Afflictive emotions

Ankle healed and other ailments in remission, Younger Daughter returned to softball action yesterday just in time to help her team cap an undefeated season. Drove in the tying come-from-behind runs, scored the winner. A joyous moment of celebration!

But the moment was quickly muted by an ugly scene, centering on a teammate who’d been heckled during the game and decided to confront her hecklers. She had to be physically restrained and removed. The situation wasn’t her fault, but her response to it was disastrous. The mood of festivity turned to confusion and sorrow as the crowd dispersed, the victors feeling cheated of their hard-won but short-lived elation.

We humans, some more than others, are primitively wired for this sort of sudden fight-or-flight reversal when laughter turns instantly to rancor and tears. It’s part of our native inheritance, a residual vestige of a time before softball when every encounter might have been expected to turn violent and possibly terminal.

The Buddhists speak of the “afflictive emotions” –  anger, pride, jealousy, attachment and ignorance. Matthieu Ricard says we can manage and even transcend them, with a lot of practice.

Anger can fill our mental landscape and project its distorted reality on people and events. When we are overwhelmed by anger, we cannot dissociate from it. We perpetuate a vicious circle of affliction by rekindling anger each time we see or remember the person who makes us angry. We become addicted to the cause of suffering.

But if we dissociate from anger and look at it with mindfulness, that which is aware of anger is not angry, and we can see that anger is just a bunch of thoughts. Anger doesn’t cut like a knife, burn like a fire, or crush like a rock; it is nothing more than a product of our mind. Instead of “being” the anger, we understand that we are not the anger, in the same way that clouds are not the sky.

So, to deal with anger, we avoid letting our mind jump again and again to the trigger for our anger. Then we look at anger itself and keep our attention upon it. If we stop adding wood to a fire and just watch, the fire will die out. Likewise, anger will vanish away, without being forcibly repressed or allowed to explode.

There is no question of not experiencing emotions; it’s a question of not being enslaved by them. Let emotions arise, but let them be freed from their afflictive components: distortion of reality, mental confusion, clinging, and suffering for oneself and others.

There is great virtue in resting from time to time in pure awareness of the present moment, and being able to refer to this state when afflictive emotions arise so that we do not identify with them and are not swayed by them.

So easily said, harder done. Younger Daughter’s old school tried to introduce her to mindfulness in the middle grades. She wasn’t ready for it then. Maybe, after the scene at the ball-field yesterday, she and her teammates might give it another look.

They’re back out there Monday for the big tournament. There’s no better time to practice pure awareness than now.

6 am/5:49, 50/85

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