A Common Question

People ask how to deal with emotions. It is bad enough having things from outside oneself to deal with, without having to cope with what wells up inside.

When we say “dealing with” we mean fixing. We are thinking: How can I fix my emotions? This means: how can I just have the ones that I want to have and never have the ones that I don’t like?

What Comes Up
In Buddhist terminology emotion is samudaya. This is a long Sanskrit word meaning that they come up. Ud means up. Udaya means they come up. The “sam” bit means that they come up with something. With what? Dukkha. It’s dukkha that’s to blame. What is dukkha? You are. I am. We all are.

Dukkha is sometimes rendered into English as suffering, or affliction or dissatisfaction - in fact nobody has found a perfect translation. Dukkha is what comes up and tells you: you are still alive. Most people don’t like that too much.

We could say that dukkha is disturbance... Dukkha is disturbance. Dukkha is also non-disturbance. When we are not disturbed we fear boredom. We start to go flat. We don't like that. When they put people into floatation tanks of pleasantly warm water, which goes on feeling very nice for about twenty minutes, and paid them real money to stay there for as long as they liked, most people were soon begging to be let out. Doing nothing is a pain. So we don’t like non-disturbance. But we don’t like disturbance either because it tells us that we are not in control of what's happening.

Rather Be a Rock?
Not only are we not in control, but we are also still alive. Being out of control would not be so bad if one were a rock - right? Then there would not be any emotions. So the most fundamental thing about emotions is they tell us that we are still alive. One is still a human being.

There are forms of "spirituality" around that aim to make people become like rocks. That is one of the reasons that people take up meditation. However, that is not what Buddha intended meditation to be. Maybe that is why there was originally a taboo on making Buddha statues. The original representation of Buddha was a space - an empty seat, say, or footprints. A space has possibilities. A rock is... well, a rock.

The Spock Fallacy
So fixing one’s emotions might mean no longer being what you are. That would be good wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? Perhaps if one was a space alien one would be happy all the time. Actually one does not need to go to Planet Vulcan. There are some drugs that can do that for you. And then you die.

Actually, a real Vulcanian, if there were one, would be alive and so would have emotions. Disturbances and non-disturbances on Vulcan might be a bit different, but not much different. Life is dukkha and after dukkha, samudaya. It's just the same for sheep, cockroaches, birds, and no doubt was for dinosaurs - that's life.

As Much Life As You Have
So what is really required? What is needed is not less life. What is needed is more life. Actually you can’t have more life than you have got, but you can stop trying to have less. One can open the window and let the air of life into the room where one is hiding.

Perhaps if you open the window you think that a tiger is going to jump in and eat you or a tsunami is going to break over you and drown you. It might happen. But at least you will have had one moment of real, undiluted life before you get eaten. More likely what will come through the window is a whole swatch of different stuff, good, bad and neutral.

Damn the Dam
You see, searching for happiness is a mugs game. Happiness is an occasional by-product of more life. The very word “hap-piness” means that it is something that just hap-pens. Searching for it means trying to put a break on the river of life. For sure you can put a dam across the river of life, but you cannot hold the water back forever.

The reason we are afraid of the internal tsunami is because we know that we have already dammed too much up. If we had just let it flow like an ordinary river there would never have been the possibility of this wall of water that we fear. The reason that many people fear to say “no” sometimes is that they fear the pressure of the part of themselves that wants to say a lot more than just “no”. It is the murderous rage inside that threatens to over-whelm. Consequently, they put on a false smile and say polite little things that they don’t really mean and the dam gets higher and higher. Beware such people - but this is difficult to do since there are so many. And one might be one oneself.

Dharma Enquiry
So what does Buddhism recommend? Study. Enquire. Don't think you already know. Go on exploring. You never know what is round the corner. Remember the teachings and study reality. Remember that the Buddhas accept you just as you are - they really are that crazy! - and study what you are and what comes before you in life. The world of the Buddhas contains much more than we imagine. Be willing to be surprised. That’s all. Investigate. Find out about reality. Yes, that's ALL - I don’t mean investigate in order to change. I don’t mean find out in order to cover up. I mean see what is really  there. Forget the self-perfection project and take it just as it is.

Maybe you find a lot of greed or compulsive habits or that one seems to be desperate in various ways. Probably one finds quite a bit of fear. Whatever. It is. It is what it is. It is life. It is being a human being. Being a being is better than not.

Don't Stop
When one has investigated, investigate some more. All this takes faith, of course. Remember that all the time you are investigating the Buddhas are watching and laughing their heads off. But it is a friendly laughter. They are laughing because you are coming a little closer to them.

A Buddha is nothing special. That’s what is special about them. They are alive. Perhaps one is sad because mother is dying. What else do you think you should be? Perhaps one is frightened because one’s economic position is threatened. That’s normal. What if the worst happens? Then one will deal with the situation. Dealing with the situation is quite different from trying to fix the emotions.

Fix by Not Fixing
There are extreme situations where the emotion is so strong that one is paralysed. That happens sometimes. Not often, but it is possible at the limit. If one is paralysed, one is paralysed. There is nothing to be ashamed of. It will pass. And remember, every feeling has something to teach and it is not just what you are expecting. So investigate and go on investigating. Whatever, keep learning. Studying oneself is learning about everybody else. When you really know yourself you won't be so bothered about yourself - but life will still go on teaching.

So, investigate real life. And when you find something, make that the basis for more investigation. The way to fix emotions is by not fixing them. When life comes knocking on your door, don’t tell it: Aliens not wanted here. Say, Come in and teach me - I need some lessons.

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Replies to This Discussion

Many times, I have many teachers jumping around in my body.... Very kind of all these teachers that they want to help me with my lessons :-)

Yes, too true Namo amida bu

This daily teaching brings up lots of things for me. The tsunami is a familiar dream image. The inexorable weight of a mountain of water, but different from a mountain because a tsunami is moving, it cannot help but shift everything in its path. It is a powerful symbol of impermanence, obliterating everything that stands in its way. So in a way a tsunami is the ultimate symbol of death. Yet, at the same time, it is also the ultimate symbol of life: without impermanence what would we have? Stasis? Suspended animation? Without change nothing could live or move. Being itself is a verb. A mountain cannot know own existence. It cannot breath.

My teacher used to warn students against what he called frozen ice meditation. I think it was essentially the same as Dharmavidya's idea of meditating like a rock. In a meditation interview he asked a senior student who was struggling with his tantric practice and visualization: Does your Chenreizig breathe? This question was a revelation to the student and radically opened up his mediation practice

Meditation, breathing, living, exploring: all mean risking. Risking change, risking loss— for that matter making loss a certainty. But what is the alternative. Stagnation? Clinging? Perhaps to experience the fullest sense of being alive one must be willing to risk everything.

Emotion v.s. Feeling

My teacher also used to make a distinction between emotions and feeling. It doesn't matter whether it is a conventional distinction, there is a point to be taken: He talked about how babies feel their feelings very directly and respond, whether to hunger or tiredness or fear. If the baby cries and is picked up and soothed by the mother the bad feeling evaporates quickly, like something carried on downstream by a river. But often as we get older we form ideas and views, expectations and stories, and many of us come to suffer a kind of emotional illness. We grab hold of an idea or view and tell stories to ourselves. We actually stop investigating. Instead of finding out about reality, something a baby does naturally without being taught, we miss what is really there. Instead of performing their proper function as the body's internal intelligent communication system, feelings become distorted and stagnant, the river's natural flow gets blocked up. New information can barely get through into this muddy water of emotion. Here we come back to Dharmavidya's contention that blocked emotion eventually bursting through can wreak havoc. I think this is right. More of a dam breaking than a tsunami perhaps... A great pressure can explode and start the river flowing freely again, but there can be a lot a damage in the explosion. Hopefully there is a better gentler way.

Dharmavidya says: "Be willing to be surprised. That’s all. Investigate. Find out about reality. Yes, that's ALL... - I mean see what is really there. Forget the self-perfection project and take it just as it is." This feels exactly right. Could this actually be the activity that unblocks the river. Is it this simple? In a way it is overly abstract, at the same time it is the only answer that makes any sense to me.

On the investigation end, more images of water. I love float tanks, i don't find them boring. They are an interesting pattern breaker. All distractions are taken away. One is left with only the habits of mind and after a bit these start to fall away too, even if only temporarily, as there is nothing to hold them. The contractions and tensions of the mind begin to let go.

These are just first thoughts, but thank you, Dharmavidya, for catalysing them. I am in a challenging situation in my life at the moment and it is all to easy to get trapped in the stagnation of my own emotions while trying to push away difficult feelings. It is good to work through these ideas even if just to remind myself that the only way through IS through and to have the confidence that I can meet each moment as it comes, that I can learn the rich lessons that my life is offering me right here where I am. Later there will be other lessons, but for now this IS what is knocking at the door.

Thank you for sharing, Carol. It is good to explore these things from the experiential point of view. I know about your situation and in a sense, situations like that are both a trap and a privilege, a prison or a grace, depending on how you look at it and the human mind being what it is we sometimes look one way and sometimes the other and it is studying that inconstancy that is Dharma investigation. The mistake that we make is that we think that we are supposed to decide that one of these ways of looking is the right one and stick to that, but in fact that is impossible and in any case there are ten other ways of looking at the situation as well. Dharma investigation should be opening up rather than closing down. I like the thing about "Does your Chenresig breathe?" - does he/she/it sing/dance/ fly/turn inside out/ change colour/ taste nice?

Yes. Thanks. I agree with all of this. Though the taste nice part made me laugh.

The multiple perspectives I have always agreed with but the multiple feelings are a rather new understanding. Well-meaning people have been asking me a lot lately how I am feeling. I noticed that the question itself was making me feel trapped and a bit irritated. I felt as though I was supposed to reach into my bag of feelings and pull out the right one, or at least a single conclusive one. It finally dawned on me that, these days in particular, I routinely feel a large number of things more or less all at once. I often feel pairs of opposites almost at the same time, or at least cycling through rapidly: hope and despair, love, fear,anger, frustration; sometimes panic, calm, joy, misery, etc.

The feelings shift around but generally I can detect several at any given time. Just recognizing this has made me more patient and tolerant. It is a relief to recognize that it is alright to respect the multiplicity of myself and not judge it a failing. If I were Churchill in wartime I suppose it would be a problem, but as it turns out I am not.

Decisions and feelings are not the same thing. I'm sure that anybody making decisions in wartime has a welter of different feelings, but still has to make a single decision. That's life generally - just more acute when the stakes are higher.

So one "still has to make a single decision", yet "there are ten different ways of looking at the situation as well" if we are to open up rather than close down (and not (necessarily anyway) assume that one view must be better than the others). How reliably might the collection of views give you an overview that would afford better decision making; how often might it risk falling into chaos? If you don't have many options/ possibilities, surely it is faster to make a decision.

Very nice. Just what I needed I think! I tend to get stuck between over-analysis and being frozen with fear but always manage to remain curious rather than constantly distraught, which is a good sign... I think! My relationship with the Buddhas feels more and more human all the time which worries me sometimes but fascinates me as well. It sometimes feels dangerous to put all of my trust and faith in them with that in mind, but it's nice to know and feel that the guidance we get comes from first hand experience of the human condition. They haven't let me down so far! Namo Amida Bu(   :

Thanks Carol. That self perfection project is a bugger! Social conditioning ingrained to the deepest level, dictating the parameters of character, motivation and personal well being. Is it ever possible to be free of it? I don't think so. I think that when the experience of emotion is intense enough the perfection project goes on the back burner...briefly...and then springs back into place again as soon as the rational mind has regained control. And then it's back to ''how can I increase my standing and thereby improve my sense of security?''. This is the Human response to Dukkha, uncertainty and unpredictability, the engine of the cycle. I love that we ARE Dukkha, as Dharmavidya said. It explains so much about so much. In that context I can almost visualise the currents of my various karmic streams, starting from before I was even born, merging and morphing into the conditions that have brought me to this point. It stimulates a mixture of awe and powerlessness feelings, which help me to let go of my delusions of control and give in to the natural direction of things. It's all to the good, one way or another!!! Namo Amida Bu(   :

Re decisions: well, one decision probably is better than the others, but not on all counts and one cannot know for sure in advance which it is - one just makes the best effort one can. It may be comforting to think that there is no choice, but that is usually a cop out. Again, feelings are not reliable. We may think "I'll do what feels right", but there is no guarantee that what feels right is right. What feels right depends upon which particular set of delusions is uppermost at the time. But then there is the question: better in what respect? Better for me? Better for somebody else? Better for maintaining my idea of who I am? Better for making money? Better for confirming an image i have about efficiency? Better for our community? There is an issue about intention. However, this is often not really about making the right decision, it is about the fear we have of getting it wrong or being judged to be wrong.

Thank you very much for these words, they have been very helpful for me. And also they have touched me because they were talking about my life in some way. Dharmavidya is speaking about living our lives and that implies taking risks. This has been one of the most difficult things for me to do all throughout my life, and the terrible tsunami coming upon me is one of my typical dreams.

So it seems that I have been avoiding life in this failed attempt of avoiding dukkha. And really this is true… Not taking risks many times implies trying to put life in standby which, in turn, means a lack of intensity or vibration,  that one which nurtures me when I allow life flows through me. So if I pretend to stop life, I am wishing death in some way. That vibration of life usually brings a teaching which means a movement or a change. So this resistance to change is another failed attempt to negate impermanence of life.

So I had put on a false smile and said little polite things many times…Beware of me :)

On the other hand sometimes I feel some confusion since I am not sure if this fact of avoiding risks really is not good or bad. I mean, this is a particular position I take sometimes in life and, as Parsva said: “He does not have to know where he is going: wherever he is, it is the same light.” Since the Dharma is in every situation and position, Is it really so important whether I am able to surrender to life or not, would not it be irrelevant to experience that light?

Anyway I think I am here to experience life / dukkha in order to learn… Maybe faith can help me to recall this and be mindful when life” happens”

Yes, "So if I pretend to stop life, I am wishing death in some way" - in a certain way, we can think of Buddhism as being about being really alive rather than dead-while-alive. Buddha often spoke about Mara or about marana. Mara means death. Mara-na, literally, means death-ness. The Buddha did not want us to fall into deadness. However, the way to avoid deadness is to be engaged with what is happening and, as you say, Nati, wherever opne is the Light is happening.



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