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What’s Really Holding You Back from Happiness?

Learn how a 14th century Buddhist text lays the groundwork for a very powerful perspective on how we can become more present and more authentically joyful in our daily lives.

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Meditation Advisor

Sometimes you’re out with friends, or on a dinner date, and want to be fully, authentically there. But you can’t. Mentally you’re checked out, thinking about that person that angered you earlier, or that new game you want to go home and buy, and you’re blindly ignoring right is what in front of you. When that happens, you’re trapped by (at least) one of the three poisonous emotions according to Buddhism: passion, anger, or ignorance.

There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the fourteenth century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake” while sattva can be translated as “being,” so it is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses so that we could live a full life with open hearts, in order to be helpful to those around us and show up more fully for our day-to-day life. He has a verse that specifically discourages from giving in to endless daydreams so that we can live a life that’s based in being present with whatever is happening right now:

Passion towards friends churns like water.

Hatred towards enemies burns like fire.

Through dark ignorance, one forgets what to adopt and what to reject.

To abandon one’s homeland is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

I should start my thoughts on this verse by being very clear: There’s nothing wrong with having emotions. Emotions are awesome. Perhaps you are seeing someone new and you feel joy. Or maybe your family member is in the hospital and you feel sad. But that’s you actually feeling the emotion, which is genuine and based on being present.

For most of us, our emotions get very stuck because we don’t feel the emotion. Instead, we perpetuate the storyline around the emotion. For example, you go on a vacation and a few days in you decide to check your work email. In that moment you see that something has gone a bit off the rails at work, but you’re not around to fix it. Instead of trusting your co-workers or making a quick call to offer some advice to a colleague, you sit on the beach and keep running potential “what if” scenarios in your head. There’s a lot of anxiety. Now, you could just acknowledge that you feel anxious, and let that emotion flow through you, but you don’t feel the proclivity to do that and just keep running storylines in your head about what could happen or should have happened. Thus, instead of having a nice holiday, you’re mentally still at work.

There’s a Tibetan word for when we get incredibly stuck in the story line around passion, anger (in the verse referred to as hatred) and ignorance, which is klesha. Klesha can best be translated as “afflictive emotions.” It is the sense that when a strong emotion gets its hooks in you, your mind spins out of control. There are five main ways that klesha is said to manifest; they are a stuck sense of:

  1. Passion or Attachment
  2. Aggression
  3. Ignorance (sometimes translated as prejudice)
  4. Pride
  5. Jealousy

Related: Sharath Jois on Burning Through the Six Poisons

You likely have had experiences of these five emotions and know how painful it can be when they get their hooks into you. Ngulchu Thogme points at specific scenarios in his verse. He mentions passion towards friends, as in, you might be so fixated on going out with them at night that you’re not mentally tuned in while at work. Or you might not have enemies, but you have people you’re butting heads with at work and your anger and hatred keep you mentally in the office when you eventually do go out to see your friends. Similarly, Ngulchu points out that we have a natural sense of discernment, but that gets clouded when we fall into “dark ignorance.” In other words, it can be paralyzing to only be lost in stuck emotions, instead of being present with whatever is right in front of you.

To that end, Ngulchu Thogme offers some advice: abandon your homeland. Here he’s not saying give up your house or apartment, but instead you should give up your habitual mental homeland of stuck emotions. Most of the day we’re getting yanked from passion to anger to pride to prejudice to jealousy. If we want to live a life of happiness and open-heartedness, we should abandon that tendency and just rest with whatever is right in front of us. This might manifest as actually tasting our food while we’re at lunch, instead of mentally spacing out. It might be checking in with our body as we exercise, instead of angrily fuming at someone in our head. Whatever we are doing, we should simply be open to it, as it is in that moment.

While this might sound challenging, it’s not impossible to do. The basic training in catching yourself before getting hooked by afflictive emotions is (surprise, surprise, given that I’m a meditation teacher): meditation practice. When we’re on the meditation cushion and a strong emotion rears its head the first thing to do is to remember what we’re doing: we’re learning to be present with our emotional display, not get stuck by it. In that moment, instead of perpetuating storyline, we acknowledge it fully and come back to the breath.

The more you allow yourself to feel your emotions, as they are, the more you are able to see your way through them in ways that are skillful and actually helpful to yourself and others. If you can abandon the tendency to just get lost in the storyline, dropping that as soon as you can, and just be present with whatever feelings are coming up, the more you will be able to tune into your life in a way that will bring you greater contentment and happiness overall.



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