Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Can Emotions Be Changed?

A Look at the Nature of Emotions, and How to Work with Them From Buddhist Psychology Perspective.

Thanks to one of my Dharma friends from Tathagata Center, I have discovered another Burmese gem. This time, it is U Jotika, an elusive Theravada monk, whose monastery I have not been able to locate yet. I have heard he spends most his time traveling all over Burma and Southeast Asia. U Jotika's balanced approach reminds me of Ajahn Chah. Today, I contemplate his teachings on the whole notion of 'changing emotions':
In some books I read about mental states and consciousness and wisdom and they say that you can change your anger into love; that is impossible! You cannot change your anger into love, into metta, you can’t change dosa (hatred, aversion) into metta; dosa arises and passes away as dosa. Loving kindness (metta) arises as loving kindness and passes away as loving kindness; it cannot change its nature. Its unique, natural characteristic does not change. It only arises and passes away; that is why it is impermanent (anicca). There is a lot of confusion even among meditators about this point; some people think that they can change one thing into another. In a definition of anicca they say that paramattha does not change. There is a Pali sentence that says that paramattha does not change. Some people are confused about the meaning of this. If reality, paramattha does not change it means that it is permanent. No, it doesn’t change its nature, but it arises and passes away. Arising and passing away, impermanence and not changing nature does not contradict. This is a very important point especially for those who are potential teachers.
~ from 'Map of the Journey', by U Jotika ~ 
To be contrasted with Ayya Khema's view on same topic:
Some [feelings] are pleasant, some are unpleasant, some are neutral, but our reactions don't have to be preplanned, impulsive, instinctive. We can look at them with mindfulness and put the brakes on. Substitution is much easier than just dropping what is in the mind. Although dropping is the perfect way to get rid of clinging, it is more difficult because it is a letting-go aspect. In the beginning, substitution is a necessary response . . . When aversion, rejection, resistance, anger, jealousy, pride, greed, or craving arise within, we can take a moment to look at them mindfully. When we recognize their burdensome impact on us, we understand that we need not continue to let them exist. We can substitute compassion, or the idea that they are not important, or the understanding of impermanence, or corelessness. This is particularly true of anger, which makes life so very unpleasant for oneself and others. When we get angry with a person, we can ask ourselves first of all, "What am I getting angry at? Is it the hair, the nose, the eyes, or what? Am I getting angry at his words? If it is really unpleasant speech, it means the other person is unhappy. "Why should I get angry, then? Why can't I be compassionate?" If we can change our anger to compassion, we will feel good, the other person will feel good, and we will have taken a step forward on our spiritual path. 
~ from 'When the Iron Eagle Flies', by Ayya Kkema ~
 And also Mingyur Rinpoche:
If emotion is too overwhelming, 1) go back to other objects of meditation, such as sounds, smells, forms, breath, etc . . . or, 2) make a different emotion, eg, anger instead of panic (gossipy neurons will join anger group instead of panic group)
~ my notes from Rinpoche's recent Joy of Living Retreat ~ 
Three teachers, three different approaches that may seem contradictory on the surface. Upon closer examination, however, the differences may have to do more with semantics.  In the end, it all has to do with the power of the mind to not react, and to insert itself in the midst of powerful emotions. Situations cause feelings that cause thoughts, that cause emotions, that cause feelings, that cause emotions, etc . . . Of course emotions are what they are, and cannot be changed. Their demise can be hasted however, with mindfulness about their effect on us, and the cause and effect relationship between thoughts and emotions. 'Changing' emotions actually involves letting go of defilement, and cultivating instead a wholesome mind state, including wholesome thoughts and emotions. 

This is my take. What do you think?


  1. I think it depends on the situation what are the most skillful means, though I'm definitely not convinced about the substitution method.

    Another technique Mingyur Rinpoche and U Tejaniya both teach is shifting focus from intense emotion to the "booster emotion) (Mingyur's term), that is the mind reacting, or the aversion to the aversion.

    You'll be interested to know that U Jotika was a student of Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw and that other than a few years with Sayadawji in the center in Yangon, he has chosen to be a recluse for most of his life. He's also now quite ill. So interesting, he was born a Muslim and converted to Buddhism in his late teens, I think while at University (he's also very knowledgeable about Western philosophy, etc.)...later, left a wife and children to become a monk (not so uncommon in Burma). You may also want to check out Snow in Summer (PDF at BuddhaNet), which is excerpts from letters he wrote with Western students.

  2. and in contrast to that you have the vajrayana approach of emotions as wisdom...

  3. I agree with you, Katherine about looking into attitude/feeling towards emotion itself. That is one of the big draw of U Tejaniya's teachings, and also Mingyur Rinpoche. Gil Fronsdal also talked about this quite eloquently during his talk on the 5 Hindrances:


    When I was experiencing grief during past few days, that is something I explored. The aversion towards the difficult mind state can be quite subtle however . . . I found that I thought I was friendly towards the grief, but the reality was a wish to be free of the grief. The only way of finding out is to spend enough time with the emotion and surrounding experience.

    Thank you for the info on U Jotika. It is interesting how much he has been able to contribute, because of his solitary experiences. I very much appreciate the depth of his teachings. Snow in Summer is next on my reading list :)

  4. Clarity, would love to have you expand on your comment.

    Thank you visiting.