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4. Getting to Know our Emotional Household

Just as a sweet-smelling and beautiful lotus
can grow from a pile of discarded waste,
the radiance of a true disciple of the Buddha
outshines dark shadows cast by ignorance.

Dhammapada, verses 58 – 9

Somebody has asked the question, ‘What is emotion?’ I can’t say I know how to answer that question directly. I’m not even sure it would be very useful to try and say what emotion is. It’s like asking, ‘What is gravity?’ If we were to look in a physics textbook, we would find detailed mathematical descriptions of how gravity works, but they still don’t explain what the force of gravity actually is. It can be described in terms of its effects, and accurate predictions can be made about how it affects matter. Similarly, it might not be difficult to come up with psychological or neurophysiological descriptions of emotional activity, but I suggest that they probably wouldn’t be all that helpful.

However, I’m pleased the question has been asked, since I’m sure most of us have found out that we can’t really apply ourselves to the practice of awareness without encountering strong emotions. We quite rightly feel a need to understand this dimension of ourselves.

A useful way to approach the understanding of emotions is by considering not what they are but rather how we can discover an unobstructed relationship with them. By that I mean how we can get to know ourselves intimately; how we can learn by way of first-hand investigation to see where and how it is we find ourselves blocked or obstructed in our ability to receive emotion, our own or those of others. So I would recommend instead of asking ‘what’ that we ask ‘how’. How does it feel, to feel what we feel? How freely can we feel what we feel, when, for instance, we feel regret or disappointment? Do we escape up into our head and start analyzing ourselves, asking what is this regret, this disappointment, trying to create an explanation?

Related to this, a doctor friend who rings me from America from time to time called earlier this evening and was sharing his understanding of what he thinks is going on when Buddhists talk about transmigrating through the various realms of existence. According to him, this talk is about creating a mythology as a way of processing information that has been stored up in the brain. He gave a very sophisticated description that I confess I couldn’t really understand. But more important than my limited ability to grasp his abstraction was that I didn’t get any sense that this interpretation took him to a place of resolution. And surely that is the point of our practice – to take us to an experience of completeness.

It is quite valid to interpret the traditional Buddhist depictions of the Six Realms of Existence in terms of inner realities that we experience here and now, not only as referring to possible past and future lives. Yet we still have the task of finding out for ourselves how to remain conscious and calm as we ascend to the heavens or descend into hell realms. It is very easy to become attached to intellectualisations as a way of avoiding a more direct apprehension of ourselves. If we have a tendency to do this, we could be failing to make use of the valuable opportunity to face our strong emotions and passions in their raw reality. Unless we get to the root cause of our painful and unpleasant feelings, we will become lost time and again in pleasure or in pain, falling for their convincing appearance of permanence. Ultimately we need access to much better-rooted resources than abstract descriptions.

One of the things that inhibit our turning directly to face ourselves in the midst of emotional flare-ups is the fear that to do so will increase the suffering. We might think that if we stop resisting the threatening energy, it will take us over and be the cause of all kinds of humiliation. Contrary, however, to what we might have feared, if we stop this resisting and investigate how able we are to receive the emotion just as it presents itself, we will find an increased sense of confidence and self-respect, as we contact and develop our capacity for staying present with whatever arises. Little by little, this will take us into a relationship that feels much more appropriate, more humane. From the perspective of a willingness to fully allow this dimension of ourselves, we will see directly that stuffing emotions out of sight is an unkind, even an abusive thing to do. No wonder we didn’t feel like our own best friend!

Sadly, it is often the case that we haven’t had adequate examples of people who knew how to be accommodating of their own emotional household. The guardians and mentors who were responsible for our education and upbringing were often themselves suffering from the consequences of their own unawareness, and this inevitably rubbed off onto us. We learned the patterns of behaviour of the people that we lived with and picked up their habit of forcing that which we don’t like or are afraid of into the basement, hoping it will disappear.

But as the years went by we may have started to feel like there was something missing. A big empty feeling in our stomach or in our heart makes us feel that there is something lacking. The existence of this feeling in society at large is a significant factor as the driving force behind our consumer culture. It runs on this perception of something lacking. But no matter how much we try to assuage this feeling with ‘retail therapy’, our sense of personal integrity does not increase. We can feel like we are living someone else’s life and in constant fear of being found out.

Whenever I have read the colour supplement of the weekend newspaper – sometimes people leave us newspapers at the monastery – there are always these eye-catching pictures of food. I find myself wondering if people really eat like the pictures encourage them to. I mean you couldn’t live on those little weenie portions in the middle of that stylish plate. It looks more like a piece of graphic art than a meal, which often, of course, is what it is. It’s a designer exercise whose purpose is distraction. The same principle holds for various sporting activities. I recently stayed with a friend of the community in Leeds and watched a television program on extreme sports. ‘Extreme’ is a good description for much of the activity we engage in. But what is it that is driving such activity?

Instead of attempting to cover up the empty feeling with food or perfume or extreme sports, the practice of Dhamma encourages us to trust that, if we discipline attention carefully and skilfully, we can turn around and receive that feeling without reacting or shying away from it. How does it actually feel to feel, ‘I want something and I feel this sense of lack, this sense that I’m not all here’? If we really listen to this, what we can find, instead of an increase in our suffering as our perceived enemy takes us over, is a genuine, naturally arising, warm sense of joy.

When I allow this feeling of lack – often in the belly – to be received, I feel more honest and more genuinely alive. Related aspects of the experience start arising – memories and sensations – and if I track them, if I follow them and listen to them, not getting lost in them, not getting into arguments with them but simply receiving them with kindness and patience, I start to feel that there is all this unlived life, emotions that I didn’t want to live through, didn’t like, didn’t agree with and therefore stuffed them in the basement. We feel like we’re lacking, because we are lacking. There’s all this unacknowledged life of ours that has been driven into unawareness, that’s unreceived, unlived through and it’s getting very antsy.

Sooner or later in practice we come to a stage where we can no longer ignore the fact that we feel that something is not right; a stage when affirmations and the various other devices don’t work any more. We always have the option of giving up, of course, and indulging our beliefs in the possibility of fulfilment offered by sense gratification. However, we also have the possibility of continuing on our path of practice: that of listening deeply and receiving our emotions with increased willingness.

We might hear all these growling noises coming from down below and think, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen if I lift the lid off that?’ There can be a very real fear that arises when we find ourselves starting to encounter our unlived life. Habitually there might be thoughts of wanting to reach for the bottle, roll some weed or put on some good music – of doing anything but feeling this terrible feeling that we’re going to be taken over by something unknown and terrifying.

But what is there that would take us over anyway? This is England, for goodness sake! This is not some unfortunate country full of tyrants oppressing us; this is England, sweet England. Thankfully for us there isn’t anything ‘out there’ that will harm us. The only thing that could possibly take us over is our own wild nature. And since that is our energy, surely there is nothing to be afraid of. Of course it can, and at times does, feel like there is something to fear, but let us remember that, just because we feel afraid, it does not mean anything terrible is about to happen. How many times have we been fooled by the way these beguiling emotions appear?

Rather than asking what emotions are, let us try asking, ‘How freely can I receive myself in this domain of experience?’, and then let them teach us about life, about reality. If in asking that question we come upon a feeling of obstruction, let’s get interested in that. ‘How and where do I feel obstructed? Is it in the belly? Is it in the throat? Is there a sense that I am not allowed to feel these things? Is that what causes the feeling of being blocked or not allowed to know myself?’

If you were brought up in a rigid and repressive manner perhaps you were taught that it wasn’t okay to feel certain feelings – guilt for instance. Or if you did feel guilty you were told you had to go through the formula of asking for forgiveness to get rid of that feeling. If you continued to feel guilty that meant you were not, and could not be, part of ‘the club’ – you were out, you were going down. In my early life I found that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop feeling guilty. I certainly didn’t want to stop doing the fun things that were making me feel guilty, so what was left to do but deny it? Feeling guilty about living is so irrational that the rational mind decides to ignore the feeling. Big mistake! As a result we end up developing a habit of denying whatever it is we are feeling, in this case the feeling of guilt. In doing this we deny an entire domain of our lives – not just the painful feelings but even good feelings we are not free to feel. Now that’s sad.

Feelings of guilt, like all emotions, are forms of what we could call ‘heart-energy’. And when this energy, which in its nature is dynamic, is denied, it will come out in one of two ways; either as excess or as perversion. What might have been a healthy sense of moral shame can thus become a distorted sense of unworthiness. This peculiarly Western mental obstruction is a complex of anger and fear – a sense of righteous anger directed towards ourselves in an attempt to feel good by hating ourselves for being bad. And at the same time there is a gut-wrenching fear of eternal hell.

The good news, however, is that this whole drama is simply waiting to be received into awareness. With sensitivity and strength of heart born of constant mindfulness practice we can eventually find a readiness to turn around and meet ourselves. What we discover is the wonderful truth that there isn’t anything to be afraid of – nothing at all other than the lack of well-prepared mindfulness.

This line of investigation can be applied to all emotions. If for instance we push down anger, if we’ve been taught that ‘good boys and girls don’t get angry’ then we might grow up to be afraid of anger. We can be terrified of something that is totally natural. That which we experience as anger is actually our own hearts’ energy. It is something that we need to be intimately familiar with. We need all our energy for the work of purification. We can’t lock away portions of our hearts because we find them disagreeable. We can’t afford to entertain feelings of alienation and fear of our passionate nature. If such conditioning goes unrecognised for too long, the energy – hidden and difficult to uncover – will become toxic.

We might have to go through a humiliating outburst of anger before we start to suspect that it is there. Or perhaps we experience night after night of violent dreams. If the energy remains unreceived then the only alternative is a descent, as I mentioned, into perversion or excess. For the more introverted types, in which category most meditators fall, self-loathing is often the norm. ‘I’m worthless, I’m a hopeless case, and I’ve failed everything. I just put on a face and pretend, but basically I’m damaged goods. I hate myself so much’. Or paranoia: ‘Everybody hates me, everybody is out to harm me.’

The more extroverted character is likely to fall into expressions of excess like violence and aggression. We can see this in the way people go out on drinking binges, or become violent in their relationships or families. Is such ugliness a symptom of people’s inherent badness? Not at all; it’s a sign that anger has not been understood. Anger, in not being received, is uncontained and dangerous, but the issue is with the relationship we have with the energy, not with the energy itself. As meditators we really need to understand this. And I believe such understanding can come if we are interested in the actuality of what we call emotions, not merely in conceptualizations of them.

If we embark on such an investigation, we will not only come to a greater personal sense of contentment, but we may also find a clearer appreciation of why our world is such a strange place and what we can do to help it.

Thank you for your question.



© 2005 Aruna Publications