There's a lot of emphasis within the insight tradition on "seeing things as they are" , "turning towards difficult emotions" etc etc. But in my experience it's not always the best advise. For example if I'm feeling sad,lonely, depressed etc, I find it's not helpful to sit there and look at it at all. I end up feeling worse. Going for a walk or swim and getting into my body seems to be far more helpful. I end up feeling happier. Why is there so much focus on this kind of passive acceptance? Sure I can accept that right now I feel sad but ifs it's within my power to change that then why wouldn't I?
You have to confront the sensation / feeling while trying to be equanimous. When sad and you develop aversion towards the sad feeling you become sadder. If you become equanimous it will linger for a while and pass away.
Avoiding a sensation you are not solving the problem.
(1) the latent tendency to lust reinforced by being attached to pleasant feelings;
(2) the latent tendency to aversion reinforced by rejecting painful feelings;
(3) the latent tendency to ignorance reinforced by ignoring neutral feelings
What you are saying, about seeing things as they are, is not very accurate. You're not supposed to passively accept your negative mind states, neuroses, pathological emotions, traditionally known as "evil, unskillful qualities of the mind". Otherwise, why would it be called the path of liberation, if it did not lead to abandonment of the above bad qualities and cessation of suffering that they bring?
From Tri-Yana perspective, the method varies depending on the practitioner's style:
If you are a Hinayana-style student, you're supposed to confront and overcome your negative emotions - through either direct willful effort, or as you say, through deliberate self-distraction.
If you are a Mahayana-style student, you're supposed to look inside until you see which egoistic attachment has given rise to the emotion, and by letting go of attachment, dismiss the emotion.
If you are a Vajrayana-style student, you're supposed to get in direct contact with the psychosomatic energy of the emotion and by going through the emotion transmute it into pure energy.
What you're referring to as "seeing things as they are" reminds me of one of the methods that Buddha taught back in the Pali Canon, that kinda spans all the three styles above:
In this method you look at your emotion analytically, objectively - so instead of replaying the thoughts/events that feed the emotion (which is bad), you philosophically/phenomenologically/scientifically analyze the emotion: see it's source in the attachment, see it's psychosomatic projection in the body - and this analysis itself (this will sound like a joke but it's not!) actually serves as a distraction that switches your mind away from the emotion to the skillful mind quality known as "analysis of dharmas". Makes sense?
So you don't just passively accept your negative mind states, you work with them, but this work does not always have to be as crude as suppression or distraction - there are more subtle methods, and this is one of them.
The purpose of acceptance is change.
But often, this is a question of degree.
Negative emotions can be of a greater degree that accepting them can make things worse.
However, there is also a lesser degree when accepting negative emotions will cause the negative emotion to dissolve.
Ultimately, the five hindrances are overcome by being aware of them in order to dissolve & thus change them.
An example of this purification process is when drug addicts enter into cold turkey. Cold turkey forces the drug addict to accept the negative emotion of withdrawal but, eventually, with lots of patient endurance, the body & mind purifies itself of the negative emotion.
Seeing things as they are
The phrase "seeing things as they are" is rather uninformative for the untrained mind or when expressed without at the same time giving proper meditational instructions on how to actually see the true nature of things. Seeing phenomena as they are means to see the Three Marks of Existence, i.e. the Impermanence, Unsatisfactoriness and Uncontrollability of all conditioned phenomena.
This can be seen by correctly practicing insight meditation. When sadness is present it is watched with an objective and non-inferential approach meaning that one does not grasp at or cling to the sadness. Instead one just observes it until it ceases on its own accord.
By doing so one trains the mind to not react. The untrained mind reacts by liking or disliking phenomena. That is how it has been working for a long time. You could say that it is the habitual state for the untrained mind. In insight meditation we train the mind to not do that anymore.
Sadness is just a phenomena. It arises on its own accord and ceases when its causes has been exhausted. But if aversion towards that sadness arises then we are dealing with an unwholesome state of mind. Aversion is one of the three unwholesome roots. Actions done by body, speech or mind, that are based in the unwholesome roots, can only lead to unwholesome future resultants.
Said in another way - if one reacts with aversion towards the sadness one is setting oneself up for future suffering.
That is made very clear by the Buddha in AN 4:232 - Four Kinds of Kamma:
“... And what, monks, is dark kamma with dark results? Here, monks, someone generates an afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind. Having done so, he is reborn in an afflictive world. When he is reborn in an afflictive world, afflictive contacts touch him. Being touched by afflictive contacts, he experiences an afflictive feeling, extremely painful, as for example the beings in hell experience. This is called dark kamma with dark results ...".
This leads us to your next question regarding pacificity towards formations.
Sure I can accept that right now I feel sad but ifs it's within my power to change that then why wouldn't I?
As mentioned before aversion is one of the three unwholesome roots. They should be dealt with in order to purify the mind and to move closer to Nibbana. The Buddha teaches us to deal with evil, unwholesome states of mind by practicing the factor of Right Effort in the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddha explains how to do that in SN 45.8 - Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path:
“... And what, bhikkhus, is right effort? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort ...".
So as the Buddha teaches one needs to:
a) abandon or dispel already arisen unwholesome states of mind and
b) to guard against or prevent unarisen unwholesome states of mind from arising.
The latter is done by guarding the sense-doors. The former is done by administering the antidote for the 5 hindrances.
One can deal with each of the 5 hindrances in 5 ways, i.e. the following 5 methods works for all of the hindrances.
Methods are found in The Noble Eightfold Path, p. 63-66, by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi.
- Replacing the hindrance with its opposite, e.g. replacing hatred with thoughts of loving-kindness.
- Contemplating the arisen hindrance as vile and ignoble since it has entered the mind without permission or any control.
- Shifting attention away from the hindrance.
- Shifting attention onto the hindrance and thoroughly contemplating it by investigating its causes and conditions for arising and its characteristics.
- Removing the hindrance with force, just as a strong man would pin a weaker man to the ground.
No. 5 should only be used if method 1-4 does not work.
I hope this gave a more thorough approach to your question. If you have any questions to what I wrote feel free to ask.
Just because the almost all the books in the present day say to, you should not accept anything that is related to Dhamma as true. You should always verify that it is so by comparing the statement to the doctrine/scriptures. Even here lies a problem. It is because of Acariya Buddhaghosa’s strong influence on Theravada Buddhism for the past 1500 years. Almost all of present day translations in keeping with his intepritations of Dhamma as found in a thesis that he wrote, the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification). To come to the point, you should ask whoever that told you so, as to where it is said in the scriptures that your main focus should be on "seeing things as they are".
When it comes to the insight tradition, what you should know first of all is that ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, nothing can be maintained to one’s satisfaction. Thus Dukkha arises. We cannot maintain anything to our satisfaction (including “our” own body) in the long run. Dukkha is becoming distraught because of that. And since we are truly helpless in preventing this sequence of events, we are truly helpless in the long run, and nothing is with any real substance in the end.
It is this that you have to remember ALWAYS. Only in being aware of this truth will you comprehend the true nature of “this world”. This is "seeing things as they are". This is all about the bad consequences that “mind-made pleasures” inevitably bring. If you could learn to willingly give up these, in comprehending their bad outcomes, this will lead to achieving a peace of mind.
From Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa page 242
Milarepa was tremendously involved with the process of transmutation of energies and emotions. In fact, when we read The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, the whole first part of the book is dealing with Milarepa's experience of this process. In "The Tale of Red Rock Jewel Valley" Milarepa had only recently left Marpa to go off and meditate alone. This might be called his "adolescent stage," because he was still involved with reliance upon a personal guru. Marpa was still his "daddy." Having opened and surrendered to Marpa, Milarepa still had to learn to transmute the emotions. He was still clinging to the notions of "good" and "bad," and so the world was still appearing to him in the guise of gods and demons.
In "The Tale of Red Rock Jewel Valley," when Milarepa went back into his cave after having a comforting vision of Marpa, he was confronted with a gang of demons. He tried every way he could think of to get rid of them, all kinds of tactics. He threatened them, cajoled them, he even preached the Dharma to them. But they would not leave until he ceased regarding them as "bad" and opened to them, saw them as they were. This was the beginning of Milarepa's period of learning how to subjugate the demons, which is the same thing as transmuting the emotions. It is with our emotions that we create demons and gods: those things which we don't want in our lives and world are the demons; those things which we would draw to us are the gods and goddesses. The rest is just scenery. By being willing to accept the demons and gods and goddesses as they are, Milarepa transmuted them. They became dakinis, or the energies of life.
The whole first part of The Hundred Thousand Songs deals with Milarepa's mastery of transmutation, his growing ability to open to the world as it is, until he finally conquered all the demons in the chapter "The Goddess Tserinma's Attack." In this chapter thousands of demons assemble to terrify and attack Milarepa while he is meditating, but he preaches to them, is open and accepting, willing to offer them his whole being, and they are subjugated. At one point five demonesses, beginning to realize that they cannot frighten Milarepa, sing to him,
If the thought of demons
Never rises in your mind,
You need not fear the demon hosts around you.
It is most important to tame your mind within ...
On the steep path of fear and hope
They lie in ambush ...
And later Milarepa himself says, "Insofar as the Ultimate, or the true nature of being is concerned, there are neither Buddhas nor demons. He who frees himself from fear and hope, evil and virtue, will realize the insubstantial and groundless nature of confusion. Samsara will then appear to be the Mahamudra itself ... "
The rest of The Hundred Thousand Songs deals with Milarepa's development as a teacher and his relationships with his students. Toward the end of his life he had completely perfected the transmutation process to the point where he could be called the Vidyadhara or "Holder of the Crazy Wisdom." No longer could he be swayed by the winds of hope and fear. The gods and goddesses and demons, his passions and their external projections, had been completely subjugated and transformed. Now his life was a continual dance with the dakinis.
Finally Milarepa reached the "old dog" stage, his highest attainment. People could tread on him, use him as a road, as earth; he would always be there. He transcended his own individual existence so that, as we read his last teachings, there is a sense of the universality of Milarepa, the example of enlightenment.
It’s because of ignorance, because you don’t see things as they really are, that you are sad.
You may as you suggest take a walk, swim or do some calming meditations to avoid your sadness and calm your mind, but this will not remove the core problem “Your ignorance”.
You can only root out your ignorance by wisdom. So you have to meditate, contemplate, and investigate the root cause, but this can only be done when you have a calm mind.
You should also remember that even with calm mind you may fail to root out you ignorance, only the Buddha can remove all ignorance without a guide, so you should seek a guide a monk / nun to point you on right direction.
Due to not knowing the true dhamma, those ordinary people are submerged in this rounds of birth and rebirth. To get to know the true Dhamma, one need to see things as they are, how these things come and go naturally. If you feel sad, you have to know it is so. All our deeds, bodily action, verbal or mental all should be clear of akusala but should be full of kusala. If once at a time if no kusala surely it is akusala. If you feel sad and you cannot get rid of this mental akusala as it is, then if you try to divert to other means which also lead to akusala will end in no good. So if you feel sad and you cannot concentrate on your meditation, then you can divert to the true nature of kamma result or focus on your attention on true characteristics of triple gems which will lead to your great relief and even more concentration leading to higher steps towards insight knowledge.
Looking at whatever sorrowful or joyful things in life and being stuck over those feelings is not seeing things as they are. That is Moha, which would lead to Lobha or Dwesha.
Remember: seeing things as they are is the effect (not the cause) of learning and practicing Dhamma. Which means seeing things as they are is part of the end result you are striving to achieve. It is at the destination of your journey. To reach that destination you have to make the journey. For an example, you want to visit the Himalayan peak. You have to prepare yourself for the journey and actually make the journey before you can stand on the peak and admire the view. Alternatively, you can stand anywhere and imagine that you are on the Himalayan Peak. But, no matter how much you imagine, you are not really there unless you take the trouble of actually making the journey yourself.
How can I get there? Learning Buddhism is like learning physics. Yes, the physics of the mind. Buddhism teaches us how the minds works and how it behaves. What are the perils of Sankhara and Wigngnaana (the illusion), and how it enslaves us through either making us attach to things/feelings (Lobha) and/or how it makes us fight with those we deem as threats/not good for us. Things happen in the world that we live in. Sometimes they are affected by our actions, and some of them affects us. We evaluate them based on our bias, practices, perceptions and rate them as Good-for-me (Lobha), or Bad-for-me (Dwesha), or it-does-not affect me. If it's deemed as good, then we chase it, with the hope of 'making-them-mine'. Striving to obtain/achieve it. If its deemed as bad, then we take the effort to desist from it, destroy it. Both of those are attachments.
The more we attach ourselves to, the burden is on ourselves. Sadly most of us do not see it. I would like to quote a beautiful simile from the movie 'Up In the Air'. The dialogue is as follows:
How much does your life weigh?
Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack... I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders... You feel them?
Now, I want you to pack it with all the stuff you have in your life. Start with the little things. The stuff in drawers and on shelves. The collectables and knick-knacks. Feel the weight as it adds up. Now, start adding the larger stuff. Your clothes, table top appliances, lamps, linens, your TV. That backpack should be getting pretty heavy at this point - Go Bigger. Your couch, your bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in... Your car, get it in there... Your home, whether you have a studio apartment or a two story house, I want you to stuff it into that backpack.
Now try to walk.
Until we stop, look back and see what we have collected, what we have tried to make ours, and all the sadness, sorrow and disappointment it has brought us, we are blind to the fact that happiness has always eluded us. Why oh why?
Happiness has eluded us because we have failed to see the world as is. We cannot bend to world to our will. We cannot change it to suit our need. Even if we did, it will be for a limited time. When the world is not the way we want it (Anichcha) it brings us sadness, anger and disappointment. When the world works according to our will, it brings us happiness and joy. Both these ends are the effects of failing to see the world as is. To see the world as is, one needs to start seeing beyond the attachments (Lobha, Dwesha) the effects of Moha (not seeing the reality). Search for the reason why you are happy or sad. How did your mind give birth to that feeling? Before this feeling overwhelmed you, what did you feel? how did your mind translate from that state to this? You will find that a value you have given as good/bad to something. Take that value and look for the reason as to why did you value it as good or bad. Haven't you tried to change to world? bend it to your will and failed/succeeded? (most of the time we forget to look at the moments we consider as 'happy' ones). Things happen in the world around us. We do not have absolute control over them. That is how the world works. So, why are you trying to change it and feel sad when it didn't or feel happy when it does for a little while?