by Sylvia Gretchen
“If we wish to explore our lives and their undiscovered possibilities, we need to be able to look steadily at our experience no matter what it might be.” Tarthang Tulku, Knowledge of Freedom.
From time to time we ask students in Nyingma Psychology programs at the Nyingma Institute to note the proportion of time they spend each day involved with negative emotions. Most people are amazed by the results. When they take into account boredom and dissatisfaction (along with the more obvious emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear) the answer is usually over 50% of the time. And these are ‘normal’ people who are considered healthy and happy.
It’s not that we want to be involved in emotional turmoil. Emotions just seem to pop up.
Like unwelcome guests negative emotions engage us in conversations that get in the way of what we would rather be doing, thinking, or feeling. We may not want to be anxious, but we may not seem to have much choice in the matter.
The teachings of Nyingma Psychology ask us to look steadily at our inner experience so that we can discover for ourselves how emotions arise and grab our attention. There are practical and effective methods—physical postures and breathing practices—that can immediately help release the hold of negative emotions. Most of the techniques, however, form part of an on-going path of inner discovery.
This path begins when we question our emotions and thoughts in new ways. For example, trace a negative emotion as it develops. Note the physiological changes that occur—your heartbeat, breathing rate, muscular tension. What mental changes take place as the emotional energy builds then recedes? Notice each change as precisely as possible.
Since it is not always easy to observe your mind in the midst of an upsetting situation, it can be helpful consciously to bring a negative emotion to mind when you are calm and balanced (this is best done with an instructor at first). Stir up the emotion through images or memories. Make it as real and intense as possible; feel the emotion in your body as well as in your mind.
As you observe how the emotion arises and develops, note especially how your thoughts weave the story of why you are upset or angry. A single thought or image is just a momentary event—appearing and disappearing quickly. But thoughts move quickly, spinning a dense and convincing web of meaning.
Continue to observe your mind, watching thoughts and images emerge, but refusing to be convinced by their compelling narrative. Watch your mind in the same way you would watch a rushing mountain stream: noticing each ripple and eddy as it forms, but not losing sight of the almost magical process of the flowing water taking momentary shape.
When we view the stories of our thoughts in this way, a broader appreciation of the mind and mental events develops. We start to question the power of the ‘storyteller.’ We learn to look within and around thoughts and images for a more essential clarity and a deeper meaning.
This is just a beginning. According to the teachings of the Buddha the positive potential of the mind is vast. Buddhist masters have studied ways to unlock this potential for over 2,500 years. They have left a remarkable body or knowledge about the human psyche. We can draw on these insights and practices to stimulate our own brilliant body of knowledge.
Sylvia Gretchen is the co-dean of the Nyingma Institute.
To learn more about transforming Negative Emotions:
Take a class: “Transforming Negative Emotions” is offered on Mondays from 8-9:30 PM from June 11-August 13. Cost is $180 and the instructor is Sylvia Gretchen.
Join a certificate program: A year-long program in Nyingma Psychology Program leads you through the fundamental insights and practices of this experiential approach to a healthy, happy, and spiritually fulfilling life.
Read these books: “Gesture of Balance,” “Hidden Mind of Freedom,” and “Knowledge of Freedom” by Tarthang Tulku discuss effective ways to use meditation and analysis to release the hold of negative emotions. Available at the Nyingma Institute bookstore.
Speak to an academic adviser: call (510) 809-1000 to make an appointment or
About Sylvia Gretchen, Co-Dean of the Nyingma Institute, has studied and worked with Tibetan Lama Tarthang Tulku since 1969. She has served as Co-Dean of the Nyingma Institute since 1996 and has also worked extensively with Tibetan sacred art and literature under the direction of Tarthang Tulku. She served for over 20 years as a research editor with Dharma Publishing, working with the Tibetan texts that have been published in the 755 Volume Great Treasures of Ancient Teachings. She is a member of the Yeshe De translation team and is a writer and editor for Dharma Publishing. Sylvia has taught Nyingma Meditation, Buddhist Studies, Nyingma Psychology and Practices, and Tibetan Art and Language at the Nyingma Institute since 1974.