I found the above video a delightful illustration of how important it is to nourish our attitudes and emotions. This post exposes readers to some Tibetan Buddhist tools for cultivating positive emotions and discusses the value of religious tools.
Cultivating Positive Emotions
If we have been fortunate enough to enjoy a good upbringing, a safe environment, good peers and the fortune of a genetically healthy temperament, a healthy emotional life is almost natural. But a defect in any these or by simple neglect of what we have been blessed with, and our emotional habits may take on a negativity that is extremely painful, destructive or certainly limiting.
Each culture, recognizing this obvious truth, has developed some of its own unique tools to cultivate positive emotions. Wisdom for such cultivation may come in many forms – whether through folk traditions, secular habits or religious traditions. And though religious traditions are crowded with inaccurate beliefs, those very beliefs can often be used as tools to culture healthy emotions. It is for this reason that I often try to remind anti-religious atheists that religion is often far bigger than just propositional beliefs and thus understanding how a person uses their beliefs. To me, positive emotions are often more important than accurate beliefs. Without a positive culture of emotions, both individuals and societies can wither into self-destruction. But of course, inaccurate beliefs can do the same — ah the delicate balance of the human psyche.
Below I will discuss two very different religious traditions and how positive emotions can be nurtured in those religions.
Emotions in a Tibetan Buddhist Tradition
The Tibetan Buddhists Gelug sect (the sect of the Dalai Lama) has several meditative tools for culturing positive emotions. Addressing this issue is an enjoyable book called “Destructive Emotions: How can we Overcome Them” — A Scientific Dialogue the the Dalai Lama, narrated by Daniel Goleman”. Here the conference members explore psychology as understood in one of the Dalai Lama’s sect of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In that tradition, all of the myriad of negative mental afflictions are felt to spring from three primal emotions: Anger, Attachment and Ignorance.
Below is the list of those 20 Derivative Mental Afflictions (pg 106):
- Inflated self-esteem
- Concealment of one’s own vices
- Ignorance (Delusion)
- Blind faith (vs. Intelligent Faith)
- Spirtual slot
- Lack of introspective attentiveness
- Ignorance + Attachment
- Inconsideration of others
One Buddhist method to cultivate healthy emotions is by trying to obey simple ethical imperatives in their daily lives — not killing, stealing and lying. Another is ‘wisdom training’, a meditative technique used to see behind the illusion of a false-self which they feel feeds such emotions. A third method is contemplation of positive emotions. For example, the meditator could imagine her love for her children, parents or favorite teacher and then generalizing that love to acquaintances, strangers and finally to enemies. Tibetan psychology’s main teaching is that best way to fight negative emotions is to cultivate the emotion’s “antidote”. For each of these negative emotions above is felt to have an opposite–an antidote. Cultivating the antidote weakens the negative emotion. “Thus love is a direct antidote of hatred. In the case of jealousy, on can try to rejoice in others’ qualities. For pride, we try to appreciate others’ achievements and open our eyes to our own defects to cultivate humility. … [It is by such methods that] we are no longer enslaved by negative emotions, and we progress toward freedom.”
Tibetan Buddhists may also use imaginary deities in their meditative practice to cultivate positive emotions. They have many mythical stories surrounding Bodhisattvas that they use to inform their visualizations and contemplations. In the Hindu traditions, Vaishnivites do similar mental training with their stories of Krishna.
Many Christians use the myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a similar way to cultivate feelings of gratitude and love. Like the Tibetan practice, the object used to nurture the feeling is imaginary, but powerful. I am in the atheist camp that sees the cultivation of emotions as being a positive role that religion can serve which is often missing in many secular cultures. Likewise, stories of Jesus or his disciples can be used to cultivate patience, diligence, forgiveness, generosity and more.
In summary, positive emotions can be as valuable as, if not much more valuable than, correct ideas. Hyper-rational people, be they theists or atheists, can forget the importance of the virtues of the emotional life while they try to emphasize correct belief. For as illustrated above, freedom from negative emotions can be nurtured using imaginary stories. The video, for example, is fiction — it never happened. Though negative, divisive emotions and destructive ideas need to be diligently uprooted, balancing the cultivation of positive emotions while nurturing correct belief can be complex and requires patience.