The Streams of Emotion

There’s a part of the mind that doesn’t like the emotions the Buddha labels as unskillful—things like lust, anger, anxiety, and greed—but there’s also a part that does. With anger for instance, it’s easy to like the power and exhilaration that come when you see something wrong and feel free to do and say whatever you want to correct it. With lust, you feel attracted not only to the object of your lust, but also to the lust itself—or to the idea that the lust makes you attractive. There’s even a part of the mind that likes anxiety—the part telling you that if you worry enough about potential problems, you can make them go away.

But then there’s the downside. After these emotions have passed, you often regret what you did under their power: actions that harmed you or other people. These are the moments when you’d like to find a way not to be overcome by these things.

Still, the part of the mind that likes lust and anger doesn’t go away easily. When it reads the Buddha’s take on unskillful emotions—that we should restrain them, should “abandon, destroy, dispel them, and wipe them out of existence” (MN 2)—it can come up with reasons for rejecting these instructions as short-sighted and unsophisticated. After all, simply suppressing or avoiding an emotion won’t make it go away. It’ll just go underground, like The Thing, only to shoot up tentacles somewhere down the line. This is why we often prefer to hear teachings that tell us that we can have our cake and eat it, too—that we can allow the emotion to flow and grow, and yet use our discernment to pick out the poisonous part, saving ourselves from what would otherwise be its bad consequences.

But nowhere in the early Canon does the Buddha say that restraint is enough to get rid of an unskillful emotion. Referring to these emotions as “streams,” he says instead:

Whatever streams

there are in the world:

Their blocking is

mindfulness. Mindfulness

is their restraint, I tell you.

With discernment

they’re finally stopped. — Sn 5:1

In other words, being mindful to say No to an emotion is only a first step in getting past it. To get totally beyond it requires discernment: detecting why you go for the emotion, how there’s a better alternative, and what that alternative is. Only then can you be freed from the power the emotion has had over you.

But still, to see these things clearly requires that you first hold the emotion in check. Only then will the part of the mind that likes the emotion show its stripes. It’s like trying to know the currents of a river: Even though its surface may seem placid and calm, you don’t really know how strong its bottom currents are until you try to build a dam across it. In the same way, you don’t really know the mind’s real reasons for clinging to an emotion unless you refuse to go along with it. That’s when they’ll start showing themselves. And you have to say No again and again, because all too often they won’t fully reveal themselves the first time you thwart them. After all, some of these reasons can be childish and embarrassing, so the mind is clever in fabricating lies to hide them from itself. Only when you’re firm and wise to their tricks can you can really see them. And only when you see them can you use the tools of discernment provided by the Buddha to free yourself from the ways the mind actually afflicts itself.

So mindfulness is just a preliminary step in getting past an unskillful emotion. And “mindfulness,” here, carries the Buddha’s original meaning of the term: to keep something in mind. It doesn’t just accept the way things flow. It’s like a gatekeeper who remembers who to let through the gate and who not (AN 7:63). In the case of an unskillful emotion, it first has to remember to notice when such an emotion arises and to recognize it for what it is: a hindrance, blocking the path to awakening (DN 22). This right here goes against the flow. For instance, when lust arises, we don’t usually notice it until it’s fairly strong. And when we do notice it, our first thought isn’t, “Oh, a hindrance.” It’s usually, “Great! Here’s my chance for some entertainment!” So we have to establish mindfulness in a way that’s constantly alert to these things and to the fact that, if we want to put an end to suffering and stress, we have to see them, not as our friends, but as obstacles. When we recognize them as unskillful, we also have to remember the tools that can help us get past them.

The Buddha’s instructions for establishing mindfulness are actually instructions for how to get the mind into a state of solid and pleasant concentration so that it can be steadily alert at all times. When your mind can stay solidly with something comfortable in the present moment—such as the breath—it can see itself more clearly and feel less ravenous for the food offered by anger and lust. At the same time, as you master the processes of getting the mind into concentration, you get hands-on experience with the first set of tools the Buddha offers to help your discernment understand how emotions are formed and how craving turns them into streams that can sweep you away.

That set of tools is the analysis of mind-states into three sorts of fabrication, or sankhāra: bodily, verbal, and mental.

• Bodily fabrication is the in-and-out breath.

• Verbal fabrication is the way you talk to yourself. In formal terms, it’s divided into two activities: directed thought, which chooses a topic to focus on; and evaluation, which asks questions and makes comments on the topic.

• Mental fabrication consists of perceptions—the labels the mind places on things, either as phrases or images—and feelings of either pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain (MN 44).

All three of these types of fabrication play a role in developing concentration. When you’re mindful of the breath, for instance, the breath itself is bodily fabrication. And in the Buddha’s instructions for mindfulness of breathing, after you get acquainted with the breath and can breathe sensitive to the entire body, you try to “calm bodily fabrication” (MN 118). In other words, you breathe in a way that has an increasingly soothing effect inside. To do this, you need to engage in verbal fabrication, to talk to yourself about how best to breathe so as to give rise to a sense of ease, how to maintain it, and how to let it spread throughout the body. The ease, of course, is a pleasant type of feeling, a mental fabrication that will have a positive effect on the mind. At the same time, you need to hold in mind a perception of the breath and its relation to the body in order to stay with the breath and to spread the ease throughout the body. As you work at this process, you’ll find that different ways of picturing the breath and body to yourself will have different effects on both body and mind. And as the Buddha recommends, you try to find feelings and perceptions that will help bring the mind to a state of calm.

This is how breath meditation, as you master it, makes you familiar with these three types of fabrication. And when you’re familiar with them, you begin to see in daily life how they fashion all your mind-states, and in particular afflictive emotions. When you’re angry, for instance, a perception—a mental image—is what usually sets you off. This is followed by an internal verbal commentary, in which you focus on what aggravates your anger and generate reasons for why the anger is justified. All of this will have an effect on the breath, which changes its rhythm and flow, creating a feeling of tightness or constriction, say, in your stomach or your chest. And when the thought gets into the body like this, it becomes an emotion that you feel you have to get out of your system.

The same processes go into creating emotions of greed, anxiety, or lust.

The practice of breath meditation not only helps to familiarize you with these processes, but also teaches you two important practical lessons about them. The first is that they don’t always happen just in reaction to events outside. You often bring them to the events. In other words, you prime yourself to be angry, lustful, or greedy even before you make contact with anything that aggravates these emotions. All too often, the mind is out looking for trouble: This is why there’s hate radio, online shopping, and Internet porn. Electronic devices don’t turn themselves on. We turn them on to stoke the emotions we’re already fabricating. This may be why the Buddha describes emotions not only as streams, but also as effluents: They go flowing out, spreading their pollution into the world.

The second practical lesson is that although these processes are influenced by your past habits, you can consciously change them. As the Buddha said, if it weren’t possible to abandon unskillful habits and develop skillful ones in their place, he wouldn’t have bothered to teach. In fact, many of his teachings deal in examples of how to dismantle unskillful habits of fabrication and to replace them with more skillful ones. His breath meditation instructions are shorthand tips for how to skillfully work with bodily fabrication even when you’re not sitting on a cushion or under a tree. His extended teachings are examples of skillful verbal fabrication; his many images and similes, examples of skillful mental fabrications that you can use to replace the unskillful ones that rule your mind. Ultimately, of course, his instructions take you to a dimension of the mind that’s free from fabrication, but to get there, you first have to learn how to create skillful bodily, verbal, and mental fabrications to free yourself from your old unskillful habits.

In terms of mental fabrication, for instance, the Buddha recommends ways of perceiving the drawbacks of anger and lust so that you can use those perceptions to counteract any perceptions you might have that anger and lust are attractive, or make you strong and brave. His list of perceptions to apply to lust includes the perception that a person engaged in lustful thoughts is like a dog chewing on a bone: It gets no nourishment or taste, aside from the taste of its own saliva. Getting lustfully involved with other people is like using borrowed goods: If the owners take them back, you have no grounds for complaint, because they’re simply taking what’s really theirs (MN 54). Learning to perceive lust in this way gives you a toehold in the idea that you’d be better off trying to go beyond it.

As for anger, the Buddha details ways in which all three types of fabrication can be brought to bear to dismantle bouts of anger and replace them with something more wise. Say you’re feeling angry about something your boss has done. The Buddha provides a good verbal fabrication to interrupt the inner chatter that’s provoking your anger: If you act on your anger, you’re going to do or say something stupid. Do you really want to do that? If your anger is really insistent, and you see the boss as your enemy, the Buddha recommends something stronger to counteract it, verging on spite: Do you want to give your enemy the satisfaction of seeing you act stupidly? (AN 7:60) If the answer in either case is No, you’ve got to get a handle on your anger so that you can think clearly enough to come up with a genuinely useful response to the situation.

Then you look at your bodily fabrication: How are you breathing? Can you calm the breath so that, at the very least, you’re not developing a tight knot in your chest that stokes the anger? When the breath calms down, you’ve got both bodily fabrication and a part of mental fabrication—a feeling of inner ease—on your side.

Then you look at the other part of mental fabrication: What images of the boss and of yourself are you holding in mind? Do you perceive yourself as being victimized and weak in the face of the boss? If so, the Buddha recommends that you perceive your goodwill as being as solid and large as the Earth. People can dig in the Earth or spit on it or urinate on it, but they can’t make it be without earth. Perceive your goodwill as large and cool, like the river Ganges. Perceive your mind as being like space: Just as no one can leave a mark on space, you want to tap into a mind-state where none of your boss’s actions leave a mark (MN 21).

And how about the boss? How do you perceive him? As a monster? An idiot? If you’re going to try to speak skillfully with him, you’ve got to develop some sympathy for him. Otherwise, you’ll be like the two lady poodles in the old New Yorker carton. They’re sitting at a bar, drinking Martinis, looking bitter and mean, and one of them says, “They’re all sons of bitches”—the message being that if you see everyone as bitches or sons of bitches, that’s how you’ll treat them. And you’ll become one, too.

So you’ve got to change your perception. Perceive yourself as a person going across a desert—hot, tired, trembling with thirst—and you come across a small puddle of water in the hoof print of a cow. If you tried to scoop the water up, you’d make it muddy. To drink it, you have to get down on all fours and carefully slurp it up. That’s the image the Buddha gives. It’s not very dignified—you wouldn’t want anyone to come along and snap a picture of you at that moment—but it’s what you’ve got to do if you want to survive.

What this means is that even though your boss may be extremely foolish, you’ve got to look carefully for the water of his good points, even if they seem to be surrounded by mud. You may feel that it’s beneath your dignity, that he doesn’t deserve your goodwill, but the image reminds you that you need your goodwill for your goodness to survive. You’re in no position to be careless in your judgment of people. Otherwise, you’ll do or say something that you may later regret for a long time. So you look for the water of the boss’s good qualities, even though it may not be much, to help water your own determination not to give in to your anger.

If, on reflection, you can’t think of anything good the boss has ever said or done, the Buddha recommends another perception: You’re coming across a desert and you find someone sick lying on the side of the road, with no one to help him. No matter who that person is, you’d have to feel compassion for him (AN 5:162). In the same way, if the boss is totally unskillful, you have to feel pity for the bad karma he’s creating for himself. With that perception in mind, you can better trust yourself to find something skillful and effective to do or say.

These ways of refabricating your experience—deconstructing unskillful emotions and constructing skillful ones in their place—are not the ultimate solution to the problem of afflictive emotions. They don’t put a stop to the streams. They simply dam them and divert them in a better direction. But they give you a handle on them, so that you don’t have to choose simply between giving in to them or bottling them up. And more importantly, as you develop skill in this direction, your dams get closer and closer to the source of the streams, and closer and closer to discerning what pushes them out in the first place. As the Buddha says, only discernment can stop them, and you don’t really discern a mind-state until you see three things: its allure, its drawbacks, and the escape from it (MN 14).

This is in line with his analysis of why we cling to things in the first place, and how we can learn how not to cling. If things didn’t offer pleasure, they’d hold no allure and we wouldn’t cling to them. If things weren’t also painful, we wouldn’t be able to see that they aren’t worth clinging to (SN 22:60). This means that we cling as long as we see that the pleasure they offer is well worth the pain of holding on. This is true no matter how much we tell ourselves that the emotions are impermanent or empty of inherent existence. After all, we cling to food and sex knowing full well that they’re not permanent and have no inherent essence—in fact, knowing their impermanence makes us cling all the more. Only when we see that the pleasure these things offer isn’t worth the effort that goes into clinging to them will we be willing to let go. And because that pleasure isn’t abstract, abstract solutions—like calling to mind the ultimate nature of reality—won’t really work. Only when we see the particulars of why we find our afflictive emotions alluring, and can compare that allure with the particulars of their drawbacks, will we be willing to let them go.

So, strategically, the best way to see the allure of an unskillful emotion—what you think you get out of going for it—is to keep thwarting it, and then to look and listen for any leaks in the dam of mindfulness you’ve set up. The emotion will look for moments of weakness, to insinuate itself back into favor, and will continue to give you reasons for why you should want it back. But as you keep rejecting its reasons, strengthened by the skillful ways you can refabricate it, it’ll have to become more and more frank about why it still wants to be free to flow in the mind.

And here again, the Buddha’s analysis of mind-states into the three types of fabrication helps give you some clues for where to look for the leaks in your dam. As he notes, our craving for an object or activity isn’t always focused on the object or activity itself. It’s often focused on our mental or verbal fabrications around it (DN 22). Our craving for a person may be focused, not on the person, but on the perceptions and thoughts we embroider around the person—or around our perception of ourselves in relation to the person. The same goes for our greed for things, which is why advertisers put so much effort into selling, not their products, but the stories and moods they want you associate with their products. As for our craving for anger, it may be focused on the verbal fabrications that justify the anger—we think we’re clever in the way we think, so we’ll keep on thinking that way regardless of how much harm it brings in its wake. And we can even have craving for craving itself.

So you look to see precisely where your craving is focused, for that’s where the allure of the emotion will be found. And as you stay determined not to fall for it, there will come a moment of truth, where the mind totally opens up about why it likes its unskillful emotions. When you see the real reason, you’ll also realize that it’s thoroughly stupid—in no way at all worth the drawbacks that those emotions can cause.

This means that genuine insight is a value judgment. And the proof that it’s genuine lies in the fact that, unlike your earlier, less skillful judgments, it opens the mind to the total escape of all-around dispassion.

Dispassion may sound like aversion or dullness, but it’s not. It’s more like a maturing, a sobering up. Your old ways seem childish, and now you’re ready to grow up. And because passion is what’s been driving all processes of fabrication, both good and bad, all along, this dispassion is what eventually frees you from everything flowing in the mind.

This is where you realize that true freedom lies, not in allowing the mind to stream wherever it wants, but in no longer being pushed around by those streams. And one of the side benefits of this freedom is that the mind no longer has to lie to itself. It can be frank to itself about its actions and their results.

It’s the freedom of causing no harm, and of having nothing to hide inside.