Emotional life can sometimes hit us like a tsunami, with all its destructive power, in particular in those moments of rage, reactivity, depression which can lead to violence and harm. But even positive emotions like falling in love can take us over and play havoc with our lives and those of others. Or emotions can be more subtle but equally disturbing, such as the poisons of chronic anxiety and worry, of criticism of self or others, of irritation, or gloom, which can contaminate the bright flowing waters of life and steal joy and ease.
Emotions always start with the first immediate seeds of responsiveness to what’s coming in through the senses: this experience is pleasant or unpleasant, a little ‘Like’ or ‘Dislike’ thumb that appears at the gate of our perception. It’s fast and mostly unconscious, we might only realize it when we have a concept of what is perceived, colored with those likes and dislikes, which arises in the mind a moment later. Something pulls us away from the computer and only then we know it as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
The first animal level responses on which emotions are built are called in Pali Vedana, which comes from Veda in Sanskrit or yeda in Hebrew. It is a kind of knowing, knowing based on feelings or knowing based on the heart. Indeed science has shown that every moment of brain activity, every thought and perception is coloured by what are called ‘affect’, fundamental emotional responsiveness, which is part of consciousness itself. We are not a computer. We are oriented towards survival, and just like the amoeba will move towards what is sweet and away from what is salty, so a person will express preferences and a push-pull responsiveness at every moment. We may not notice it – we may think that we go through our day without much feeling, but consider what makes us attend to this sensory stimulation and not another? What is important to look at when we cross the road? The mind is always saying ‘this is relevant, pay attention.’ Our life depends on it. Consider the tragic disease of Leprosy, in which the nerves don’t work properly to deliver messages of pain. Though pain is unpleasant, it is vital to know if the body is damaged so we can take action.
Emotional experience is built up from Vedana as the base around which we rapidly gather perception, reaction, , physiological responses, memory, habits, stories and identity. As the wave collects all these components it becomes much stronger, and then we recognize it as anger or anxiety, for example. Only then we know our buttons are being pressed. In the Tibetan tradition all emotions are basically divided into two categories which they call hope and fear, an inherent part of experience of all beings, human or otherwise.
Clearly, Vedana itself doesn't do that much, and it can have no major consequences. It’s not a problem. As soon as we build constructions out of it, it creates conditions for all kinds of consequences, it creates karma, it builds habits and attachments. A pain in the knee is just that, but as soon as we add a story to it: "oh, I wish it wasn’t there", "I will get crippled from this,” it means the pain is working, making waves in the inner and outer world.
But there are emotions that don’t have very much of "me" in them, a territory of deep feelings that are rather blessed. These are emotions that expand our inner world not contract it, and are less problematic from the point of view of the ‘karma’ or consequences. Sadness is one: it's not misery it's not depression, it's not anger, it's not fear. It connects us with a bigger picture and though there is pain in it, the heart is not just broken but broken open. Compassion is another. It is helpful if we can move the smaller self-emotions to the big ones. For example we respond to someone with anger, but then we make the switch in our mind, and realize that the person we're arguing with is suffering, and both of us are joined through mutual pain. In that moment the anger can collapse and in its place compassion can arise. Love-of course -, deep joy, contentment, longing – these are high level and liberating feelings that are very important in opening the heart and connecting us with the world. The Buddhist teachings encourage these emotional states, stating that you don’t have to have an emotion, but if you are going to have one, let it be one of those.
How can we detoxify emotional life and at the same time not suppress emotions or be enslaved by them? How can we experience emotions as a music of the heart and not a distressing cacophony? The way to work with emotions first and foremost is with mindfulness. In the Satipattana Sutta, the Buddha guides us to a direct and immediate awareness of emotions. It says: be aware of feelings in the feelings, i.e. the ‘feelingness’ of feelings, the quality of the feeling. Instead of looking at feelings from a distance, or thinking about them, it's knowing them from the inside.
Its important in mindfulness as a whole, and here especially, to have a completely non-critical, nonjudgmental attitude. If feeling is difficult or hard to deal with, we give it our kind attention, we recognize what the emotion is, we recognize that it is difficult or painful, and we allow it to be what it is, without adding to it any resistance or thought that it should be something else. The key to freeing us from the control of emotions is to see them phenomenologically, as passing expressions that arise, flower and die away. The ability to welcome them as visitors that arrive and leave, to see them again and again as passing phenomena, gradually frees us from their control.
An emotion like anger, or a specific ingrained fear, can be very powerful, automatic and hard to get a grasp on, let alone to be fully seen as it is. It is so powerful because it is grounded in self – protection and survival, an animal power, and the ‘flight or fight’ response. It carries us away, and we may often feel that it is too strong for our mindfulness to hold with attention. Here is where all the practice of mindfulness we've ever done in our whole life is needed. It will give us the power to stop in the midst of the storm, and come to our senses and watch the storm as it arises and as it passes. We can also be helped by the fact that an emotional reaction is built up from many parts, including and especially bodily responses. These are usually easier to identify and get a handle on, and to see directly. We break down the whole construction of our overwhelming anger, into a much more limited domain of: "how is my stomach right now”. I used to suffer terribly from fear of public speaking. I was a lecturer at the time at the University of London, and every time I had to talk in front of students I just wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. I wanted to die. It was awful. Mindfulness saved me. I would stand there as the students took their seats, breathe a couple of conscious breaths, to bring myself into the present, and then focus on one of the physical symptoms of the fear – usually the stomach contracting or the heart racing. Others, such as dry mouth, short breath and sweating, were additional places to focus attention on now and then. By practicing again and again, the fear was reduced to a peripheral, and unimportant bodily phenomena, it no longer took center stage, and eventually the fear disappeared, and that was the end of it.
Mindfulness is not a passing glance. It is important to stay with the awareness of the emotion as deeply as possible. As in the English expression: "when the pot boils over – don't leave the kitchen”. This needs some degree of courage, acceptance and also kindness to ourselves and the vulnerability which gives rise to protective emotions such as anxiety or anger. There is a tendency to try and get rid of difficult emotions, to suppress them or deny them. Sometimes there is the opposite tendency; to justify the emotions by encouraging their release and expression. But between suppression and expression there is an extensive territory which is often unexplored. Here are ways in which by acknowledging, seeing and non identifying with emotions we allow them to arise and pass as they will and they leave us in charge, wise and sensitive. More than that, because they are so powerful, if we really get a handle on them they can transform us. 10 minutes of the full practice of mindfulness with anger may be worth a longer time of quiet peaceful meditation. If the emotion is strong, the karma is also strong, so when we break it something significant can happen to us.
Emotions are extremely dynamic, free and flowing, like water. Even though we tend to make emotions such as our anxieties solid and real, supported and proved with stories and narratives, actually they change rapidly. Can we allow the emotions to pass through the system without making any tracks, like a bird flying through the sky, or like a line drawn in water? There a Zen story of a student that came to his teacher and said: “I have a problem with anger, can you help me deal with it?” The teacher said: “Yes I can…bring me the anger and we'll deal with it together.” The student answered: “Well at this minute I don’t have anger- so how can we deal with it?” So the teacher said: “Go to your room and when the next time the anger arises bring it!” The student answered: “But Master, in the 10minutes it takes me to get from my room to yours, the anger will surely disappear.” “You see”, said the Master, “even if you want to have anger you cannot. It is not yours, it comes and goes when it wants. It belongs to the universe. Be with that coming and going – that's all you have to do”.
It needs a kind of a Teflon mind – not letting the emotions stick in the self, because they are dynamic and free anyway. As we do this we do not become a kind of passionless zombie that somehow shuts down emotional life or censors it in the name of spirituality. Quite the opposite. Emotional life talks to us constantly, it makes music of the heart. We experience our feeling life like the changing weather: ok now it's raining, ok now it’s cloudy, ok so it's sunny, ok so it's hot. By freeing up our feeling life we feel the rising sun and the quiet moon, the love in the eyes of those near us, the heartful joy of the cool breeze and the tears of loss. It is like sitting next to a river, listening to the sound of the water. Emotions especially are like water. A ‘felt sense’ or emotional intelligence takes the place of being captured by emotions or shutting them down.
The domination that emotions have over our life can also be reduced by preventing automatic behaviours that arise from them. Behaviours that avoid them, compensate for them, amplify them or act them out, will often sustain them and their control over us. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) this is called ‘Safety Behaviours’ . For example at a recent workshop on anxiety that I gave with my daughter Yasmin Fulder-Heyd, who is a CBT therapist, television or screen watching came up as a widespread way not to face fears of real communication with others, and seek a comforting substitute. The Buddha described his own residual fears in the forest at night, and advised that if fear catches us when walking, keep on walking. Whatever position we are in when fear arises, don’t change it. This reduces the authority fear has over us.
Generally we don’t really need antidotes to difficult emotions. Dancing with them in the way I described above will be enough. But sometimes antidotes are genuinely needed. We can change them from an ‘unwholesome’ emotion (in the Pali language akusala) to a wholesome one (kusala). It is possible to remember in the middle of anger or fear, feelings of calm or compassion, in the middle of reactivity you might remember metta, love. It's like rewriting the script, which is especially helpful if you see how much damage is being done to yourself or others. Through practice, we might be able to add the colour of compassion every time we find ourselves in worry, irritation, or stress. It will be compassion to ourselves and the others, with a sense that we are all caught up in reactivity and conditioning. Samsara.
Actually, If you remember a time you were afraid or angry about something, or regretful , or guilty or jealous...and somehow you let the feeling dissolve and pass rather than taking you over, you may be able to notice a residue of compassion. When feelings are no longer trapped within me and fuelling my needs, my story, my issues and reactivity, they open naturally to a bigger heart space, an aliveness which is experienced as compassion. If we are not entirely invested or closed in emotions, and let them flow and pass naturally, a bigger space opens up. This is where feeling life can lead us to more inner freedom. Emotions, for example anger, are a power because they collect or recruit great energy within our being, and this can be directed towards our freedom. Like riding a galloping horse. If we know how to do it, it takes us far. Otherwise we can fall off.
There a famous Zen story about a student that knocked on the master’s door for his usual morning check-in – and this time the master didn’t answer. The student found it strange and wondered why the master didn’t answer. So he knocked again, and the teacher didn’t answer. He got a bit irritated so he knocked again, and the teacher opened the door and then slammed it in his face. Immediately the student reacted with a burst of rage. And then the door opened suddenly and the teacher commanded: “Now watch your anger”. The student had an immediate awakening experience.
We relate to the world through our constant, immediate and mostly invisible feeling responses. If they can be freed up from the control of self, we can find ourselves connecting to the world very deeply as participators in the universe. A sense of partnership with everything. For example we go out into the street and we see a little kid riding a bicycle and all of a sudden our heart goes out to this kid, and at that moment to all kids riding bicycles and all kids in the world and from there to appreciation and joyful empathy with the enthusiastic life energy of all young beings, from puppies to chicks. We experience a deep connection with everything. It is not a thought about oneness but actually feeling it on the vibrational level.
There is an extraordinary Tibetan Dzogchen (non-dual) practice manual called ‘The Flight of the Garuda’. One of the instructions there is to remember an emotional experience that we had and then work with it. For example: “At one time or another all of you have been injured by others. Conscientiously recollect in detail how others have wrongfully accused you and victimized you, humiliating you and grinding you into the ground, and how you were shamed and deeply mortified . Brood on these things letting hatred arise and as it arises, look directly at its essence , at hatred itself. Then discover first where the hatred comes from, second, where it is now, and finally where it goes. Look carefully for its color, shape or any other characteristics. Surely the vision of your anger is ultimately empty and ungraspable. Do not reject anger. It is mirror-like awareness itself.” It goes through other emotions, and then it says: “If you intuit the nature of your passions in this way, emotional defilement becomes primary awareness. How ridiculous to expect to find primal awareness and emptiness after you have suppressed passion!.... After you have realized the 5 poisons (i.e. emotions) as emptiness by this method, it's unnecessary to examine every emotion that arises…… relax into your own nature, into the nature of mind, and the emotion will naturally subside and vanish. He concludes this piece by saying that if we continue to practice in this way, emotions will recruit emptiness and liberating awareness at the moment they arise. They will triggers for freedom, and indeed, the greater the passion the greater the space of liberation."
If we practice meditation we may have a view that: "Oh, I'm not good at meditating, my mind is going crazy, it should be more quiet after so many retreats, but it actually gets louder. My emotional life just gets more crazy with its stormy ups and downs, surely meditation is supposed to stabilize it." Actually the storms are not the problem , and indeed we sometimes can have huge amount of thinking, even though we've been meditating for a long time. The problem is that we make something of them, that we turn the thoughts, stories and emotions into something that’s called my problem. We own them. Instead, just seeing the emptiness of these things passing through is enough. It doesn't matter if they are strong if we don’t identify with them. Indeed, the power can be utilised for transformation; it can give us an advantage, like a common image of making compost. Good shit makes great compost!
All emotions in the end resolve into the space of love, they are love expressed within situations, habits and conditions. Every emotion is a response, and the response to events and connections through the sense doors, expresses our fundamental ‘interbeing’ or interconnectivity, or even identity with the world. This is love. Without a sense of me as controller or subject, it is the world responding to itself. And if we know and live this we are liberated.