There are many potential obstacles on the path to enlightenment, but there is one that is particularly challenging to deal with and that underlies many, if not most, of the other obstacles: negative emotions. Negative emotions come in many forms, but all derive from self-cherishing—seeing ourselves as separate from others and holding on to that sense of separateness (wanting things our way). They manifest in obvious ways, such as feeling angry, jealous, fearful, anxious or competitive; and they manifest in subtle ways, such as blaming others, feeling prideful or superior, feeling that others are treating us unfairly, feeling good when others experience misfortune or taking credit for things instead of directing the credit to others or to God. Negative emotions can be expressed verbally in the form of lying, gossiping, boasting, exaggerating about ourselves, finding fault with others, talking about their shortcomings, etc.; and they can be expressed physically in the form of harming or killing others or causing them to be harmed or killed (such as when we eat meat, fish, milk or eggs, or wear leather, fur, wool or silk), stealing from others, abusing others sexually, being greedy, etc.
If we want to realize enlightenment so that we can truly be of service to others and experience lasting peace and happiness, we must free ourselves of self-cherishing and the negative emotions it feeds upon. Two sets of practices are very effective for this work: japa/meditation and maitri/karuna. These practices shift the focus away from our small self, or ego, and toward others, our higher self and God.
Japa is the repetition of a mantra. Such mantras as let-go or lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu, when said with sincerity daily over a long period of time, will work on a subtle vibrational level resulting in the purification and rearrangement of the cells and tissues of our physical, energetic, emotional and mental bodies. Mantras that are composed from the name of God, like Shri Krishna Sharanam Mama, or many of the kirtan mantras, for example, have the power to build a Divine body in the form of the deity whose name we are repeating. Gradually over time, we begin to identify with that Divine body and let go of our identification with the ego, which is the source of negative emotions. Meditate every day for as long as you can, chanting your mantra over and over silently to yourself. And throughout the day, silently chant the mantra whenever you remember to do so, but especially when you notice that you are having a negative thought or feeling, or you are starting to speak gossip or unkind words, or you are finding fault with others or speaking sarcastically or cynically. In this way you will train yourself to substitute a higher intention or a more elevated longing for the habitual responses of your small self.
Maitri means “friendliness,” and karuna means “compassion.” They are given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra (verse 1.33), as practices for maintaining serenity of mind. Essentially, the practice is to put others first, to avoid dwelling on what we think is good for us and instead devote ourselves to uplifting the lives of others. That is a foreign concept for most of us; we are usually taught to take care of our own needs first and to stand up for our “rights.” But that approach only reinforces the sense of separateness that is the source of negative emotions and suffering. Consider the question: Would I rather be right, or would I rather be free? Small selves, or egos, can be right, but they can never be free, because the nature of the ego is to hold oneself separate from others and even from the Divine. The higher, Divine, Self is not bound by concepts of right or wrong and is totally free. To shift your identity away from your ego and towards the Divine, you must train yourself to overcome negative emotions. Let go of resentment when you see others succeeding, or satisfaction when you see others failing, or self-righteousness when you see others behaving badly, and instead recognize that happiness and compassion for others, even when it feels unjustified, will ultimately lead to lasting happiness for yourself. Cultivate kindness for others, no matter who they are, serve others and devote your life to making them happy. Japa, asana and pranayama practice can help with this, by purifying the body at all levels, making space for the realization of the Oneness of being.
There is no negativity in the enlightened state. But to get there, we must become acutely aware of our negativity in all of its forms and let it go, using japa, maitri/karuna and other practices. May we all be released from the bondage of our small selves and dwell forever in the presence of the Divine.