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I have noticed a certain phenomenon.

When I am in a positive mood, I don't identify with the mood. I don't cling to it, I am aware of its impermanence.

When a negative mood occurs -- as anger, or despair -- I completely and absolutely identify with it. I am this state, I believe it. I do not recognize its impermanence: I think about this mood as if it won't end.

Seemingly, negative moods make me unaware of non-self and impermanence, based on what I said.

My questions are:

(1) Is this a question of aversion? How can I avoid being phased by negative states?

(2) More specifically, how do I avoid identifying with such negative states, and how do I recognize their impermanence when they occur?

Basically, I know one ought to observe such states mindfully, but in their immediate occurrence I get caught up, I am motivated to act or speak in a negative way.

Thank you.

  • Old saying: "This too shall pass." – user2341 Nov 5 '17 at 13:28
  • @nocomprende The story I heard with that phrase was of "a king who asked for" something that would "cheer him when he's down" and ... something, I forget what ... "calm him when excited" or something like that ... and so he was given a (finger-) ring with that phrase on it. – ChrisW Nov 6 '17 at 5:47
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There is a good analysis of this, with regards to negative states of mind, in the Uddesa-vibhanga Sutta (MN 138).

Concerning the external scattering and diffusion of consciousness:

"How is consciousness said to be scattered & diffused? There is the case where a form is seen with the eye, and consciousness follows the drift of (lit.: 'flows after') the theme of the form, is tied to the attraction of the theme of the form, is chained to the attraction of the theme of the form, is fettered & joined to the attraction of the theme of the form: Consciousness is said to be externally scattered & diffused.

And the same applies to the other senses.

This describes how external sensual inputs can trigger a chain reaction resulting in the consciousness becoming consumed and following the drift of the theme. But why does this happen?

"And how is agitation caused by clinging/sustenance? There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form. His form changes & is unstable. Because of the change & instability of form, his consciousness alters in accordance with the change in form. With the agitations born from the alteration in accordance with the change in form and coming from the co-arising of (unskillful mental) qualities, his mind stays consumed. And because of the consumption of awareness, he feels fearful, threatened, & solicitous.

And the same applies to the other aggregates.

For example, deep within you, you take the form to be your self. If you get a minor injury like a splinter in your foot, this would trigger despair and agony in you, because you take your foot (which is essentially part of the form) to be your self.

Another example is, you may take the mental fabrication of your ethnicity, to be your self. You may strongly associate yourself with your ethnicity. So, when someone insults you with a racial slur, it goes in through your ears, and triggers anger and rage in you, because you take your ethnicity (which is essentially a mental fabrication, specifically a mental concept) to be your self.

So that makes complete sense. Agitation is caused by clinging/ sustenance.

Now if you become angry as in the second case, as I'm sure you have previously experienced multiple times in your life, did you assault or kill someone? I guess not. Somewhere along the way, you came to your senses and gained control of yourself. You just need to ponder this chain reaction and how you gained control of yourself.

The method to control yourself here, is by practising heedfulness (or appamada), to watch your mind carefully. Please see this answer for details.

I'm trying to convince you here that you have managed to control your anger before in your life, so you surely can do it again. And the same applies to other negative states of mind.

There are details regarding the use of heedfulness (appamada) in the Vina Sutta (SN 35.205) as follows:

"Monks, in whatever monk or nun there arises desire, passion, aversion, delusion, or mental resistance with regard to forms cognizable via the eye, he/she should hold the mind in check. [Thinking,] 'It's dangerous & dubious, that path, thorny & overgrown, a miserable path, a devious path, impenetrable. It's a path followed by people of no integrity, not a path followed by people of integrity. It's not worthy of you,' he/she should hold the mind in check with regard to forms cognizable via the eye.

(and the same applies to the other senses)

"Suppose that corn had ripened and the watchman was heedless. A corn-eating ox, invading the corn to eat it, would intoxicate itself as much as it liked. In the same way, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person, not exercising restraint with regard to the six media of sensual contact, intoxicates himself with the five strings of sensuality as much as he likes.

"Now suppose that corn had ripened and the watchman was heedful. The corn-eating ox would invade the corn to eat it, but then the watchman would grab it firmly by the muzzle. Having grabbed it firmly by the muzzle, he would pin it down by the forehead. Having pinned it down by the forehead, he would give it a sound thrashing with a stick. Having given it a sound thrashing with a stick, he would let it go.

"A second time... A third time, the corn-eating ox would invade the corn to eat it, but then the watchman would grab it firmly by the muzzle. Having grabbed it firmly by the muzzle, he would pin it down by the forehead. Having pinned it down by the forehead, he would give it a sound thrashing with a stick. Having given it a sound thrashing with a stick, he would let it go.

"As a result, the corn-eating ox — regardless of whether it went to the village or to the wilds, was standing still or lying down — wouldn't invade the corn again, because it would recall the earlier taste it got of the stick.

"In the same way, when a monk's mind is held back, thoroughly held back, from the six media of sensory contact, his mind settles inwardly, grows steady, unified, & concentrated.

Disconnecting the chain reaction above by watching your thoughts heedfully is one solution, but the other, is to gain compassion out of empathetic understanding or empathetic insight. Why did someone insult you? It's because he did not have control of his mind, because he is deluded. This way, you can grow compassion towards other people and tolerate their shortcomings. However, this method is only applicable when there are other people or other sentient beings involved. You cannot grow compassion towards a splinter.

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(1) Is this a question of aversion? How can I avoid being phased by negative states?

(2) More specifically, how do I avoid identifying with such negative states, and how do I recognize their impermanence when they occur?

The answer is pretty simple; be mindful and guard the sense-doors.

If one is not mindful of an object impinging on the sense-doors, craving will arise, i.e. liking or disliking. If one is not mindful, insight into the Three Marks of Existence, cannot occur.

Here is a quote by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw on exactly this topic;

"If one does not observe mental and physical phenomena every time they arise at the six sense doors, one cannot realize that there is nothing to them but mind and body, which are conditioned, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. As a result one will develop an attachment to the objects that one fails to observe.

If, on the other hand, one observes mental and physical phenomena the moment they occur, one will realize that there is nothing to them but mind and body, which are conditioned, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.

As a result one will be free from attachment to objects that one is able to observe. Thus the wholesome (kusala) action of insight liberates one from attachment and thus is considered renunciation. This renunciation, in turn, liberates noble ones from the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra) by developing insight step by step until nibbāna is attained. And so the wholesome act of insight is called “the great liberation of noble ones” (ariyanaṃ niyyanaṃ) because of its liberating effect".

-- Manual of Insight, p. 58, by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw.

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"(1) Is this a question of aversion? How can I avoid being phased by negative states?"

"(2) More specifically, how do I avoid identifying with such negative states, and how do I recognize their impermanence when they occur?"

Here, I think @Lanka and @ruben2020 answered these.

"Basically, I know one ought to observe such states mindfully, but in their immediate occurrence I get caught up, I am motivated to act or speak in a negative way."

When one easily gets caught up and have a hard time being mindful in these circumstances, I believe one particular problem might be weak samadhi.

When samadhi is practiced, when tranquility and unification of mind is a bit more developed, there's a natural "delay" when unwholesome states such as anger arises, and there's a natural inclination for rejecting it.

By "delay" I mean, instead of being taken by it at the spot, one sees the anger arising. Not only does it feel "slow", but it also feels detached, "far away". Feeling detached, and "far away", one notices right there that it did not invade his mind -- though it is right there in the "vicinity".

And at that moment, it's as if it needs one's decision and active engagement to make it grow. If on previous occasions one would be taken by this sort of state almost instantaneously, now it requires effort to be taken in, though one may still be seduced to engage.

Against that seduction, one notices the natural underlying inclination to rejecting it. Perhaps because samadhi is found in one's mind at that moment, perhaps because one can bring to mind and remember what samadhi felt like recently and one instinctively (or objectively) knows that engaging in these negative states of mind sacrifices that very wholesome state. Be as it may, it's a precious thing to sacrifice and likely one can feel it.

In other words, and to put it simply, when samadhi is made stronger negative states are made weaker. When samadhi is stronger, it becomes harder to engage in unwholesome states. It's naturally harder for them to invade the mind, in the sense that it doesn't require special efforts to oppose them, as it would otherwise.

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The Pali suttas say unwholesome states are caused by ignorance (rather than by a person or self). You can reflect as follows: "this anger & despair are produced by ignorance".

The Blessed One said, "Monks, ignorance is the leader in the attainment of unskillful qualities..."

Avijja Sutta: Ignorance

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  • why has this answer got so many negative scores (6 in total)? thanks – Dhammadhatu Nov 6 '17 at 1:22
  • I don't know; I see a score of +2/-3 at the moment. It's short but answers the question, I could only add more more sentence to it, as a summary: "So it's not aversion but ignorance (the root of the 'Three Poisons'), and that's how to stop identifying with it too ("It's not 'me', it's 'ignorance'")." OTOH it didn't answer the question about why it's more difficult "when they occur" during a "negative mood" and what to do about that (nor about impermanence). – ChrisW Nov 6 '17 at 5:17

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