07/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Equilibrium, Enlightenment, and Facing Your Day

In psychologist Daniel Goleman's 2004 book Destructive Emotions,
the writer asks the Dalai Lama whether he thinks that the Buddha's brain was organically different from that of a normal person. In a question that might well have been asked of any spiritual master from Jesus to Mohammed, Lao Tzu or Moses, the writer is seeking to know whether The Enlightened One was made of such different stuff that he never experienced negative thoughts such as jealousy, frustration, hatred or sadness. The Lama answers, somewhat unexpectedly, (I paraphrase) that whether the Buddha's brain was the kind of saucepan that never formed a negative bubble, or whether he was able to dissolve the rising bubble of destructive thought before it reached the surface, the effect is the same.

Simply put, this means that enlightened masters are qualitatively just like the rest of us; the difference is one of quantity. Unlike those of us just struggling to get through our day -- no secret sobbing at some coworker's abusive attitude, no screaming at our children for yet another dinner glass broken, no whacking the dog for yet another pile on the carpet, no talking back to the boss for yet another unreasonable request, no impotent railing at the IRS for an impossible tax bill -- enlightened folks nip negative emotions in the bud and take life's challenges in stride.

The million-dollar question is: how small is that bud? If it flowers into a festering, fortnight-long sore that makes it impossible to eat (or drives you to consume desserts, fatty foods and hard liquor like it is going out of style) you've got some work to do. If, on the other hand, it begins to spread its petals, you look at it and grind it underfoot -- then you're on your way to a better life.

The Chinese have a term for this sort of equanimity, one that rises from their creation story. Much like our Bible, which relates how God created heaven and Earth from a void, classical Chinese cosmology describe a still and empty ether, pregnant with infinite possibility, from which the world spontaneously organized into the harmonious interplay of opposing forces we see today. This ether was called wuji, and that word can still be used to describe the equanimous, unassailable fortress of quiet acceptance that characterizes the unflappable among us.

Much time and effort is spent by self-help authors on ways to either channel negative feelings into constructive behavior, or make changes in the way we see the world so as to eliminate such feelings altogether. Might these exhortations and expectations be unrealistic, or even counter-productive? Wouldn't it be wiser to simply recognize these emotions, allow them, feel them, observe what we do with them, and direct our efforts to shortening the period during which we are in their thrall, thereby returning to wuji as quickly as possible?

It's a simple takeaway, really. Honor the feelings -- just don't become a slave to them. Listen to the inner voice of calm and reason and regain control of the way we feel in the shortest possible time. Strive not to say or do anything until we're calm again. See enlightenment as a process, not some lofty, unobtainable goal.

Instead of trying to change who or what we are, let's work to liberate ourselves from the bondage unfettered, destructive emotions bring us. We want to be free, don't we? Isn't freedom the greatest promise that any self-help class, book, podcast, lecture, DVD or program can offer? Isn't it wonderful that we already have all the tools we need to escape from a prison of our own creation?

Make it a game to notice your own dance with emotion. If you do, you will have taken the first draught of the antidote to the venom destructive emotions deliver. Pay attention to how long your anger burns. Recognize for how many days your resentment smolders, your jealousy lingers, your indignation persists. Breathe. Concentrate on letting go. Tell yourself you want to be free and happy again. It's a skill, see? All it takes is practice.