Norman gives the first in a series of talks on Healing Emotions based on the book “Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions, and Health” by Daniel Goleman
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Aug 05, 2010
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Over the last week-end, I was doing a public program on anger. The week-end was sponsored by Shambhala Sun Foundation, and Melvin McLeod, the editor of Shambhala Sun, was there. He said something really interesting at the conclusion of our week-end. He said that the program did a good job of bringing together the philosophical depths of Buddhist teachings and the practical, down-to-earth advice about how to work with anger. He said that is a hard thing to do sometimes, to put together the depths of the teachings with very practical, ordinary advice about how to deal with emotions. That’s his concept of what Shambhala Sun has been doing with these public week-ends, and that is their agenda, to combine the philosophical depths of Buddhism with practical advice for people in the world. I think that in Buddhism, in general, and particularly in Zen, there isn’t that much distinction between practical, down-to-earth living and the deepest insights of Buddhism. In a way, there is no hierarchy or fundamental difference between them.
Many people have remarked that in Buddhism the Four Noble Truths are like a physician’s approach to illness: define and diagnose the illness, figure out the cause, apply the cure, be free of the illness. That is essentially what the Four Noble Truths say. So if you are sick and have symptoms, you do have to treat and manage the symptoms of your illness. But ultimately that is not enough. If you can figure out the cause of the illness and somehow reverse the conditions that caused the illness, then you have an actual cure. You have to be constantly looking for the ultimate cause of the illness at the same time that you are dealing with the symptoms, because dealing with the symptoms alone, and alleviating them, doesn’t really give you that much. They keep coming, and they keep building on themselves. So while you are coping with and dealing with the symptoms in the best possible way, you are also trying to figure out what is the underlying cause. Can we reverse that? Can we really and truly bring a lasting peace to this suffering?
In Buddhism the underlying cause of all human illness is the same. It is mis-knowledge. It is confusion or ignorance about the actual nature of the self and about the actual nature of the reality in which we find ourselves. Although everybody understands that time is passing, that life is impermanent, we don’t really take that fact in. Also, we don’t see that because of impermanence, there is a radical interconnectedness between all creatures.
Hearing some Buddhist lectures a few times is enough to get these ideas into our heads. We might think that these are good and true ideas, but having these ideas in our heads is not enough. To change the way we live and the way we look at life, we need more of a momentary insight, even if it is a super-duper flash of an insight that we have in a retreat. Even that is insufficient to change the way we live, our world view, and our whole take on reality. But that is what we are trying to do through our practice, through our cultivation: to recognize these fundamental truths and live by them. In other words, it takes repetition. It takes cultivation. It takes practice over time, and that takes support and help of all kinds. So that is what we are trying to do.
The underlying cause of suffering is universal to all human beings. Regardless of gender, culture, age, social situation, this is true for everybody. That is at the level of cause. Yet, at the same time, in terms of symptoms, we all are completely different. All of these factors – gender, age, culture, personal history, social situation – have a huge impact on the kinds of symptoms that we are going to see in our lifetime. So when it comes down to applying the teachings for dealing with these particulars and these symptoms, we have to take all these differences into account. We can’t just fall back on the universal level. We have to activate both levels, because the universal aspects of human nature do not ever appear in the abstract, somehow floating in the sky. They only appear as you and I, as individual people. They appear in different manifestations, with a very particular shape for each different person, depending on that person’s situation.
In our seminars, I think, we have really tried to be honest about, and as discriminating as we can be, about taking all of this into account. We need some wisdom about our own particular situation, our own unique karma, our own – as we were saying – symptoms. We have to know how to deal with our own anger, our greed, our fear, as these things appear in our lives, with our conditioning. So we have to have some wisdom. How do we handle ourselves? How do we take care of ourselves in this life as me, as I am? I am not like you, and you are not like me. No two of us are like each other in this regard. So we have to be careful and wise about our own situation.
We have been talking about this over several years. We have been developing a view that emotion in our Buddhist practice, in our Zen practice, is not, as we might have thought in the beginning, a side road, or a side issue, or a non-issue. It turns out that emotion is the main road, the main issue. There actually isn’t any difference between these things that seem psychological and the most profound truths of buddha-dharma. Awakening in our practice – Zen awakening, Buddhist awakening – means to us not just a flash of insight, but a real transformation as a person: transformation of view, transformation of conduct, transformation of speech, transformation of mood and feeling. As they call it in Zen: intimacy in our living. Intimacy is actually the best English translation of the Zen word for enlightenment or awakening.
The ultimate goal and discussion in Buddhism might be as much a matter of emotion, or of our feeling about life, as anything else. This means two things to us. First, we probably all have to revise our received ideas about Buddhist awakening, under the influence of these studies and reflections. Second, we probably have to revise our ideas about emotion, what we think emotion is, and how emotion works in us. I think we need to expand and deepen our sense of what our emotions are, how we view them, and how we work with them.
To awaken within our emotional lives probably opens us to a level of emotion, or a view of our emotional lives, that is quite different from the way we usually view emotion. We usually think that emotion is full of attachment and self-centeredness and self-interest. Automatically, this is how we think of our emotion, and this is how we experience it. So if we are awakened and transformed, and we have an emotional life, the way that we fundamentally look at our emotional lives will be different.
Usually it seems as if the discussion of emotion in Buddhism goes something like this: there are afflictive, unwholesome emotions – emotions like anger, greed, jealousy, aggression, fear, and so on. These afflictive emotions come from attachment and mis-knowledge and are to be overcome. Then there are other emotions that we call wholesome, positive emotions – compassion, love, kindness, tenderness, equanimity – and we cultivate these positive emotions, so as to overcome the negative emotions and smooth us out. But awakening is somehow beyond both of these. That is one kind of discussion that you do hear in Buddhism.
In this kind of discussion, there might be a bias against emotion. It is on a lower level than the profound truth of dharma. This plays into the Western, philosophical bias against emotion. Mind sees truth. Emotion is just a mess. You must overcome emotion to see the truth. Don’t let it cloud your intellect. That is basically Western philosophy, Western thought. So, according to this bias, dharma must be much deeper than emotion.
As we have discovered through all these studies, this is not the case. The wholesome and unwholesome emotions do not exist on the same plane at all. They don’t come from the same source. Unwholesome emotions come from ignorance, attachment, and mis-knowledge, but really experiencing wholesome emotions at their depth comes from insight, comes from wisdom. They look like opposites on the same plane, but, in a way, they are categorically different.
Although every person is unique, and not all awakened people will look the same and have the same emotional set, I think that we could also say that we would expect that the basic wholesome emotions – like compassion, love, sympathy – would be characteristic of awakened people. If they were missing in awakened people that we know, we should wonder about this. We should wonder if there was something missing in the quality of that person’s awakening.
On the other hand, the so called “afflictive emotions” are not just mistakes or flaws that we should be overcoming. They are also – if we understand how to practice with them – pathways to awakening. With wisdom, we can see and be with anger, jealousy, and greed. These emotions can flip from being something that grabs our attachment and causes destructiveness, to something that can lead us to awakening.
The point about anger is not that we would get over our anger, that we would somehow eliminate our anger, or that we would deny that it exists. If it were there, we would face it, and we would really understand it. We would respect it at its depth. We would be able to use the energy of our anger as a pathway to depth and truth. And ultimately to love. We would find a way for the anger, paradoxically enough, to bring us closer.
So we come to see that the unwholesome emotions are actually not so different from the wholesome emotions. Once we appreciate and understand that, we can practice patience and openness and wisdom with our anger, with our greed, with our jealousy. We can see how these practices could lead us to love, to tenderness, to compassion.
Positive emotions – compassion, gratitude, appreciation, love, aesthetic feeling – are fairly rare for most human beings. We feel them every now and then, and we think, Wow! I hope that I could have such a feeling once a year! I would think they are more commonplace for awakened people – more frequent, deeper, and more lasting. But also, I think, awakened people would have an ability to sympathize with and actually feel the anger, jealousy, dismay, and grief that other people feel. The difference would be that they wouldn’t be destabilized by these emotions, or – as we all so often are – captured and grabbed by the strength of these emotions, and then spun around and compelled to act.
Strong emotions, especially afflictive emotions, are addictive and compulsive. So they get you, and you can’t get out of them, and then you are compelled to speak and act and think on that basis. So that would be the difference, I think. An awakened person might deeply feel and experience such emotions, but without the addiction or the compulsion.
The idea, then, is not that the awakened person is always nice and kind and sweet, but, rather, that the awakened person is fully open to the entire range of human emotion, positive and negative. Instead of the awakened person having less of an emotional life, having eliminated all trivial causes of jealousy and envy and anger, it would be just the opposite. I think the awakened person would have a deeper, wider range of emotion – a more colorful palette of emotion.