EBT and catharsis (or: can watching Rambo help with samadhi?)

What did the Buddha think of catharsis? (which is the purging of negative emotions for example through art):

I will illustrate this with an example which has very much surprised me. A friend of mine has told me that he has had a very peaceful meditation yesterday; he had seen the new Rambo movie the previous day, which he thinks had purged him of his aggressiveness (I wouldn’t exactly define Rambo as art, but I think you’ll understand what I mean).
Did the Buddha recommend some form of catharsis?

Helli Irene,

I won’t dare to speak for the Buddha, and I can’t quote EBT’s directly but I can relate to the question from my own experience.

I think meditation can help the practitioner go thru a soft or mild kind of catharisis.

Sitting down cross legged in a forest, at the root of a tree, or in a empty dwelling can help recognize feelings and emotion that habit, drive or afflict us, and can allow us to understand their root or at least point out that those are area of interest worth investigating further.

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Thank you sukha. I think that on some occasions it is not difficult to recognize your emotions and you don’t need to sit cross legged under a tree to be able to do this. Many people who do not practice meditation are able to recognize when they are angry for example. So my question was more on how to purge these negative emotions.
For example some philosophers and psychologists recommend catharsis.
Some people speak of punching a pillow to release anger (but Thich Nhat Hanh does not recommend it so I don’t know what the official ETB recommendation is on this one).
Ajahn Hassapana on her recent talk on Youtube on ‘How to deal with anger’ speaks of a woman who could keep calm with her angry husband by cleaning the toilets using his toothbrush. This act of secret revenge enabled her to purge her anger.
So my subject of my question is really about purging negative emotions, not just recognizing them.

I see what you are saying there. And I can quote the EBT here from MN20:

“If, while he is giving attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then, with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind. When, with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are abandoned in him and subside."


There are quite close parallels to Aristotelian catharsis in classical Indian “taste science” / rasavidyā, but Buddhist (some Theravādin, but mainly Yogācārin) engagement with this is a very late development. (For details see Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful anthology: A Rasa Reader - classical Indian aesthetics).

Given the dim view that the EBTs report the Buddha as taking with regard to dance, music, dramaturgy and the productions of poets, I think the early sangha would have regarded the concerns of rasavidyā as quite antithetical to the aims of Buddhist ascesis.


One thought with the purging of emotions in mind is to practice Metta for example. It’s impossible for the brain to hold contradicting thoughts or emotions at the same time; doing Metta practice helps purge feelings of anger or resentment. Once these negative feelings are identified and mitigated, the roots of the emotion can be explored, and worked with. And if you need to clean a toilet, use a toilet brush :slight_smile:

Alternatively, it can be helpful in purging negative emotions to do some body work. Walking meditation in a forest can help. Yoga can help. I found when I was living in a wat and felt some negative emotions that finding a Thai broom and sweeping helped. thai%20broom
Physical activity is a great purge method for negative emotions.


Thank you,

I have also noticed that physical activity helps with diffusing anger to some extent. I love yoga but it’s a bit too light for me for that purpose, I find that harder physical exercise can be more helpful

I have read that argument before but I don’t find it very helpful. I find that if a negative emotion has built enough momentum, you can feel metta for a while maybe but then the mind goes back to the negative emotion. So perhaps you can’t have both emotions at the same time, but the mind reverts to the negative emotion pretty quickly.

Thanks for these references I shall look them up :grinning:

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True. Bu this practice can help with rumination over the negative thought or anger. It provides a refuge; a refuge from which one can regrip and regroup, work with the breath or whatever helps best, and try to process mitigate the negative feelings. It’s not easy work, I agree.

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In SN 56.11 the Buddha said “In brief, grasping the five aggregates is suffering”. When that is so, I do not understand why someone would resort to catharsis because the solution is not to grasp with the thought “this is mine, this I am, and this is myself”.
With metta


Based on personal experience, I find that trying to switch from negative to positive emotions in meditation (say, by practicing metta and/or going back to the breath) is actually rather problematic. Like, if the negative emotion isn’t particularly deeply-rooted to begin with, then switching to something positive can help. But trying to force myself away from a very strong negative emotion generally makes things worse.

I had a huge breakthrough when I tried out Jason Siff’s “Recollective Awareness” technique, in which he advocates exploring thoughts and emotions (INCLUDING negative ones) in meditation. It’s kinda related to the 4th form of meditation advocated in MN 20, as well as satipatthana on the mind (which I’ve noticed is often neglected/poorly taught compared to satipatthana on feelings and body) .

Ironically enough, I discovered this technique while I had an injured back, and was spending a large amount of the time lying down…including spending a lot of time watching tv, which I rarely do otherwise. The watching TV might have helped, not because of the content of the shows, but because it helped me let go. It eased some anxiety. But ultimately I think the lying down/relaxing was the most important factor.

I could see how watching a movie like “Rambo” could help with catharsis if it forces you to actually see/confront aggressiveness (or whatever other negative quality) rather than trying to repress it or deny it (which too often meditators do, even if they don’t realize it). Not all the practices the Buddha recommended were “pretty”…he also talks about meditating on death, corpses, and ugliness.

The Buddha also recommended recollection of the Devas, where one focuses on the positive qualities of the devas and seeing them in yourself. Interestingly, from what I remember, the Buddha particularly recommends contemplation of the devas for laypeople in the EBTs. TBH I could see this compatible with a more art-centric practice….you can use the art to ruminate on positive qualities in others, in order to see them in yourself.


I’ve stopped, Aṅgulimāla—now you stop.”

Then Aṅgulimāla thought, “These Sakyan ascetics speak the truth. Yet while walking the ascetic Gotama says: ‘I’ve stopped, Aṅgulimāla—now you stop.’ Why don’t I ask him about this?”

After discussion briefly reported, he asked for and receiving the Going Forth, and the Buddha welcomed him as a monk. Later, spurred on by requests from the people, the king sought him out, and found him in the Buddha’s brethren. The Buddha reassures the king, who after meeting a very polite Aṅgulimāla,

the king went back to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him, “It’s incredible, sir, it’s amazing! How the Buddha tames those who are wild, pacifies those who are violent, and extinguishes those who are unextinguished! For I was not able to tame him with the rod and the sword, but the Buddha tamed him without rod or sword.

Seeking catharsis might be running fruitlessly after the Buddha. Story is worth reading.