How to Deal with Afflictive Emotions

To understand how to deal with afflictive emotions, we need to understand the relationship between (1) ignorance, (2) afflictive emotions, and (3) karmic actions.

Ignorance leads to afflictive emotions, which in turn cause karmic actions to take place. This relationship may be shown as:

ignorance -> afflictive emotions -> karmic actions


Often the term delusions describes both ignorance and afflictive emotions. A deluded mind does not accord with reality. Ignorance would include misconceptions about reality – such as the self being permanent and autonomous; that there is an intrinsically existent self. All the afflictive emotions are also accompanied by a certain degree of misunderstanding of reality. The various Buddhist philosophical schools agree that negative states of mind – such as attachment (for example, jealousy) and aversion (for example, anger) – are misperceptions.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama identifies some of the chief delusions as attachment, anger, pride, doubt, wrong views, and misapprehensions. A delusion is any mental state that destroys calmness of mind and brings about mental misery – that is, which upsets, afflicts, and torments the mind (The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, 2005, p. 81-82).

Afflictive Emotions

The afflictive emotions are essentially attachment and aversion. These mental states create an immediate disturbance within our minds – and this disturbance is an affliction because it feels unpleasant. Afflictive emotions can occur through two ways.

First, they can be acquired through the belief systems of our culture or through learning. Some effort is required to acquire such rationally arising emotions. It is possible, by examining them rationally, to eliminate them.

Secondly, afflictive emotions can be innate. Such innate afflictive emotions arise unconsciously and exist without any apparent reason or effort. Innate, or unconsciously arising, afflictive emotions are much more difficult to eliminate because they are caused by our innate ignorance and arise without reasoning or rational thought. Due to our previous lives’ habits, beliefs, and actions, such afflictions arise in this lifetime without any other external influence, and become completely integrated with our thought process.

However, the process for eliminating them is the same as for the acquired afflictive emotions. We must understand logically, for example, that something like attachment to pleasure is the cause of our suffering – not of our happiness. Then, we must work to integrate that principle into our mindstreams.

These afflictive emotions are our real enemy, and source of all problems and difficulties. From the second we wake up in the morning we are under the power of these afflictive emotions.

We abandon these afflictive emotions through constant awareness of what we are doing, and the knowledge that as long as we are under their power there is no way to enjoy happiness. Abandoning the unconsciously arising negative emotions requires constant application of antidotes, and only great consistency can eliminate these very subtle and deep-rooted propensities, which act as the origin of suffering.

In sum, the direct way to eliminate negative emotions – which are wrong conceptions based on misunderstandings – is to rationally explore the opposite way of thinking.

Karmic Actions

Karmic actions are reactions to our afflictive emotions. Because afflictive emotions are so deep-seated, and our habits so ingrained, it is hard to address them directly.

Therefore, we can start out by addressing our behaviour. By reducing our negative karmic actions, we slowly reduce the hold our afflictive emotions have on us.

Karmic actions can be created only through what Buddhists call the three doors: the bodyspeech, and mind. We need to pay attention to the kinds of actions that we do with our bodies, the conversations that we have in our daily interactions with people, and, of course, the thoughts that arise in our minds.

An obvious place to start in the process of abandoning negative karmic actions is by trying to avoid the ten non-virtues. Avoiding the ten non-virtuous actions with the thought of attaining liberation or enlightenment is said to be the Buddhist way of engaging in their opposites – the ten virtuous actions.

Reducing the negative karmic actions is the only chance we have to deal with our afflictive emotions. Again, we must pay attention to the three doors of body, speech, and mind in our everyday lives in order to reduce non-virtues and address our karmic actions.

In freeing ourselves from suffering, there is a definite sequence we need to follow – and that is to deal with the coarsest level first, dealing consciously and determinedly with the negative habit that most plagues us. The more subtle afflictions will come to light only after we have begun to subdue the grosser ones.

For example, a person who easily gets angry might well know how harmful it is, but for a long time will probably have to determinedly stop doing the harmful action connected with anger, while the angry mind continues. First, the manifestation of anger is abandoned, and then the anger itself – going from coarsest to subtle.

Finally, understanding the importance of effort and constantly working to reduce unskilful actions will help us to reduce our negativities (in contrast, trying to get at the root while completely indulging in negative actions just does not work).

Closing Example

A personal example brings this article to a close as follows:

For some time now, I have recognized that my hatred of criticism, directed toward me by others, and then my strong aversion (such as anger) toward them, would be what plagues me most.

Through analytical meditation, I have come to realize that the study of the second Noble Truth – the origin of suffering – has particularly helped me to deal with this problem. How?

Essentially, my focus has been totally wrong, evidenced in continually blaming others and having a constant desire of wanting to “fix” their problems. I, of course, was okay in all of this – it was “all their fault”. This approach has caused untold personal suffering and grief, partly because one ultimately feels so powerless. (Additionally, another complicating factor has been needless guilt in imagining that I have also caused others to suffer.)

In better understanding the origin of suffering, I now have the hope and conviction of abandoning this personal anguish. This hope and conviction is based on reality. I believe that I am now able to abandon this misery for a number of reasons related to the second Noble Truth – the origin of suffering.

First, I understand that I have been living my life under a fundamental ignorance: the ignorance of selflessness of persons (as well as of phenomena). Consequently, I have had a far too exaggerated sense of “I” which I cherish so strongly – and it is this “I” that I feel I must vigorously defend when I am criticized.

Secondly, this ignorance has then caused me have the afflictive emotions of attachment and aversion. Geshe Tashi Tsering explains it well. He writes how the mind, misconceiving the mode of existence of a person by seeing the person as existing from their own side, instinctively moves either toward the person or away from them – depending on whether the person supports or threatens the mind’s own sense of a concrete, unitary self. And so we experience aversion toward someone that damages our sense of self, and attraction to someone that bolsters our sense of self. (The Four Noble Truths, 64)

Thirdly, as a result of the afflictive emotions, I then create karmic actions that inevitably bring about suffering. In this connection, I now also better understand how karma works. I realize that there can surely be no suffering that I experience in my life where I have not made some contribution to its causes – I am not the blameless one, the victim. The results I experience today are surely based on actions I have done – because there can be no actions that I have done where I have not experienced the results in one way or another, sooner or later.

Finally, I now understand the sequence of thought that leads to suffering. In a nutshell, this sequence may be illustrated as:

ignorance -> afflictive emotions -> karmic actions -> suffering


delusions [ignorance + afflictive emotions] -> karmic actions -> suffering

In understanding the factors involved in the sequence, I am in a far better position to abandon suffering – to let go of my negative habit of hating all criticism directed toward me and forever only blaming others.

Source: Adapted from Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Vol. 1, with a foreword by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, ed. Gordon McDougall (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005), 84-91.