remember to maintain them.
In order to remember all of the antidotes, we should:
- Learn what they are
- Contemplate them until we understand them correctly, know how to apply them, and are convinced that they’ll work
- Practice applying them in meditation in order to gain familiarity.
We need to be like doctors for ourselves: learn to diagnose our disorders, understand their causes, see what remedies there are and how to apply them, and then practice actually applying them.
When we’re chronically unhealthy, we have to become convinced of the benefits of a lifestyle overhaul before we’ll actually make any changes. Most people wouldn’t start with an in-depth study of nutrition and fitness training, but would first try out a diet and an exercise routine. Of course, they’ll need instruction before they begin, but once they’ve experienced some beneficial results, they might become motivated to go further.
The same process occurs with our efforts to gain emotional health. Once we’ve had a taste of well-being from our mindfulness training, it’s easier to develop the motivation and interest to learn more about Buddhist practices to improve the quality of our lives and be of more help to others.
The Buddha was once just like us – a normal person, undergoing the struggles of life. And just like all of us, he also wanted to improve his life and that of those around him. Through his own introspection, he came to realize that regardless of what’s going on around us, we have the power and ability to stay calm, mindful, and in control of our emotions.
This – what the Dalai Lama likes to call “emotional hygiene” – is something that transcends boundaries of culture and religion, because it goes to the heart of what we all desire: a happy and peaceful life, free of problems.