Our junk relationships, of course, are often governed by what I might call junk emotions, such as anxiety, jealousy, anger, obsession, short-temperedness, greed, hatred, and so on. These emotions are neither good for us nor are they good for other people with whom we come into contact.
These emotions need to be inventoried just like the material goods we have in our closet. It's much harder, of course, to throw these emotions out with the trash, because we've inherited them or indeed have cultivated them over our lifetimes. That's why we need to run an inventory of these emotions as often as we can; to make sure we're in control of them and don't allow them to hold sway over our behavior.
Washing the Mind: Releasing the Junk Emotions
This entails washing the mind. When we come home after a long day, we wash our bodies in the shower. But why don't we wash the mind -- clean it of the impurities and dirt that have clung to it throughout the day, much as we do the body? Washing the mind entails releasing the junk of the emotions, repenting of the misdeeds that we've committed, and cultivating the virtues of compassion and non-attachment. Healthiness in all things, as well as the removal of junk in our lives, doesn't just happen accidentally. It needs to be worked at and cultivated, much as one nurtures a seed in the ground.
Junk emotions are not simply "strong" expressions such as anger or greed. They can be "softer" statements of not caring, such as idleness or procrastination or an attitude of indifference or boredom. These can, in the long run, be no less pernicious or addictive. If we're lazy or bored by things, what does that tell us about how we view our life and the lives of others? If we can't be bothered to help ourselves, let alone other people, how can we possibly hope to make any inroads into releasing ourselves from boredom and idleness? Is it really preferable to avoid risking committing ourselves to something and making the occasional mistake and be fearful of change or worried about appearing foolish or overly earnest?
Boredom, Idleness & Procrastination versus Mindfulness & Action
I don't know of anyone who's satisfied by doing nothing or is fulfilled by being bored. Boredom and idleness and procrastination are, in my opinion, indulgences that feed upon themselves until we no longer feel any motivation to change. Buddhism, by contrast, teaches mindfulness and action: it encourages diligence so that, clearly diagnosing the cause of ennui, we can put effort into action and live a more meaningful life.
Buddhism demands that we're awake all the time to the junk emotions that come about because we don't want to face something. It knows that not confronting the inevitable or dealing with pain doesn't make that pain go away or the day of reckoning not arrive. If, however, we cultivate awareness, if we deal head on with that which is causing us suffering or don't put off what is inevitably going to happen sometime, then we can more easily face our lives with equanimity. This is why we need to develop mindfulness and why our emotions are so essential. If we place our thoughts and emotions in right relation to our actions then we'll more easily fall into healthy and productive habits and become wise users of technology and material goods, rather than be their victims.
Examining Our Emotions & Taking Inventory
We need to examine our emotions and assess how many minutes in a day we feel angry, depressed, anxious, unsatisfied, obsessed, or any other unhealthy feelings. Aren't the minutes where we're consumed by these feelings not junk minutes? For who does anger benefit and who does it hurt? It hurts us. How does feeling unsatisfied help us? It doesn't. When we're obsessed with something or someone, does the object of our obsession care or think about us in the same way? Probably not. As you can see, these feelings are wasted; more than that, they take up the space and time that could be spent feeling more productive and pleasant thoughts such as love, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, and generosity. Or these periods can be spent in meditation and reflection, deepening the skills and honing the mental discipline that makes it easier to control the junk emotions when they're stimulated in our mind.
Get The Latest From InnerSelf
Unhealthy or junk emotions are the junk food of the mind. We love them because they allow us to wallow in victimhood. We taste the fat of the fear that we are disrespected and gulp down the soda of self-satisfaction. We pour on the sugar of self-abnegation and feeling sorry for ourselves. However, unlike junk food, junk emotions are not as easy to give up and their effects are longer lasting and even more corrosive. Junk food can affect only your own body. But when your body is awash with junk emotions -- when we're always angry or dispirited, when we're constantly anxious or perpetually unsatisfied -- that can affect everyone around us.
Junk Emotions in the Community and the Nation
Junk emotions not only belong to individuals. They can be a part of the community or even an entire nation. When a nation holds a negative emotion, such as hatred, toward another country, that emotion can develop into active violence and wars can begin. In some cases it may be hard to determine whether it's the country or the leader who harbors the junk emotions: some leaders in history have acted from their own anxieties and insecurities rather than genuine fears of being threatened to launch their countries into disastrous conflicts. This is why it's so important that leaders and politicians are able to deal with their afflictive emotions in a way that is moderate and mindful. That way, countless lives could be saved and much human misery avoided.
These days, there's a lot of discussion about the war on terror. Some people believe that the West and the Islamic world are involved in a clash of civilizations and that there's a global religious conflict taking place. I don't believe that. In my opinion, the conflict is a war of desire, hatred, and delusion. It's one caused by the junk in our minds: the emotions of anger and craving and need. What's needed to stop the war is also in our minds: clarity of thinking, judgment, self-awareness, compassion for sentient beings, and a deep consciousness that ascertains the fears of the combatants and seeks to neutralize them. We cannot fight terror with more terror, or fear with more fear, for this only increases the amount of fear and terror.
This is, of course, very hard. The hardest and most difficult thing we'll ever do is to react appropriately to tragedy. And there are many things in this world that should make us feel angry: injustice that allows the innocent to be punished and the guilty to go free, and violence meted out on the vulnerable are shameful things and we wouldn't be human if we didn't feel fury and want retribution. I'm also aware that there is evil in the world and that it needs to be opposed. However, we need to make completely sure that our anger is righteous and not self-pitying or full of our own ego, and that in the actions we undertake we're not simply adding to the violence and cruelty that's so abhorrent to all of us.
Projections onto the Outside World Lead to Junk Emotions
Let us examine these junk emotions in more detail. Junk emotions come from embedded presuppositions in ourselves that we project onto the outside world and others. For instance, we may hate someone, not because they're objectively unpleasant as individuals or to us but because they don't fit our preconceived notions of how we want them to look or behave. Our ideas of looks and behavior might be completely irrational and based only on prejudice and ignorance. Yet we take it out on the other person and accuse them of all sorts of things, as a cover for our own unexamined feelings.
One way a junk emotion like anger manifests itself is by making itself so painful that the only way we feel we can get rid of the pain is by expressing our anger. In this way, junk emotions become addictive. The only way we can deal with the anger is to "get it off our chest" by being angry all the time with everybody. Being angry becomes like a "high" -- it provides us with the brief satisfaction that a drug does, as everyone recoils from our anger and we find ourselves paid attention to and our anger appeased. But then, sure enough, we "crash," and the anger goes inside again, eating away at us. When we express that anger again, the people around us who felt our anger the first time aren't be quite as eager to experience it again, and our friends and family distance themselves from us. In the end, just like a drug, the junk emotion will leave us feeling isolated and alone.
An emotion like anger corrodes in other ways as well. When we're angry we may use foul language. As the phrase suggests, "foul language" pollutes the air and mind of the person who employs the words as well as the person who hears it. It upsets the equilibrium of people and only communicates anger and distaste. Not only is such foul language junk because it pollutes, but it's also junk because it only communicates negative emotion. As such it adds nothing except unpleasantness to the world. As was suggested earlier, if we've nothing to say that is positive, then we should say nothing.
Healthy Emotions Can Become Negative When Taken to their Extremes
Some emotions can be healthy, but when taken to their extreme they become negative. For instance, love. Love is a positive emotion when it's based on respect and care and genuine concern for another's wellbeing. However, love can also turn into attachment, where we're overly dependent on the person whom we're in love with or they on us. Then the relationship becomes unbalanced by power, and that can mean that one partner begins to exploit the vulnerability and neediness of the other.
Dedication is also a good emotion: it allows us to stand by someone or pursue an idea or a cause and not be discouraged when things don't work out as we would wish. But dedication can lead to obsession, where we neglect others and ourselves because we're so single-minded, and when we pursue something or someone, losing all perspective on reality.
When love turns into attachment, and dedication into obsession, the individual can become a stalker, a person who won't accept that the object of their affection no longer wants to be with them or convinces themselves that the object of their obsession cares for them or would become their lover. This is all fantasy: sometimes the victim has no idea that the stalker exists until they make themselves a nuisance. Tragically, that emotion of dependence sometimes leads to death, when the person feels that, if they cannot have that person in their life, then no one can.
Now, these are extreme emotions, and it's not necessarily the case that attachment will lead to obsession, and that obsession will lead to stalking, and that stalking will lead to murder. But what is clear is that murder is a result of a chain of junk emotions, and that is why it's important that we break the chain as early and absolutely as we can.
Feeling Possessed by Feelings: Positive or Negative
As we see, love and obsession, attachment and hatred are all contained within the same mind and sometimes spring from the same feeling. We may feel that we're possessed by these feelings, we may argue that someone else brings them on or draws them out of us, but the simple truth is that all of them -- the positive as well as the negative -- come from our mind and our mind alone. That's why Buddhism recognizes how important it is for us to control our minds and to discipline our emotions. The point is not that we cultivate coldness or remove ourselves from feeling anything at all; we wouldn't be human if we did that. The aim of disciplining the mind is to recognize positive and negative emotions and act appropriately.
Anger will occur, anxiety will surface, and fear won't be put aside. However, when these feelings inevitably arise, we should be prepared to recognize that emotion for what it is and deal with it before it has a chance to affect us or others. You ‘ll notice that I said that we first have to recognize the emotion. This is important, because the mind is tricky and will cover up our junk emotions. Anger might disguise itself as feelings of hurt; fear might disguise itself as wanting to be taken care of or feeling abandoned. We need to excavate those emotions and recognize what lies behind them. Invariably we find a negative emotion that we need to acknowledge and then deal with.
How Do We Deal With Junk Emotions?
What does it mean to "deal with" a junk emotion? We've already talked about meditation as a tool for dealing with emotions. Yogacara says that we create our own world from our own mind. In other words, the moment that we feel happy or content, we literally create a world of contentment; the same is true of unhappiness or discontent. The mind shapes the world and makes it a reality. Now, of course, this doesn't mean that people who are suffering from hunger, war, natural disasters, and other such tragedies somehow brought the problem on themselves and that if they just smiled then all their problems would vanish. That is absurd and insulting.
What it does mean, however, is that their attitude to their lives may change to the extent that they might be less weighed down by helplessness and desperation and be able to walk that much further to get help or seek shelter. Perhaps they would encourage others to do the same, and thus save others' lives.
These are, obviously, extreme examples of suffering. However, it's surely obvious that we can change the nature of our reality on an everyday basis. Since it's the mind that tells us whether we feel happy or not, telling the mind to feel happy can make us feel happy. Likewise, every time we tell ourselves that we feel unhappy or discontent, we're reinforcing those conditions in our mind, and thus making it that much harder to become content. This is why it's so important to be present to ourselves and tell our mind positive thoughts. Because the mind is both the activator and recipient of our thoughts, we can change how it thinks and our attitude toward those thoughts at the same time.
Neutralizing Junk Emotions
Another way to deal with junk emotions is to neutralize that junk emotion with something positive. I've found that, in many instances, forgiveness acts as a powerful antidote to negativity. Forgiveness immediately extends a positive emotion outward. We can forgive ourselves for feeling angry and tell ourselves to let the anger go and replace it by feelings of compassion -- both for us and the person or situation that made us angry. With the anger neutralized we can then act in a way more appropriate to the situation.
Once we remove the junk emotion, it's amazing how not only does the context in which the anger arose change and we can see much more clearly what the correct thing to do would be, but the action we take will be more effective, because it will be devoid of the negative karma that would have attached itself to the action should we have maintained our anger.
This is a very important point to understand. Some people think that Buddhism is a quietist religion, in which one is encouraged to do nothing at all, at the risk of generating karma, which can hold one back from enlightenment. However, as I've suggested throughout this book, it's the intention behind one's actions that is important. Everything we do and think and say, as well as everything that we don't do or think or say, generates karma, both good and bad. Our karma collects over many lifetimes, and it's a very wise and mature soul indeed who can afford not to generate good karma. Therefore, it's important for us to act in the world, but to do so in a way that we generate as much good karma as we can in ratio to the inevitable bad karma that we'll also produce. Neither good nor bad karma is confined to one single action: both spread. This is why it's vital that the junk emotions are controlled at source; otherwise, they can extend wider and wider until our single act has caused a world of hurt.
Never Go To Bed Angry or Feeling Hateful
Another very simple way we can monitor our junk emotions is to resolve that we'll not go to bed angry or feeling hateful. I've heard that many couples say this is the secret why their relationships have lasted: they don't go to sleep angry at each other. This means they find the time to talk about whatever it is that's upsetting them, and don't allow themselves to go to sleep (or lie awake unable to sleep) without dealing with the negative emotion. Not only does this mean that the individuals in the relationship are likely to get more sleep and be more rested, and thus not as likely to be in a bad mood the next day; but it means that they can begin that day refreshed and renewed, ready to deal with that day's emotions. Of course, what was said and done the previous day may not be resolved and some difficult and painful decisions may need to be made. But the negative emotion will have been removed or reduced, which will make the solution to the problem easier to discern and easier to deal with.
Similar to junk emotions are junk thoughts, which in Buddhism are described as defilements. In other words, they are like garbage. We have already analyzed the junk emotions such as anger and anxiety. Junk thoughts are to some extent the premeditated or even deliberate expressions of those junk emotions. They consist of resentment and jealousy, deceit and spite, flattery and arrogance, shamelessness and parsimony, remorselessness and mistrust. Other junk thoughts are negligence and dissipation, a lack of introspection and being distracted, or in fact any aspect where we act in an ill-considered and thoughtless manner.
As was indicated, the roots of these defilements come from deeper emotions, such as greed or hatred, delusion, egocentricity, doubt, and prejudice. Like junk emotions, junk thoughts are dealt with through cultivating mindfulness. As well as meditation, breathing deeply can help us deal with impure thoughts and unsettling emotions. Breath control has been shown to slow the heart rate and calm the nerves. This in turn can stop the mind racing and the body reacting unnaturally to a situation. It also forces us to think and not to talk, which will give us time to deal more appropriately with someone or something that's upset us. In meditation or while we're breathing deeply, we can even visualize the dispensing of the negative emotion by taking it out to the garbage and dumping it there. This visualization is a technique that actually forces the mind to release the emotion itself.
Is Your Cup Too Full of Junk Emotions to Be Able to Receive?
I concludewith a story. There was a scholar, who was full of knowledge about Buddhism and philosophy and who came to study with a Zen master. As was customary, the Zen master offered the scholar a cup of tea. The scholar was delighted and accepted. The Zen master said nothing and began to pour the tea. However, when the tea reached the rim of the cup the Zen master did not stop pouring. He pointed to the cup of tea in silence but continued to pour the tea into it. "What are you doing?" said the scholar, baffled. The Zen master looked at the scholar. "Scholar," he said. "Take up your cup of tea. How can I pour anything more into it unless you empty it?"
The scholar knew everything there was to know about his religion. In fact, he was so full of knowledge that there was no room for anything else. The Zen master was teaching him, in a very direct way, that he had to empty his mind of all that knowledge in order for him to be able to get the knowledge he really needed, which was to gain enlightenment. I told this story to a group of twelve-year-olds. I later found out when some of the children went home and heard their father complaining about how awful his job was or expressing a junk emotion, at least one of them said, "Father, you need to empty your cup."
What I take from this story is not that we need to become ignorant or not continue to learn about the world, but that we should stop filling our mind with trivia and junk emotions that block our path to true knowledge and happiness. We all need to empty our cups.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Lantern Books. ©2008. www.lanternbooks.com
This article was excerpted from:
Authenticity -- Clearing the Junk: A Buddhist Perspective
by Venerable Yifa.
Clearly and compassionately, Ven. Yifa explores junk in all its ramifications: junk food, junk stuff, junk relationships, junk communication, and junk thoughts and feelings. She shows how our obsession with materialism, convenience, and the fast-paced nature of our society is diminishing our ability to connect wholeheartedly with others and making it harder for us to lead authentic lives. Through consciously separating out what is junk from what is genuine, she says, and through practicing right-mindedness, we can gain equanimity, clarity of purpose, true friendship, and the ultimate realization of our Buddha-nature.
About the Author
Venerable Yifa is a nun belonging to the religious order Fo Guang Shan, which was founded by Venerable Master Hsing Yun in Taiwan and seeks to make Buddhist practice relevant to contemporary life. Yifa lives at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. Venerable Yifa is also the author of The Tender Heart: A Buddhist Response to Suffering.
Watch a video: Dr. Yifa talks about material and spiritual junk