Embracing Emotions as the Path
Buddhist Tantra transforms the elemental emotions.

Embracing Emotions as the Path

Colours and Elements in Tantric Psychology

by Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Dchen

Only through direct experience can we begin to perceive our world differently. Philosophical speculations and intellectual conjectures that are not experienced cannot be integrated into our fundamental perception of the world – they will remain abstractions. It follows that the experience of meditation practice is essential as a means of realizing the Buddhist view, for it is only within the development of the meditational experience that we become transparent to ourselves through witnessing the mechanics of our stylized perception.

According to the Tibetan Tantric view there are three spheres of being: the outer world of our surroundings, the inner world of our perceptions, and a spatial continuum that underlines and interpenetrates both. This spatial continuum displays itself as five fields of primary energy, which make up the elemental basis of both external and internal phenomena. These fields are solidity or earth, fluidity or water, combustion (heat) or fire, motility or air (wind), and emptiness or space without content. The primary purpose of Tantra is transmutation, which, rather than trying to ‘get rid of our problems’, facilitates the transformation of their intrinsically enlightened energy.

Tantra sees us as being symbols of ourselves: we are not the ‘real thing’, simply colourful energetic vibrant free energies that are utterly real. The enlightened being that you actually are, and have always been – this is ‘the real thing’, rather than the collection of neuroses, anxieties, and habits with which we are familiar. So, the pattern and individual character of our psychological and emotional framework is ’symbolic’ in the sense that we symbolize our own enlightened being in ways that take the form of one or a number of the elemental fields: earth; water; fire; air; and space.

Our expressed personality is derived from the encyclopaedia of symbols of our enlightened nature. As such it offers the key to discovering that nature.

Every state of mind, however distressed or distressing, is linked dynamically to an aspect of the intrinsic freedom of the non-dual play of our free elements. The Tantric methods reveal that mind is intrinsically free (unconstrained by symbols), and that this complete openness of mind needs to be personally disclosed rather than created. There is no concept here in which one has to artificially re-structure oneself according to a spiritually healthy philosophical perspective – all positivist intellectual formulations, are based either on wishful thinking or nave idealism rather than on direct experience. So, although the view of our distorted emotional patterning which we are now about to explore may be a positively creative perspective, if it remains in the realm of theory it won’t actually be of any real use.

As soon as we are able to witness our stylized perception directly we will become aware of whether what we are exploring is heartfelt or intellectually fabricated. When we are able to see ourselves in operation, then other people also become increasingly transparent to us, and this may facilitate compassionate responses of less restricted scope. In healing ourselves, we may develop the clarity and insight essential if we are to facilitate the healing of others.

To discover the raw methodology of embracing emotions as the path, we need some understanding of the Tantric perspective, in which human beings are seen as lacking psychological health and freedom. In Tibetan medicine, the first premise which prospective doctors have to acknowledge is that they themselves are ill. The doctor/therapist – patient relationship is considerably influenced by the fact that Tibetan doctors see themselves as having specific knowledge to help others suffering from more severe and externally manifested variants of their own illness – the illness of duality. This duality is the mind-constructed division of emptiness and the forms which continuously arise from (and dissolve back into) emptiness. When we polarize emptiness and form, and then reject emptiness in favour of form, we enter into duality. This occurs when we react inappropriately to the intrinsic spaciousness of being in terms of mistaking the intrinsic spaciousness of being as emptiness. This maladaptive reaction appears to be our ’characteristic human predilection’, and seems to evolve in five recognizable patterns of distorted experience. The five patterns take their character from the elements (earth, water, fire, air and space) as they manifest in terms of our emotional/psychological energies.

These maladaptive behavioural patterns are all designs or scenarios that we have personally evolved, their performers, to create the sensation of well being or security. We all have these ‘perceptual philosophies’ and ultimately, although we may consider ourselves to be well-balanced, emotionally stable people – we all are subject to the continual irritating prickle of ‘life’, which is never quite what we want or need it to be. The people whom we may describe as being emotionally /psychologically unstable or unbalanced have merely complicated these ‘perceptual philosophies’ and act out highly convoluted ‘sub-plots’ that can be farcical or tragic. If we have such problems, it is because our life circumstances have ‘conspired’ to facilitate our integration of increasingly distorted ‘perceptual philosophies’. In order to unlearn these unhelpful ‘skills’, we first need to examine the apparent benefits we derive from implementing them.

These peculiar benefits take their characteristics from our distorted reactions to the ‘intrinsic spaciousness of being’; each characterized by the qualities of the five elements. Exploring the nature of each maladaptive habit pattern requires that we examine the nature and functioning of the natural elements. From a merely intellectual point of view, the psychology of Tantra is delightfully picturesque and poetic in the way that it draws ‘analogies’ between the elements and the states of mind to which they are linked. To the practitioner of Tantra, however, they are not analogies, but dynamically linked configurations of lived experience. The system of elements and their subtle psychological/emotional counterparts enables Tantric practitioners to see the phenomenal world as a psychological teaching aid. We have explored these ideas more fully and in less condensed language in Spectrum of Ecstasy.

Five distorted reaction patterns

Let us look at these five distorted elemental reaction patterns. The reaction of the distorted Earth element to the intrinsic spaciousness of being is one of insignificance and insubstantiality, and the tangent we take leads us to cultivate solidity and power. The need to surround ourselves with overt displays of wealth and dominion grows out of our deep-seated sense of poverty and worthlessness. To compensate for this hollowness, we become builders of empires – we hoard wealth and accumulate seemingly cogent definitions of who we are in terms of status, ownership, control, fame, worship and dominance. Concretisation and obduracy feed the rigidity of our frames of reference – territorialism and arrogance lead us further into antisocial interpersonal behaviour.

The distorted Water element’s reaction to the intrinsic spaciousness of being is one of fear, and the tangent that we take is aggression, in which we feel justified in lashing out. Justification feeds our anger and sense of resentment and we see the world as a field of combat. We come to regard ‘emotional-overkill’ as an effective means of keeping our fear at bay. If we feel ourselves to be powerless, we necessarily feel compelled to arm ourselves with physical, intellectual and emotional weaponry. We magnify the ‘strike-potential’ of others out of all proportion, because we identify them with the spaciousness we fear. We rapidly ‘learn’ that attack is the best form of defence. But when we feel ourselves to be naturally empowered and confident, we can afford to be gentle and tolerant.

The distorted Fire element reaction to the intrinsic spaciousness of being is one that gives rise to the feeling of isolation and separation, and the tangent that we take is one in which we generate the compulsion to consummate, and to cling to the comforting proximity of people, places, things and ideas. We find our world to be an emotional desert and attempt to crowd out our loneliness by indiscriminately grabbing at the experience of union with any focus of our fleeting attention. In some ways, this pattern is similar to the distorted earth-style reaction – but whereas the distorted Earth style finds only the sensation of emptiness and insubstantiality in the process of hoarding and scanning, the distorted fire style finds only the emptiness of isolation and separation in the process of consummation. In the earth style we misinterpret the discovery of insubstantiality as the need to consolidate further; we need to scan mightier ramparts and bastions of personal reality. In the fire style, we misinterpret the discovery of isolation/separation as the need to unify as quickly as possible with further and yet further focuses of seductive proximity.

The distorted Air element reaction to the intrinsic spaciousness of being is one of groundless anxiety and the tangent we take involves us in self-generating suspicion that accelerates in such a way as to make further acceleration the only possible option. We suspect that complex contrivances are in motion, born out of the sinister unknown, whose designs are to undermine us in ways that are not immediately apparent. We lack any sense of stability – we feel that whatever sense of somethingness which we are manipulating to counter the threat of oblivion exists ridiculously precariously in comparison to the lurking threat of that worrying ‘nothingness’. We become tense, agitated and hyperactive as we keep our concentration continually moving – trying to keep everything under surveillance at once. We never know in which moment we could be tricked or treacherously betrayed if we falter in our vigilance. Our feelings range from envy through jealousy and suspicion to paranoia; and finally, psychosis. In some ways, this pattern has similarities to the distorted water element reaction, but whereas in this style, we fear direct, coherent and obvious assault, the air style is one in which fear in the form of uncertainty and nervousness arises out of not knowing how and when suspected assault will manifest. So, rather than lashing out at ‘obvious’ but mistaken threats we engage in high-tension speculation. The water-style defence mechanisms are fairly direct and brutal – we could compare them to jet-fighter planes or battleships. But the air style defences are far more complex, intricate and indirect; there is absolutely no trust involved in anything – we wouldn’t even get our fighter planes off the ground because we would become involved with interminable double-checking. We become obsessed with grotesquely convoluted analyses of the range of hidden plots against us – we could compare the air-style maladaptive pattern to counter-counter-counter-espionage against double/triple/quadruple agents.

The distorted Space reaction is fundamental, it underlies the other four because it is the initial misapprehension giving rise to the other four and into which they subsequently collapse. This fundamental distorted pattern is one in which we are quite simply and utterly overawed/overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of space. The tangent that we take is maybe better described as one in which we feel completely unable to take any kind of tangent – we become incapacitated and depressed. We cut off from the outside world and become introverted, locked inside ourselves – we play blind, deaf, dumb, insensate and numb to experience – we seek shelter in oblivion.

These five distorted reaction patterns exist within each other and most ‘healthy’ people have a balance of these patterns in their less tortuous manifestations. Some ‘healthy’ people have imbalances of one or more element patterns but their energy generates qualities, abilities and talents as well as destructive habits and tendencies. Some people have great elemental imbalances that become fuelled by circumstances to such an extent that we designate them as emotionally unbalanced or psychologically disturbed. But whatever the imbalance, the essence of Tantric psychology is that our distorted element reactions to space are dynamically linked to our liberated potentialities.

Five liberated energies

The territorialism of the distorted earth element neurosis can be transmuted into non-referential appreciation and spacious generosity. The aggression of the distorted water element neurosis can be transmuted into clarity and insight.

The obsessiveness of the distorted fire element neurosis can be transmuted into active-compassion – the passion beyond passion. The paranoia of the distorted air element can be transmuted into uncodified confidence and self-accomplishing activity. The deliberate depression of the distorted space element reaction can be transmuted into ubiquitous intelligence and pervasive awareness.


Element Response to Intrinsic Spaciousness Reactions to the response Effect of transmutation
Earth element Feeling of insignificance Cultivation of solidity and power Equanimity
Water element Fear, feeling powerless Lashing out, recklessness Clarity
Fire element Isolation, loneliness Clinging to comforts Compassion
Air element Anxiety, vulnerability, paranoia Excessive analysis Confidence
Space element Sense of being overwhelmed Incapacitation, depression Pervasive intelligence


With this model of perverted perceptual philosophies and emotional habit patterns (as distortions of the liberated energy of our emotions) we are able to see ourselves in a different light. The painful aspects of our emotional personalities (as well as the joyous aspects) are doorways to our liberated potential. Experiential familiarity with the Tantric view of the emotions enables us to recognise in ourselves, vibrant open qualities within what has come to be devalued as merely emotionalism.

If we look carefully at anger for instance, we can see many of the qualities of clarity, as distorted yet recognisable reflections. Anger is hyper-intelligent – often in a state of anger we release heightened capacities of wit and memory. Sarcasm is delivered with speed and unusual accuracy – we know just where the exposed emotional nerves are in others and we make rapier thrusts at them with the surgical sharpness of our hatred.

Taking emotions as the path

In this view of our emotions as ‘reflections’ of fields of liberated energy, our method of freeing ourselves is one of making direct contact with our emotional energies rather than one of becoming involved at the level of reactions which involve ourselves in expression, repression or dissipation.

These three familiar methods of working with emotions are linked to the three dualistic tendencies: attraction, aversion, and indifference. These are the ways in which we react to everything that presents itself as long as we ‘hide’ from the spaciousness of being. Attraction, aversion, and indifference underpin the fabric of our motivation as long as we equate the intrinsic spaciousness of being with annihilation, and as long as we have this conception that we can only react in these three ways. We continually scan our perceptual horizon in order to establish reference points to prove to ourselves that the intrinsic spaciousness of being is a figment. And so we are attracted to whatever makes us feel solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined. (Solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition relate to earth, water fire, air, and space.) We are averse to anything that suggests the opposite and indifferent to whatever we are unable to manipulate. It is this dense web of motivation and patterned perception that almost entirely restricts the natural ‘sparkle’ of our being. We cannot get rid of the cause of our painful feelings by repressing them, or by expressing them, or by dissipating them.

Many people have found that through being helped to express their anger (for example) they have overcome such problems as depression (which can be caused by repressing feelings of anger), but this has led to the mistaken view that it is healthy to express anger. In Tantric terms, to express anger is only to intensify the distorted reflection and to create further illusory distance from the liberated energy of that emotion. To express anger is only to condition us with a pattern of perception that triggers angry responses more readily in more varied situations. Simply speaking, if we regard our anger as a healthy release, we’re just training ourselves to be angry people. We avoid the side effects of repression, but we acquire the side effects of expression. Dissipation is the least injurious activity in terms of side effects whether dealing with anger or with any emotion, but it doesn’t deal with the root of the dilemma. Until that is directly confronted, an emotion will always re-emerge when our circumstances trigger one of our five distorted responses.

The practice of meditation in the context of embracing emotions as the path gives us another option. This option is one in which we neither repress, express nor dissipate our emotional energy. But one in which we let go of the conceptual scaffolding and wordlessly gaze into the physical sensation of the emotion. This is what we describe as 'staring into the face of arising emotions in order to realise their empty nature’. This is where meditation becomes an essential aspect of our method of discovery. The form of meditation we will discuss here comes from the system known as Trk-chd, which means ‘exploding the horizon of conventional reality’. Trk-chd involves finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of the sensation of the emotion we are experiencing. Simply speaking, we find the location of the emotion within the body (it may be localised or pervasive). This is where we feel the emotion as a physical sensation. We then allow that sensation to expand and pervade us. We become the emotion. We cease to be observers of our emotions. We stare into the face of the arising emotion with such completeness that all sense of division between ‘experience’ and ‘experiencer’ dissolve. In this way we open ourselves to glimpses of what we actually are. We start to become transparent to ourselves. Through this staring, the distorted energy of our emotions liberates itself. In the language of trk-chd it is said: ‘of itself – it liberates itself’, and ‘it enters into its own condition’. In order to use meditation in this way, we need to have developed the experience of letting go of obsessive attachment to the intellectual/conceptual process as the crucial reference point on which our sense of being relies. In short, we need to be able to dwell in our own experiential space without manipulating whatever arises to referential ends. We need to experience mind, free conceptual activity – yet qualified by the effulgence of pure and total presence.

Through the practice of meditation, we discover that we can make direct contact with the unconditioned essence of our spectrum of liberated energy. We can embrace our emotions and realise the unending vividness of what we are.

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