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Zen and Feeling

By: Alan Block | 01/17/2014
In Topics: Emotion

Alan gives a talk about feelings, their causes, and how we work with them in Zen.

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “don’t believe everything you think”? Well that may be true of our thoughts but is less true of our feelings. As we all know from meditation, thoughts can be random and of unclear origin. They appear and disappear, often without a trace. Their unimportance is indicated by not even remembering that they have occurred. Feelings, although they can have the same short shelf life in meditation, in our lives have the capacity to direct our actions and affect how we behave.

Feelings are both a cause and an effect. We have a feeling about something. That feeling has its origins in our experience, in the present and in the past: extending back to our childhood. Maybe a parent said to us many years ago, how can you like coconut cream pie when lemon or chocolate is so much better? Every time you start to order coconut cream you remember that comment. So how we feel about something in the present is a product of many causes in the past and itself becomes a causal factor in how we go forward in life creating our continuing and endless stream of karma. This is one reason why Dogen argues in Uji that there is no past or future, just the present. Everything in our past is here now. How we respond in the present is an opportunity AND a potential turning point in our lives. An opportunity to respond in a new way, intention over habit, as Shohaku Okamura says in Living By Vow, changing our karmic direction as we learn to look and investigate how we feel about things in the present.

In my own family feelings were not well understood. Although there might be a lot of yelling about this or that, I don’t remember anyone actually saying, “this is how I feel about something or I am angry or feel good”. There was no vocabulary for feelings or taking responsibility for feelings. Feelings mostly came out around tragedies when grief could not be hidden. As a confused graduate student in NYC in the late 60’s I fell in, quite by accident, with a group from Daytop Village,. These were people in a drug treatment program that were trying to exorcise their drug past by realizing and expressing their feelings in the present. The mantra was to be open and honest about our feelings everywhere and always so we were encouraged to express our anger to the rude ticket agent, out boss or insensitive friend. Anger was the dominant feeling and it was aggressive and defensive and vulnerability or kindness did not show.

Learning to express feelings in encounter groups was a revolution in my life as I was not previously able to recognize or respect feelings. I thought that I had made a major discovery that my self was defined by feelings. As I look back at those experiences, learning about feelings, they prepared me to come to practice as an expression of how we feel about our lives, others and the world we live in.

Becoming aware of your feelings is an essential ingredient to practice and is one of the cross-overs between therapy and practice and something that therapy can help with greatly. In practice it is basic and essential to know what you are feeling. Whether it be anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, disappointment- all feelings are essential to know in order to practice. To be able to recognize your feelings is to know your own suffering and the suffering of others. It is the people who suffer the most or see the suffering of others most acutely that come to practice. Many of us have been brought to practice by this recognition- sometimes not even conscious, of something amiss in the world or with human life. Maybe we weren’t able to define what wasn’t right or what felt uncomfortable about the world we lived in but we knew that it was beyond our personal issues and involved a human condition and we expressed our discomfort by coming to practice.

In Buddhism the self is constructed or maybe I should say deconstructed around feelings. As we say in the Heart Sutra after forms we have feelings, perceptions, impulses and ultimately consciousness or the awareness of the rest. Although this explanation of the self is not exhaustive nor represents a religious truth with a big T, it comes from the time of the Buddha and is useful and handy in trying to understand who we are and how we negotiate our lives.

The Buddhist view of the self begins with the five skandas. Skandas is a word derived from tree trunk. The division of the person or personality into the five tree trunks is a useful tool to understand how we perceive the world and how we get into trouble as a result of our particular world view. In Buddhism the problem we are all trying to deal with is not the world- the world is alright the way it is. The problem is also not us as we are alright the way we are. The problem is the way we interpret or perceive the world that causes us difficulty. Looking at ourselves and our personalities as a collective of the skandas is a way of deconstructing how we organize our perception of the world and how that organization causes suffering.

Let me put it this way. Each of us sees and experiences the world as the product of our history, all the things in our past that have made up who we are today. Each one of you is having a somewhat different reaction to this talk based on each of your history. Maybe some of you are bored, thinking when am I going to get out of here, some interested, some amused but the differences are due to what has happened to you before you walked in the door tonight. Similarly each of us responds to our life situations such as in love or work based on those formative experiences. What the skandas are saying to us is that we each have a response to things, situations and persons way before we are consciously aware of it. In a sense our judgments about the world occur before we are conscious of making a judgment. So looking at ourselves through the scheme of the five skandas is asking us to try to decipher a major unrecognized power and influence in our lives that results in our karma and continually occurs. It asks you to be aware of your immediate feelings so that you can understand how you negotiate the world.

The first skanda is fairly simple-it is form or the physicality of the world and of our bodies. Often thought of as earth, air, fire and water. The second skanda is more personal and of use in observing our personal world view. It is sometimes called feelings but I think that can be confusing so it is also called impressions. Simply put, it is paying attention to initial impressions. This skanda asks us to recognize our immediate reaction to what we encounter as positive, negative or neutral. This is the simplest and most direct initial feelings available to us when we first come into contact with a condition.

A beauty of this skanda is that it is without moral value. No good, no bad. Just our immediate impression. It asks you to think, “I am feeling positive, negative or neutral.” It allows you the space to have a negative feeling without a moral judgment. No one is condemned or extolled. Experimenting with the second skanda has helped me to be aware of how quickly I make judgments about almost everything way before I even know the background. It has been so interesting for me to see this in my daily experience and being aware of how quickly I can make judgments before I even know it is happening. This awareness has allowed me to take the backward step and to look at my own responses and to try to withdraw from making judgments.

The next or third skanda is where we name or recognize what we meet. Once we have an original impression our mind wants to name it in a way that we can recognize. Naming can also have a moral value or we can try to withdraw the judgmental side.

The fourth skanda links our experience to our memory or past experience. Something like, the last time I had this soup I burned my mouth so I better be careful this time. It can keep us out of trouble but also can be loaded with past judgments imposed on present situations and that are not necessarily true.

And as you know the fifth skanda is consciousness or the awareness that we are and that we are breathing and perceiving.

It seems like every book you read on basic Buddhism will have a different explanation of the self and the five skandas. The five skandas are a Buddhist attempt to understand personality and personal being. They are worth exploring and in particular trying to understand where we, as individuals get caught in a way that impedes our fresh understanding and compassion toward ourselves and others.

In the story of “The Old Woman Burns Down the Hermitage” in the Hidden Lamp, an old woman who has supported a monk for many years sends a girl from the village to test the monk by attempting to seduce him. The monk is unresponsive. The old woman calls him an imposter and uses a stick to drive him away and burns down the hermitage. Zenkei Blanche Hartman’s commentary is that the monk has shut down or never become aware of his human feelings, not just his sexual feelings but also his feelings of compassion and is therefore a fraud.

Buddhism emphasizes what it calls an “appropriate response” to each situation. An appropriate response for a Mahayana Zen Buddhist is one that includes wisdom and compassion. The basic requirement is that we be compassionate or caring toward others and to ourselves. So unlike the early encounter movement, we learn in practice that honesty and caring is not to always express everything that we feel. But here is where “not expressing” so critically crosses once again with therapy.

We are not trying to control our emotions. The problem that arises is that if we are not aware of what we are feeling we have a tendency to express it in other indirect ways. So this takes us back to the skandas that teach us to understand our personal responses or sources of behavior. In order to practice we have to learn to be aware of our feelings as they are. Comfortable or uncomfortable. If it is humiliation or anger over being not understood, anxiety or sadness-we must be aware of our feelings so we can skillfully chose or select what we will say or do.

When I think of what is “hatred” I find myself thinking of unaware and unexpressed anger that has calcified. Anger that has been harbored and possessed til it has become part of an identity. If the initial anger could have been felt and shared maybe that would have stopped the process before it became solidified into hatred.

Feelings are not set in stone. They are negotiable. We can decide to respond or not respond. We can let feelings pass right through us. Letting go of grasping our feelings is one of the advanced arts of this practice.

As I have learned that I have feelings about most everything, I have also come to see that not engaging them is one of the more helpful aspects of practice. Maybe a good analogy is service. I am referring to the services we do at our one day sittings or even the chanting we do at the beginning and end of these seminars. Sometimes in service I am bored, I think to myself that all this bowing and chanting about impossible wishes is silly. I have that feeling but put it aside just do what everyone else is doing and I feel liberated or free from my personal preferences and judgments. Its an example of what happens in the monastery when put your personal preferences aside and just follow the schedule. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have the feeling of boredom or lack of interest or that they are bad but you just don’t relate to them and gradually they weaken and you become less reactive. Your attention goes where you have decided to put it. This is the process of letting go. As Diane Eshin Rizzetto says, ” “Being open in this way is often very difficult unless we’ve cultivated the ability to rest in what is”, which means to know our feelings but to chose how we will act in response. It is intention over reaction, vow over habit.

When thinking about this, I thought to myself, it also has a similarity to picking your battles with your children. You can’t fight about everything or you will all go crazy so you chose what is important. But the great peril in both situations is that you are angry about an earlier event and someone spills a glass of milk and you become enraged because you have not realized your earlier feelings.

So what I am talking about is being aware of how we feel which though probably an impossibility, takes some maturity and even sophistication to attempt. And selecting how we will express our feelings means less reactivity and more intention.

The exercise I was thinking of is to divide into three or fours and for each person to talk for about five minutes about a time when they had a strong feeling about something and had to put it aside, either due to an inappropriate situation or another circumstance. How did it work out? For the better or not?