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Working With Emotions (Talk 4 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. Discussion of the spirit of working with and studying our emotional life. Rather than taking it as a given, it is something with which we are actively engaged. Description of the brahnmaviharas: loving kindness, equanimity, compassion, and sympathetic joy

Working with Emotions Part FourTalk 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)

What is radical about our practice or about what Buddhism proposes is not just that we are working with emotions that come, but we are working with the underlying basis of emotions, so that the way emotions come could be different. So it is very radical. As Jeff said in his talk last week, it is being proactive, working with emotions even before they arise, so that the emotions that arise would be a result of the work that we had done.


In the conventional Western notion of the mind, it would be expected, normal, and usual that under certain conditions people would become angry, hostile, or disgusted. The question then would be how you deal with it. Could you exercise enough calm and good will to deal with it? In Buddhism, we have the faith that we would have the arising of more humane and lovely emotions. We would have negative emotions, but we would receive and experience them in a different way. Not to say that we are there or halfway there, but this is the ideal, that is different from the normative Western psychology.

I was struck by Jeff’s mentioning a practice that he received from Katagiri Roshi, something really simple, like when your mother told you, “When you get angry, count to ten.” Be mindful and reflective when an emotion arises, instead of being swept up and being overcome by an emotion, to have presence of mind. The practice of zazen definitely helps to have that presence of mind to say, “Ah ha, this is the state of mind I am in. This is what is happening. I can understand this, I can be with it, rather than immediately being overtaken by it.”


The main thing is that we have a spirit of working with and studying our emotional life. Rather than taking it as a given, it is something with which we are actively engaged. We study the flow of our emotions and feelings, and every time an afflictive emotion arises, it is always an opportunity and a chance to see something that we have not seen before. When an afflictive emotion arises, we hit the boundary of where we are able to go, and we say, “Good. Now I can stay calm. I can breathe, and I might be able to stretch the boundary a little bit.” Breathe with the feeling of my experience. Don’t take at face value what you are feeling, but ask, “What is this?”


Getting back to the book, I would like to discuss my reactions to the chapter, “Cultivating Emotional Balance.” They are again talking about the key difference between Western psychology and Buddhism in its view of the emotional life. Western psychology begins with and is founded on a medical model of pathology. Emotional pathologies occur as difficult pathologies that we want to cure without any particular vision of emotional health or beautiful emotions. It does not start with what the ideal human being would be manifesting as an emotional life. Can we overcome these difficult and destructive emotions, or at least have some moderation? But there is no tradition on how to cultivate or envision what would be a beautiful emotional life for a healthy human being, how a Buddha conducts himself or herself in the world.


I see our practice as an awakening to the flow of beautiful human feelings. Awakening is a transformation in the life of the feelings. We would not just only feel the beautiful emotions – compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness- but also, depending upon our karmic background, we would also feel the negative emotions, but without the sting, the pressure, and the obsession. Instead of that, we would sense them with the awareness “This is anger or sorrow or fear. I don’t have to become overwhelmed by this emotion. I can even appreciate it and know that it connects me with other people who feel this emotion.” There could be an element of compassion and appreciation, even for the negative emotions.


I want to return to the idea that from the Western perspective, there is thought on the one hand and emotion on the other. We are supposed to be ruled by our thought, and if there is a lot of emotion, we should just get over it. Astonishingly in the complex system of Buddhist psychology, no distinction is made between emotion and thought. There are not words to distinguish the two of them. There are moments of gestalt in the mind, and in the moment there are also elements that we would call emotional or cognitive. The mind that is arising in this moment is an interconnected network in which you cannot tease one thing apart from another. So our practice becomes using emotional intelligence, to use Goleman’s term.


I have been reading this unbelievable treatise about 800 pages long called, Upheavals of Thought, by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who is an incredibly thorough and beautiful thinker. This is as major psychological treatise on emotion, in which she argues just this, that emotion and thought are not two different things. When we separate them, we do violence to ourselves and lose the emotional side of life, and our thought becomes brittle. She argues that emotion is not just some messy animal feeling that we have that has to be reined in by our thinking. Emotion is a form or operation that occurs within thinking. Emotion is an “upheaval” of thought. It is a mountain range up in the otherwise flat plain of thought.


So when we are practicing zazen, when we are really breathing a complete breath in and a complete breath out, when we experience a flow of life, nothing disturbing the free flow of life and experience, emotion and feeling coming and going, and when mindfulness is strong, then we could say we are touching emptiness with our whole body. We are seeing things as simply what they are, not what we think they need to be, not what we project them to be, or somebody told us they were, but things that just come and go. We are able to allow that. I think that one of the beautiful things about a long retreat is that you often feel that. There is a beautiful sense of feeling life in its flow, touching emptiness, letting things be as they are. Since holding onto things as things, as objects of our desire, as objects of our projection, instead of seeing them as a flow, is actually the root of all afflictive emotions. Seeing ourselves as an object in the world is the root of all afflictive emotions, and so there is a sense that we can melt and flow and understand our feelings, and transform them in the retreat environment. When we experience reality as a flow, then our feelings flow with reality. That is the relationship between our deep experiences on the cushion and our emotional life.


Then, as we have been discussing, that is hitting at the root of emotional issues. But then we also work with emotions off the cushion in two different ways. First of all, when strong emotion arises, or what the book calls destructive emotion, we pay attention. We know the afflictive emotions for what they are. This is anger; this is greed; this is confusion. Instead of doing what we usually do, which is to deny the emotion, or leap over the emotion to action, we turn around. I like that expression because usually we are running to stay one step ahead of our emotion, but in this case, we stop, turn around and in effect embrace the emotion. “Here it is. This is what I am experiencing.” So that is one kind of practice, to be very attentive to the arising of afflictive emotion, and to turn around, right there, face the emotion, and know the emotion for what it is.


The other kind of practice off the cushion is to make a positive effort to cultivate positive emotions. In this chapter there is a description of the four brahmaviharas, the four unlimiteds, which are loving kindness, equanimity, compassion, and sympathetic joy. They are the four positive emotions to cultivate and make strong. In Buddhism it is seen as necessary to cultivate positive emotions. I would like to suggest another practice for those of you who are up for it: the practice of sympathetic joy. It is to take joy in someone else’s joy. This takes a little cultivation. It is easy to feel sympathetic joy for one’s own child; you don’t feel jealous, or angry, or dubious, wondering if he really deserves this. “Of course he deserves this! He is the best person in the world!” He is your kid. The idea is to extend that idea to everyone, so you are on the look-out for any instances in your vicinity for something positive happening to someone around you. When you see it, you pounce on it, thinking, “Ah, yes, this is my joy!” It is as if I myself had received this. So, be on the look-out for any instance when someone has any joy or happiness, and then get in on it. Take the joy and happiness for your own and really feel the delight in it. Actually, when you think about it, it is a very practical thing to do because the conditions that would cause happiness to arise in you are limited compared to everyone in the room. If there hundreds of people, you have a much bigger chance for joy and happiness. There are prizes, and big vacations, and falling in love over and over again, and having children, all the great things you could do if only you keep your eyes peeled. Smile and tell them how delighted you are in their happiness.


You can use your time on the cushion to train yourself. In other words, when you are on your cushion, you can think of someone who is having some happiness in their life, you can invoke that person’s image, and project your heart into that person’s happiness. You create a thread of this on the cushion so that during the day you will remember this because you have already worked on this on the cushion. I really recommend this practice. I worked on this for a long time and really got good at it.

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