Second talk given at Lawyer’s Retreat sponsored by teh Contemplative Mind in Society that took place at Menla Mountain Center, Phoenicea, N.Y.
Emotions and Mindfulness Practice
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
September 12, 2008
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
This morning we will investigate emotions. We think that we know what they are, but what are they, exactly? How could the capacity to work with emotions be helpful? If there is a way of working with emotions, could meditation practice help?
There is a long tradition in Western thought, going back to the Greeks, that we are our intellects. Our intellectual capacity, our rational, reflective minds are the essence of who we are. Therefore, the way to find truth and understanding is through the intellect. This is an old thought in our culture. So, if we think this way, consciously or unconsciously, we come by it honestly.
From this perspective, emotions represent our lower nature, our animal nature, the part of ourselves that we are trying to control and overcome. In this way of looking at things, rational, dispassionate, reflective thought is good. Not incidentally, in our culture over the millennia, this is considered the masculine approach. Emotion – more of the feminine side – is considered messy, irrational, confused. It won’t lead to truth; it will only complicate and distort things.
Our whole educational system is based on this concept. We learn to think and speak based on rational thought. We distrust our emotional responses. We are beginning to get over this concept, and, obviously, we are getting over the idea that men are rational and women are irrational and emotional. But it has taken a longer time to get over the idea that the rational, intellectual, reflective mind brings us to truth, and the emotional confuses the issue.
If you really observe your own experience closely, you realize that emotion itself is a kind of thinking. Wherever there is a lot of emotion, a lot of thinking is going on. Also, you notice that wherever there is thinking, there is always some emotion. There is no such thing as a thought that doesn’t have behind it some emotional valence. No matter how much we want to pretend that we are objective and without emotion, this is actually never the case, if you are honest about it and really look. There are no objective facts that are not also subjective facts. There are no subjective facts that are not also rooted in objective conditions.
Far from wanting to flee from our subjectivity, we come to recognize and to admit that we have a lot of feelings and emotions. To be intelligent is to recognize, refine, and humanize them. It is to be conscious about them, as much as possible. We could develop a skill with emotions, so that we are not merely the passive victims of our emotional lives; with our best aspirations and intelligence, we could engage our emotions and work with them. If we could do such a thing, this would be a key skill for being with ourselves and being with others.
We think that what we need to do here is, as much as possible, protect ourselves from and distance ourselves from our emotions. This might be a working definition of what we have meant by the word “professional.” I think that is what we mean when we say, That’s unprofessional. What we mean is, I’m distancing myself from my emotions. We have been trained so well in our thinking that we ought also to be trained in our feeling.
In the past, we have become prejudiced against our emotional lives. Our emotions embarrass us a little bit. There is the idea that emotions are not subject to refinement or education. Education has meant that we have been trained to go beyond our emotions, to have the capacity to set our emotions aside. We think of emotion as a natural, animal function. It can’t be changed or educated. We can go beyond it, but we can’t change it.
So, if someone cuts you off in traffic, you get angry. This is a natural fact. It is true for everybody. That is just how it is. If you are an educated person, you learn to ignore that. If we are attacked, we are going to defend ourselves and be aggressive. It is just a natural thing; anybody would do this. But if we are a refined, cultivated person, we learn how not to show that, and not manifest that. But we feel it. It’s there. In other words, to be educated and civilized means to be able to distance ourselves from emotional responses and to be able to control them.
The truth is that it is possible to educate ourselves emotionally, to refine and cultivate ourselves emotionally, so that our reactions aren’t necessarily “natural” but can be in a state of evolution. Our reactions can be different. They do not necessarily have to be what we take to be “natural” actions. They can be cultivated and changed. Even when they are not different, even when they are the ordinary reactions that would arise, in most cases we can be educated to be with those reactions in much more subtle ways than by controlling ourselves or distancing ourselves or denying that these emotions exist. Denial is, I think, a popular strategy. I’m not angry at all! No, that didn’t upset me at all! I’m fine!
I think you know all this, because these days there is a concept called emotional intelligence. This has become a powerful idea in our society and supported by lots of research. It states that there is a correlation between emotional intelligence and the capacity to succeed and to be effective in all kinds of fields. Now we know it is not enough to cultivate our rational mind, we also have to cultivate our emotional intelligence. This is, of course, what I am talking about: how to begin a path towards increased emotional intelligence.
If we want to integrate emotion into our lives in a more intelligent way, we have to use the whole of us – the body, the heart, as well as the thinking located in the “cortical brain.” Based on this idea, I have been working with people at Google. It has been great fun. We are developing a course not in meditation, but a course in emotional intelligence, which is based on mindfulness meditation practice. They are very enthusiastic about this, and they have gotten great feedback, because it actually works! People who have begun a mindfulness practice, and who have increased their ability to be mindful of thoughts and feelings, and who have developed some skills in working with them, have reported pretty spectacular changes in their capacity to communicate with one another, listen to one another, and work with their own emotions.
I, myself, am pretty convinced from my own experience that it is true. Mindfulness meditation, along with some other techniques, is very effective in helping to develop our emotional intelligence. So how does that work? Mindfulness proposes that there is a field of human awareness, a field of human attention. Awareness or attention is a wider and more subtle field within us than the intellect. The intellect is one of the capacities within the field of awareness, as are all the other functions of consciousness. In other words, there is a field of awareness in which the intellect functions, the emotions function, sensations function. The field of awareness, in which all these things operate, can be cultivated, strengthened, and deepened. When we work with this field of awareness, we can see that its nature is inherently healthy and wise. When we simply strengthen the field of awareness, it will change the way that we see our lives, the way we experience our lives, and the way that we function in our lives.
There is an important text in Buddhism called the Mindfulness Sutra. The text says there are four foundations of mindfulness, the four aspects of mindfulness to be developed. The first one is – guess what! – mindfulness of the body. This starts with being aware of the body sitting and breathing. The second is mindfulness – awareness – of deeply conditioned reactivities, which, despite our education, do persist. The third foundation is mindfulness of thoughts and emotions, allowing thoughts and emotions to be exist within the field of awareness. The fourth foundation of mindfulness is awareness of basic and fundamental patterns of human confusion and human awakening, which become apparent when the other three foundations of mindfulness have been developed. In other words, when we are aware of the body, we can be aware of our emotions and thoughts. When we are aware of our emotions and thoughts, we can become aware of our deeply conditioned reactivities that are not available to awareness otherwise. When we develop the capacity to be with all of this, and when we begin to discern our own patterns of thoughts and feelings, we see, Oh, this is the human way. Everybody has a version of this story. Then some wisdom comes out of that to develop a profound sense of empathy for others.
Interestingly, if you read the Mindfulness Sutra, there are more pages devoted to the question of the mindfulness of the body than to any other subject or foundation. It is surprising. You think you would polish off mindfulness of the body quickly, and the others would be more complicated. This tells us that quite contrary to the way that we all have been led to understand – that we are the intellect – the way to develop awareness is to stay with the body, throughout the course of awareness, because there is no mind without the body, and there is no body without the mind. That’s why, even though it might seem counter-intuitive, the thing that we focus on in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of our long course of study is the breath and the body. We keep returning to that over and over again. It is not a preliminary stage. It is the practice.
The object of doing this practice is not to say that we are only concerned about the body. It is the opposite. We use the awareness of the body and the breath to establish and to strengthen the field of awareness. When we establish strong mindfulness of the body and the breath, we are creating a firm, existential basis for our awareness. When the awareness is rooted in this concrete way, in the body, it is more grounded and less idealistic, less conceptual. Awareness, when it becomes idealistic and conceptual – which it will when it is not rooted in the body – can become easily distorted by our conditionings.
When we are rooted in awareness in the body and the breath, and when we are trained in that – a training that takes time – we are more able to be aware of what is actually the case with us, rather than what we think should be the case with us. This way we are able, whether we like it or not, whether we approve of it or not, to be with what is happening within us, as phenomena rising and passing away. Therefore, we can be with and be aware of our emotions and our reactivities without being in the grip of them.
Once we can establish this awareness of the body and refine it – and there is a great deal of refinement possible – the field of awareness will continue to open. This is not something we can figure out, but little by little, we will gradually see our deeply ingrained patterns of conditioning and various emotional distortions. We may intellectually understand some of these things, but we don’t have purchase on it, because it is still idealistic. It’s not grounded. The working on the field of awareness will help us to be able to ground ourselves in a felt awareness of these patterns. We will see how we all have these deep-seated fears and how deep our reactivities from the past go. And we also see the other side, our treasure, our positive conditionings, how much we want to be compassionate. Thoughts, ideas, or hidden assumptions that may have sometimes helped, or may have sometimes hindered our activity, now become experiences available to us within the field of awareness.
So, we are able to feel more deeply and more clearly the pain of our lives, as well as the delight. In awareness, there may be feelings that in the past might not have been available to us as a direct experience, even though they may have shaped our words and our deeds. With this increased awareness, and with this ever-brightening experience of it, comes clarity about feelings, the way feelings develop into thoughts and deeds, and the consequences of those thoughts and deeds. Now we are able to be with our emotions, positive or negative, and the consequences, without as much fear, without as much repression, and without as much grasping. Then we further see the patterns of our thoughts and feelings, and how we are impacted and pushed around by them.
Now there is a little bit of space. There is a little bit of choice. We see how we feel and what we feel. We see how we think what we think, and how our thinking and feeling shape what happens to us. We begin to see that we can actually shape our conduct and emotions around our highest aspirations. That’s not just an idea! That’s a possibility. We do not have to feel that we are inevitably going to be victims of our darkest impulses.
So, little by little, with this awareness and natural process, the way we are living and the way we are looking at our living is changing. This is not happening based on our cognitively figuring this out with our rational brains, and then having a program of development for it, with a timeline and a chart of progress. It doesn’t work that way. It is more of an organic, natural development, which does involve effort, but not the kind of effort that we are used to making. Basically it means that we have to apply ourselves to this practice of developing the field of awareness.
In terms of our retreat together, it means you actually have to come to the meditation sessions. When you are here, you have to try to bring your attention back to your breath and your body, and that takes some effort. When you don’t feel like it, you have to do it anyway. When you walk back to the hall for the meal, you have to apply your attention to your walking and to being present when you are eating your meal. You actually have to pay attention to your eating.
Notice that this doesn’t take any extra time, because you are going to eat anyway! [Laughter] People often say, I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time to take three breaths. You are taking three breaths anyway. Why not be aware of it? Why not use the opportunity to cultivate awareness? People say, I don’t have any time to meditate, and I always say, You don’t have time not to meditate.
So, yes, there is effort involved, but not the usual kind of effort, because the usual effort that we make is fueled by desire, struggle, frustration – all of which leads to stress. There is desire for an outcome, and there is inevitable frustration when the outcome doesn’t come about as we wish. There is self-judgment, self-doubt. There is more pressure, more pushing, more stress.
It is possible that what we call stress is exactly the opposite of mindfulness. Stress is the mind’s habit of pushing against and running away from difficulty. The gap between what is and what we want is what causes us stress. We are unable to accept and digest the difficulty, to include the difficulty, and yet it is there. And this is very stressful. But when we are willing to include the difficulty, no matter how unpleasant it may be, and when we have enough confidence – which we will have – the field of awareness will safely hold the difficulty, so ultimately the difficulty cannot hurt us.
This is easy to understand, but not so easy to do. It takes time, but we can learn how to do it, little by little, just by sitting on our cushions, breathing, returning to the body, paying attention to what comes and goes. Eventually, we can do this—just being aware—not only when we are on our cushions, but most of the time.