I first came to mindfulness because I heard it would “end suffering,” which for me meant an end to experiencing emotional pain—depression, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, you name it. I was not at all pleased when I realized the message was quite different: I needed to look into my emotional pain in order to transform it. Even worse, Thich Nhat Hanh taught that there was no end of suffering because a world free of suffering simply could not exist. Just as there is no left without a right, there is no happiness without suffering. It felt like I’d been the victim of a bait-and-switch.
I stayed with the practice because the meditation and mindfulness seemed to be helping with calming my emotions. And it is true, the more we practice, the more our emotional patterns move from a reaction we have to a pattern we recognize. We learn to recognize them by feeling them consciously in our bodies, again and again. We have experiences of catching the reaction as it arises, and, sometimes, even managing not to act on the impulse before we say or do something. We can also learn to see into the underlying sources of some of our emotions, to understand where a habitual reaction came from and then ask why we keep on using the same old tactic even though it may actually harm us in our present situation. As Thay writes in “Understanding Our Minds:”
What can we do to transform our deep-rooted seeds of suffering? There are three ways to work with them. The first is to focus on sowing and watering our seeds of happiness. We do not work directly with the seeds of suffering but instead allow seed of happiness to transform them….
The second way is to practice mindfulness continuously so that when seeds of suffering arise we are able to recognize them. Every time seeds of suffering manifest as mental formations in our mind consciousness, we bathe them in the light of mindfulness. When they are in contact with mindfulness, they will weaken. Without mindfulness, we aren’t even able to recognize these seeds of suffering. With mindfulness, we can recognize them and not be afraid.
If a bird has been hit by an arrow, whenever it sees a bow it will be afraid. It won’t even perch on a branch that resembles the shape of a bow. If we were wounded as a young child, the seeds of suffering we received then are still with us today. The way we relate to life in the present moment is based on these seeds of suffering. Every day seeds from our past manifest in our mind consciousness, but because we have not bathed them in the light of mindfulness, we are not aware of them. With mindfulness, whenever those seeds sprout we will be able to recognize them. “Oh, it’s you! I know you.” This recognition alone will cause them to lose some of their power over us. Our seeds of suffering are a field of energy, and mindfulness is also a field of energy. When these two fields meet, the seeds of suffering are transformed. Putting them in touch with mindfulness transforms them.
The third way is to deal with the afflictions that have been with us since childhood is to deliberately invite them up into our mind consciousness. When our mindfulness is strong and stable, we do not have to wait for the seeds to arise unexpectedly…. We invite the sadness, despair, regrets, and longings that in the past have been difficult for us to touch, and we sit down and talk with them, like old friends. But before we invite them up, we must be sure that the lamp of our mindfulness is lit and that its light is steady and strong.
This Thursday, we are invited to share our understanding and experience navigating our emotional lives using mindfulness. What exactly does the practice suggest we do with emotions? What has worked, or not worked, for us? Can we experience our emotions without being them and without becoming emotionless? An excerpt from Ken McLeod may help us navigate these practices and animate our discussions.
I hope you can join us
From “Reflections on Silver River: Tokme Zongpo’s ‘Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva’” by Ken McLeod
Take an emotional reaction you know well – anger, pride, greed, guilt or any other. Pick one and let it come up. If you need to, recall or imagine a specific situation.
Feel how it takes expression in your body – a tightening here, a tension there, a weakness in the legs, a hollow feeling in the stomach. Do not focus on the sensations. Just open to them.
Make your whole body the field of attention and let the sensations associated with the emotional reaction arise in that field. Experience them as movements in the field.
Various sensations may catch your attention, and you fall into distraction. Sooner or later you recognize that you were distracted. As soon as you do, open again to your whole body, and let the sensations be there – like leaves swirling in the wind.
If the emotional reaction builds up momentum, it just runs. It consumes all your attention, and your attempts to change it become chaff in its gusts. However, you have other possibilities when you catch the reaction early – hence the need for attention and alertness [mindfulness].
Sometimes the emotional reaction releases as soon as you are aware of it, and there is nothing more to do.
Sometimes you cannot touch the pattern. It is just too hot, too full of fear. You are consumed by stories. You lose any sense of your body. You fall into distraction and confusion, but it does not last. The pattern plays itself out. You recover attention. And then you start again. You may fail a thousand times before you develop the skill and capacity to stay present in the reaction. That is why it is called practice. That is why you need to be determined. These are ghosts, usually from your past. They cannot harm you now, but to you, [it] definitely feels that your life is on the line, and that is where courage comes in.
At some point, you experience the reaction physically and emotionally, relatively free of stories and associations. You experience long-held feelings that attention has never touched. It is often unpleasant, painful and frightening, yet a relief – all at the same time.
How, then, do you “crush” a reaction? You let it run inside you, experiencing it completely in a field of attention and awareness. It arises, churns you up with its turbulence, and then it is gone – one moment a terrifying ghost, then a gust of wind, then nothing.