The teachings of the Buddha are commonly presented in three stages, or progressive levels of instruction. Each stage develops an aspect of the full realization of our potential as human beings, and each stage has its own approach to getting us across its particular goal line. These stages correspond to the three ways of looking at our emotions in the Emotional Rescue plan: as negative, positive, and neither, or unbiased. 

The initial stage of the journey is where we focus on ourselves and our personal freedom. By facing our internal conflicts, we learn to be strong, independent, and responsible for our own emotions.  This is where we learn what our problems are and what’s needed to overcome them. We develop a strong resolve to at last free ourselves from our suffering. Once we’ve developed a certain power and confidence in working with our own mind and emotions, in the second stage, we can begin to extend ourselves to others. Our world becomes bigger and more inclined to relationship.  Finally, in the third stage, our awareness opens out, naturally connecting with the vivid energies all around us.

Related: Meditating with Emotions 

So how do we work with our emotions according to this three-tiered system? In Buddhist literature, there are three primary emotions: passion, aggression, and ignorance. All other disturbing emotions evolve from these three and contain elements of them. We work in stages to transform all of these negative energies and return them to their natural state of clear, sympathetic awareness. One helpful practice is to examine your experience each day and try to recognize when any of the three primary emotions surfaced and the trouble they caused.

Shantideva, a great Indian master of the eighth century, gave this example for how obsession—a close relative of passion—can cause pleasure to cross over into great suffering: Imagine you find some honey. It smells so sweet you have a strong desire to taste it.  But there’s a problem: this tasty honey isn’t in a nice bowl with a spoon. It’s coating a very sharp razor blade. So you lick at the honey lightly. But it’s so delicious you want a little more. You lick it again a little harder, and then again, a little more enthusiastically still, until your craving for the honey takes you over. The more obsessed you become, the harder and harder you lick the honey. Although your first taste brings a sense of delight, once your desire for it is inflamed, you don’t realize that with each lick, you’re cutting off your tongue on the razor underneath. Is that a clear enough example? It’s rated “R” for violence.

Related: Mindfulness and Difficult Emotions 

Somewhat different kinds of suffering are caused by the emotions of aggression and ignorance. When your mind is controlled by anger, it’s impossible to find any sense of peace. Your body vibrates, your mind seethes. You can’t concentrate or relax or even get a good night’s sleep. And when you’re operating under the influence of ignorance, you suffer from a kind of blindness. Like trying to make out objects in a dimly lit room, your perceptions are vague. You don’t see your emotions when they come up or understand their effects or the actions they lead you to. Essentially, you don’t recognize the connection between your suffering and the ignorant mind. There’s a quality of ignorance, or limited understanding, within all the disturbing emotions. That unawareness transforms into lucid awareness and insight through the practice of the Buddhist path.

So long as we don’t understand how our emotions work, we’re at their mercy. We can be happy one moment and feel sad and alone the next. There’s no weather channel for our emotions. We don’t know whether to expect sunshine or clouds each day. Why can’t we just be happy? The Buddha said that the cause is our clinging to a mistaken notion of the self.  This self, the “I” or “me” that’s the center of our personal universe, is not quite all it seems. We tend to attribute qualities to it that it doesn’t actually possess.

For example, we feel that this “I” is fundamentally the same from moment to moment, day to day, year to year. “From birth until this very moment, I have been me. While there are certain kinds of changes (growth and aging of body, intellectual development, accumulation of memories and experiences), there’s something I recognize as ‘me’ that is beyond those kinds of changes.”  What that could be remains vague, but it’s the notion of a fixed, enduring self that we cling to, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

From Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Printed with the permission of TarcherPerigee/Penguin, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche ©2016.

[This story was first published in 2016

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