April, 2010 - Letter to Everyday Zen
by Norman Fischer | April 24, 2010 at 1:03 PM
Dear Everyday Zen friends,
These last few months I have been contemplating emotions and feelings, how they work to help or harm us, and what our practice has to do with them. These reflections have been occasioned by work I've been doing recently with my good friends at the Center for Understanding in Conflict, both here in California and in New York, where we practice with conflict resolution professionals to help them access feelings skillfully for more effective and more heartfelt work. Also, I've been reading an excellent book that touches the question of emotions: Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.
I find Damasio's analysis of emotion and feeling strikingly similar to what I have learned in Buddhist psychology. Emotions are basic to the human organism: our lives are a constant flow of emotions as we respond (like all other animals!) to what comes at us every day: we like it (it enhances our life force), we don't like it (it threatens our life force) is the basis of all emotion, and on top of that there is elaboration of thought, story telling, conditioning, ideology, and so on. The root of it all is in the body. Damasio gives tremendous detail about how emotion courses through the body constantly, and how the brain maps the body and interprets those maps as feeling, so that we can be aware of emotions like anger, sorrow, joy, fear, love. Emotions and feelings are not ancillary aspects of our lives, messy side-shows that we would do well to ignore, so that we can get on to more important things. In fact, there is no ethics, no shaping of conduct and thought, without emotion. The trick of course is how to discriminate between - and skillfully work with - the sort of crude conditioned emotion (generally unconscious) that will freeze us into unsuccessful living patterns, and those emotions that generate ways of living we want to promote. It turns out that so-called negative emotions (like anger, greed, fear, aggression) are not so much to be avoided or eliminated as to be understood and used to further our best intentions. Anger understood and patiently appreciated is not the same as anger that twists us up.
Here is where meditation practice comes into it, and where the Buddha's wise teachings on working with emotion are relevant. Since the basic root of emotion and feeling is in the body, and it is the visceral emotions that drive our emotional thinking, there is nothing more powerful than mindfulness of the body and breath for accessing our unconscious emotional patterns. As we all know, we can think about changing our emotional lives for a thousand years and nothing will change, but as soon as we sit and breathe, opening the field of awareness somatically, we have a different, and wiser, access to what is within us. At the Center, our effort has been to use meditation practice to access feelings and bring them forth to aid us in the effort to bring peace to conflict. I have been finding this work very interesting and rewarding. It follows several Dharma seminars we did a few years back on Buddhist psychology of emotions. We will continue these studies and reflections when the seminar resumes after our summer break, August 5.
On a personal note, I seem to have been traveling more lately. In the next few months I will be on several different continents and will visit parts of this country (Texas!) I usually don't travel to. Paying attention to my physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions becomes essential practice when I am on the road, and it is the best way for me to take care of myself. I hope you will do the same!
Our Everyday Zen family of communities keeps growing, both in numbers, and, more importantly, in depth and connection. It is my joy to practice with all of you. Thanks for your support and devotion.