Category Archives: difficult emotions

Caught up in an internal windstorm?

windstormEach moment of each day teaches us something new about how to be in relationship with life. So many opportunities to see, for example, fear arising to tear things apart, and love arising to bring seemingly disparate hearts together.

Our practice is to live our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and others. To be present and compassionate with whatever arises, giving it space to transform, allowing ourselves to let it be, and to be enriched, informed and enlivened by the experience of even the most difficult emotions and experiences passing through our field of awareness.

Can we engage in the dance of life without getting entangled, strangled, or wanting to strangle? Can we allow ourselves to befriend even that irritant that torments us? We can if we can see it for what it is.

Over the past weeks in my life there seems to be a roller coaster of new sometimes scary and sometimes jubilant information coming in, all tied up in deep fraternal love (and annoyance and petulance — oh yeah, it’s all still there!) Here is the challenge my meditation practice has primed me to handle with equaniminity. Somehow I pictured equanimity differently, but hey, letting go of self-judgment for taking the bait, taking the low road is part of the process. Remembering to take time off, to unplug, to keep up my dependable practices that sustain me: that’s how equanimity looks in this moment.

Recently we have had so much windy weather. Gales really. I wonder is that normal for June? Is this the new normal? Anxiety sets in. I loath wind! Oh yes, I get grumpy, and the seemingly endless wind has been the convenient target for all my worry and discontent. ‘If only’ the wind would stop howling, then I could be happy. And eventually it did, and I was in fact somewhat relieved to fling open the doors and enjoy the still air and bird song. Ah!

Then I went to my poetry class and, wouldn’t you know it, the teacher played a recording of howling wind. She said wind is her favorite element. She should live at my house! Grrr. Because the speakers were right behind me, the wind was blowing in both ears and down my neck, tensing my body…again! She had us sit in meditation with the wind for a bit. So what choice did I have but to recognize the opportunity to do a little inquiry into my tormented relationship to wind?

Then she read something that has stayed with me: ‘It is not the wind that makes noise, but the objects in its way.’ And I heard it this way: It is not the wind that makes noise, but all that resists it.

Hmm. Is that true? How do I know that’s true? The wind pushes the objects. The objects move and make sound vibrations. The wind that meets no resistance is not howling, but perhaps dancing. Hmm. Bah, humbug. Sounds like a fairy tale, just making excuses. But this is the practice. So I continue.

Having made a kind of enemy of the wind, there are many other questions I could explore that might be helpful, scientific, philosophical and psychological: How does air become wind? What is the value of wind? What would life be like without wind? Is it really the wind I am upset with?

This kind of investigation is useful when we see we have made an enemy out of anything: a person, group, situation, condition or in this case an element. We might practice loving-kindness, sending metta. Inquiry might also be helpful when we meet a lot of inner resistance, and our offerings are grudging at best.

If we really pay attention we can see how we may make enemies everywhere. It is not to torment us that the enemy arises. It is to challenge us to practice opening our hearts and minds, befriending when we are able, doing inquiry when we are not, and eventually finding the door through the heart of the ‘enemy’ to the truth of our experience.

This truth, or dharma, is the fruit of our practice. We find it by being present and compassionate. It brings a quiet balanced joy that allows us to dance with even the most tumultuous chaos.

In this week’s meditation class I shared an extended passage from the book Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, that, due to copyright laws, I can’t share here. But I highly recommend the book. Then we did a valuable exercise, walking in nature, inspired by the sharing. I encourage you to walk mindfully in nature and find something of interest to linger upon. See what happens! Be open to nature’s wisdom.

And if you find yourself in a windstorm, emotional or otherwise, rely on your daily practice discovering your own inner wisdom, the wisdom teachings and your fellow practitioners. This is called taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

How to Sit with an Elephant in the Room

 

elephantSometimes in life we are faced with great challenges and difficulties that, when we sit down to meditate, simply refuse to be dismissed. Even though this is obviously a time when meditation would be most helpful, it would be easy to say ‘I don’t have time for this’ or ‘This won’t help because I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on in my life right now.’

I am sitting this morning with a mind that is processing new and devastating news about the health of a close loved one. It fills my mind to capacity. It’s like a huge elephant taking up all the space. So what can I do? Give up? No, of course not. It is times like these that I need my practice the most!

In this tradition we stay present with what is, cultivating spaciousness and compassion. So I do that now, staying present with a mind that is reeling and a heart that is breaking. I have practiced meditation in order to be in the moment, no matter what the moment brings, and especially when it brings something that seems too difficult to bear.

Even in a moment when I’d like to run and hide, I know that awareness is more helpful than hiding. By not putting the pillow over my head, turning away from the experience, trying to drown out the experience with distractions, pushing the experience away, I am infinitely more well-equipped to find solace. I am not making an enemy of anything that arises in my experience. In this way I don’t have to get defensive, don’t have to do battle, don’t have to build up a fortress. I cultivate compassion, and in this way I take care of myself. Then, by extension, I am better able to be of use to others, in this case my loved one and our family and friends who are also affected.

There is this erroneous idea that meditation is a practice of perfecting certain states that lead to nirvana. With that in mind a situation like this — where the elephant is filling all the space in my mind — would be deemed a failure. I am not in nirvana here. I am just this side of a blubbering mess. But, I am very aware of what is arising, and I am holding myself in a tender way.

I can come into friendly relationship with the elephant — not developing an attachment by getting caught up in the story of the causes and conditions of my current state, making a special pet of the elephant — but simply allowing it to be present, just as it is, for as long as it stays.

I am noticing how when I close my eyes to meditate, when I follow the breath, that my chest is heavy. I notice that the sensations in my body are different than usual, and hard to describe. While it’s skillful to notice and even describe it to ourselves, in this case If I get too caught up in finding the right words to share with you, it takes me out of the body and into my writer’s brain. So I return to simply noticing, sensing in, sensing in, sensing in.

Being present with these sensations, however they present themselves, is enough. I am not trying to change anything. If I find tension, I might relax and release it to whatever degree I’m able, but again, I’m not making tension an enemy.

At times the mind is racing, planning, trying to solve the problem, and yes, at times it becomes so entangled that I can’t quite hold it all in awareness. I am caught up in it. But then just enough awareness comes in that I can reset my intention to hold it all with spaciousness and compassion. I am shining loving light on all of it, and with that a certain lightness and softening occurs.

And then things shift and change again. And that too is the nature of mind.

This is also an especially good time for metta practice, first for myself, because I can’t share what I don’t have; and then to my loved one, envisioning healing light, and then out into the community of all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

In class after practicing together, and after giving this talk, I invited anyone who wanted to do so to share a little from their own lives in the realm of meditation and coping with overwhelming emotion. As you might imagine it was a rich class, with everyone having something to offer.

Then we did walking meditation in the garden on a beautiful spring day, noticing everything in a deep way with great gratitude for life and for taking the time to be present.

What does this bring up for you?

Taking Refuge in Stormy Times

Threee refuges“In these challenging times we need this refuge, these ripples of kindness, now more than ever. We are all interconnected. We are all tender-hearted humans who want to experience peace and ease in our daily lives.” – Jack Kornfield

These words were in a recent community email I received from Spirit Rock, just after I wrote out my dharma talk for this last week’s class. A perfect addition, especially about being tender-hearted. May we remain tender-hearted even as we cultivate the inner strength to do what must be done.

The word ‘refuge’ is central to Buddhism. Traditionally, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Sometimes the idea of refuge has an especially strong appeal. We want to retreat, to nestle, to protect ourselves, and to lick our wounds perhaps. And the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha create a safe place to shelter from the storm.

But the storms of the world are also within us, so we find that we have not so much shut the door on them but created a safe space to be with them. We don’t push away our thoughts or make enemies of them. Instead we allow them to exist within compassionate spaciousness so that they release and eventually dissolve, at their own time and in their own way.

Let’s take the Three Refuges one by one:

The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore. The word buddha means awakened one. So we are actually taking refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be noticed, nurtured and cultivated.

The Dharma is the teachings we learn through Buddhist teachers, but also the truth of being, so that we recognize the value of insights that arise from our own experiences when we are open to seeing clearly and compassionately. And we recognize that nature is the greatest dharma teacher of all, always offering lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all being. We can see how we suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. We find joy in being alive when we accept and celebrate it.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and exploration of the teachings. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.

These are the three traditional refuges. We can take great comfort in them. As we do, we can recognize the many ways we can provide refuge for ourselves in daily life:

  • Be fully present with the beauty all around us, letting go of the veil of harsh judgments and preferences in order to see more clearly what is right before our eyes.

  • Turn off the constant clamor of media frenzy. Be discerning in how we receive news, question its veracity (especially if it confirms what we already believe to be true!) and know when enough is enough.

  • Provide warmth, tenderness, quiet, laughter, kindness in our conversation.

  • Cultivate a regular meditation practice.

  • Create meditative moments throughout the day, opportunities to be fully present with our senses. We might notice the warmth of a cup of tea or the sun on our skin, for example, and feel gratitude and a greater sense of ease in that moment.

  • Cultivate compassion by actively sending metta (infinite unconditional loving-kindness) to anyone or any situation that is causing discomfort. This might not be all we can do, but it is a valuable practice that has surprising effects.
  • Find what you care about and ways you can contribute, then join with others to be the change you would like to see in the world.

Think of ways that in your life you create refuge for yourself and perhaps for others. Have any fallen by the wayside? Rediscover them! Share them here to inspire others.

Asking in = Wising Up, How to Discover our Buddha Nature

Last week we talked about difficult emotions and how we often suppress them, turning ourselves into jailers. I read my article Emotions as Honored Guests that gives us a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, reminding us that we are in charge but we need to be good hosts.

The key to all of this is noticing. That’s the basis of insight meditation, this learning to become aware of our emotions, as well as the nature of our thoughts and of our physical sensations.

A strong emotion is rich with clues that we don’t want to waste. Experiencing a strong emotion, we are encouraged to pause and take a meditative moment to notice all that is going on. For example: Where in our body do we feel that strong emotion? What associative images or memories come to mind? We can look to see what triggered the strong emotion. Perhaps it was an odor, sight or sound that on its own seems neutral, but fueled by our associative memory, becomes powerful and disturbing. This is not a time to turn away and tell ourselves ‘Don’t be silly!’ or any other dismissive phrase.

As I suggested in the article, and as the poet Rumi suggested so long ago, we can be the welcoming host of any emotion that arrives at our door. But our main goal is to find out what the emotion has to tell us. So we are kind, caring and compassionate but we are also inquisitive.

The other day here at our house we had a visit from a Sherpa mountain guide! And I’ll tell you, we were welcoming but also intensely curious about Pasan, his life in Nepal, why he came here and how he’s finding it, etc. What an exciting surprise to have a visitor from a whole other world come in the form of a plumber! As we talked we were following the other plumber who was training Pasan on his new job and educating us about how to flush our tankless water heater. We didn’t expect such a memorable experience from a plumbing appointment, just as we don’t expect anything of real value to come from a run-in with a strong emotion. We think of it as one of life’s things to be gotten through.

Now usually I don’t ask personal questions of people who come to our house as part of their jobs, but Pasan offered up the first information, giving us the clue that he was quite willing to talk. That’s true with our strong emotions as well. In fact they are ‘talking’ already. But we need to listen, and to then ask questions that give us answers we can use. But many times the emotion stirs up other emotions of embarrassment or shame that try to shut that emotion up before it has a chance to tell us anything of value.

So how do you have a fruitful conversation with a strong emotion? The most important thing is to speak from your wisest inner self, your Buddha nature, and not from some other needy, demanding aspect that is perfectly happy to get into a shouting match, judging and condemning.

That’s why inquiry is best done after meditation to assure that we have given ourselves a chance to find that calm, loving voice within. Now if this sends you into a panic because you feel you haven’t found that voice, then let’s explore how to discern that wise inner voice from the rest of our cast of inner characters.

Our wise inner voice has certain distinctive qualities that you can notice if you are really paying attention. First, it is patient. It never makes demands, never uses the words ‘should’ or ‘must.’ It comes from a sense of timelessness, so there is no urgency. Its ease is somewhat disarming, putting all those things we thought were so important into perspective. It is the voice of life itself, aware of its intrinsic connection to all that is. From this vantage point we relax because we are aware we are life, not separate from it. There is nothing we could do or say that would expel us from the is-ness of being. But there is plenty we can do that can make us unaware of our connection, and through that lack of awareness we can do things that are incredibly unskillful, causing pain to ourselves, to those we come in contact with, and the earth itself.

But this wise inner voice, this Buddha nature, has no agenda except to remind us of our connection. So if we ask it, ‘What do you want me to know?’ it will first and foremost say, “I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.” Well, that’s a lot to know! Suddenly we don’t feel so needy. How much of what we fear and what we try to accomplish is in response to a feeling of being unloved and unlovable? How often are we simply trying to prove that we are deserving of a love that it turns out is already ours, without our having to do a thing?

Does this mean the wise inner voice is saying “Don’t bother!” about everything we are doing in our lives? Not necessarily. It depends on our intention. If we are trying to gain love and respect, then yes, don’t bother. If we are tapping into our innate capacity to love life in all its myriad expressions, then our inner wisdom heartily concurs.

Another question that is useful to ask is, ‘Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so tense? Why do I feel threatened? Why do I feel so bad about myself?’ These kinds of questions may bring answers from fear-based aspects, but with patience and careful listening, we will also hear that quiet still voice within answering our question either in words or images. Once in my 20’s I asked a ‘why’ question about an area of my life that felt especially dysfunctional, just out of despair, not knowing anything about this wise inner voice and not about to have a conversation with God as we hadn’t been on speaking terms in quite a while. And although no words arose, within the next few minutes as I sat there three powerful image memories rose up, and I sat and waited until I understood what those combined three memories were telling me. And they gave me a powerful answer to my question that I had assumed was unanswerable. The answer that came up changed my life and empowered me in a way that I could never have imagined. That was my first experience with understanding the power we have to inquire within and receive transformative answers.

This inner wisdom, this Buddha Nature, is not an aspect of us, the way all the other voices that create our thoughts and emotions are. We could instead think of ourselves as an aspect of it, as the temporal earthly life-experiencing sensors of this infinite wise loving energy. This is such a wonderful way to think of our interaction with life. Feeling this to be our role in life, we can easily access ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ Every sensation, every experience whether we judge it good or bad is still in this sense a gift of earthly life. When we come from that sense of wonder, that sense of oneness and connection, we are truly expressions of life loving itself. Whatever we do for each other from that place will be truly generous and kind.

If you have never noticed this inner wisdom, you might find inquiry to be your gateway as I did. You can also simply practice relaxing and being present, anchoring into all the senses that give us the opportunity to experience this gift of life.

Sometimes we only listen to wisdom that comes from outside ourselves because we don’t trust anything that comes from within. We may have very low self-esteem, and/or we may have been taught that to think that the answers come from within is turning ourselves into a god; that God is to be honored and set apart from our lowly selves and this mundane life. (Of course, if God created us doesn’t that make us and all of life sacred? Isn’t the profanity the unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of all God’s creation, even the tight and twisted terrified places that most need awareness of God’s infinite love? When we see ourselves as connected to God, as expressions of God, we are seeing God in all that is, not setting ourselves above. The personification of God as something apart from ourselves is a so pervasive that I have long since given up using the term, even though as you see, I can easily describe my understanding of God. I am not at odds with God. God and I are good. And Buddhist meditation and concepts are not at odds with God either. Believers from all faiths find that meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts enhance their understanding of their religion and deepens their faith.)

But whether we call this inner wisdom God or we call it the infinite energy of life loving itself, our resistance to trusting it comes from thinking that we could be the source of true wisdom. We still separate ourselves out, we still see ourselves as this amalgam of these whiny voices, our thoughts and emotions. But even if we hold that to be who we are, we can still access this inner wisdom. This inner access is like a well, but the well is not the source if the water, is it? The well is an access point to the water that travels under the ground. Through meditation and self-exploration we are bringing our attention to the existence of this well, this inner access to universal wisdom. Eventually we may see that the well is also a part of the infinite beingness of life, not separate, neither less nor more sacred.

When we deny the existence of inner access to wisdom, we are more receptive to it when offered up through outer sources: counselors, teachers, leaders, books, movies, magazines. So notice when something you see, hear or read resonates with its authenticity, clarity, compassion and feeling of calm. That’s your inner wisdom saying ‘Yes!’

If when you are watching or reading something, it’s activating the emotional inner aspects that are saying things like, “Yeah! The bastard deserved it!” or some such emotionally charged response, then by your viewing and reading habits you are giving your rowdier inner aspects confirmation that their world view is justified. The Buddha taught the importance of inclining the mind toward what is wholesome, so if you are activating anger, shame, revenge, etc. by your choice of entertainment, you are choosing to align with the rowdy aspects within, the ones that feed on fear and promote unskillful choices. But even in this setting, the wise inner voice is not the one that’s saying, “This is terrible! This is bad for me! I’ve got to get out of here!” That’s just another fear-based aspect.

When you sit quietly, listening in, noticing the various vociferous emotions spouting this thought and that, pay close attention to the quality of the voice. Is it urgent, demanding or caffeinated? Is it cynical, judgmental or hateful? Then it’s an aspect with a fear-based agenda that you will want to have a respectful inquiring conversation with. But if it is quiet, calm, loving, and offers love and when asked sincerely gives valuable guidance, without any sense of urgency, then you know that this is your deepest connected access. Whenever possible keep listening, keep asking in. You have found your teacher and your guiding light. Practice aligning with that wisdom, letting go of any sense of duality.

When you align with this inner wisdom you can then be the welcoming host to whatever guest emotion arrives at your door. Otherwise it is just a shouting match between two urgent aspects that both need to be heard and neither want to listen. Our inner wisdom is a great listener because it is the love of life itself.

So how does such a conversation with an inner aspect begin?
First we recognize an emotion that has come up. Naming it helps us to recognize it more quickly the next time it arises, and giving it a pet name not only locks it into our awareness but reminds us to be kind and respectful.

Once we have given it a name, we can greet this emotion as we would any guest who arrives at our door. Our emotions are so rarely acknowledged that this alone can meet needs.

What do we do next with any guest? We ask them to come in and sit down. This indicates that we want them to feel comfortable, and also that we have time for them. When it comes to a visiting emotion, our willingness to be present and to spend whatever amount of time is required needs to be clearly indicated. We physically sit down if we are not already seated. We turn off our cell phones and other distractions. We give this conversation whatever time is needed. This is another reason it is good to have these conversations following meditation where we have already set up a quiet zone for ourselves.

Then we can ask questions of our guest.
These questions need to be compassionate not accusatory. And the questions are better if they go deep to the achy source rather than encourage the emotion to get caught up in story. When I say story, I am talking about the experiential examples that such a voice will use to justify their existence. ‘I’m angry because she said this about that, or he did this and he’s evil, etc.’ This is all story and is just masking the core of this voice’s true concerns. Without being disrespectful, we can cut to the chase. Each time we are offered story, we can go deeper, we can take charge and the aspect will be grateful to surrender their suffering up.

‘What are you afraid of?’ is one of the most powerful questions we can ask. At the core of every negative emotion is fear. And the intention of every negative emotion is self-protection. We can see that their means of protecting us are unskillful and even unnecessary. Often they are trying to protect us from another part of ourselves that seems hell-bent on putting us in danger. For example we may have an aspect of self that seek external approval so doggedly that another aspect of self arises to undermine its efforts.

This has happened to me many times in my life, so I can see the pattern of it and when it arises I at some point recognize it and can go deeper into conversation. One of my patterns goes something like this: I am enjoying the process of some creative effort, then the aspect I’ve named Striver gets worried that I will be judged on the product of my creative effort, so that aspect takes charge to make sure that everything is perfect. Striver takes most of the fun out of the project and I begin to feel stressed. Even if there is no deadline for the project, Striver will create one. Then just when the product of Striver’s efforts is about to go out into the world, another aspect begins to make itself heard, one I’ve named Underminer. It too is terrified of public judgment, but it doesn’t trust perfection to be a solution, as it is judged just even more harshly than imperfection, so Underminer chooses instead to sabotage the whole enterprise. ‘A completed novel? Toss it in the drawer! Don’t put it out there in the world to be judged! Are you crazy?’

I don’t know why I was surprised recently to see that Striver and Underminer can still be activated if I’m not paying attention. In fact it was only upon rereading a section of my book Tapping the Wisdom Within in order to clarify the process of self-inquiry for this dharma talk that I came upon them and recognized how the past few weeks I have been increasingly stressed about producing an audio CD of my poems to have available at the poetry reading this Tuesday. Striver is frantically trying to produce perfection, when this is my first ever attempt to create a recording, and Underminer at the last minute jumped in and said, ‘Why bother? Just tell people you can’t do it.’

But my feelers have been tuned to tales of self-sabotage lately as it has come up in books and in conversations with family and friends. At every turn I get the message not to succumb to a life-long pattern of giving up at this critical stage, and also not to be so terrified that the product may not be perfect.

Also during this period I recognized how valuable an encouraging word from someone can be. I received several words of encouragement from friends and family that came at a moment where I was ready to abandon all hope that the project would get done. Those few words resonated with my own inner wisdom, ignored of late in the flurry of over-zealous activity, and also helped me get in touch with the negative aspects that were sabotaging me.

So since they are so present and available to hold up as examples of inner negative fear-based aspects, let’s use Striver and Underminer as the basis of our discussion. They are saying they are afraid of my being judged by others and found wanting. They have two different ways of dealing with that fear, both unskillful. So what do I do? I acknowledge their fear. I thank them for bringing that fear to my attention. I send metta to them and to myself. I rekindle my sense of connection with all that is. I remind myself that being human it is quite natural that these emotions will arise within me, that fear of disapproval is fear of separation, but that I can never truly be separate from the oneness of life. And in fact, awareness and acceptance of the existence of these emotions carves out more compassion within me for myself and for others, who also act out their fear of separation through unskillful means.

I also remind myself of that little note of insight I pinned on my bulletin board: I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear, I have something to give. Certainly the CD of me reading my poetry is something I have to give, something that has been requested even. All the negative judgments about ‘Who am I to..’ do something are acknowledged but not fed. Instead I attune to my interconnection. Let me be a conduit for life loving itself, not a tight shut down place in the flow of energy.

If there is a way to meet the guest emotion’s needs without succumbing to their fears, then we do what we can. I have talked before about the deal I made with my inner aspect named Slug who doesn’t want to exercise but just wants to stay in bed because he misses his mommy and bed is a big mommy hug. I found a yoga teacher that tucks her students under blankets at the end of class for the final resting pose. Slug was in heaven and I was able to become more and more active.

When the inner conversation seems to be at an end, it’s important to remember to say thank you to the guest emotion, to make sure it knows that its concerns have been heard and will be incorporated into the greater awareness. It needs to know that we, the welcoming, patient and compassionate host, are in charge of our households and our lives, aligned with our Buddha nature, our access to universal inner wisdom.

One final caveat: In aligning with infinite inner wisdom, there will be a fear-based aspect that gets very attached to this idea of being wise and will cling to that image of self. This aspect can be more challenging to recognize than the rowdier ones, but it is just as destructive. What helps is to continually relax, stay anchored in the senses and send metta (loving kindness) even to this needy aspect that so longs for approval. When we find it, we may feel shame, sending it down to dungeon. But that’s not necessary. Simply recognizing its hunger for love and approval reminds us to be compassionate. Refining our ability to distinguish between the infinite wisdom that flows throughout all and the finite ‘see how wise I am?’ hungering for the respect of others, is just another part of the practice of inquiry and deepening awareness.

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.