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Working With Emotions (Talk 2 of 7)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 31, 2004
In topic: Emotion
Zoketsu lectures on Daniel Goleman's Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. - Proceedings of a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Western philosophers and scientists. Discussion of the transcendent vs. immanent self. A discussion of emotions and conditioning, and an examination of three methods of working with negative emotions.
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Working with Emotions TwoTalk given: Summer 2004 Dharma Seminars in Mill Valley, CA.

Zoketsu lectures on Daniel Goleman's Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. - Proceedings of a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Western philosophers and scientists.

(Transcribed and abridged by Barbara Byrum)

I want to talk about a chapter in the book called “A Buddhist psychology,” which is a report of a talk that Mattheu Ricard gave at the conference. Goleman introduced the talk by saying that Trungpa Rinpoche once said that Buddhism will come to the West as a psychology. It is true. You wouldn’t say that about Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. It seems to be truer of Buddhism than the theistic traditions. The psychological teachings of Buddhism are not an accident; they are essential to the thrust of Buddhism.

 

If you think about the question, “What are we as persons?” it is complicated to be a human being. It is complicated because we have a double nature. On the one hand, we are animals, and like other animals, we have desires and needs. But we also have a consciousness that is self reflective. It gives us the capacity to imagine ourselves to be beyond what we are. We have a transcendent thirst for spirituality, religion, God, and enlightenment. We have aspirations and ideals. This double nature allows us to do tremendous acts of selflessness and creativity, and simultaneously, both as individuals and as a species, to do unprecedented acts of destruction.

 

So, you could say that we have both transcendent and immanent sides. Theistic religions shine the beam of their light on our transcendent side, that aspect of our heart that is beyond ourselves, almost to the exclusion of the other side. Psychology is an examination of our humanness: our desires and hopes and fears in the world. If you focus on the transcendent side, you have less to say about the emotions and psychology of the human being. In fact, so much so, that you could say that one of the down sides of theistic religions is that they focus so much on the transcendent that they tend to denigrate or even demonize the human side.

 

Central to the idea of Buddhism is that it doesn’t have an idea of a God. In fact, I think the Buddha felt that the idea of a self and the clinging to a self was a projected reflection of the idea of a God. He thought that it was the root of all our problems, so he was not interested in that idea. Therefore, Buddhism shines its light on the human side. Buddhism also includes the transcendent side, because what is enlightenment or Buddhahood but the transcendent? But it shines its light on the human side, on emotions, for the purpose of purifying the human up to enlightenment, instead of focusing on the transcendent and denigrating the human. So it comes from the opposite direction.

 

Now I am going to skip around to some points in Ricard’s discussion. When he uses the word emotion, he is talking about our conditioning. Negative or destructive emotions are all of our blocked conditioning. He is saying that even if it looks like you are calm and happy, if you have the seeds of conditioning within you, and even if the seeds have not become manifest by external conditions, the negative emotions are still within you. What makes these emotions, these conditioned responses, destructive or harmful is not just the obvious consequences of them. If you lash out at someone, there are consequences, and you can see the destructive results of emotions. But there are also, he says, our motivations and the shadows of these negative emotions. Even if they don’t seem to have bad, external consequences, there is a shadow of bad consequences within us that comes from our motivations continuing to be warped by our conditioning. We are blinded by this conditioning, so we see a world that doesn’t exist, and we begin reacting to that world.

 

We think that destructive emotions are not a major issue for us. But according to Ricard, and according to Buddhism, to be a normal, happy individual is to be enlightened. Anything short of that is abnormal. I think it is true that we all have a long way to go towards some fundamental healthiness. This is a totally different paradigm for human life. When you think about psychology in the West, it starts with pathology. There are pathological states and the investigation of their causes. Therefore, the thrust of psychology is the abnormal, and there is no thought of the normal. But what is normal? Look what goes on in the world. Is invading countries normal? Is killing people normal?

 

Buddhism does not posit the usual idea of normalcy. In Buddhism there is only awakening or destructive emotions. So our project is to go toward enlightenment. We are trying to purify our hearts and not just go toward anger management.

You can’t talk about psychology and emotion without talking about philosophy, because all psychologies imply ontology, whether they are explicit or not. Whatever your psychology is, it implies an idea of what the self is and what the world is, and how self and world relate to each other. In western psychology, which comes from medicine and empiricism, the nature of the self and the world are just assumed. What is looked at instead is the phenomenon of pathology.

 

Buddhism, however, is very clear about its ontology. In Buddhism the root of all negative emotions is self clinging, holding firmly to the idea of a separate, fundamentally existing self. The idea of a separate, fundamentally existing self is assumed in western psychology. In Buddhism, this is seen to be an erroneous assumption that needs to be overcome and examined. It is clear in Buddhism that this clinging to the idea of a separate self is the source of all negative emotions. If you attack me physically or verbally, my hatred or aversion will be aroused because the self is under attack. On the other hand, if you pile praise on me, then I will be happy and like you. These feelings of desire or aversion are the source of all negative emotions. Therefore, there is an emphasis in Buddhism to go beyond this conviction of a separate self.

 

We certainly do have the experience of being a separate person, separate from other people, but we are training ourselves in zazen through body and breath, through thinking in classes like this, and through observation of our experience to realize that the experience we have of a fundamentally existing separate self is just that: it is a human experience that doesn’t have anything to do with objective fact. This is a subtle but crucial difference. It is the difference between having a thought that comes into the mind and thinking, “Oh, I am having this thought.” Same thought, and really the same experience, but the way you hold it is very different when you know it as a thought, as opposed to a reflection of something that is solidly there in the world.

This is where our zazen practice really helps us. Our practice works on us little by little over time, and we may not be conscious of what is going on. Even if we have terrible practice, have no idea of what is going on, have terrible concentration and are always falling asleep, moving around and wiggling in our seat, we keep doing zazen and coming back to the breath, to the posture, and trying to be present. After a time, we will probably get the idea that thoughts are coming and going, and they are just that: thoughts. You see that one minute you are completely focused on something that seems like the most important thing in the universe, and the next minute it is totally gone and you don’t care! You realize that thoughts are coming and going, and nothing is fixed. Emotions are emotions. Thoughts are thoughts. The self is an experience that comes and goes. It is an aspect of consciousness. To have this understanding of your mind and self really makes a profound difference.

Another point that Ricard makes is that negative emotions are not inherent in the mind. If you believe that the idea of a separate self is a given, then you would also believe that it is a given fact that anger and hatred are inherent in the human being. Many philosophers in all cultures have said that these qualities are inherent in human nature. The point is to realize that negative emotions are not inherent. They arise according to conditions, and we make a commitment to work with them as much as we can in this lifetime. Our work with the precepts are a path to perfection, as far as we can get. We can overcome negative emotions. They are not inherent in the mind.

 

Zazen really helps here in the same way. In zazen we may enter into deep states of quiet. There is the feeling that you are attuned to body, breath, and mind and to the world. You feel the fundamental kindness of the world. Having experiences like that in our practice gives us a faith in the awakened nature of the mind. We feel that the fundamental nature of the mind is peaceful. Buddha mind, the basis of consciousness, is not inherently negative. There is a kind of faith in that. There is the recognition that negative emotions are distortions caused by conditioning and habit. Our faith in basic human sanity is not just a leap of faith, it is based on the confidence we can feel in the teachings, our teachers, and our own experience.

Also, if you are in an emotional state and practice clear awareness, you can investigate whether the emotion is inherently negative. By entering into the emotion fully, you can see that at the heart of the emotion, no matter how negative, there is a point of purity. You can see that anger, for example, is an energy that is obscuring the purity that is at its heart. If you can hold on long enough with the awareness of an emotion, you can feel at the bottom of the emotion this point of purity, just as the water on the surface of the ocean may be turbulent, but the water at the bottom is calm.

 

Another thing that Ricard says is that emotions, if not addressed can turn into moods, and moods turn into our temperament. Even though I may not be fuming with anger or lust all that often, in fact the emotion, little by little, becomes my life, because those tendencies are working within me even when they are not manifest. When we believe in a separate and fixed person, then we believe we are that kind of person. We think, “I am an angry person” or “I am a depressed person.”

Ricard talks about three methods or pathways to work with the emotions. The first is the pathway of antidotes. For example, if you are feeling hatred, focus the mind on love to overcome the hatred. If you are feeling desire, focus on the temporariness and unsatisfactory nature of that which you desire. There are many ways to overcome negative states with positive states. But it takes a lot of practice to do this, and you have to practice all the time, because if you wait until you are overcome by anger to practice loving kindness, it is pretty hopeless. The only hope is to have developed loving kindness continuously, but even then the anger may overcome you. So, although it is important to cultivate the antidotes, they may not be sufficient.

The second method is to see through the emotion and to see that it is based on a sense of self that is not fundamentally real. Throughout one’s practice, it is possible to remind oneself that anger, for example, is pointless because the emotion is arising inappropriately. So, the second method is basically seeing the empty nature of emotion.

 

The third method is “stepping forward.” He doesn’t say it in this passage, but what he means is tantric practice, in which you plunge into the emotion and use the energy of the emotion itself to overcome the emotion. If tantra is using the realm in which we live and using it as a tool for awakening, then our practice is completely tantric. In our practice, we are non dualistic. Things of the world are what they are, neither negative nor positive. Tantric practices in other traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, can involve very complicated rituals, but in our tradition, it is just embracing emotions with awareness, going completely into them, and finding a point of purity right in the middle of them. Therefore the method for us is awareness and to be fully present with whatever you are experiencing.

 

So in the beginning, when working with emotions, you usually think, “Oh, I did it again. I blew it again.” But when you realize what has happened, you address it, maybe five minutes later, or five hours later. Then, as you continue to practice with it, you close the gap between the emotion and the awareness of the emotion. And then there is breathing. I am really impressed with breathing. If you sit a lot, breathing becomes more than breathing; it carries the whole practice with it. If you lose it, just start breathing. You will return to yourself and figure out what just happened. Little by little, you close the gap. You can be aware of being angry, or any negative emotion that you are experiencing. Being aware of it will change it. Then, when you can clarify the causes and conditions of these emotions, you can work with the emotion even before it comes. Ricard talks about this. When the seeds of emotions that have troubled you in the past are clarified, then these habits do not arise anymore. You can actually overcome these habits and emotions.

 

Let’s say we fast forward to a time when we have overcome the emotions, would we become a neutral person with a half smile, with no emotions at all? No, I think we would still be conditioned people living in a conditioned world, capable of experiencing human emotion at any time. But the emotion would not be toxic. It would be just an experience that could flow through us. We could still feel hatred or jealousy, but we wouldn’t put the twist on it that we always do and it wouldn’t warp our consciousness. It would pass right through us. We would see it as an emotion that makes us a human being. We might even feel new emotions: joy, equanimity, heartfelt compassion, selfless love, courage, and contentment…things that are fairly rare for people to feel in this life.

 

Mostly people want to feel positive and not negative emotions and they want to feel pleasure and not pain. The problem with feeling pleasure or pain is that you are at the mercy of conditions, whether it is a traffic jam or your computer not working. The happiness in working with emotions in this way would be a kind of fulfillment and contentment, regardless of the conditions and emotions that might pass through us. Working with our emotions will automatically condition us out of seeking pleasure and that which we want and into a joy or willingness to meet every moment. Happiness is in meeting every moment and not holding out for the moments we want, and trying to escape from the moments that we don’t want. You would be happy to face every moment regardless of what it brought. Yes, I am unhappy when things go wrong, and I like it when things go well, but fundamentally it doesn’t matter that much, because I am there to meet it. That’s what I am after, and that’s what really makes me happy. There’s a sense of well being. Every day is a good day.