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Working with Emotions One

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/31/2004
In Topics: Emotion

Zoketsu examines the usual dichotomy of emotions v. intellect. Description of scientific studies of a Tibetan monk in a deep meditative state.

WORKING WITH EMOTIONS TALK ONETalk 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.


This book is a transcript of a conference, along with other explanatory material that Daniel Goleman adds. It is not as if the book is an organized discussion of working with destructive emotions. It meanders, as any discussion does. So, I will bring out points that seem germane or interesting to me in each chapter.

Destructive emotions: what do we mean by destructive and what do we mean by emotions? On one level, destructive emotions are those that cause harm, such as a burst of anger when we lash out at someone or when someone lashes out at us. But I would like to take it further and talk not only about emotions that are directly and obviously harmful, but also about emotions that are habitual and make us unhappy.

There was a Western philosopher involved in a dialogue at the conference who gave a perspective on how words such as “emotions” are used. In the West we are taught that there is a categorical difference between the intellect and the emotions. The intellect involves such things as truth-seeking, and is seen as higher and more realistic. It is considered to be masculine. Emotion, on the other hand, is seen as irrational, more feminine, a little unruly, and trivial. There are deep roots in Western philosophy that cause that kind of thinking. The intellect is divided from the emotions. We feel that the more intellectual we are, the less emotions matter to us, and we are more in control.

There is no such distinction between the intellect and emotions in Buddhism. In the Buddhist map of the mind, there are fifty-one mental factors that shape consciousness. Of the fifty-one mental factors, some were called cognitive and some were called emotional. They were not seen as separate categories. They were seen as different factors that were always mixed in how they affected the mind. We know this is true from our experience on the cushion, when you see that every time there is an emotion, there is always a thought, and every time that you think something, there is an associated emotional quality. Intellect and emotion are mixed. There is no pure intellectual or pure emotional state. We are trying to recognize this fact in our life, and bring it into view, so that we have more awareness of the thoughts and emotions that arise in the mind. There are no words in Buddhism to distinguish the emotional and intellectual. The word citta means both mind and heart. In our practice, mind is not in charge, figuring out the emotions. Mind and emotions are one flow.

Lately I have been drawing a distinction between emotions and feelings. I am defining emotion as the whole complex of thinking, wrapped up with our history, our identity, and some object that activates our emotion. That whole complex, in which it is impossible to tease out one element, is what we call emotion. It is very personal and particular to a situation. The edifice of emotions is built on the foundation of feelings. Feelings are simpler than emotions. They are basic human responses, of which we are usually unaware. Usually we are agitated on the level of the emotion, but we are not aware of the underlying feeling. The underlying feeling is new territory; it is not about “me” anymore, it is about a deep, human phenomenon, such as fear, aversion, or desire. With meditation practice and the intentional application of awareness, we have a greater capacity to discern our actual feelings. When we can get in touch with ourselves on the level of mindfulness, our understanding of our feeling can result in more calmness.

We need meditation practice and awareness to even know what we are feeling. For example, there can be a confrontation or conflict that goes on and on, causing more and more trouble, and the root of it is fear or anger, and has nothing to do with the actual situation. When you get in touch with the root feelings, you can become free of them.

Now to the book: I have a couple of points from the first chapter which is called, “The Western Perspective.” This was largely based on a talk given by the philosopher in the group, as he was trying to define the Western perspective in relation to emotions. In Western culture compassion always has an element of guilt and self denial, because we are told to deny ourselves and take care of others. A compassionate person never thinks of himself. He feels badly when he thinks of himself. In the West what is meant by compassion is self denial. In Buddhism, this idea of compassion does not apply. In Buddhism there is no distinction between being compassionate towards yourself and being compassionate towards others. It has to do with how Buddhism and Western culture sees the self. Western culture sees the self as separate from others. There are two categories: me and everyone else, so if I am compassionate, then I only think of one category, either me or everybody else. In Buddhism there is only one category of people, so from the Buddhist perspective it would be impossible to be compassionate towards others without being compassionate towards oneself. And vice versa: it would be impossible to be compassionate toward yourself without being compassionate towards others. This is a key distinction between Western and Buddhist ideas of compassion.

Similarly, starting from Greek philosophy, there is a distinction between happiness and the good. Happiness is seen as less important than doing what is good or right. Happiness is self centered and goodness is connected to truth, to God, and so on. These things are usually in conflict, so we sacrifice our happiness to do the right or good thing. Again, this distinction is unknown in Buddhism. There is no distinction between the good and happiness. In fact, the only way to be happy is to be in tune with the good. For example, if you are having pleasure at the expense of another individual, this is not really happiness. What makes you happy is to be loving and giving towards others, and being attuned to others. Your interests cannot be teased apart from the interests of others. We come to see this through our practice.

The basis of all this is awareness, of being sensitively present with your own experience, which is promoted by the practice of zazen. This awareness is more a state of being than a state of mind or a skill. In this sphere of a pliable state of awareness, the distinction between self and others which is obviously there, and the distinction between happiness and the good which is obviously there, begin to flow into each other and do not become so hard and fast. The distinctions are held in a more subtle and complex way.

Moving to a different chapter, there are some interesting points in the chapter called, “The Lama in the Lab”. A Tibetan monk was hooked up to sensors during meditation. He distinguished six different mental states. The first state was called one pointedness, which is focusing the mind on one mental or physical object to the exclusion of all else. Another state was meditation on devotion, such as a meditation based on devotion to a guru. The third state was fearlessness, and the fourth was called the “open state”, in which the mind was alert and aware, allowing objects to come and go, without focusing on any one object. The fifth state was developing compassion, and the sixth was visualization, the holding in mind a complex visual object. These are the six modes of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism.

I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast this with zazen. In our practice there is less emphasis on the intentional production of mental states, and more a focus on just staying present. And yet zazen does contain some of these elements, just in a softer way. For example, there is one pointedness when focusing on the breath, except it is not a tunnel vision focus. It also has qualities of the open mind, because you are aware of other things going on, even though you are focused on the breath. Through calming the mind and making it one pointed, through sitting and just listening, we practice the “open state.” In zazen that state itself is known as compassion. There is no special state beyond that which we would cultivate, although I have often said that it would be beneficial to do intentional compassion practices: starting with shikantaza, zazen practice, in the beginning of the period, introducing compassion practices, and then going back to shikantaza practice at the end of the period.

Moving to some different points, there was an expert who could identify emotions by facial expressions. It is interesting that these facial expressions are cross cultural. He was a consultant for police and undercover agents and could tell whether a person was lying or telling the truth. So this expert devised an experiment to measure empathy. Peoples’ facial expressions were shown at increasing speeds, and the more empathetic you were, the faster you could identify others’ emotions. And wouldn’t you know it, the Tibetan meditator scored extremely high on this test. I think this is true to life, because the more you become attuned to your emotions through your meditation practice, the more you can connect with others. So on the level of feelings, even though your emotions may be different than mine, we feel the same thing, because feelings are universal. The more that I understand and am comfortable with my own feelings, the more I intuitively understand other people. There is a more accurate sense of empathy.

The unprecedented thing about the monk was his startle response. Normally when one hears a loud sound, there is a certain facial expression. The test is to tell someone to suppress any facial expression when he hears a loud sound. Apparently nobody can do this because it is automatic, but the monk did it. He heard a loud sound, but he was in the open state and did not have any startle response. This blew the mind of the researcher who thought that no human being could do that. He decided to change his research and do studies on extraordinary individuals. While working with the monks, he devised four criteria for the individuals with whom he wanted to work in his experiments. The first criterion was a sense of goodness or integrity. The second was selflessness; the person was not seeking to elevate himself above others. The third was presence. The Dalai Lama and others around him had presence. The fourth was attentiveness; for example, a person could really listen to another without judgment or skepticism.

I thought that these are four great qualities to consider in one’s own life. Aren’t we all working towards qualities of goodness, selflessness, presence, and attentiveness? Psychologists, who are usually in an academic setting, have used college students in their experiments about human behavior, but I thought it was interesting that the researcher was so impressed by the monks that he wanted to study them to see what we could aim for. In studying extraordinary individuals, we can work towards ourselves becoming extraordinary. The reason for studying those people is that these monks were not born as extraordinary individuals, but through their meditation and spiritual practice became people like that. These qualities came from their own cultivation. Research has shown that the brain is in a constant state of evolution and learning new ways of being. The brain is plastic, with new neuron connections always being made. Therefore, ongoing practice would change one’s fundamental attitudes and ways of being in the world.

Now I would like to make a few points about science and Buddhism. In recent decades science has been re-introducing, through the path of materialism, the immaterial, the mystery of life. A greater humility has been re-introduced through the path of science. It is an opening to a spirit of curiosity. That is why the Dalai Lama is so loved. A group of us just went to see him in Vancouver. Thirty thousand people went to see the Dalai Lama, but if there were a stadium with fifty thousand seats, fifty thousand would have gone. He is universally loved because in his attitude, not the least of which is his attitude towards science, is an enlightened spirituality that is open and curious and evolving. He has made the famous statement, “If science were to prove something in the Buddhist teachings to be wrong, we would have to drop that.” He says that we have to understand that if science does not find something, it does not mean that it does not exist. It just means that science has not seen it. An example of this is the nature of mind itself – consciousness. Science has no idea what the nature of consciousness is. Does that mean that there is no consciousness, or that consciousness is unreal? Certainly not, but if science proves something to be non-existent, then we have to acknowledge that and change.

Finally, I am on the faculty of a training program for people working with the dying, a very illustrious group of co-faculty members, including Ram Das and other luminaries. One of the people used a new word: “transtraditional”. Now when you go to conferences and events, she said, they use the word transtraditional. The Dalai Lama is a transtradional teacher, with the recognition that every tradition is a path towards truth, and one can be comfortable with or appreciative of a number of different traditions. Meditation practice is at the heart of the transtraditional traditions. I don’t think traditions will disappear or meld into each other, but there are traditions that are transtradional and draw on many other traditions. I like to think of Everyday Zen as being a transtradional tradition. It’s a Zen tradition, but is not limited to Zen tradition.

So, I have unburdened myself of all my thoughts, and I feel much better now!