In this article, I’m going to share two powerful, little-known Eastern techniques to help you amplify emotional highs and keep warm when you’re feeling blue.
But first, a little history:
Conventional wisdom says that emotions fall into the categories anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, joy, and fear, but this is not the only way or even the best way to think about feelings.
Emotions do not arise in isolation and without context. We feel things in relation to other things. We feel pleasure in relation to a nice meal or great conversation. We feel sadness in relation to hearing sad news. We also feel things in relation to feelings.
Emotions self-perpetuate: when we feel great, we feel great that we feel great; when we feel sad, we feel sad that we feel sad.
In order to make sense of this emotional cobweb, 2,000 years ago an incomparably wise Indian man called Siddhartha Gautama — his friends called him Buddha — came up with two helpful ways to think about our relationship with feelings:
Touch a flame, and what follows is aversion. Unless you have a fondness for masochism — no judgment here — you will avoid the sensation of pain. But not just physical pain, egoic pain too. The Buddhist monk Geshe Tashi Tsering elaborates:
“Aversion refers to pushing away things that harm our sense of permanence…” [It is] an exaggeration of an object that arises from the fundamental ignorance of the way self and things exist. … Because the object harms the self’s notion of permanence, the mind exaggerates its negative qualities. … This mind of aversion can range from very gross to very subtle…
Above all, we fear impermanence. We flinch from a flame because we know that fire destroys flesh. This is the fear of physical impermanence: the fear of body-death. But our “self” can also be injured independent of our body.
For example, If I believe my “self” to be intelligent and knowledgeable and someone confronts me with contrary evidence, perhaps with a humiliating claim about how I’ve made a terrible, idiotic blunder, my “self” will sense a threat just as real and just as dangerous as fire.
Burn: To be thoroughly humiliated or insulted to the point where you cannot return with a comeback.
— Urban Dictionary Definition
The Buddha saw a problem with the human tendency to seek refuge from threats to the “self” as if they were threats to the body.
After carefully examining his own experience, he came to the realization that his “ego” or sense of “self” (the thing that feels as though it’s sitting comfortably up in your skull, reading and responding this article) wasn’t really there at all.
The “self” insofar as we consider it a tangible entity, is non-existent, impossible to locate—an illusion. Beautiful, baffling, often-useful, but ultimately, smoke and mirrors.
What’s particularly odd about this ego trick, however, is that the magician who performs it (our “self”), is both the creator and the spectator, stuck in a silly, dreamy dance like a cat chasing its tail.
The gross symptoms of aversion include anger, aggression, hatred, envy, etc., but here are some subtle and often more widespread symptoms:
- Rationalizing that “they” are wrong and “I” am right
- Creating a new problem to distract from the existing problem
- Becoming blind to things which contradict one’s identity
- Ingesting substances to distract or shelter from suffering
- Following dogmas which advocate subtle forms of not facing up to life
- Procrastination and lateness
- “Escaping” into entertainment
- Unwillingness to look in the mirror, figuratively and literally
Do you recognize any of these?
The Aversion Image:
A warrior with a sword and shield, constantly defending, parrying, dodging, and attacking. His error? He doesn’t realize he fights only his shadow.
To the Buddha, “The root of suffering [a.k.a. unsatisfactoriness] is attachment.”
This is hard for the Western mind to intuitively grasp because attachment always follows pleasurable experiences, which most of us are conditioned to chase after.
But while pleasure and attachment are linked, they are not the same. The Buddha did not believe that suffering comes directly from pleasure; he believed suffering comes as a result of our reluctance to give up or let go of pleasure.
As an example, we might eat a slice of cake and derive some pleasure from doing so. That’s fine. But what happens when that pleasure starts to fade and the object of your delight turns to crumbs? Do you cling to that feeling and quickly grasp at another slice? That’s attachment.
Watch any “rise and fall” biographical movie (e.g. Scarface, Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas) and at some point, you will see attachment lead to the protagonist’s demise. It’s a classic mythic motif.
The gross symptoms of attachment include desire, excess, greed, etc., but here too are some subtle, common symptoms:
- Needing certain substances to feel at ease
- Needing material items to feel valuable
- Seeking out conflict and arguments
- Needing to have one’s opinion heard at all costs
- Holding grudges
- Thinking obsessively over past events
- Being prone to drama and tantrums
- Gossiping and hating on others
- Reluctance to give praise and credit
- Presenting oneself superficially for validation
- Dissatisfaction and feeling that “the grass is always greener”
Do you recognize any of these symptoms? If so, running away from them or beating yourself up is just another manifestation of aversion. You are human. If attaining enlightenment were easy (or possible), everyone would be doing it. One of the biggest root causes of suffering is simple lack of compassion towards oneself. So before we get into any Buddhist techniques for better handling attachment and aversion, realize that no technique will ever help you if you do not give yourself the permission to be human.
Attachment can lead to aversion and aversion can lead to attachment. They are brothers, motivated by the same lack, stemming from the same origin.
Andy Puddicome, co-founder of Headspace and author of the fantastic meditation book Get Some Headspace, describes this relationship by substituting attachment and aversion with hope and fear:
On the one side we have hope and on the other side we have fear. When we experience a challenging emotion we hope it will disappear and we fear it will stay or get stronger. When we experience a pleasurable emotion we hope it will stay, or maybe get stronger and we fear that it might go away. So this constant tension between hope and fear is ever-present.
The Attachment Image:
A man tries to catch fish in a river with his bare hands. Every time he tries to grasp onto one it slips out of his hands. The harder he tries to grasp the fish the farther it springs from his grip. He catches one here and there, but never enough to satisfy his hunger.
The Western Head and the Eastern Heart
The history of Western culture looks a lot different from that of Eastern culture.
Western culture owes much to the three forefathers of Western philosophy, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Socrates questioned everything and everyone. He sought truth and used his inquisitive, quick-firing tongue to get it, or, at least, to uncover what it wasn’t. Because Socrates never wrote anything down, the task of keeping his ideas alive went to his best student, Plato, who conveniently happened to be as good a playwright as he was a philosopher. The result was The Dialogues of Plato, a collection of written philosophical works, structured in the form of plays where different characters (including Socrates) argue about topics as diverse as “what is justice” and “how to create an ideal society.”
Soon after, Plato himself had a student who pushed philosophy further still. His name was Aristotle, and he was the founder of modern science and formal logic. Since then many ideas have come and gone, but Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle live on.
Contrast this with Eastern culture. Eastern philosophy never had a Socrates, Plato, or an Aristotle. Instead, it had Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Buddha, all brilliant, but in a totally different way. During the vast history of Eastern philosophy, of course, rational sects cropped up, but the invention of formal logic, according to Professor Patrick Grim, was not just an inevitable byproduct of clear thinking:
“There are some ideas I think I could have had if I’d been at the right place at the right time. Maybe this is conceit. … But there are some ideas I think I would never have had. One of those is the very idea of logic. For that, we needed an Aristotle.”
Andre van der Braak in his book Nietzsche and Zen distinguishes the Western philosophical tradition as being a “truth-seeking paradigm,” whereas the East prioritizes practice over doctrine and can be seen as a “way-seeking paradigm”—orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. In broad terms, one could argue that the West preoccupies itself with thinking, analysis, and rationality as tools for finding truth, and the East focuses more on intuition and emotion for finding the way towards authentic practice.
In this article, we set out to find the way toward practicing a vibrant existence by adding Buddhist tools to our emotional toolkit. One such tool which also highlights the cultural and philosophical attitude separating the East and West is the practice of meditation.
When the truth-seeking West adopted meditation, it wasn’t long before they rebranded it as “mindfulness” and subjected it to scientific analysis. This isn’t of itself a bad thing, but by filtering meditation so thoroughly for statistically significant outcomes, the rich, nuanced philosophies integral to the Buddhist way were left in the lab trash bin.
The most notable of these eastern ideas is the philosophy of compassion—the figurative heart of Buddhism.
Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and close friend to the Dalai Lama, has volunteered himself as a subject for many scientific tests, which aim to see how long-term meditation changes the brain. Ricard, according to one researcher, has levels of gamma waves “never reported before in the neuroscience literature,” gaining him the official title of “The Happiest Man in the World.”
But what many Westerners look past when they hear this story is the type of meditation Matthieu practices; he meditates almost exclusively on compassion, visualizing himself spreading care and love to those in need.
Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality without Religion, has said that compassion-based meditations can cultivate sensations of happiness and empathy comparable to those experienced on MDMA.
But we don’t need to join a monastery or take MDMA regularly to feel these emotions on a daily basis.
An Old-New Approach to Dealing with Attachment and Aversion
The following two Buddhist visualization exercises are very simple, very quick, and extremely helpful for balancing your emotions, reducing suffering, and improving your relationship with attachment and aversion.
Attachment Visualization: Positive Emotions
“If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”
The next time you experience an emotion which gives you feelings of pleasure or gratitude or happiness such as sleeping in a cozy bed, feasting on a delicious meal, or staring at a beautiful work of art, visualize yourself giving away those happy feelings to people you love and care about or to people who may not have the opportunity to experience such pleasures.
You don’t have to meditate on it for a long time. Just quickly bring to mind people you wish to be happy and imagine that you’re sending your good feelings to them via emotional Wi-Fi. Over time, as this becomes a habit, you’ll begin to do it without thinking and eventually become more compassionate, awesome, and happy-prone as a default mode of life.
Aversion Visualization: Negative Emotions
“A problem shared is a problem halved.” — Anonymous
The next time you experience sadness, anger, low self-worth, depression or any emotion you’d conventionally call “negative,” visualize that you are feeling this emotion so that the people you love and care about don’t have to. You can also bring to mind all of the other people who endure this same emotion and acknowledge that these feelings are just part of the human condition.
By taking on unwanted feelings so that people you love don’t have to experience them, not only are you practicing compassion, you are also walking into the “negative” emotion instead of avoiding it. You may still feel sad, but you no longer feel sad that you feel sad; on some level you are comfortable with your uncomfortable emotion.
Implementing These Two Techniques
These techniques are extremely adaptable. You can use them in all kinds of situations.
Recently, for example, I was feeling self-conscious and started having feelings of aversion. I began to embrace the feeling of self-consciousness and thought about the thousands of people all across the globe who feel the same as me, or worse, every day. I then decided to embrace the feeling for them.
This imagined solidarity gave me a feeling of strength to confront the reality I was intent on avoiding. My self-consciousness did not evaporate, but the chains that feeling wrapped around my actions did.
You can be as creative as you like when using the prescribed template of these two techniques, but I recommend first setting up an intention implementation.
The psychologist Peter Gollwitzer has conducted lots of research on the psychology of action and has found that when it comes to goal-setting, telling ourselves what we want to do is not as effective as deciding beforehand our exact intention followed by how, when, and where we are going to implement it. He calls this technique implementation intention, and it’s most commonly expressed with “if… then” statements.
IF I feel self-conscious THEN I’m going to visualize all of my brothers and sisters across the globe who frequently experience the same emotions.
IF I feel aversion getting out of bed in the morning, THEN tomorrow when I wake up I am going to bring to mind all of the people who are forced out of bed each day and get up for them, and I could also visualize that I am getting up an hour earlier so that the people I love can stay in bed an hour longer.
Coming Full Circle:
I started this article by explaining how, “Emotions self-perpetuate: when we feel great, we feel great that we feel great; when we feel sad, we feel sad that we feel sad.” The deeper point of these visualizations is not to change your emotions or get rid of attachment and aversion; that’s just another form of aversion. No, the point of these mini-meditations is to change the way you relate to your emotions. By reframing your relationship with your emotions, you can fully experience them without losing your “self” in the storm.
Write down in the comments where you feel attachment and aversion most in your life and then what implementation intention you have set for yourself based on the information in this article.
Jon Brooks is a Stoicism teacher and, crucially, practitioner. His Stoic meditations have accumulated thousands of listens, and he has created his own Stoic training program for modern-day Stoics.