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A Technique of Living

Leonard A. Bullen

The sixth month


IF you want to control something – whatever it is – the more you know about it the better you will be able to control it. If you want to drive a car, you can manage with a minimum of knowledge of its workings while conditions are good; but when it breaks down, miles from help, the greater your knowledge of its mechanism the greater will be your chance of getting it on the move again.

It is the same with your own emotional problems. You can go only a small distance in life without emotional problems, and while you need no special understanding of them when the going is smooth, you do need all the self-knowledge possible when you enter a rough phase.

Can you imagine a motor mechanic who has no clear understanding of what goes on under the bonnet of a car? Yet many of us have no clear understanding what goes on under own bonnets.

The greater the self-knowledge you possess the better, and this is true both of knowledge gained by your own self-observation and of knowledge gained by book-learning. One supplements the other; and this applies particularly to the knowledge of emotion. Let us therefore consider; emotion at the theoretical level.

Emotions are accompanied by certain bodily changes or perhaps we should say that emotions consist of the awareness of the bodily changes that take place under certain conditions.

In order to illustrate this point, let us take the condition of fear. When you become frightened it begins with some frightening idea in your mind: this frightening idea is the cause of your emotion of fear, and is accompanied by a nervous current in certain parts of your brain.

From the brain, this nervous current travels to your adrenal glands, and this causes these glands to discharge into your blood stream a substance known as adrenin (or less accurately as adrenalin). Your blood stream conveys this adrenin to various organs of your body.

The adrenin hag a definite effect on many of these organs; for example, when it reaches your liver it causes it to discharge into your blood stream an extra supply of sugar, this sugar giving to every muscle that it reaches an additional energy supply.

As further results of the adrenin in your blood, your heart beats more rapidly, your eyes open wider, and your blood itself clots more readily should you be wounded.

You can see that all these bodily changes would have a very definite value during actual physical combat or any rapid muscular activity; there are the extra supply of fuel to your muscles, for example, and the quicker heart-beat and circulation which replenish this fuel supply and remove the ash from your cells; these are all valuable to you if you are fleeing or fighting, running or climbing.

There are some side-effects, too. For example, your hair tends to stand on end. This does not help you, of course, but it does help some of your sub-human relations when it happens to them. It helps a cat to appear bigger and more formidable and thus more frightening to an enemy, and it helps a porcupine because its quills are an actual defensive weapon.

When your hair stands on end, then, you are automatically responding in the same way as did some of your pre-human-relations. But in you it is an obsolete mechanism.

The bodily changes are of no real use unless the need for action arises; but that is not the whole story. Man of the civilized world does not generally solve his problems in the same way as did his cave-dwelling ancestors or his primitive brothers, because his problems and his outside conditions are different. Nevertheless his involuntary reactions are much the same.

In most cases when a man becomes frightened, fighting or fleeing will not solve the problem, as there is often no tangible aggressor to fight and no place to which to flee. Yet the bodily changes occur just the same.

Your bodily changes during fear, therefore, are often inappropriate; not only so, they are also frequently an embarrassment because too much fuel is released into your blood-stream without any purpose to fulfil. In this way you may have various physical and nervous disorders as a result of repeated emotional disorders, disorders arising not only from fear but also from anxiety, jealousy, resentment, anger, and inferiority feelings.

But the story is not yet complete. During an emotional disturbance, in order to allow full activity to various muscles – those of the legs for running, the arms for fighting, and so on – the arteries that serve the digestive system are contracted so that they receive a diminished blood supply. To divert their fuel to the other muscles, the muscles of the digestive system are deprived of it and in consequence the digestive activities are held up for the time.

Such disturbances may last for hours, and you can see how easy it is for digestive troubles to arise as a result of fear, anxiety, jealousy, resentment, anger, and inferiority feelings.

It has been shown by experiment that adverse emotions generate poisons within the bodily system, and that under extreme conditions some of the brain cells may be temporarily or permanently injured by intense emotion.

So from all this you can see that some sort of emotional discipline is desirable. Of what possible use are the bodily changes of fear or anger when a man insults you over the telephone? Certainly they give you extra strength to throw the telephone out of the window, but this solves no problems. If a man falls in love with a screen actress, his heart will beat more rapidly to enable him to begin a primitive love-chase; but in the circumstances of modern civilisation where would this chase end – or begin?


Now there are three aspects to the matter of disciplining the emotions. The first aspect of emotional discipline is the development of a habit of self-observation with regard to your own emotional conditions. In Buddhist terminology, this is called the detailed observation of the mental state. The second aspect involves the control of emotional manifestations as these arise. The third aspect is a matter of developing a new set of values of such a kind that many of the circumstances that previously called out the responses of fear, anger. self-assertion, and so on, then fail to do so, or at least do so to a reduced extent.

Little need be said about the need for controlling the powerful emotions that lead to both external discord and internal conflict; their effects are in most cases distressingly obvious. Racial hatreds, religious prejudices, political biases – these lie at the root of many quarrels between individuals and between nations. Ambivalent feelings of love and hate towards others within the family, as well as irrational fears and guilt complexes, give rise to neuroses and other mental aberrations.

To wait until an emotional problem reaches major proportions before dealing with it is like waiting until a trickle becomes a flood. The Buddhist method is to keep constant watch – to apply constant mindfulness – while an adverse emotion exists as a trickle, and to deal with it at this stage; for when it reaches the proportions of a flood much of the damage, inwardly and outwardly, is already done.

To try to deal with major emotional problems by any sort of repressive emotional control either drives the real causes into other channels or else intensifies the outer effects, so that emotional control requires something better than any possible form of surface treatment can offer.

Emotional control must begin with what in Buddhism is called the detailed observation of the mental state. This is a matter of continual self-observation with a view to detecting the presence of any emotion which might retard the mind’s progress towards enlightenment.

The recognition of such retardant emotions in their mildest and most unobtrusive forms is regarded in Buddhist practice as highly important, for it is necessary to see them for what they are before they reach greater proportions. Recognition is the first essential to control.

In order to control your emotions you must know what you are controlling, and this knowledge (apart from its theoretical aspect) is the work of mindfulness. Without it attempts at control by will-power alone might degenerate into harmful repression.

Repression is a matter of pressing unwelcome mental states below the level at which they are accessible to consciousness. The work of mindfulness, on the other hand, is the work of bringing the full light of sharpened awareness to bear on all mental states, unwelcome and otherwise, and this is the very opposite of repression.

There are, of course, occasions in your everyday life when you must exercise a great deal of effort of will to prevent an emotional outburst. You must bottle up your emotions even though you know that this bottling-up is building up harmful tension, tension of mind and body.

At other times you feel that it is absolutely imperative to give vent to your adverse emotions, hateful and petty and spiteful as you know them to be. You feel you must have your emotional splurge whatever the consequences.

Which is right and which is wrong? Right and wrong are conventional words which sometimes obscure the real point. The real question is, which does the less harm in the long run? You must either keep control at all costs – and this, according to some standards, is the right thing to do – or you must let go and give your wrong emotions an outlet.

The answer, in part at least, is that whatever you do you must do it as mindfully as possible in the circumstances. If you must let go and have your emotional splurge, if you must give way to your annoyance, self-pity, envy, or whatever it is, you should be as fully aware of it as you, can and realise its nature. In this way you will keep some control over it; but once you seek to justify yourself or deceive yourself as to what you are doing you begin to lose this control.

You must, of course, consider its effects on others, and from this viewpoint an emotional outburst is often quite wrong. From one viewpoint – from the viewpoint of your own development – it is better to do wrong mindfully than to do right mindlessly; it is better to be fully aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it – however conventionally wrong it is – than to do the conventionally right thing without knowing why.

When your emotions are too strong and you give way to an emotional outburst, this outburst can be considered a failure; but because you are an ordinary human being and not a superhuman these failures will occur from time to time. If you train yourself in mindfulness – especially in the detailed observation of the mental state – such failures will occur less and less frequently. The important thing is that progress is taking place.

Practical Work


To become tense in circumstances of stress is easy; to remain calm and free from agitation is difficult. Being difficult, it requires self-training, self-training not only at the level of muscular relaxation but also at the mental level. Methods of muscular relaxation are of great value in bringing about a generally relaxed condition of both mind and body, for mind and body interact; but muscular relaxation needs to be supplemented by mental relaxation.

Let us consider, therefore, how best you can approach the problem of tension at the mental level. To do this, of course, you must go further back than the tension itself; you must go back to the tension-causing factors in the mind; and these can be defined in broad terms as anxiety, resentment, and self-assertion.

These three factors arise from what in Buddhism are called the three roots of mental evil – selfish desire, aversion, and delusion. From selfish desire arises anxiety; from aversion arises resentment; and from delusion arises self-assertion. Of these three tension-causing factors – anxiety, resentment, and self-assertion – let us take just one as the basis for an exercise in mindfulness.

Therefore, during a period of a month or more, take in hand the problem of anxiety. Make a contract with yourself to the effect that after each time you allow yourself to become unduly anxious about anything at all you will apply some small self-imposed penalty on yourself.

Just what penalty you use is for you to decide, but it should be an easy one, one that you can impose on yourself without tending to throw it aside. If you find it too irksome you will need to break it down a little; on the other hand if it becomes too easy and ineffective you will need to stiffen it up to some extent.

You must recognise that anxiety is related to desires of various kinds (selfish and otherwise), to attachment, and to possessiveness. In tackling the problem of anxiety, then, you are working on these other factors as well to some extent.


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last updated: 03-04-2005