Embracing Afflictive Emotions and Mind-States

Embracing Afflictive Emotions and Mind-States

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 28, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Many years ago I attended a week-long silent retreat with Dai-En Bennage, who is a Soto Zen Roshi (Master Teacher) and also a student of Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh). There were just nine people at the retreat and from time to time we were called in for an interview with the teacher. In an interview I had the day after I arrived Dai-En asked me how I was doing. I said that I was settling in and getting calmer, but from time to time my mind drifted to an ongoing conflict I was having with my wife. I assured her that it was not a major impediment and in a short time I would be undistractedly centered and relaxed. Dai-En smiled and then with great warmth said: “Mitchell, you have it wrong. Your disagreement with your wife is not separate from your practice. She is the face of the Buddha looking at you.”

Over the years I’ve met many practitioners who believed, as I did then, that if one is very concentrated and present, it is possible to burn our difficulties away. Dai-En and Thay endorse a different approach. Afflictive emotions and mind-states, such as greed, resentment, envy, and hatred, often arise from our perceived losses, conflicts, or habitual patterns. We can learn to lean into this suffering by making it the object of our mindfulness. We can breathe with our suffering, aware of its texture and the energy it holds. We might say, “There you are again, anxiety. You have come back again.” We might ask it questions, “What is it about this time?” In being with the difficulties with mindfulness we get to know them as we know friends. We may journal about them. We come to better understand the events that have conditioned our suffering. We recognize how certain situations give rise to suffering.

Thay teaches that our mindfulness contains a healing energy. When we are able to mindfully embrace the afflictive emotions and mind-states that overwhelmed us, they return to our storehouse consciousness weaker than they were before. In time they are less likely to arise into our mind consciousness, or arise only when the stimuli are much stronger.

However, if we feel we are in danger of being overwhelmed by afflictive emotions and mind-states, we may practice selective touching, directing our attention away from the difficulties and toward mental objects and activities that bring us joy and lift our spirits. We may go for a walk, make a special desert for a loved one, or ask a friend to sit with us, walk with us, or listen to us. When we feel renewed and stronger, we may be better able to be with our difficulties without being overwhelmed by them.

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings Thay delineates five stages we can use to calm our body and mind when difficult emotions arise:

  • Recognition — If we are angry, we say, “I know that anger is in me.”
  • Acceptance — When we are angry, we do not deny it. We accept what is present.
  • Embracing — We hold our anger in our two arms like a mother holding her crying baby. Our mindfulness embraces our emotion, and this alone can calm our anger and ourselves.
  • Looking deeply — When we are calm enough, we can look deeply to understand what has brought this anger to be, what is causing our baby’s discomfort.
  • Insight — The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary, that have brought about our anger, that are causing our baby to cry. Perhaps our baby is hungry. Perhaps his diaper pin is piercing his skin. Our anger was triggered when our friend spoke to us meanly, and suddenly we remember that he was not at his best today because his father is dying. We reflect like this until we have some insights into what has caused our suffering. With insight, we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.

There is an easy mnemonic — Ra Eli — that helps me remember Thay’s five stages. Ra was the Egyptian Sun God, the generative force of the universe. Eli appears in the Bible as the priest that tended the prophet Samuel.

This Thursday evening we will begin with a guided meditation focused on seeing ourselves and our parents as fragile and vulnerable five-year-old children. It has helped many practitioners gain insight into deeply-buried afflictive emotions. The text of the guided meditation appears below.

In our Dharma sharing we will explore together our responses to the guided meditation and our experiences with successfully (or unsuccessfully) working with afflictive emotions and mind-states.

You are invited to join us.

Friends of long-time Thursday evening practitioner Mark “Wonder” Thomas are invited to an in-person memorial service in Takoma, DC, on Sunday, October 22, 2023.

Sending warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


Looking Deeply and Healing: Seeing Myself as a Child

This guided meditation allows us to practice embracing our emotions in mindfulness as they arise into consciousness. For many people it is a healing meditation, inviting us to hold our experiences of our parents in a different way, and inspiring us to reconsider our own lives. The wording can be changed to more closely reflect the circumstances of one’s life, for example, by bringing to mind the grand-parent or step-parent who raised us. Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh, Blooming of a Lotus: Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation.

Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware of breathing out.
In.
Out.

Breathing in, I am fully aware of my body.
Breathing out, I relax my body.
Aware of body.
Relaxing body.

Seeing myself as a five-year-old child, I breathe in.
Smiling to myself as a five-year-old child, I breathe out.
Myself five years old.
Smiling.

Seeing myself as a five-year-old fragile and vulnerable, I breathe in.
Smiling with love to myself as a five-year-old, I breathe out.
Five-year-old fragile.
Smiling with love.

Seeing my father as a fragile and vulnerable five-year-old boy, I breathe in.
Smiling with love and understanding to my father as a five-year-old boy, I breathe out.
Father fragile and vulnerable.
Smiling with love and understanding.

Seeing my mother as a fragile and vulnerable five-year-old girl, I breathe in.
Smiling with love and understanding to my mother as a five-year-old girl, I breathe out.
Mother fragile and vulnerable.
Smiling with love and understanding.

Seeing my father in me, the strengths and the difficulties, I breathe in
Smiling to my father in me, I breathe out.
Father in me.
Smiling.

Seeing my mother in me, the strengths and the difficulties, I breathe in.
Smiling to my mother in me, I breathe out.
Mother in me.
Smiling.

Understanding the difficulties that my father in me has, I breathe in.
Determined to embrace and transform those difficulties, I breathe out.
Difficulties of my father in me
Embracing and transforming.

Understanding the difficulties that my mother in me has, I breathe in.
Determined to embrace and transform those difficulties, I breathe out.
Difficulties of my mother in me.
Embracing and transforming.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 28, 2023


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