“Our human emotional system, at times, is wired to lead us to embrace the three poisons without thinking of the consequences.”
This summer, a Russian officer ordered warning shots and bombs to be dropped in the path of a Royal Navy Destroyer that came close to Russian territorial waters. That news got me wondering. What was his self-talk? Which songs played in his head?
According to different Buddhist traditions, attachment, ignorance, and aversion are the three primary poisons, unwholesome roots, or kleshas that underpin suffering and inhibit our ability to be happy and gain enlightenment. Kleshas include destructive emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, and selfishness.
As we know, destructive emotions exist. By themselves they are not good or bad, but what we do with them is going to guide cause/effect and karmic consequence. Life is, after all, essentially summed up in cause/effect.
We spiritual people are not supposed to be seduced by those damn kleshas. We should be above getting angry, but we do, and rightly so. This morning I got a note from a friend about the lockdown in Uganda. She has lost three family members to COVID- 19. She wrote, “My heart bled when I watched the police chase women selling fruit along the street to fend for their families because of the lockdown directives.”
I think about the dictator Museveni, his henchmen, and the way they have stolen the aid sent to help feed the people and provide medical care. I think about the dozens of notes I have gotten from friends in East Africa about death, hunger, sickness, and injustice, and I feel angry inside. My internal song takes that anger and sings, “Whatcha going to do about this, Paul? Whatcha think the right action is? Don’t be indifferent! Whatcha going to do about it, Paul?”
I do know I must let the anger flow through me, examine it and its source, and see why it is pushing my buttons. For me, the goal is to have the negative emotion push me to the right action.
I can send my friends in Uganda some money so they can disperse it to those in need. I can connect them with others who might be able to provide food, shelter, or help. I can ask our government, charities, and businesses to work for better governance in East Africa. I can support character education that champions grit, resilience, and virtue to help build a society that works well for everyone.
The feedback loop plays in my head, and I think about some time I spent with the Indian sage Sadhguru a few years ago, learning about what he called “inner engineering.” He talked about the response choice we have, and about our responsibility to what we discover through our senses. He said that as we choose our response, we should respond to our ability. Sadhguru then put the words together as response-ability. While I might not be doing Sadhguru justice with how his song plays in my head, I do know that event + response = outcome. So, what we do with this anger and poison is what we must think about. Like dynamite, it can do good or evil.
Seems our human emotional system, at times, is wired to lead us to embrace the three poisons without thinking of the consequences.
We are wired to be reactive. The
brain, to retain energy, likes to create
habits, causing a reaction that feels
comfortable, and even right, in
response to stimuli. I kiss my wife
and she kisses me back. Someone yells, we yell back. Why think about it? The problem is that attachment, ignorance, and aversion can push us to a mindless, rather than mindful, reaction, one that can ruin lives and ruin relationships. It is in the reaction that our automatic responses step in, and those automatic responses must be reprogramed to stop the wheel of habitual cause and effect.
So, how do we do this? We can start by identifying the three poisons in our lives: attachment, ignorance, and aversion. And then we can acknowledge these poisons exist, deal with them, and move on.
Our brains live in the comfort of wallowing in the past, which can impede our klesha work, sprouting paralysis. As Buddha said to the man who got shot with a poisoned arrow, “Stop wondering why you go shot. Pull the arrow out and move on.”
If the arrow does not kill us, we need to move on with gratitude that we survived. One of the prayers I was asked to read before some Buddhist ceremonies ended with this sentence: “How fortunate I am not to have taken rebirth as a hungry ghost, experiencing constant hunger and thirst!” Gratitude for our life, and this moment where we can read a Spirituality & Health column and reflect, can help release us from the poisons.
Moving through gratitude can lead us to using the power of awareness, meditation, and reflection to move past the negative influences of attachment, ignorance, and aversion. We can do this by avoiding the parts of our lives that feed the negative emotions, like alcohol, violent movies, unhealthy food, toxic friends, petty gossip, indifference ... and the list goes on.
We should focus our minds on being alert to finding the best in ourselves and others by identifying positive character strengths. In our parenting work at STEPi, we teach parents, caregivers, and teachers to help their learners find their superpower character strengths. You can do this too, but as an adult throw in a dose of radical acceptance and loving mindfulness.
We get more of what we put our attention on. Always being mindfully on the lookout for positive character attributes in ourselves and others is one way to help reprogram the songs stuck in our heads so we dance a bit happier through life.
The Character Strengths Paul Teaches With STEPi
- a good listener
- problem solver
- hard worker
- loves nature, animals, the earth, and art
- enjoys reading
- likes to learn new words