A week or so back in the discussion of my post Severed Ties, some of the usual suspects and I were having a discussion about what is the role, if any, for feelings in our Buddhist practice. It’s an interesting topic because I think there is a lot of misunderstanding that happens when it comes to how deal with our feelings when our ultimate goal is to go, go, completely go, completely and perfectly go beyond them.
One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve left the New Kadampa Tradition is that I’m once again being OK with simply experiencing what I’m experiencing in terms of feelings, and not trying to transform them into something virtuous, or ignore them by telling myself they are just merely delusions arising from my self-grasping, self-cherishing mind.
They’re tricky little buggers, those feelings. On one hand, like the other four aggregates (aka skandhas), feeling is empty of inherent existence. Its nature is impermanent, insubstantial, temporary. I mean, honestly, where are these feelings that feel so damn real? Can you point to them? What ever happened to that intense feelings you had for that cute boy or girl from junior high? How is it that this person you loved so completely this morning, is now the object of your fury tonight?
OK, great, they’re empty. So, I can just ignore them, right? Sure, you can try that and see how far you get. Pour yourself a drink, or pop yourself another Valium. Enjoy your stress-related heart attack. Or say hello to Mr. Depression. So, from a Buddhist perspective, what in the hell do we do?
As usual when it comes to such juicy spiritual matters, I turned to my friend, whom I shall call Daniel. Because, well, that’s his name.
LB: So, dude, I totally lost it today at the car wash. After I had put in my code for my car wash, this woman in front of me who had just finished her wash, rolled her damn SUV back and triggered another wash – my wash! I was so pissed. I followed her out after she finished MY wash and confronted her telling her she had used my wash, and that she owed me $5.00. Needless to say, it was not a very effective conversation. I made a damn fool of myself and never got my car washed.
I mean, I recognize that my mind was out of control, and that the anger served no practical purpose. But, I gotta tell you, there was no way I was going to “offer the victory” because what she was doing was wrong. Now according to everything I’ve learned about anger in my studies, basically I’ve burnt a boatload of merit, and I’ve set myself up for a hell realm. So, would I have been better off if I just swallowed that anger?
[dhp] Well – swallowing is good most guys like that. On the other hand swallowing anger usually just leads to an upset stomach. I love your story because it shows so clearly how even when we are right (after all she really did mess up YOUR wash right?) we can still be wrong ~ because out of our ignorance (our dear friend) we constantly confuse the object of our anger with our feeling. Two completely unrelated phenomenon except that they are both crashing together in our minds.
LB: As usual, it all comes down to my self-grasping mind, aka our BFF, ignorance. And I admit it, I’m pretty damn ignorant, which leads me to think the cause of my anger was that rude bitch who took my car wash instead recognizing that anger arises from my mind, and that there is nothing inherently piss-off worthy about that gas-guzzler driving, car-wash stealing wench. Sure, if I were free from ignorance, I’d recognize that this woman was my kind teacher showing me the negativity that I have created and which is ripening in a meaningful lack of $5. Great. Freeing myself from ignorance is high on my to-do list, but it just ain’t happened yet. So, I’ve got these feelings, in this case, anger. What do you do with it?
[dhp] So we’ve already ruled out swallowing (or have we?) and beating crap out of her with your purse so that pretty much takes care of the binary bullshit SGI (self-grasping ignorance) usually crams down our throats ~ swallowing or not. So now what, eh? The problem is we haven’t identified the problem. Or more specifically we think the problem is painful feeling. Sure when some bitch steals our slot (especially if she driviin’ a Hummer, right? ~ oh there’s a theme developing here) the natural human and all too justifiable response is to want to kick her ass. That WOULD feel good wouldn’t it? For about 30 seconds and then all things being equal (which they never are) and you being you (which you always are) you’d end up feeling guilty as shit, flogging yourself merciless for the sake of repentance. The binary option = express or repress, clearly does not work. SO NOW WHAT? (clue = imagination is the key)
LB: I think you’re right, when strong emotions hit, and we’re unprepared there only appears to be those two options – express or repress. However, living in earthquake country as we do, we know that advance preparation is key. It’s pretty well inevitable that an earthquake is going to get us eventually, so we prepare in advance. So when the house starts a-shakin’ we know how to ride that bad boy out. In the case of our mind, meditation is the preparation that helps us better weather the mental earthquakes. Yet, while I may be quite well prepared for a 6.0 on the Richter scale, an 8.0 will probably render all my preparation for naught.
Is the key just keep making a bigger and better earthquake kit? Move out of earthquake country all together? To where? Hurricane country? Tornado alley? You can’t outrun the suffering. So, here I am, finding myself over my head with some strong feeling – anger, greed, lust, etc. A real 8.0 on the emotional Richter scale. I guess the smart thing to do would be to stop, drop and cover and wait for the shaking to stop. The ol’ turn your mind to wood trick. Then what? And I’m afraid I’m a bit clueless about your clue – imagination is the key. Unless you’re saying I should imagine that she is a Buddha or Bodhisattiva and therefore I wouldn’t even think of getting up in her grill and saying “bitch! you stole my car wash!”
LB: One of the things I learned recently while dabbling in Theravadan meditation and teachings is to simply just notice the emotion, without trying to transform it or change it in any way. Just developing an awareness of what is going without judgment. I think the “without judgment” is key. My experience from my Kadampa days was that we put a hell of a lot of judgment on ourselves and others for their negative states of minds or actions. Judgment never feels good so people tried to cover up their faults and ended up just acting spiritual rather than being authentic. Frankly, with people being all nicey nicey all the time, it doesn’t give you much to work with in terms of developing true love and compassion. Give me some assholes, now that is going to work my spiritual chops.
LB: What is this? A Karma 101 quiz? The effects of our actions are certain – unless, of course we purify. And, true, we can only experience the effects of the actions we have created. And your point is, my quizzicle friend?
LB: I think it’s one thing to notice the rage that is burning a hole in your soul and quite another to act on it. Harming another, no matter they have created the karma to be harmed, goes against a pretty basic Buddhist ideals.
So, I guess, ideally, we have enough training under our belt in awareness/mindfulness that we can recognize that what we’re feeling arises from our own mind, and enough curiosity to stop and say “hey, what the hell is all this about? My goodness, I seem to be feeling rather homicidal over what? My isn’t that interesting, and frankly a bit silly.” But, if it gets away from us and we allow our out of control emotions to harm others, the best we can do is to learn from the experience by recognizing the harm that we have done to others, and the further suffering we have caused ourselves.
[dhp] then are you saying that it is kind to hide the effects of karma from others?
LB: Actually, I would say that I’m protecting them from increasing that negative karma. Chances are, they would just get more pissed off and end up harming someone, namely me. So, it’s a win-win.
[dhp] so if we don’t have painful experience then how do we learn?
LB: I suppose the best we can do is to learn from the experience by recognizing the harm that we have done to others, and the further pain we have caused ourselves. We can’t avoid painful experiences, it’s the very nature of this mess we’re in. But, if we recognize and become thoroughly acquainted with this pain, through training our mind we can decrease our suffering. What is the saying? Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
[dhp] and so the question is?
LB: Asked and answered. Case closed.