Can we exercise control over our emotions?
Trying to control one’s emotions or the direction of one’s mind in no way reduces the struggle that we live from day to day. Maybe you have already seen this in your life? We cannot control our emotions, regardless of how much we would like to. Emotions are uncontrollable. It’s not for you to decide when to feel happy, when to feel sad, when to feel angry, when to feel ashamed. These emotions arise automatically out of contact with various objects: sights and sounds, smells, voices, tastes, memories and thoughts.
Don’t they? Please don’t just believe me when I say that, don’t assume it’s true (or false). Check it for yourself, observe it. Next time you feel an emotion, whether positive or negative, can you stop it from arising in yourself if you want?
If it’s a positive emotion, you’re probably happy to leave it like that, but if it’s a negative emotion, it’s painful and unpleasant, isn’t it? You want to get rid of it but cannot subdue it just like that, you cannot control it.
And so we do all sorts of things to try to get rid of negative emotions that we cannot control, to make them go away or stay away. If you’re particularly inclined to trying to control things, it’s likely that you will suppress and beat down negative emotions, keep them held in and deep down, and be careful to never look at them. Which, as we’ve said, in no way reduces the struggle.
The nature of control
Control is born from what? It’s the product of a rigid and fixed ego, a kind of conceit that says everything has to be perfect and cannot tolerate the sight of imperfection. This ego is extremely insecure, (because of course one is not perfect, far from it) and the more it is insecure, the more it needs to have control over something, ideally over everything.
All imperfect things have to be controlled and eliminated, as they are all a threat to the integrity of the thing that has to be protected: the ego, the pride, the self, or the doctrine.
It is evident in many religions, this control. In Catholicism, for example, sexual desire is a sin and punishable by God. Any sexual desire that arises is unacceptable and has to be beaten down and suppressed and hidden. If you are a priest and have committed to celibacy, you’re not allowed to have sexual desire. You’re given no instructions for what to do if your mind, like a crazy wild dog, stubbornly continues to bring you sexual desire even if it’s Not Allowed. It’s simply “Forbidden,”- wrong, shameful, something you can’t admit to anyone, not even yourself.
So you don’t admit to yourself that you have sexual desire. You don’t allow yourself to open your eyes to the fact that you still have sexual desire, despite knowing it’s a SIN. You keep the mad dog that is your mind held in chains of shame, guilt and secret self-hatred.
The urge to control is an enemy to understanding the mind. It is an enemy to the development of qualities. When you want to control everything imperfect, you push down and hide all the emotions and attachments and impurities you don’t want, you hide them from yourself so that you don’t see them and don’t realise they are there. You cannot be honest with yourself.
When you are not honest with yourself, how do you expect to correct yourself? When you cannot observe the mind as it is, how can you train it? How can you work on those ugly things, which are still inside, no matter how hard you try to keep them hidden?
Suppose your mind is like a mad dog, wild, running around everywhere, making trouble and chewing up the carpets. You don’t want him to be so crazy, so mad – he makes so many problems for you. But you keep a dog tied up in chains, how do you expect him to learn anything?
And further, what happens if the dog manages to break loose of his chain? Now he goes really mad, even madder than before. This is where all kinds of mischief takes place.
The problem then that follows when the chain has been broken, when control has been lost, is that now the wild dog will really do anything he wants. There is either complete control or complete lack of it.
Forms of Control
There are three main kinds of control over wrong actions that exist in the world and in people, three kinds of chains for the mad dog.
One is fear of God, the control of religion. Another is fear of the police, fear of going to jail, or of losing one’s reputation and money. A third is the inner conscience of right and wrong, which can be either taught in childhood, or maybe you just have it inside you from birth. All these chains can be broken, and when they are broken the dog runs even madder than before.
If you were keeping those chains on yourself all that time out of fear – let us say fear of God in the case of the Catholic priest– then, the moment the chain is broken, there is no more fear. If you believe you’re going to hell anyway, then why not just go ahead and indulge your most desperate, disgusting, abject desire?
If it’s the fear of police that kept you in check, what happens in a situation where the police have no more power? Do you think you will continue to behave yourself when the world is ending and chaos reigns? Do you imagine that “when the shit hits the fan,” the majority of humanity will refrain from killing, stealing, raping, hurting and harming to save their own skins?
The third kind of control is somewhat different, as it comes from inside, not from fear of an outside authority. If the conscience of somebody is strong, if she has a lot of empathy and compassion for other living beings, then even if she is not a believer in God and is stuck on a dessert island with no police to go after her, she will still nonetheless refrain from hurting and harming other beings. If she kills out of starvation, she will feel tormented and guilty afterwards and will try to find other things to eat. She punishes herself for wrong actions with remorse, and for this reason, she doesn’t need much outside punishment.
Yet you see how even this kind of control does not reduce the struggle. Even the control of one’s conscience is still a source of suffering and shame, because when emotions such as fear, anger, and jealousy take the reigns, then they can still act. The conscience will make you suffer the guilt afterwards, but it is often not enough to prevent you doing something harmful in the first place. This too is a chain that can be broken, for in extreme situations, when something you love is threatened, for example, now you will not hesitate to pull the trigger of a gun to defend what you love. What seemed so wrong to you before now seems perfectly acceptable.
Control is what fixes a thing, it makes it into a rule, a chain. Rules are inflexible. They are made, like chains, to be broken.
What you can do instead is to take your wild dog in hand, and train him. It means spending a long time working with him every day, setting a certain time to play with him, walk with him, reprimand him when he does something you don’t want him to do (gently or strictly as the need arises) and give him treats when he behaves himself. This is discipline, which is very different to control. With discipline, we can begin to practice observation of the mind, instead of trying to control it.
Now, what do we mean by “observation”? How does it work?
At one level, it is an attitude, a way of working. The control is like somebody standing in the stream of a river trying to catch anything that comes floating by and throw it out of the river or push it down below the surface; observation is just sitting beside the river watching everything pass by, never trying to jump into the river or run after something that comes by.
While control involves ME having to be IN CHARGE of everything, observation is when nobody is in charge of anything (what a frightening thought for the one who feels the impulse to control!) –you’re just watching what’s going on. And when you are just watching what is going on, a kind of magic happens: there appears the possibility for change, the possibility for choice; now the very thing that you were trying to control suddenly loses all its power. This is not some kind of Higher Spirituality hocus-pocus – it is very practical, very down-to-earth, and it’s something that you can go and verify right away by yourself.
As an example, look at anger. Many people want to control their anger, many people tend to suppress it, and there is a lot of talk about how to “channel it” or how to “deal with it.” But are you even aware of it? Do you know what it is, really? How is it formed? Does its growth depend on something? Are you able to be aware of it?
What does it mean, to be aware of one’s anger?
We want to understand how anger works. Not by psychology, not by doing studies or reading books about it, let’s just observe it ourselves. We all experience anger from time to time, so let’s use this as a chance to study it.
Suppose you are angry, you’re angry at somebody who has done something really inconsiderate and stupid that means your whole day is a mess as a result. So you’re angry with that person because of what they did.
Now suppose I ask you how you feel, and you tell me, “Yes, I’m REALLY angry with so and so, how dare they!” Or you say, “Yes, I got a tiny bit angry for a moment, but I know it’s stupid, I shouldn’t be – now it’s under control, don’t worry.” Or else maybe you deny it altogether: “No, I’m not angry! At all! I really don’t feel angry!”
Is this being aware of your anger?
Here, let us pause for a moment. Bear with me. We need to look at the difference between an idea of something, and the reality of something, the fact of it. In front of me as I write, I have a bottle of water. This bottle of water, I can make an idea out of it, and I can give that idea to you by writing its name: bottle of water. Now you have an idea of the bottle of water in front of me, you can picture the idea in your mind.
But this bottle of water in front of me is a reality, a fact. I can touch it, I can smell it, if I’m thirsty I’ll drink it. I need it to stay alive. This fact, this reality of the bottle of water, has no name. I call it “water” but if I’m in France we’ll call it “de l’eau”; if we’re in Persia we’ll call it “آب” All are the same thing.
So the reality of the bottle of water is different to the idea of it. I hope you can follow.
Now, when I say “Yes, I’m angry, it’s true, I feel angry, I know I feel angry, I know it’s no good, I shouldn’t be,” – is this the reality of anger? Or is it the idea of it?
Do you see what I mean?
It’s the kind of thing you have to actually stop and think about for a minute, look for a minute. Don’t just skim on, eager to get to the end of this article. Or, you can, but don’t come complaining to me afterwards that you can’t deal with your emotions and you suffer.
So what happens if we are able to be aware, to watch, to know in the present moment, not the idea of an emotion, but the reality of it? In the moment I start to feel angry, normally I’m looking at: “Yes, I am angry – I’m angry with you, because you did THAT, how dare you.” When I’m angry, my attention is on the object, the thing making me angry.
Suppose then, I turn the mind inside out and look instead inside: “What is anger? Who is angry? How is it formed?”
Now I use words so that you can understand how one observes, but in practice, this observation has no words; it’s just pure looking. There is no calculation, there is no analysing. Just, you watch.
So now, if really all the attention is focused on the anger itself, the fact of it, how it is, what it is, how it is formed – then there is no more attention on the thing, the object, that provoked the anger.
The food of emotion
Anger needs an object to grow. Any emotion needs an object. You can’t just call a hungry wild bird and make it to come to your hand, but if you provide food for it – it will come by itself.
In the same way, if you want to make yourself angry right now, sitting there, you can’t summon it just like that. You can think of something that always makes you angry, or catch sight of the object of anger – and then anger comes running by itself.
Now, once there is no more food, will a wild bird remain sitting on your hand?
Then if there’s no more object of anger, what do you think will happen to the anger?
When you’re no longer paying attention to what it was that made you angry, but rather looking at the anger itself – the emotion suddenly has no more food, no more fuel. And it disappears by itself.
It’s something that you have to see for yourself to really understand what I mean. Try it. It doesn’t have to be anger, either; it can be any emotion whatsoever. Fear, sadness, jealousy, irritation, frustration. Test it. Look into it.
In a state of careful observation alone, the mind is fluid and changing, not fixed.
Emotions arise in it, and as they are observed they fall away by themselves; and now there is a choice. How do I choose to act, not being driven by emotion? Now in this moment I don’t have to obey the fixed patterns that have been created, the habitual path traveled by this mind.
Now is the time that a choice can happen: it is not a rule made by a dictator for all time, but taken in each present moment as it arises. And this is what makes it work. Observation is a tool that allows there to be movement, change, so that there can be a choice in the present moment between anger and no-anger, between fear and no-fear, between right and wrong, between good and bad. And this is the complete beauty of it.
Parts of this article were inspired and adapted from an excellent talk given by Krishna Murti in answer to the question: “How does observation reduce the strength and power of emotions and attachments?” . If you are interested in seeing it, it is available on youtube here.