2021-04-21 Harmony of Zen and Vipassanā (3 of 5) The Suchness of Emotions
11:57PM Apr 21, 2021
Emotions are probably not what we think they are. Maybe the way we think about and conceive them in some way keeps us from being liberated and free. Maybe it even keeps our emotions from having a certain kind of freedom.
I am very fond of the idea that in English, the Latin root for the word emotion, "motion" means movement. And the "e" part, the prefix, means "out." So "moving out." I like to interpret this as all emotions are processes. They are activities, movements. And they all want to move out. They all want to spread or process themselves. Our inner life has an amazing capacity to process emotions. So, to let them unfold or dissolve – to unfold in a way that there is some wisdom in doing this. We often interfere with that wisdom. We interfere with a natural process.
I love this way of thinking that cutting vegetables in the kitchen, I might cut my finger. It might bleed and I have a responsibility or opportunity to take care of it. Maybe by washing the wound and putting a bandaid on it to protect it. But the actual healing I cannot do. Physiologically, this is a much more complicated event than I could ever possibly engineer or understand. To send the right antibodies, proteins, hormones or whatever is involved in the right combination of things and make the whole thing healed again. What I do is keep the wound clean, safe and protected. The body has the wisdom to heal the wound, usually.
The same thing with our emotional life. Our hearts, our inner life, know something. If we get out of the way, and allow our emotional life to unfold, it can move to some resolution, or solution, some unfolding or place, depending on the emotion that is there. Many times we don't allow that, because we are so involved – either in the emotion, reacting to it or something – or we are spinning the story even more.
They say that one of the leading causes for depression (not the only cause – I don't want to give that impression), but one of the leading causes is rumination. One of the things that makes grief more difficult than it needs to be is rumination – thinking, rehearsing, remembering, feeling guilt and blame, and all kinds of things. That gets in the way of trusting and respecting the grief.
It is like a beach ball that we are constantly kicking before we can pick it up and hold it gently in the palms of our mindfulness. Instead of keeping the momentum going all the time, in mindfulness practice, we are learning how to get out of the way, with a deep respect for our emotions.
I like very much the word "respect" as a synonym for mindfulness or for vipassanā. Because in "respect," "re-" comes from the Latin prefix "again," and "spect" is like "spectator" or "spectacles" – "to see." So to look again, to re-spect our emotional life is to give it a second look. "What is this?" And then see it clearly, allowing it to unfold and be there.
Whether that is useful in all circumstances in life, I don't know. But it is very powerful, effective to do in certain circumstances of life and meditation is one of them. Sometimes when I have strong emotions that are difficult for me, I will go for a walk in the mountains, a long walk. The walking, I find very useful. There is something about the movement of walking, that keeps me from getting locked into the emotion and the thoughts. I can let all of it just flow, and do what it needs to do.
Sometimes when I have had strong emotions, difficult emotions, I will sit in meditation. I don't try to stop anything. I don't even try to stop my thinking mind per se. But I will constantly come back and compost the strong emotions in my body. Which means for me, that I keep returning to feel what is happening emotionally in my body, make space and really feel it. When I do that, I am stepping a bit away from the thoughts that are spinning. If I only thought I would probably get into all kinds of trouble, go crazy. But I step away from it. Not to stop it, but to change the context and feel what is there. As if the body knows how to process it and unfold it. I will do it again and again, as I compost what I am feeling.
There are some emotions that are clearly a byproduct of what we think. I have sat in meditation – having a perfectly lovely, peaceful time – and then, for what reasons I have no idea – I will think about some conversation I had with someone 20, 30, 40, or almost 50 years ago. Somehow this thought comes through the mind, and with that thought: Boom! I get angry, irritated, afraid or something. As I keep telling the story, "She said ... I said ... I should have said. Why didn't I say?" I could feel the emotions and the heat operating. It was clear that the thinking, the thoughts seemed to be central to keeping this thing going.
I have had times when I have learned to quiet the thinking mind, and just be with the feelings and the emotions. It is clear that I am no longer feeding it, like pouring gasoline on the fire. Then something different begins to happen. Some things cool and quiet and settle. Rather than solving our emotional problems, sometimes they dissolve.
Some emotions that we feel have nothing to do with our external life. They may have to do with physiology. It is not a matter of what we are thinking. But it is feeling it in the body. So not identifying with it, not making a story out of it. A story about "Oh, poor me. I'm bad or I'm wrong that I should feel this way."
Making a lot of space for it, so that the mood or emotion we have is not a filter through which we see ourselves and see life. That ability to not let it be a filter of what is going on has to do with this ability to stop, look and respect what is happening here. And acknowledge, recognize, feel and know it. Maybe tease it apart. Just let it be simple for itself.
That is a kind of liberation. That is where freedom can happen – where we are no longer entangled and caught up in all this. We can allow everything in its uniqueness to be there for itself. It is a beautiful, generous thing, to grant all the particularities of our life their freedom. To give an emotion its freedom to emote, to be there in the quiet and safety of just being present for it.
To allow our reactions and our identifications with it, to let that be free. Meaning we do not get involved and keep thinking it – scratching the scab. We just let it be: "Okay you're there. Okay, you're free, but you're free in a sense that you're not casting a light back on me." I am not defining myself by this emotion.
This wonderful, rich part of mindfulness practice is bringing mindfulness to careful, respectful attention to the fullness and richness of our emotional life. Not to be involved with our emotions, not to celebrate or denigrate them, but to allow them to be there in their simplicity.
What happens with that is at some point we start seeing that there are two classes in our emotional life – two classes of emotions or attitudes that we can have. On one side are the ones that are clearly involved – arise out of our reactivity, arise out of our contraction, resistance, pushing, wanting and not wanting, the ways in which we build ideas of self – me, myself and mine – our attitudes towards others. They are more compulsive, automatic and involve what in early Buddhism might be called some level of craving, or drivenness, some lack of freedom.
There is another class of emotions that come when there is no reactivity. It is the free and unfettered response of our psychophysical system – some people might say of our hearts. Those feelings and emotions seem to grow and expand the more we are present for them. Rather than dissolving because we are not feeding them any more with our attention, our stories and all that rumination. Things like compassion, kindness, warmth, generosity, love. These are wonderful states that can be pure and simple, and spread throughout our bodies – seemingly throughout the whole world – spreading from us in their simplicity.
Somehow learning to get out of the way and not be entangled with the emotions, and with shoulds and shouldn'ts, defining ourselves by them and trying to do something with them. Just relaxing and allowing the simplicity of these good states and this good sensitivity to be there. These beautiful capacities for heart-centered emotions can grow and develop.
To develop a heightened respect, sensitivity, care and attention to our emotional life is one of the great benefits of vipassanā practice. It is one of the great gifts. Life seems so much richer with this liberated emotional life.
So thank you for today and I will continue tomorrow with mindfulness of thinking. There also, thinking is not what you think it is. Thank you.