How to Deal With Negative Emotions: Unraveling Our Mental Stories

The Enthusiastic Buddhist - Finding Mental Freedom

There is a meditation technique called ‘tracing back the thought’. When we apply it to our everyday life it means that when we notice our mind has been caught up in a story we try to slowly go back through the mental events to see how it has resulted in the current chaos in our mind.

For example, the other day I was feeling generally annoyed and irritated with everyone around me. They hadn’t done anything wrong, and it wasn’t that I had gotten out of the wrong side of the bed. I sat at my computer wondering where all this frustration had come from. I thought to myself, before I got to work, I didn’t feel happy. When I was driving in my car, I didn’t feel happy. When I left home I was feeling happy. So what was I doing in the car?

Then I remembered I had been listening to the news on the radio. Something on the news had triggered a painful memory. It was a memory that brought with it feelings of disappointment, anger and betrayal. Suddenly there was an onslaught of emotions and negative thoughts that had arisen, simply from a single thought that I had had.

Now what do you think? Would it be practicing wisdom to blame the news for making me upset that morning? Would it be wise to blame myself for having a memory arise in response to having heard something? Would it be kind to blame my parents for giving me the car I was driving in? No. None of these reactions would be considered very intelligent. The whole intention of ‘tracing back the thought’ is to see how our mental stories arise from the interplay of many factors. They don’t simply arise by themselves. They are built up of many components. In my case, the frustration arose because of the news item; which was read by a reporter; who sat in the office of a radio building somewhere; on a chair probably built by a manufacturer from abroad; and because my ear organ was working it allowed me to understand the words; and because my memory was working (albeit probably biased and remembering everything how I wanted it to and not how things actually happened); and because I had actually turned on the radio and paid attention to it. There are many more factors I could list here. These were just some of the many interdependent factors that allowed for my frustration to arise.

When we can see that our feelings arise from our thoughts, which arise from a combination of many internal or external phenomena, we begin to realize that we don’t have to take the feelings so seriously. They arose from emptiness and will again dissolve into emptiness.

By examining our feelings, we will find that they are not as solid and real as we first imagined. They are completely empty of any inherent or separate existence. Once we realize that there is nothing to cling to or point the finger at as the sole instigator of our painful feelings, we can take a deep breath and let them go. There’s no need to spoil a potentially good day because of one stray thought that got the better of us for a little while.

And if you ask me what the memory was that got me so emotional, I can honestly say, only a week later, that I don’t have a single clue. It was erased from my mind because I let it go and moved on. And if it comes up again in the future? Well, I will just have to exercise better mindfulness and put out the flames before it becomes another fire.

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