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Working With Emotions (Talk 3 of 7)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/31/2004
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: 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. The Buddhist path is the training and cultivation of the mind, which includes working with both emotion and thinking. So it is not a matter of using ethics and will to overcome and tame emotion, but rather using mindfulness of our mental states, that include both emotion and thought, to create a transformation of the emotions that arise

Working with Emotions Part ThreeTalk 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)

Tonight we are continuing with our ongoing exploration of emotions. The focus of the seminar is not on learning material from the book per se, but on how we can make use of any material in the book in deepening our engagement with our own emotional life and practice.


I would like to make some points from the chapter of the book called, “The Universality of Emotions.” Mostly it was about a report from Paul Eckman, who is at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School. In Western thought there is the persistent idea that emotion is separate from thinking, morality, and willpower. Emotion is seen as automatic, visceral, and animal-like, and we cultivate our thought and morality to overcome this animal nature. There are emotions that you don’t want to look at because they are bad and out-of-bounds, so you override them with your ethics, thinking, and willpower. In Buddhism there is no fundamental distinction between our emotions and our thought. Both are arising from consciousness and naturally come up when we cognize objects. Whenever there is cognition, there is always thought and feeling. There is always a mixture of these things, and there is no way to separate them, and there is no hierarchy.


The Buddhist path is the training and cultivation of the mind, which includes working with both emotion and thinking. So it is not a matter of using ethics and will to overcome and tame emotion, but rather using mindfulness of our mental states, that include both emotion and thought, to create a transformation of the emotions that arise. For instance, it might be commonplace in Western psychology to assume that if someone crosses you, you will be angry and upset. That is just the way it is. That is how the mind works. If you are civilized and have some psychological acumen, you won’t shout at the person and stomp up and down; you will control yourself. You will take up the matter with some rationality, and if that doesn’t work, you’ll sue!

In Buddhism the possibility is presented, however far we get in realizing it, and admittedly we may not get all that far, that we might not have the feeling in the first place. We might actually transform ourselves to the extent that those emotional responses that are assumed as a given in Western thought might not arise at all.


In this chapter Eckman talks about breaking down the arising of emotion into three moments. The terms that he gives for these three different moments are “appraisal awareness”; that is, the assessment of the situation which gives rise to the emotion in the first place; the “impulse awareness”; and the third is what he calls the “action awareness”. An example of this would be when someone cuts in line in front of you at the supermarket. The appraisal awareness is the immediate awareness that this is maddening and the person is really rude. According to Eckman, this is a universal response that anyone would feel; it is just a given. Sometimes we are not entirely aware of this response in us, and when we are not aware of the existence of the emotion, we can really be pushed around by it, and we are a prisoner of that emotion. Eckman says that the more we are aware of the emotion, the less we are a prisoner of it. He calls the next moment the impulse awareness. In the example of someone cutting in front of you at the supermarket, you are aware of your anger and have the impulse to respond, such as making a rude comment or pushing the cart into the person’s back. Here is where a mature person with some acumen and presence of mind doesn’t do that, because that person knows that there is little benefit in this reaction. So this is where we can work on ourselves. We can increase our awareness early on in the situation so that we don’t react negatively. The third moment is action awareness, where now the impulse has already taken over, and we are starting to do something like pushing the cart, and we stop ourselves in the middle of the action. He is saying that it is best to control the impulse, but if we can’t do that, we can control the action, mollify it, apologize, and don’t do it again, if we are lucky.


Buddhism would say the same thing: yes don’t do the action, but if you do, apologize. Buddhism, however, also says to work more deeply with awareness, so that the original impulse does not arise in the first place. Work with the emotion with awareness so that even before the original feeling comes, there might be a different experience. Working with the underlying causes of the emotion changes the way the emotion arises and feels.


We have talked about prajna, the faculty of cognizing emptiness, and if we developed that faculty, our experience of the world would be considerably different, and therefore our emotional responses would be considerably different. Maybe working with emotions is not one sub path or genre of the path; maybe it is the whole path. Maybe what it comes down to is the awakening or development of prajna, in which the emotions in our lives appear quite different. In this chapter there is a discussion of prajna, and they say that prajna really means intelligence more than wisdom. We talk about it as a technical term, the way of experiencing emptiness, but here they are saying that maybe a better translation is intelligence, not as an intellectual achievement only, such as abstract thought, but as an all around development of consciousness, which would also include emotions. In the book, Daniel Goleman gets excited about this because emotional intelligence is his field, and he thinks that this kind of intelligence is a way of feeling and responding to the world.


Maybe that is what prajna really is, a way of feeling with and responding to the world, of being attuned to the world. This would naturally involve a difference in the way our emotional flow in relation to the world would be. Then prajna would include, as a function of those things, thinking, emotions, and ethical conduct. Thought, emotion, and morality would not be separate things, a matter of analysis, suppression, or use of the will; but rather, they would all be part of prajna – how we see and feel the world, and how we behave in the world as a consequence of how we feel the world to be. In prajna, we would connect to the world in a spontaneous and harmonious way. There would be the sense that ethical conduct is no big deal, and we would naturally be spontaneous and harmonious in the world with that kind of training. Each one of us would have a different way of manifesting this training.


People differ considerably in their emotional makeup. Some people, for example, have more anger or more love than others. We probably all have the same range of emotions, but we differ in the palette of emotions that arise. We differ in how quickly the emotion arises, in what triggers or stimulates the emotion, how long the emotion lasts, or how powerful the emotion may be. This may differ quite a bit person to person. Therefore in working with emotions and developing prajna in relation to our own karmic makeup, it is important not to impose ideas on how a practitioner should look emotionally. A wise discernment of one’s own particular emotional makeup, knowing what the path teaches us about emotions, and then massaging our particular emotional profile with that teaching may be more important. We would continue to be ourselves emotionally, but the way the emotion would appear would be softened and transformed by our approach to practice. A few weeks ago we worked with our individual emotional themes that seem present since our early life. There is a sense in which our own emotional makeup is not known to us. We may always be trying to work against rather than working with the grain of our emotional makeup, and it becomes endlessly frustrating.


An interesting point in this chapter was the quality of the Dalai Lama’s face. Eckman, whose specialty is facial expressions, was astonished that the Dalai Lama had the facial muscles of a twenty year old. He thought this was because the Dalai Lama is very emotional and expressive. His facial muscles looked young because they were used to exercising such a wide range of emotions -sorrow, sadness, amazement, happiness. He has no guardedness about expressing his emotions. He has a flowing and free use of feelings that are spontaneously expressed in his face. Conversely, for a person who is more average than the Dalai Lama, there isn’t this free flow of feeling, there is more of a repression of feeling. One so often has the experience of being ashamed or embarrassed by the unacceptability of what one is feeling; therefore, the facial muscles are not used and lose their tone.

We could take the Dalai Lama as an ideal practitioner, who is very quick to express emotion. The problem may not be that we are too emotional, but rather we do not have the freedom to express emotion, and that there is so much repression that the emotions come out twisted and cockeyed. So it is not a matter of eliminating or damping down emotions, but a matter of training ourselves to be freer in our emotional life.

In order to be like the Dalai Lama in always expressing our feelings, we would have to have a tremendous amount of trust in our own heart and emotions. You would have to have the overall sense that whatever you were feeling was all right. This implies a certain amount of cultivation of working with your emotions. Everyone will have negative or destructive emotions, but there is the awareness that we are, and have been, working with them. For example, the Dalai Lama probably has a lot of confidence that he would not run across the stage and throttle someone. He is just not going to do that, because he is familiar with his emotions and impulses. For some of us this kind of self awareness may be less true. We may have less awareness of our destructive emotions because we have never allowed ourselves to feel them. First of all you have to feel your anger or rage or envy, become familiar with them, and then begin to work with them.


Most people are embarrassed by certain emotions and do not want to work with them. We need to develop tools and support so we could engage our own emotions and the emotions of others. Our chief tool is mindfulness or awareness of what we are feeling. One can ask oneself, “What am I feeling now,” as a device for promoting greater awareness of our feelings. So the chief tool is mindfulness, and the chief support is the Three Treasure: our community, our teachers, and our teaching. Through that tool and support, we could feel our feelings with a sense of safety. And then, little be little, we could work with our actions and impulses until we got back to what Eckman calls the appraisal awareness, and the emotion that arose would be a different emotion. That is how we would develop prajna or intelligence with regard to our emotional life.

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