What Is a Disturbing Emotion?

When our minds are disturbed by anger, attachment, selfishness or greed, our energies likewise get disturbed. We feel uneasy; our minds aren’t calm; our thoughts run wild. We say and do things that we later regret. If we notice a sudden disturbance in our minds and energies, we can be sure that it’s the work of some disturbing emotion. The trick is to catch it as soon as it appears and apply some opponent mental state, such as love and compassion, to avoid the problems we’d create if we give in to the troublemaking emotion and act it out.

What Is a “Disturbing Emotion?”

A disturbing emotion is defined as a state of mind that, when we develop it, causes us to lose our peace of mind and to lose self-control.

Because we lose our peace of mind, it’s disturbing; it disturbs our peace of mind. Because we become disturbed when we lose our peace of mind, we’re not really clear in our thinking or in our feelings. Because of that lack of clarity, we lose the sense of discrimination that’s necessary for having self-control. We need to be able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s not helpful; what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate in specific situations.

Disturbing Emotions Can Also Accompany Constructive States of Mind

Examples of disturbing emotions would be, for instance, attachment or longing desire, anger, jealousy, pride, arrogance, and so on. Some of these disturbing emotions may lead us to act destructively, but that is not always necessarily the case. Attachment and longing desire, for instance, could lead us to act destructively – to go out and steal something, for example. But also we could have longing desire to be loved and we’re attached to that, so we help others in order to be loved by them. Helping others is not destructive; it’s something constructive, but there’s a disturbing emotion behind it: “I want to be loved, so I beg you to love me in return.”

Or consider the case of anger. Anger could lead us to act destructively, to go out and hurt somebody or even kill them, because we’re very angry. So, that’s destructive behavior. But, let’s say we’re angry about the injustice of a certain system or a certain situation – and we’re so angry at it that we actually do something to try to change it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a violent thing that we do. But the point is that even doing something constructive or positive here is motivated by a disturbing emotion. We don’t have peace of mind and, because we don’t have peace of mind, when we’re doing that positive action, our minds and feelings aren’t very clear and our emotional state is not very stable.

In these cases, then, with longing desire or anger, we want the other person to love us or we want an injustice to end. Those are not stable states of mind or stable emotional states. Because they’re not clear states of mind or clear emotional states, we are not thinking very clearly about what to do and how to actually carry out our intention. As a result, we don’t have self-control. For instance, we might try to help somebody do something, but a better way of helping might be to let them do it themselves. Let’s say if we have a grownup daughter and we want to help her cook or take care of the house or take care of the children, well in many ways that’s interfering. Our daughter might not really appreciate being told how to cook or how to raise her children. But we want to be loved and we want to be useful, so we push ourselves on her. We’re doing something constructive, but in doing that, we have lost the self-control that would have caused us to think, “It’s better to keep my mouth shut and not offer my opinion and not offer my help.”

Even if we do help in a situation where it is appropriate for helping the other person, we’re not relaxed about it, because we might be expecting something in return. We want to be loved; we want to be needed; we want to be appreciated. With this type of longing desire as a condition in our minds, then if our daughter doesn’t respond in the way that we want, we get very upset.

This mechanism of disturbing emotions causing us to lose peace of mind and lose self-control is even more obvious when we’re going to fight injustice. Being really annoyed about it, we’re really upset. If we’re going to act on that basis of being upset, then usually we don’t think very clearly what to do. Often we don’t follow the best course of action to bring about the change that we want.

In short, whether we act in a destructive way or we do something constructive, if what we do is motivated by and accompanied by a disturbing emotion, our behavior is going to cause problems. Although we can’t predict precisely whether or not it’s going to cause problems for other people, it’s primarily going to cause problems for us. These problems are not necessarily things that will happen immediately; they are long-term problems in the sense that acting under the influence of disturbing emotions builds up habits to repeat over and over again acting in disturbed ways. In this way, our compulsive behavior based on disturbing emotions builds up a long-range set of problematic ways of behaving. We never have peace of mind.

A clear example of that is being motivated to be helpful and to do nice things for others, because we want to feel loved and appreciated. Behind that, we’re basically insecure. But the more we continue acting with this kind of motivation, it never satisfies, we never feel, “Okay, now I’m loved. That’s enough, I don’t need any more.” We never feel that. And so our behavior just reinforces and further strengthens this habit of compulsively feeling, “I have to feel loved, I have to feel important, I have to feel appreciated.” You just give more and more in the hope of being loved, but you always feel frustrated. You’re frustrated because even if somebody thanks you, you think, “They don’t really mean it,” this type of thing. Because of that, we never have peace of mind. And it just gets worse and worse, because the syndrome repeats and repeats and repeats. That’s called “samsara,” by the way – an uncontrollably recurring problematic situation.

It’s not so difficult to recognize this type of syndrome when the disturbing emotion is causing us to act negatively or destructively. For example, we might always be annoyed, and because we’re annoyed and we get angry at the littlest thing, then in our relations with others we’re always speaking in a harsh way or we say cruel things. And it’s obvious that nobody likes us and people don’t really want to be with us very much and it causes a lot of problems in our relationships. There it is fairly easy to recognize what’s going on. But it’s not as easy to recognize it when the disturbing emotion is behind our acting positively. But we need to recognize it in both situations.

How to Recognize When We Are under the Influence of a Disturbing Emotion, Attitude or State of Mind

The question, then, is how to recognize that we’re acting under the influence of a disturbing emotion or attitude? It doesn’t just have to be an emotion; it can also be an attitude toward life or an attitude toward ourselves. For this, we need to be a bit sensitive to be introspective and notice how we feel inside. To do this, the definition of a disturbing emotion or disturbing attitude is very helpful: it causes us to lose our peace of mind and to lose self-control.

If, when we’re about to say something or we’re about to do something, we feel a little bit nervous inside, we’re not completely relaxed, that’s a sign that there’s some disturbing emotion present.

It might be unconscious and often it is unconscious, but there’s some disturbing emotion behind it.

Let’s say we try to explain something to somebody. If we notice that there’s a little bit of uneasiness in our stomach while we’re speaking to the person, that’s a good indication that there’s some pride behind it, for instance. We might feel, “How clever I am, I understand it. I’m going to help you understand it.” We may sincerely want to help the other person by explaining something to them, but if we feel a little bit uneasy in our stomach, there’s some pride there. That especially happens when we speak about our own achievements or our own good qualities. Very often, we experience that with a little bit of uneasiness.

Or consider the case of a disturbing attitude, let’s say the attitude that “Everyone should pay attention to me,” which often we have. We don’t like to be ignored – nobody likes to be ignored – so we feel, “People should pay attention to me and listen to what I’m saying,” and so on. Well, that also can be accompanied by some nervousness inside, especially if people aren’t paying attention to us. Why should they pay attention to us? When you think about it, there’s no good reason.

The Sanskrit word “klesha” – “nyon-mong” in Tibetan – is a very difficult term that I’m translating here as “disturbing emotion” or “disturbing attitude.” It is difficult because there are some of them that don’t really fit very nicely into either the category of an emotion or an attitude, for example naivety. We can be very naive about the effect of our behavior on others or on ourselves. Or we could be naive about a situation, the reality of what’s going on. Let’s say, for example, we’re naive that somebody is not feeling well or somebody is upset. In such situations, we can certainly be naive about what the result of saying anything to them is going to be; they might get very annoyed with us, despite our good intentions.

When we have that type of disturbing state of mind, let’s call it, we wouldn’t necessarily feel uneasy inside. But as we saw, when we lose our peace of mind, our minds are unclear. And so when we’re naive, our minds really are not clear; we’re in our own little world. We lose self-control in the sense that because we’re in our own little world, we don’t discriminate between what’s helpful and appropriate in a situation and what’s not. Because of that lack of discrimination, we don’t act properly and sensitively. In other words, we don’t have the self-control to be able to act properly and restrain from doing something inappropriate. In that way, naivety fits this definition of a disturbing state of mind, although it is hard to think of naivety as an emotion or an attitude. As I said, “klesha” is a very difficult term to find any really good translation for.

Non-Disturbing Emotions

In Sanskrit and Tibetan there is no word for “emotions.” These languages speak of mental factors, which are the various components that make up each moment of our mental state. They divide these mental factors into disturbing ones and non-disturbing ones, and into constructive and destructive ones. Those two pairs don’t completely overlap each other. In addition, there are mental factors that don’t fall in any of these categories. So, in terms of what we in the West call “emotions,” there are some that are disturbing and some that are not disturbing. It’s not that we’re aiming in Buddhism to get rid of all emotions, not at all. We just want to get rid of the disturbing ones. This is done in two steps: the first step is not to come under the control of them and the second is to get rid of them so they don’t even arise.

What would be a non-disturbing emotion? Well, we might think that “love” is a non-disturbing emotion, or “compassion,” or “patience.” But when we analyze these words that we have in our European languages, we discover that each of these emotions could have a disturbing and a non-disturbing variety. So, we have to be a little bit careful. If love is the type of feeling in which we feel, “I love you so much, I need you, don’t ever leave me!” – then this type of love is actually quite a disturbing state of mind. It’s disturbing because if the person doesn’t love us back or doesn’t need us, we become very upset. We get very angry and all of a sudden our emotion changes, “I don’t love you anymore.”

So, when we analyze a state of mind, although we might conceive of it as being an emotional one, and we might call it “love,” actually this mental state is a mixture of many mental factors. We don’t just experience an emotion all by itself. Our emotional states are always a mixture; they have many different components. That type of love in which we feel, “I love you, I can’t live without you,” is obviously a type of dependency and that’s quite disturbing. But there is a non-disturbing type of love, which is merely the wish for the other person to be happy and to have the causes of happiness, regardless of what they do. We don’t expect anything back from them.

For example, we might have that type of non-disturbing love toward our children. We don’t really expect anything back from them. Well, obviously some parents do. But usually, no matter what the child does, we still love the child. We want the child to be happy. But often, again, this is mixed with another disturbing state, which is that we want ourselves to be able to make them happy. If we do something with the intention to make our child happy, like take them to a puppet show and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t make them happy, they would rather play their computer game, we feel very bad. We feel bad because we wanted to be the cause of our child’s happiness, not the computer game. But we still call that feeling toward our child “love.” “I want you to be happy, I’m going to try to make you happy, but I want to be the most important person in your life that’s doing that.”

So, the point of all this elaborate discussion is that we really need to look very carefully at our emotional states and not get so caught up in the words that we use to label different emotions. We need to really investigate to find out what aspects of our mental states are disturbing and cause us to lose our peace of mind, to lose our clarity, to lose self-control. Those are the things we need to work on.

Unawareness as the Underlying Cause of Disturbing Emotions

If we want to rid ourselves of these disturbing states of mind or emotions or attitudes, we need to get to their cause. If we can remove the cause that’s underlying them, then we can rid ourselves of them. It’s not just a matter of ridding ourselves of the disturbing emotions themselves, which are causing our problems; we actually need to go to the root of the disturbing emotion and get rid of that.

What, then, is the deepest cause of these disturbing states of mind? What we find is what is often translated as “ignorance,” or, I prefer, “unawareness.” We are unaware of something, we just don’t know. Ignorance sounds as though we’re stupid. It’s not that we’re stupid. It’s simply that we just don’t know, or it can be that we’re confused: we understand something incorrectly.

What are we confused about, or what are we unaware of? Basically, it’s the effect of our behavior and it’s situations. We’re very angry or attached or upset in some way, and it causes us to act in a compulsive manner, based on previous habits and tendencies. That’s basically what karma is all about, the compulsion to act in a way that is based on a disturbing emotion or disturbing attitude, and so without self-control. 

Underlying that compulsive behavior is unawareness: we didn’t know what the effect of what we did or said would be. Or we were confused: we thought that stealing something would make us happy, but it didn’t. Or we thought that helping you would make me feel needed and loved; it didn’t. So we didn’t know what the effect of it would be. “I didn’t know that if I said that, it would hurt you.” Or we’re confused about it. “I thought it would help and it didn’t.” “I thought it would make me happy, it didn’t.” Or it would make you happy, it didn’t. Or about situations, “I didn’t know that you were busy.” Or “I didn’t know that you were married.” Or it could be we’re confused, “I thought you had plenty of time.” But you didn’t. “I thought that you were single, unattached to anybody, so I tried to pursue a romantic relationship,” which is inappropriate. So again, we are unaware of situations: either we don’t know them or we’re confused about them: we know them in the wrong way.

Now, it’s true that a lack of awareness is the root of our acting compulsively. But it’s not so obvious that it’s also the root of the disturbing emotions and that the disturbing emotions are very much connected with compulsive behavior. So, we need to look a little bit more carefully at these points.