August 1, 2004 Founder's Letter

by Norman Fischer | August 01, 2004 at 7:52 PM

Lately I have been concerned with emotion: precisely what it is and how can we work with it in our practice? Emotion is often viewed as something "soft." Mere feelings need not necessarily be taken into account, or, if they are taken into account, not so importantly. Intellect, analysis, action, and insight are far more important. This, at least, is the usual view.

But I wonder whether looking at things this way really serves us. In Buddhist psychology there is no hard and fast distinction, as there is in Western thought, between emotion and intellect. In any moment, according to the Buddhist way of looking at mind, there is an array of interconnected mental factors arising. There can be no thought without emotion, and no emotion without thought. Ethical practice in Buddhism is not understood as the assertion of will over base passions and emotions. Quite the contrary, in Buddhism ethical practice is the gentle taming and shaping of the emotional life so that our ethical conduct becomes the beautiful flow of our emotions rather than the suppression of them. Awakening doesn't blunt our emotions: it deepens and smooths them, and adds to our emotional palate colors that perhaps were previously not there: compassion, reverence, equanimity, gratitude, joy. Although we still may feel negative emotion, it loses its compulsive hold over us.

I have been making a distinction between what I call "emotions" and what I call "feelings." Feelings are basic human responses to the world- love, hate, fear, desire. Emotions are complexes of thought, personal history and habit, and attachment to particular objects, built on a foundation of these basic feelings. The goal in practice, it seems to me, is to fully experience our emotions without suppression or denial. Training in meditation practice, as far as I can see, is the most effective tool for this. When we experience our emotions fully we can discover the underlying feelings upon which they are built. We can then bring the particularity of our emotion down to the basic human level. We move from "she made me angry!" to "this is anger, and this is the fear behind it." In this way our emotions become heart-felt and rooted in our humanness, rather than in the tragedy of this or that particular situation we may find ourselves in. We connect with others through the depth of our feelings.

In hard times it is especially important that we remember teachings like this. It's possible that the underlying cause of war and all conflict is lack of attention to feelings. When conflict erupts, and there is grief, dismay, anger, horror, we need to work with these feelings. If we are pushed around by them, acting too quickly and blindly, we'll compound our problems. Tough times, if we can practice with the feelings they evoke, bring us closer to the truth of our human life.

Lets continue together to nurture our practice, for ourselves and for our world.

Yours, Zoketsu Norman Fischer


Norman Fischer