Confronting and Averting Disturbing Emotions

Disturbing Emotions Are the Enemy

Now for verse three of the Eight Verses of Mind Training:

(3) Whatever I am doing, may I check the flow of my mind, and the moment that conceptions or disturbing emotions arise, since they debilitate myself and others, may I confront and avert them with forceful means.

We have discussed the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others, as well as the importance of valuing others more highly than ourselves. What prevent us from doing all of this, of course, are our disturbing emotions. The third verse advises us to always check our minds with alertness, because these disturbing emotions, when they arise, debilitate myself and others. In other words, they hurt us and hurt others, and they prevent us from truly being able to help others. Therefore, we have to use forceful means to overcome our disturbing emotions.

This type of thinking is echoed throughout various texts, from Shantideva and many others, as well as texts that followed. Shantideva makes a very important point about disturbing emotions: We really have to identify and view them as our enemies. However, it’s not a very easy thing to do because we’re very familiar with them. This is especially true when our disturbing emotions are connected to attachment, craving or desire, because we think that these emotions are what will make us happy.

Shantideva further says:

(IV.28) Although enemies, such as anger and craving, have neither legs nor arms, are neither brave nor wise, how is it that they’ve made me like their slave?

(IV.29) For while squatting in my mind, at their pleasure, they gleefully cause me harm. To be patient and not become angry with them is an inappropriate, pathetic place for patience.

(IV.30) Even if all the gods and anti-gods were to rise up against me as enemies, they couldn’t drag and feed me into the fires (of a joyless realm) of unrelenting pain.

(IV.31) But those strong mighty enemies, my disturbing emotions, can, in a moment, hurl me into them, which, when met, will cause not even the ashes of the King of Mountains to remain.

Shantideva continues:

(IV.41) When I promised to liberate from their disturbing emotions wandering beings in the ten directions as far as the ends of space, I myself was not freed yet from disturbing emotions,

(IV.42) And didn’t even realize the extent of my (being under their control); wasn’t it crazy to have spoken (like that)? But, as this is so, I shall never withdraw from destroying my disturbing emotions.

As is clearly captured in these verses, we really need to work on seeing our disturbing emotions as our enemy. In fact, in order to truly help others, exchange our attitudes toward self and others, and give up self-cherishing and cherish others, we absolutely need to destroy our disturbing emotions. Not only do they prevent us from being able to benefit and cherish others, they are also the cause of all our suffering.

Therefore, as Langri Tangpa writes, what we need to do is constantly check the flow of my mind. We check with alertness and bring the mind back again and again to more beneficial attitudes. Shantideva says this quite a lot and it’s helpful to see all the supporting verses for this mind training in his text, as well as how it’s been further developed.

Shantideva starts:

(V.108) The defining feature of safeguarding with alertness is but this in brief: examining, over and again, the condition of my body and mind.

That’s what we continually need to do, continually check what’s going on. Then he continues:

(V.40) With the utmost effort, I shall check that the rutting elephant of my mind has not been let loose from how it’s been tied to the great pillar of my Dharma intent.

(V.41) Never letting go, for even an instant, the duty of my absorbed concentration, I shall check one by one, like that, (each moment of) mind, (to see,) “What’s my mind engaging in?”

We always engage in this kind of introspection to see what’s going on.

(V.27) The thieves (that come in) from their lack of alertness go on, after plundering their mindfulness, (to take,) as well, the positive karmic force they’ve built up, so that they go to a worse rebirth state, as if robbed by thieves.

(V.28) This pack of thieves, the disturbing emotions, searches for a chance (to break in); and, having found the chance, steals what’s constructive, destroying the life of a better rebirth state.

Shantideva concludes:

(V.54) Having examined my mind in this way for fully disturbing emotions and pointless endeavors, being courageous, I shall hold it firmly with opponent forces, at those times.

These last verses are almost the same as Langri Tangpa’s. It’s very good to read through all of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior over and over again. For example, we can read one chapter a day as part of our daily practice. But if we don’t have much time, we can also read or recite the Eight Verses of Mind Training, because they encapsulate a great deal of the essence of what Shantideva teaches.

Atisha, in his Bodhisattva Garland of Gems, says very much the same as Shantideva.

(2) Let me always safeguard the gateway of my senses with mindfulness, alertness, and care. So, let me check repeatedly the flow of my mind, three times each day and each night.

It’s actually not only three times; that’s just a symbolic number. We should always watch what’s going on in our minds. Then, there is a very famous verse from that text:

(28) When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.

Togme Zangpo, in 37 Bodhisattva Practices, speaks similarly:

(31) A bodhisattva’s practice is continually to examine our own mistakes and rid ourselves of them, because if we do not examine our mistakes, it’s possible that with a Dharmic (external) form we can commit something non-Dharmic.

In other words, externally we are doing something that only looks like Dharma. It might be helping somebody or doing some practice, or something like that; whereas, actually in our minds, because of our disturbing emotions, it’s a very non-Dharmic act. For instance, we’re only helping someone so that they’ll like us, or because we’ll get something in return; we’re practicing meditation or some puja, and so on, for completely neurotic reasons. Thus, we need to constantly examine ourselves for any mistakes in our motivation.

Togme Zangpo goes on:

(35) A bodhisattva’s practice is to have the servicemen, (like in the army), of mindfulness and alertness hold the opponent weapons and forcefully to destroy disturbing emotions and attitudes, like attachment and so forth, as soon as they first arise because when we are habituated to disturbing emotions and attitudes, it is difficult for opponents to reverse them.

Keeping a Check on Disturbing Emotions with Mindfulness and Alertness

The point that Togme Zangpo is making here is similar to when we practice concentration meditation to gain shamatha, a stilled and settled mind. The whole point is to recognize more and more quickly that our minds have come under the influence of some mental wandering or some disturbing emotion. Shantideva makes this point as well. The more we let our disturbing emotions go on and on without stopping them, the more we become habituated to them. Then, it becomes really quite difficult to reverse them. Basically, if we can catch our disturbing emotions quickly enough with alertness, they’re much easier to stop.

Continuing, Togme Zangpo states:

(36) In short, a bodhisattva’s practice is (to work) for the sake of others by continually possessing mindfulness and alertness to know, no matter what activities we are doing, what is the condition of our minds.

This verse shows how we can truly work for others. It’s not just through external acts or forms, but also by keeping a check on what’s going on in our minds as we are helping. Are we acting with love and compassion, or is it with attachment or pride, or what is it? As Langri Tangpa states in this verse, when these disturbing emotions come up, we have to confront them. This means face them and avert them, turn them back, with forceful means.

Using Forceful Means

Shantideva also spoke very strongly about how we have to smash these disturbing emotions by being very forceful and merciless with them. In this regard, he wrote:

(VIII.168) But even when being instructed like that, if you don’t act in that way, o mind, then since all wrongs depend on you, it’s exactly you whom I shall knock down.

(VIII.169) That time before was different, when I was being ruined by you. But (now) I see you; so where can you go? I’m going to knock all the arrogance out of you.

(VIII.170) Throw away, now, any hope, “I still have my own self-interest.” I’ve sold you to others, so don’t think of your weariness; I’ve offered your energies (to them).

(VIII.171) If, because of not caring, I don’t hand you over to limited beings, then, for sure, you’ll hand me over to the guards of the joyless realms.

(VIII.172) I’ve been handed over, like that, many times by you and long tormented; but now, recalling those grudges, I shall smash you, you creature of self-interest.

When Langri Tangpa says we’re going to use forceful means, this also refers to the methods Shantideva describes so well in the above verses. Nagarjuna used similar descriptions as well. For example, we can use forceful means to overcome attachment and desire for others’ bodies by seeing them as skeletons, imagining what’s inside their stomachs, or what’s inside their bowels. Shantideva has some really gory verses about food in other people’s mouths turning into vomit, diarrhea and these sorts of images.

Of course, the strongest means to use is the correct understanding of voidness. But, in general when Shantideva, Langri Tangpa and others speak about forceful means, it’s these provisional means that we use. We think of ugliness and dirtiness and so on as forceful means to counter attachment, or the long list of strong methods to counter anger that Shantideva describes in his patience chapter. For arrogance, for example, we think that there are always others who know much more than we do, or who are better looking or richer, and so on. There’s always someone with more. Similarly, if we have low self-esteem, we think of how there’s also somebody worse than we are. We’re not the worst in the world, so we don’t need to be proud of being the worst.

We’ve covered, now, the forceful means that we should try first. Once the force of the disturbing emotions is a bit lessened and contained, and then if we have enough familiarity, we can of course apply voidness. This is what is called in English a “two-punch method.”

Application in Meditation and in Our Daily Lives

Let’s take a few minutes to examine ourselves:

  • How seriously do we actually take our disturbing emotions?
  • How much do we actually examine ourselves in different situations such as when we are alone, with people and so on?
  • Do we really take seriously that our disturbing emotions are our enemies, that these are the cause of all our problems?
  • How willing are we to actually apply opponent forces?

If we’re not very willing, we need to examine the disadvantages as they are described extensively in all of these texts and try to make the decision to apply opponent forces. Otherwise it’s hopeless; we’re never going to be able to overcome our disturbing emotions. Maybe we will apply them when we’re sitting in meditation, but what about real life?

Even if we do apply various opponent forces, it’s also important to further examine:

  • Why do we apply them?
  • What’s the motivation for applying them? 
  • Is it because we want to be a “good girl” or “good boy?”  

The desire to be “good,” even if not in a childish way, very often can be a motivation among Westerners. We think, “It’s in the law of Dharma; it’s written, so I have to do this.” We want to be good practitioners, good Buddhists, please the teacher, please the Buddhas and so on. For what? Is it for a pat on the head? It’s as Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, “You get a pat on the head and then what? You wag your tail?”

These are all important points to consider, because, as mentioned, we could be practicing Dharma for quite a non-Dharmic reason. As Togme Zangpo said, we can be engaged externally in what looks like Dharma activities, but internally it’s not at all the case.

It goes back to the Four Noble Truths and how seriously we take them, not just in theory, but personally. “I want to overcome my anger so that you will like me” is not a very Dharmic reason. “I’ll overcome my attachment to you so that you won’t run away and you’ll stay with me.” These are very common non-Dharmic motivations.

So, let’s examine ourselves for a few minutes.


Verse Three: Viewing Our Conceptions as Well

(3) Whatever I am doing, may I check the flow of my mind, and the moment that conceptions or disturbing emotions arise, since they debilitate myself and others, may I confront and avert them with forceful means.

Verse three also refers to confronting and averting our conceptions as soon as they arise. However, it’s not just our ordinary conceptual thoughts, because actually that would be almost impossible for us to get rid of at our stage. When we speak about conceptual thoughts in general, we are referring to how we think in terms of categories. For example, when we see an object, like this thing in front of me, we immediately think “a table” and may even say the word “table” in our minds. This is a conceptual thought because we are fitting this object into a mental category, the category “table,” and associating a word with it. There are many other objects that we would also fit into this category and also call “a table.” Conceptual thought, then, involves categories and words.

This verse is not referring to all kinds of conceptual thinking; instead, it’s referring much more to prejudices, preconceptions, or disturbing strange thoughts, like: “This person is an idiot,” or “They’re no good,” or “This person is horrible.” Here, instead of fitting someone into the neutral category “a person,” we’re fitting them into the category “an idiot.” These types of conceptual thoughts are the ones that debilitate us. Because of such preconceptions, we might think that we can’t possibly deal with a certain person or situation, feeling it’s too much for us. It is these types of thoughts, these prejudices and pre-conceptions that the verse is referring to and that need to be confronted and averted.  

It’s a much heavier category to think someone is an idiot than thinking some object is a table. Thinking, “This is a table,” is not going to debilitate us. On the other hand, thinking, “This person is an idiot,” and as a result getting really angry, does damage to us and our ability to help others.