Category Archives: anger

Grudges, pet peeves and other tangled mental knots

 

San Anselmo Creek detail

Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble

One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.

Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.

But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.

If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.

It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.

Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.

You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)

My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.

Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.

Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.

Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.

So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.

Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.

I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!

What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?


Pet Peeves
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?

Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.

Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.

In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.

Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉

Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.

Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.

Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?

Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.

You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?

The Hindrances make us go deaf and blind

The Five Hindrances* cause a kind of blindness and deafness. How can that be? You can probably provide your own example. If there is some issue that sets you off when a topic comes up on the news, that’s a perfect time to notice how every time it comes up, there is that same circular pattern of anger, the same volatility of emotion, and a repetition of thoughts on the matter that blot out all else in that moment. Can you even hear the news or have you gone off into your own inner rant? In that moment, if someone were offering some brilliant solution to the very problem that upsets you, you would not hear it because the volume of your angry rant is ramped up so high. If anger is not something you experience often, you might notice it in someone else. (If you do, it is skillful just to notice, not to offer unasked-for instruction on the Hindrances!)

Greed too has a blinding/deafening quality. When desire or craving arises, we may have a difficult time tempering it. Only justifications to fulfill the craving are admitted into our thinking. Yes, another hindrance might chime — self-judgment, shame or despair, perhaps — but we are blind or deaf to the calm loving voice of compassionate reason.

I remember one time on my way to the refrigerator to fulfill a hunger that had nothing to do with my stomach, I was so consumed in my desire for ‘a little something’ that it was a shock when I heard another voice within me asking if this was really going to appease my desire or was it actually fueling it. Who was that?

I’d never heard that wise voice before in this context because when I am caught up in greed, I am deaf to its kind loving words. They don’t suit my goal or the kindness doesn’t feel deserved. But that one time, for whatever reason, I heard it. Having heard it once, there is a better chance I will hear it again at another moment when such wisdom would be useful in bringing me into the moment, aware of what I’m actually doing.

By noticing the hindrance, naming it as hindrance, and seeing the hindrance as simply an obstacle to clarity of mind, we unlock its hold on us. A calmer, more fully-informed way of being prevails.

We practice awareness to develop the ability to see and hear the wisdom that is always available to us. We practice compassion to be better able to stay present with whatever arises. Our compassionate eyes do not need to look away from what is difficult in the world and within our minds. We can hold it all in an open friendly embrace, neither grasping nor pushing away.

The hindrances of worry and restlessness also blind us. We only pay attention to what feeds the worry, however remote this information may be. The antsy quality of restlessness doesn’t allow for the possibility that it might be okay, maybe even joyful, to simply be here now in this ordinary moment.

Sloth and torpor also cause deafness and blindness. We don’t want to pay attention to any sense within ourselves that calls us out to play, to breathe, to be active, awake, alive. We create what we hope is a safe couch-potato or bedridden refuge for ourselves, but in fact it is not a refuge at all. It is a dulling down, a deadening, an enervating escape. A true refuge is a place where rest refuels, energizes and balances us. As we develop awareness we can begin to see the difference between shutting down and refuge.

Doubt is blind and deaf as well. When we doubt, we punch holes in everything that is offered. (For example, if we are given a compliment, we discount or distrust the source.) We see only the holes, and not the whole of the fabric of being. We even embroider the holes and make them seem more real than the fabric itself. If wisdom were to arise and speak to us, we wouldn’t trust it. And such is the nature of this quiet still voice that it would simply be quiet. It has no agenda, no goal, and all the time in the world since it is beyond time. It is simply there, always available, woven deeply in the fabric of being. But we have to be available for it as well, by sensing into the texture of the fabric of this present moment experience.

Compassion provides clarity.
When we notice one of the hindrances arising or being active within us, that noticing is skillful. It’s awareness! Yay!
But in the next moment the hindrance might draw us back into all kinds of self-abuse. Compassion at this moment makes all the difference in how we proceed. With compassion, we can stay present with seeing clearly what is happening in this moment.

Compassion is not indulgence but an infusion of honesty. It tells us, ‘Hey, these hindrances are universal and a longstanding part of the human condition. The hindrances are not who you are. You are not uniquely flawed because a hindrance keeps arising, anymore than a swimmer is flawed because a wave in the ocean overcomes him or her at some point.’

So we use compassion and universal loving-kindness skillfully when we notice the presence of a hindrance. ‘Aha!’ and then, ‘How human an experience is this!’ With this two-fold noticing, we are able to stay present to witness the dissolving of the strength of the wave of hindrance that might otherwise drown us.

Rejoice! Recognizing the blindness and deafness of the Five Hindrances helps us to dissolve them. When we are present and the hindrances have fallen away, we are grateful. We are encouraged to notice and stay present with this awareness of their disappearance. Rejoice! Notice the joy! Notice the tranquility! Notice the happiness!

The Buddha likened this state of being (at least temporarily) hindrance-free to being free from debt, to being released from prison, to being liberated from slavery, to having safely crossed a dangerous desert, and to having recovered from an illness.

Recently my three-year-old granddaughter had a terrible bout of stomach flu. Such misery! The next day when we visited her, she told us, ‘All that tummy ache. All that poop!’ She was fully recovered, happily dancing about the house. The simple joy of normal life after she had been so knotted up in pain gave her a pronounced bounce in her step, a lilt in her voice, a ready smile, laughing at nothing, when usually she is quite serious about her play. She was rejoicing. Isn’t it great to be alive and pain-free?

Back into the Fray
Of course things change moment to moment, and this sense of gratitude and delight we feel can easily turn into greed for more. ‘Why isn’t it always like this?’ we might complain. Or the fear of losing it arises. A myriad of other thoughts can come along to drag us instantly back into one hindrance or another.

But to the degree we can stay present to see the arising of a hindrance, we can meet it with awareness and compassion. Then it dissolves and we can expand into a spacious delight where we can rest in mindfulness, concentration and absorption.

Naming and Claiming
If we notice a hindrance, we might be in the habit of saying, ‘Oh, I’m the type of person who has this hindrance’? This naming and claiming game is just a divisive diversion. In this moment when we recognize a hindrance, we are seeing clearly. We can be appreciative of this moment of clarity. And we can send loving-kindness to ourselves to create more spaciousness in our heart-mind to hold this new information in a way that will support expansive understanding instead of diving right back into a hindrance.

Metta (Loving-kindness)
We practice metta to remind us that it is available in any moment, to cope with whatever arises. If we discover we are being hard on ourselves, we use metta to gentle up our approach to the challenge at hand. If we are holding a grudge against someone, we can send them metta — not because they ‘deserve’ it, since metta is not a reward, but because when we enter a state of sending metta, we better understand the unitive nature of being. We let go of the isolationist indoctrination of our culture that has had each of us in a tight little knot unable to sense our connection. We might say or think:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.


* The Buddha’s Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, and doubt.

The Dungeon of Difficult Emotions

We’ve seen how holding tight to our established identity creates contraction as we grasp and cling to that hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be. This contraction can also be an aversion to who we believe ourselves to be. We’ve talked about how when we let go of that contracted state by relaxing, releasing, letting go in a mindful way, we create the space to see things more clearly and compassionately, including our emotions.

The emotions themselves are free agents. None of us can claim emotions as our identity though we often try to do so. Emotions float through our present experience like the weather, as natural as fog, rain, snow, heat, clouds, storms and rainbows. Emotions simply exist. Understanding this frees us from believing that we are the emotions we experience or that the emotions reflect on us. We can simply notice them as they pass through our experience with compassionate curiosity.

We are certainly responsible for how we behave in response or reaction to the emotions we experience. We all have habituated ways of dealing with them. We may feel the helpless victim of emotions, letting them dictate our behavior. We may feel ashamed of certain emotions and shield them from sight, sometimes so effectively that we shield them from ourselves.

It’s very likely we were taught to put forth acceptable emotions and hide, deny or push down unacceptable ones. Our parents and teachers may have been uncomfortable with their own negative emotions, and so were unwilling to acknowledge ours. In my case if I said, “I feel (a particular emotion), I was told “Well, you shouldn’t.” At other times my fears were dismissed. “Don’t be silly,” was a phrase that came up a lot in my upbringing. I’m sure this or some variation on it was pretty much the norm for mid-twentieth century. But it leaves us as adults with a habit of suppressing these ‘unacceptable’ emotions. So how does that fit with the weather analogy, where all kinds of emotions simply pass through our experience? Well, it’s as if we’ve been corralling thunderbolts and locking them up in an airtight vacuum packed dungeon somewhere inside ourselves.

I remember when I first started meditating I had some fear that what I would find in this process of self-discovery would be that my true self, my true nature, would be hideous and unacceptable. There was this sense of bottled up toxicity that I was terrified of unlocking. Now I can recognize that I was not completely wrong, that there was indeed a bottled up toxicity within me, but it wasn’t my ‘true nature’ but simply the imprisoned storms of many years of habituated emotional suppression.

This process of pushing down or suppressing seems to successfully contain the emotion. It can no longer just pass through, but is locked up and it’s sitting in a cell deep in the dungeon of our subconscious, plotting revenge, digging tunnels and rattling the bars from time to time to remind us it is still there. We are all emotional jailers to some degree, and it’s not a role we really relish. Even if we get into the whole jangling keys, gun toting, star on our chest swagger of it, in truth there are so many other things we’d rather be doing than minding the jail that contains our suppressed emotions. And the perception of ourselves as toxic at the core, when we believe those suppressed emotions to be our true selves, is a great cause of suffering that affects us and those around us day in and day out.

When it comes to jailing emotions, anger is the easiest target to round up and toss in the clinker because it makes such a ruckus. We know if we don’t lock it up it will smash everything in its path. So anger is easy to spot and uncomfortable to be around — not an emotion we want to find in our personal experience. It doesn’t suit our sense of who we are, this anger, and its existence can make us angrier, so that we find we are the kind of jailer that roughs up the inmate on the way to tossing it in its cell. We are embarrassed by this anger, so we keep jailing it up every time we come across it and hope that nobody notices.

In our weather analogy anger is not the town trouble-maker but a thunder storm passing through. We would never think of locking up a thunderstorm. We know how to behave responsibly around it. What’s the difference between a real thunderstorm and anger? We think anger is a reflection on us, so we compound its intensity by fueling it with other emotions like shame. When we react to anger with fear of exposure and try to suppress it, we are compressing the anger into something densely toxic that begins to poison our life and the lives around us.

Suppression of emotion is a dangerous, even deadly game. It plays havoc on all aspects of our lives, including our physical health. These suppressed emotions feed on challenging situations, difficult personalities, scary events and high pressure deadlines, so that we may find ourselves addicted to disaster in our lives. We can get hooked on horrendous news, terrifying movies and drama in our own lives to feed those suppressed emotions.

Conversely we might feel unable to deal with any exposure to news, violence in movies or drama in our lives, feeling sapped by them, and afraid of their power to harm us. We see ourselves as weak and vulnerable, prone to illness.

The Buddha taught his followers to incline the mind toward what is wholesome, because that supports our ability to walk the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering. But he was not suggesting that we are somehow so weak and vulnerable that we can’t face any difficulty that comes along. We are to be present and notice its qualities and our reactions to it all with an open spaciousness of compassionate mind. Our fear of what is unwholesome throws us in its path, for unwholesomeness feeds on fear.

Addiction to or aversion of anything are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide valuable clues to our relationship with the emotional weather that has been passing through our lives. If we learned to suppress emotion as children, then we may feel we are betraying our parents or family by going down in the dungeon and unlocking the cells. But if our parents taught us how to suppress, it’s only because they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could with what they had available. They taught what they knew to be true from their perception of themselves and the world around them. As unskillful as it may have been, they did what they felt would best protect us in the world. And for their intention we can be grateful. But we don’t honor them by staying true to the false beliefs they thought at the time to be true.

When we finally go down into the dungeon, we find that the emotions we have needed to muster in order to keep the old ones jailed are more dangerous than the prisoner-emotions themselves. When we are able to look at them with an open spacious mind we can see that the prisoners are in fact weak and helpless. How can this be? Because when we are willing to look and be present with them, we have stopped fueling them with our fear. We have stopped empowering them. We see them clearly and recognize, as the Buddha recognized when repeatedly confronted by Mara the tempter as he sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention to awaken, that they are illusions created by the interaction of our fears, our aversions and our overwhelming desires, with the emotional weather that is part of the experience of being human.

Meditation provides us with a sense of dispassionate self-acceptance that makes it safe to visit the dungeon of our suppressed emotions. If we don’t feel it is safe, we can seek the help of a therapist to walk beside us as descend into the dungeon.

Why is it so important to visit these emotional prisoners? Doing so liberates not just them but us. As long as we are suppressing emotion, we are constricted in a way that inhibits our ability to love ourselves and others, to find a way to be joyful and useful, and to be healthy.

We hear about how meditation benefits physical health, and we can easily demonstrate the direct connection between the mind and the rest of the body by doing this simple experiment: Close your eyes and bring to mind something that upsets you, some person, situation, event, deadline, etc. that irks you, gets your goat, angers you, or scares you. Then when that thought is fixed in the mind, notice where in they body you have contracted. Check out the brow, the jaw, the temples, the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the hands, and the gut. Notice it, then let the thought go, and relax, release and shake out any accumulated tension.

If you noticed tension in any area of the body, then the mind-body connection is made perfectly clear. Here we were, perfectly comfortable, and then an emotionally charged thought is brought up, and our body contracts in some habituated way. If anyone ever doubts the truth of the mind-body connection, that’s the simplest way to demonstrate it.

If you didn’t notice it, try it some time when you are upset about something and really pay attention to sensations in the body.

Dr. John Sarno, orthopedic surgeon and author of a number of books about the mind-body connection, is an excellent resource to check out if you have any physical ailments, especially chronic ones or ones that the doctor can’t explain. Reading one of his books has made a great difference in the lives of many, including my own, I’m happy to say.

Just seeing the mind-body connection for ourselves and understanding some of how it works can free us of pain, whether we are meditators or not. But a Vipassana meditator trained to be present and compassionate with the arising and falling away of phenomena, including emotion and physical sensation, is more readily noticing what’s going on in both the body and the mind.

But being a meditator doesn’t make us clairvoyant. Like anyone else we can be blind to what’s right in front of us if some aspect of ourselves feels too threatened by it. As meditators when we do discover it, we have the training to deal with it in a way that is effective. Facing what scares us most is an important part of meditation practice.
Instead of feeling failure at such a discovery about ourselves and acquiescing to the urge to push our discovery down into a deeper dungeon, we are more likely to feel like investigators having found an important clue. We approach the discovery with curiosity and maybe even excitement. Aha! We feel we are at the beginning of a rich journey.

So this is the process, this making space and then noticing. If it feels self-indulgent, then it is probably a clue to habituated suppression. We discount and discard feelings that make us uncomfortable. We tell ourselves we’re being silly, that we should bucker up, grin and bear it, have a stiff upper lip, etc. But this is just our discomfort talking, our fear of what we’ll find if we visit the dungeon. But when we use our keys – our meditative tools of self-discovery – to liberate those suppressed emotions, we find we have liberated ourselves from suffering.

I ended this week’s class by reading an article I wrote many years ago, titled Emotions as Honored Guests. It was published in The Emotional Intelligence Newsletter, and I still on occasion get requests for its excerption or reproduction, so it clearly resonates with people. It is always available on openembracemeditations.com along with other downloads of useful information about meditation. Some of you may recognize similarities in concept between this piece and a poem by Rumi. I wrote it before I ever read Rumi so I was surprised, delighted and a little unsettled by discovering his poem. The coincidence shows that while each of us may draw our understanding from different wells, the wells tap into a deep river of universal wisdom. Our goal in meditation-based self-discovery is to keep dipping in the well.

Noticing: Enzyme Action for Emotion

Last week we experimented with expressing our thoughts in a very present conscious way, a rather stilted awkward way, almost quoting our thoughts as we noticed them. By setting these thoughts off in quotations, we remind ourselves that we are not the thoughts.

Today I’d like to do the same thing with emotion. In our practice we will continue noticing thoughts, and also be available to notice emotions if they arise as well.

Depending on our personal nature, we each have emotions we are more familiar with. Anger is not an emotion that comes up for me very often, but it did the other day, and I had to be careful not to get too excited at having the opportunity to notice all the aspects of my experience of anger, lest the anger dissipate too quickly, before I had a chance to learn more of its nature.

Here are the things I noticed about anger:
• A sense of being disrespected, taken advantage of, taken for granted.
• A feeling of being in the right, entrenched in my position, stuck in a toxic sludge with a feeling of sinking in deeper and deeper to my entrenched position so that I could not see any other view, even if I wanted to.
• A sense of wallowing that felt kind of pleasurable, like a pig wallowing in the mud.
• Disgust and judgment at this indulgence.
• Disappointment, not getting what I wanted, which led to:
• The realization that I had had expectation as a precursor, my imagination having established a quasi-reality of a future moment to which I had become much attached. The disappointment was the wrenching away of that unlived future moment, and the anger arose quite naturally out of that wrenching away of something I wanted to experience, something I felt promised, if only by my own imagination.
• A wondering what is the fear that fuels the anger, as it is my experience that fear is at the core of all negative emotion.
• Sensing a very tender fearful aspect of self clinging to ‘a cherished moment that will never be’ because someone ‘stole’ it from me.
• Betrayal, loss.
• Confusion, a beginning to question whether I had misunderstood the agreed upon arrangement by which my expectations were meant to be fulfilled, but were instead dashed.
• An opening to the possibility that there was no disrespect intended by the other party, just a misunderstanding.
• Curiosity began to soften the feelings. Noticing an opportunity to explore and understand this emotion better. The ability to infuse some awareness into the mix with the recognition that I am not the emotion I am experiencing.
• A release of tension in my body.
• A realization that the decision to explore gives me a sense of control in the situation, whereas I was feeling uncomfortably out of control. Not so out of control that I acted out involving others, but an inner sense of being caught up in a powerful surge of something and feeling emotionally on hyper-drive and somewhat overwhelmed.
——
So these were the many stages that made up my experience within a matter of ten minutes sitting with it.

Some people might feel that it’s self-indulgent to take ten minutes to just follow an inner process of an emotion that would have been better just tolerated or stifled. Others might feel that ten minutes would never be enough to process an emotion, that I’m kidding myself if I think that anger is gone. Notice what you feel about it.

What I notice about this process is that it is taking something that seems like a huge thing, an all-encompassing thing, in this case anger, and bringing sufficient awareness to start noticing all the small parts that make it up; then notice how these parts change.

Does this sound familiar? It is exactly the process we explored when we talked about physical pain: how it is not just one experience but a multiplicity of smaller component experiences, in fact a symphony of sensations that rise and fall, come and go.

And so it is with emotion. We have these labels for them: anger, for example, and we have a mental construct of what anger is and what it is to ‘be angry.’ But with awareness we see that just like physical pain, it is made up of many smaller component pieces, each of which is in a state of flux, changing in every moment.

Bringing our full attention is like bringing an enzyme of awareness to break down the toxic sludge. That’s the power of spacious compassionate mindfulness!

Now anger is not an emotion I experience a lot. I have others that are more familiar. With a more familiar emotion the experience is more challenging because it is harder to really notice. Emotions we live with constantly feel normal to us and it’s hard to notice ‘normal.’ But with attention, compassion and patience, this noticing can begin to shed light on the many different aspects of the entrenched emotion and allow for insight, understanding, softening and perhaps release.

It’s important to remember that this process is not about getting rid of emotion. If we believe that we have dealt with it, we will be horrified to discover it showing up again. Instead we can be appreciative of the fact that we notice it more when it arises.

I once wrote an article titled “Emotions as Honored Guests” that helps us understand that emotions are not enemies, and that trying to lock them out or do battle with them merely transforms them into something more dangerous.

With spacious compassionate awareness, we give ourselves the gift of being fully alive, able to experience any thought, sensation and emotion as a dance of discovery.