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Working With Strong Emotions: Impulse Control

November 9, 2012

Have you ever been so swept up by an emotion that you did something that you later regretted? Have you ever been so angry that you lashed out at someone, and later felt regret because you’d hurt them? So consumed with desire for something that you paid way too much for it (financially and /or emotionally)?  So full of lust that you entered into a romantic liaison and then wanted to flee the next day? (Hint: If you answered “no” to all of the above, you are a liar.)

We all experience emotions that are so powerful that they seem to compel us into action. When we’re seized by a powerful emotion, our judgment is clouded, and we often make bad choices. There’s a word for this kind of emotion in the traditional language of Buddhism: it’s klesha in Sanskrit (kilesa inPali, nyönmong in Tibetan.) In translations and commentaries, you may find kleshas referred to as disturbing emotions; afflicted (or afflictive) emotions; mental defilements; or hindrances to enlightenment or to spiritual growth.

“Conan! What is best in life?”

“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”

Conan, in the grips of a klesha.

Kleshas narrow our mental focus. If we’re overcome by hatred, for instance, our focus narrows down to an impulse to destroy our enemies. Like Conan the Barbarian, we don’t want to engage in mediation with our enemies; we just want to crush them. Kleshas bring tremendous energy to this narrow mental focus.  This combination of energy and narrow focus generates a lot of psychological pressure. When we’re in the grips of a klesha, we feel a powerful impulse to act; we feel as if we can’t wait. Because there’s so much energy generated by the klesha, if we act upon our impulses, we may act very powerfully, but we don’t act wisely. We plunge ahead like a bull in a china shop: breakage is likely. Our impulsive actions are neither precise nor gentle.  The Bad Lama says that when we allow ourselves to react impulsively to a klesha, we have a very “expensive” reaction.

The impulse that accompanies the klesha may be outwardly directed (for instance, when we’re angry we might have the impulse to yell at someone else) or it might be inwardly directed  (for instance, when we’re angry we may have the impulse to yell at ourselves).  Whichever way the impulse is directed, it causes damage.

We get better at the things we practice. Each time we act on our impulse, that impulse becomes easier to act on the next time. If we practice an impulse that causes damage, we get better and better at causing damage. The damage we cause has an effect on ourselves and also the world around us.  Our impulsive actions often end up reinforcing the kind of circumstances in our living situation that triggered our klesha in the first place. (In the technical language of Buddhism we would say that klesha leads to karma.)

When we are experiencing a klesha, our mind becomes focused on an impulse and emotionally energized. When this is happening, our habitual impulsive action may seem like the only option we have.  But afterwards — when we’re experiencing the hangover of our impulsive action — we might wonder, whether we could have acted in a way that caused less damage. The good news is that we can learn to respond to our kleshas in a way that cools the emotional heat and allows us greater freedom to make new and better choices.

Since kleshas narrow our mental focus and spur us to impulsive action, we can improve our response to klesha by learning to restrain our impulsive action and broaden our mental focus. A adage tells us “The best time to fix the roof is before it starts raining.”  In the same way, the best time to work on our habitual reactions to klesha is before we’re in the middle of a klesha attack.   If we  practice working with klesha when we’re in a relatively calm state, we can work with the relatively small kleshas that generate relatively weak impulses. Little by little we can develop our practice to the point where we can work with very powerful kleshas that generate very powerful impulses. We can practice working with our kleshas both in formal meditation and in everyday life.

Working With Klesha During Meditation

Meditation is an ideal situation for practicing a better response to our kleshas. During meditation, we can observe our own minds more clearly than we can during our hectic everyday lives.  We can also practice “taming” techniques that help calm our mind.  Meditation practice provides a situation in which we can observe our mind when its relatively calm and then watch what it does when a klesha arises.

Relax, don’t do it, when you want to get to it. – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Practicing Impulse Control

Kleshas push us toward impulsive action.  In order to make new choices, we have to build up the ability to resist our old habitual impulsive choices; we need to develop impulse control.  Luckily for us, we’re already practicing impulse control in our meditation. When we notice that our mind has wandered away from our object of meditation, we are practicing noticing that we have unconsciously followed an impulse. When we gently bring our mind back to the object of meditation, we are practicing consciously redirecting our mind from that impulse.  This gentle, persistent practice of conscious impulse control helps us build mental strength. This mental strength is like ballast in a ship – it makes us more stable when the storm rolls in and the big waves come.

When we practice in this way, we’re not asserting that our object of meditation is a better object than whatever object the impulse is focused on. It doesn’t matter if the impulse is focused on a really good idea or a resentful fantasy; whatever the object of our impulse is, we drop it and bring the mind back to the object of meditation. We bring it back so that we can practice recognizing when we’re following an impulse, and so that we can practice choosing not to follow the impulse, whatever it is.  Our goal in this practice is not to arrive at a state in which no impulses arise; our goal is to achieve the freedom to make choices about how we are able to respond to those impulses that do arise.

You can practice meditation in a way that emphasizes the development of impulse control. Here’s an instruction for that: Place your awareness on the object of meditation (for instance, your breathing) as usual.  When you notice that your attention is no longer on the object of meditation, give yourself a moment to recognize that you have been following an impulse.  Let yourself briefly feel the emotional charge of that impulse. How strongly is the impulse pulling you? Notice how this emotional pull feels in your body. Then make a conscious choice to let go of the impulse and gently return your awareness to the object of meditation.

An expensive reaction?

We generally respond to our impulses unconsciously, so it may take a while before you’re aware that you’ve following an impulse.  By the time you realize what you’re doing, you may not be just following an impulse; you may have jumped on its back and be riding it into battle.  The earlier you realize that you’re following an impulse, the less “expensive” your reaction will be. Imagine this scenario: You’re meditating in your room, and your roommate is right outside the room talking loudly on a cell phone. You’re irritated by this. You try to bring your awareness back to your breath, but your roommate’s conversation is impossible to ignore. You sit there fuming about how inconsiderate your roommate is. He must know that you’re in here practicing calm abiding meditation! Doesn’t he respect your practice? He’s always doing things like this!  You get yourself so worked up that you get up from the cushion, open your door, snatch the cell phone from your roommate’s hand and throw it against the wall.  This is going to be an expensive reaction!  You’ve damaged your own state of mind, your meditation session, your roommate’s phone and your relationship with your roommate! If you had managed to notice your impulse and drop it when you were in the middle of fuming, the reaction would have been less expensive.  And if you had noticed the impulse as soon as the irritation arose, and dropped it at that time, your reaction would hardly cost you anything at all.

Broaden your focus

More Space = Less Pressure. Click for animation.

The narrow focus of klesha increases the emotional pressure that drives us toward impulsive action.  We can decrease this emotional pressure by broadening our mental focus, and giving our emotions more space. Here’s an instruction to add this to your meditation practice:  As in the previous meditation instruction, place your awareness on your object of meditation.  When you notice that your attention is no longer on the object of meditation, give yourself a moment to recognize that you were following an impulse.  Notice the tightness of your mental focus at this moment. Then expand your mental focus to include your body. Expand your mental focus again to include both your body and your whole environment.  Allow your body and your environment to stay lightly in your awareness as you bring your attention back to your object of meditation.

 Working with Klesha in Everyday Life

 When you are angry, don’t make any decisions.  When you’re really happy, don’t make any promises. When you’re in a bad mood, don’t analyze.  – The Bad Lama

In everyday life, we can work with kleshas in the same way as in meditation:  when we find ourselves caught by a klesha, we can slow down our impulsive action and widen our mental focus.  If you find yourself in the midst of a klesha attack, take a quick mindfulness time-out. Bring your awareness to your body and take three, long conscious breaths. Expand your awareness to include your whole environment. If you can, drop whatever it is you’re doing and come back to it later. For instance, if you have just written a scathing email, DO NOT HIT SEND. Place the email in your drafts folder and look at it again tomorrow.

If you know that you are going to go into a situation that triggers kleshas, see if you can build a mindfulness time-out into the situation.  For instance, a website that promotes conscious eating recommends that you divide the food on your plate in half, and take a break from eating when you finish the first half.

Easier than riding an angry bull.

Kleshas have tremendous energy and momentum. When we’re in the middle of a klesha attack, it can feel as if we’re riding a huge angry bull. We may not have the ability to get off that ride, but we might be able to slow it down so we don’t cause quite so much damage to ourselves and those around us.   (Maybe instead of riding a huge angry bull, we’ll find ourselves riding a medium-sized irritated goat.)

When we’re practicing in this way, either on the cushion or off it, it’s important to remember that we’re not trying to rid ourselves of emotions, and we’re not trying to cultivate only the “correct” emotions. Our intelligence comprises our entire emotional spectrum. Anger, for instance, might be telling us that something in the situation is wrong and that we need to address it. We don’t want to ignore the wisdom of our emotions. But we also don’t want to be compelled by our emotions into the same old impulsive reactions. By practicing working with our kleshas, we can to learn to respond to all of our emotions in a flexible, intelligent, spontaneous way.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. L. Baker permalink
    November 11, 2012 7:08 pm

    I recently went through a bad relationship, and the first few days I felt fine. Then, I felt that I needed something to fill the void. Rather than call my family or sit with myself, I bought foolish clothes I didn’t need and I purchased food I didn’t even want to eat. It was silly, impulsive, and expensive. Now as I look back on it, I wish I could have saved my $200, payed my grandparents back, or used it for more constructive projects. All that I can say now is that I had a fun experience, but I’ve learned and it will hopefully not happen again.

  2. M. Pontius permalink
    December 8, 2012 11:26 am

    I just thought you should know how hilarious I found the notion of riding a medium-sized irritated goat.


  3. February 25, 2013 1:17 pm

    Reblogged this on facingthefireswithin and commented:
    This a Buddhist blog showing a meditational perspective on anger for an alternate point of view.

  4. Lisa permalink
    March 2, 2013 5:07 pm

    Aside from the initial comment calling those who answered no to the questions ‘liars’, which I found extremely unnecessary, unkind and lacking compassion, it’s a helpful article.


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