Feelings and Emotions

by Rev. Kinrei Bassis

The proper understanding of how to relate to our feelings and emotions is a key aspect of Buddhist training. The first Noble Truth is that suffering exists. Our suffering is usually the gateway through which we come to Buddhist training. An underlying truth for all sentient beings is the desire to feel good and not to feel bad. Buddhism promises a solution to suffering and this means it is promising a solution to all our difficult and painful feelings. However, in my experience, the Dharma teaching on how to relate to all our difficult and painful emotions is a difficult teaching to understand, even for longtime practitioners of Buddhism.

Our feelings, our emotional states underlie the ground of everything that has meaning in our lives. For something to have a powerful meaning, it must possess a corresponding resonance in our hearts. If we make a mistake and it does not cause an emotional response, then it will have no real significance to us. We can know many truths intellectually but unless our heart responds to the truth, it will not deeply impact us. An alcoholic may know for many years that his drinking is very harmful but he will not stop unless the harmful effects are deeply felt and taken to heart. Buddhist training is full of simple and profound teaching on what is good to do, yet our ability to change our behavior will generally not come out of just our minds hearing and agreeing with the teaching. The real change will come when the teaching is felt in the depths of our heart. A heartfelt desire to change will motivate us to choose what we both understand and deeply feel are the right actions. It is our heartfelt experience of the pain flowing from our destructive behavior that will motivate us to cease from evil.

One of the main reasons it is difficult to practice Buddhism, is that although we practice with the desire to suffer less and feel better, the ground of practice is to wholeheartedly accept whatever feelings arise, whether they are joy or sorrow, pain or pleasure, love or hate, desire or fear. This goes against the grain of normal human behavior where we seek only the pleasant emotions and try to avoid all the painful and difficult emotions.

As long as we live, all the opposites in feeling will arise, such as pain and pleasure. The very meaning of being a sentient being is that we have feelings. Yet since Buddhism promises freedom from suffering, how can we be free from suffering and still have pain, sorrow, and fear. Buddhism points us to the truth that freedom from suffering does not mean we eliminate all the arising of our difficult feelings and emotions but rather, we are learn to sit beneath the feelings. The meditative mind is open to whatever feelings flow into us and we learn that we do not need to blindly react to our strong feelings. This is the real meaning of sitting still in Buddhist practice, we can let all emotional states just flow through us. The real meaning of freedom in Buddhism is not freedom to do or have what we want but rather realizing that no matter whatever strong feelings or difficult situations we experience, if we do not get minds and hearts entangled, then all conditions will arise and then pass and then our suffering will be diminished or eliminated.

We think that pain, loss and fear are suffering but they are not, in themselves, suffering. It is our mistaken response to pain, loss and fear that makes them into suffering. Pain does not need to become suffering. Suffering flows out narratives we tell ourselves when we experiences pain. When someone runs a marathon, climbs Mt. Everest, or undergoes extensive physical therapy, they will usually experience considerable pain and discomfort. But if they feel the pain is leading to something positive, they can embrace the pain with a positive attitude and it will not be suffering. If when we face any difficulty, we can embrace it with gratitude as an essential part of the path leading us to finding the heart of Buddha, then we will not be suffering. On the other hand, if we face the same difficulties but make these difficulties into a sad story, we will be suffering because then we are experiencing our life through the filter of this sad story. The Dharma gives us a different filter, a filter in which everything in our life is pointing us to our true home. This Dharma filter is in harmony with reality and when can we see ourselves and the world with deep spiritual insight, we can see through the appearance of suffering and find the place within our hearts that no suffering can touch.

Key to spiritual life is how can we convert our minds and hearts to accept whatever we encounter, without aversion and without clinging. This is the mind and heart we cultivate in sitting meditation but sitting meditation is really just preparation for the real practice; bringing the mind of acceptance into all of our daily life. Feelings provide us with important and vital information. Pain is often telling us to look deeper at what we are doing so that we can see what we can do to end the pain. If I have a headache, it is good for me to look at what I may be doing to cause the headache. And it is right action for me to alleviate the cause of the pain if that is possible without causing harm. However, that does not stand against that when I have a headache, I can take some Tylenol which may help reduce the pain. Reducing and eliminating our pain is a way of being compassionate to our bodies and minds. An important part of Buddhist training is when we encounter pain and suffering in other beings, we should be willing to help alleviate that pain, if that is a possibility. That is right action and is the practice of compassion. But frequently in life, we will not be able to help alleviate our pain nor can we help with the pain in others. This inability to alleviate pain does not mean that something is going wrong. The opposites of pain and pleasure, gain and loss, will always be flowing through our life and lives of all beings. The teachings of the Dharma are always pointing us to seeking and finding true peace and contentment, no matter what form of good or bad karma is flowing through us and flowing through the world.

One of the main ways we create and maintain our lack of acceptance is to find someone or something to criticize and blame when we are suffering: this person, this situation, this difficulty, is making me suffer. Frequently the person we are blaming is ourselves, which in turn can generate feelings of despair since we seem to be inescapably stuck with this self. Another way we practice non-acceptance of difficult feelings is to ignore them or pretend we are not feeling what we are feeling. This suppressing our emotions is not spiritually helpful. Eventually they will leak out or explode and force us to confront what we are feeling. For instance we can close our hearts so we do not feel or recognize our fear. This numbing of our hearts will also block us from opening our hearts to the Buddha. But when we are willing to fully experience our fear, not suppressing it, not wallowing in it, not judging it, our awareness of what underlies the fear can be uncovered. Sometimes, for example, if we stay with anger long enough, we’ll see the fear that lies behind the anger. And underneath all this swirl of emotion, we can find that deep spiritual place in our hearts that knows that there is nothing to fear.

One very difficult aspect that hinders the spiritual acceptance needed to convert very strong emotions is the fact that our strong feelings can simply overwhelm us. Think of when we were overcome with anger, deeply frightened or traumatically hurt. The pain can sometimes be too much and we push it away so we can still function and live a normal life. Yet underneath this seeming normality, the anger still lives, the fear still lives, and the deep hurt still lives.

Buddhism is grounded in the cultivation of a faith that allows us to finally feel all the deep pain that we have desperately pushed away. Yet the process of growing our faith so we can open our hearts to all our pain can be a long and difficult process. Often, if the pain is too overwhelming, and then, seeking help from psychological teachings and guidance can be a useful adjunct to Buddhist training. For instance, if someone was abused as a child and is too painful for them to just open their hearts to those memories, then some psychological teachings and guidance can help the person to bring up the memories in a way that will minimize the trauma.

Often, someone will come to me and ask how to stop feeling depressed. The real answer is one most people do not want to hear: there is no problem in feeling depressed; just accept the feeling and watch it arise and pass like all transitory feelings. The problem with feeling depressed is not the emotional feeling. The problem is that we will react to the uncomfortable emotion by telling ourselves a story that something is wrong. For instance, I may make a mistake which causes many people to be critical of me. I then have a choice, I can allow my mind to weave a sad or angry tale out the situation, such as I am a mess or hopeless, others are not being fair, or this person is awful.Or I can tell myself the Dharma such as, I need to accept my mistakes as it is inescapable part of human life that we all make mistakes, or what can I learn from this difficulty, and the other person is not a real problem, or I just need to accept this karma, this difficulty, and trust that this difficulty and all difficulties will wash away if I just keep walking the path to Buddhahood.

The second Noble Truth is that all suffering is due to attachment, is due to desire. All our seemingly difficult feelings, such as fear, anxiety, jealousy, greed, lust, are just the arising of defilements that are flowing out of our misdirected desires. Taking this teaching to heart is the ground of Buddhist training. When I feel bad, I need to look at what I am asking for. When I am afraid, I need to look at what I feel is threatened and then point out to myself the spiritual truth that there is nothing within birth and death to fear. When I am angry, all that means is that either I am not getting what I want or I am getting what I do not want. The complaining mind, the despairing mind, the fearful mind, the restless mind, the greedy mind, old wounds, new wounds: nothing needs to be pushed away or clinged to. We can watch them all arise and pass. We put much of our energy into pushing away the despair and fear or clinging to what we desire rather than just letting all these feelings arise and pass.

One of our key ways of making our feelings into problems is by identifying ourselves with our emotional state. When we say, I am this emotion, as in I am happy or I am fearful or I am angry, we are already making a mistake. It is appropriate to always see all the emotions as just passing visitors. Thus, it is much better to view them as I am temporarily experiencing happiness, I am temporarily experiencing fear or I am temporarily experiencing anger. All these emotions are not me but they are just passing through me. Nobody is inherently any emotion and all emotions are just the momentary arising and passing of a karmic condition. Freedom comes from realizing we are not our feelings and emotions and we do not possess our feelings and emotions.

We can mistakenly think that we are training to free ourselves from all our negative emotions but we can still wholeheartedly cling to our positive emotions like happiness, love, and gratitude. When we cling to warm and loving feelings, we will then have great difficulty when we feel hate, anger and disdain.

It is important to recognize that we do not control what feelings will arise in us. We can only control our reaction to our feelings. Buddhist training is choosing to have the right view, right thought, right speech, right action, no matter what feelings arise in us. Take gratitude as an example. It is essential to cultivate gratitude in Buddhist training, But this does not mean we always feel grateful. Rather, the training is to let go of all our selfish feelings that get in the way of a grateful heart and to keep reminding ourselves to be grateful. The hard work of Buddhist training is when we are not grateful, we then should still try to offer gratitude for everything in our lives. When we get our selfish self out of the way, the gratitude is already there. But the difficulty lies in dragging all the parts of us that are complaining or needy or unwilling and directing them all to offer gratitude. It is like the practice of bowing; we do not always bow with reverence and gratitude but we still are willing to bow. This form of Buddhist training, bowing, reminds us to be grateful and reverent. The gratitude and reverence are already there within us, we just have to get our selfish desires out of the way.

All our difficult emotions, our fears, our despair, our anger, they are all to be seen as friends that are calling to us for help. We can provide that help by accepting them and opening our hearts to them. We need to embrace all these difficult friends with forgiveness and trust. Fear, despair, greed, anger are just old patterns we have of looking the wrong way. When we take the refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we are helping all these difficult friends find true peace and contentment.