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Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 4: Emotions
Godwin: Today I would like to discuss how to work with emotions in the context of meditation, especially the emotions that can create suffering for us. Perhaps it would be interesting to list the emotions we do not like. Aggression, a bad mood, feeling lazy, being indifferent, giving up, anxiety, insecurity, doubts, mental pain, sadness, panic, antipathy, pressure, confusion, not being awake, feeling guilty. We are all familiar with these emotions; we have all experienced them before. Is there anyone who likes them?
Godwin: Not most of the time. I think this is the issue. Because even as children we have been taught or influenced in a way to see these emotions as bad, and that we should not be having or experiencing them. There is a very interesting book that came out recently called Emotional Intelligence. Has anyone heard of it? Written by Daniel Goleman, an American Buddhist, it achieved bestseller status within a very short time. This shows that emotions are a big issue! He makes some very interesting points in the book. One is that Goleman says it is nonsense to consider having a high IQ as something very important. He says even if you have low IQ but you show some intelligence towards emotions, then that is more important than having a high IQ.
Goleman wrote this book because he found that in America young children are becoming more and more violent and aggressive. The children also experience some of the negative emotions that we have mentioned earlier, but they are not taught how to work with these emotions. Perhaps as a result of this book, some schools and education authorities are thinking of ways and means of educating children so they know how to work with emotions intelligently.
This is related to the point I was making earlier that as children we have been conditioned to hate our emotions, to repress them, to deny them and so on, and then we grow up with this idea that they are bad, that they are wrong, that we should not experience them. This is a strong conditioning that we have, and then in addition to that when we take to meditation and the spiritual life, we are told anger is bad. All these positions about emotions create a kind of split between what you should be and what you are. Thus the spiritual life becomes a battle, a battle with emotions, and meditators find they really hate themselves.
So this is the first point I want to make, which is not easy: to learn to be open to these emotions. What I am going to share with you is based on my own experiences and understanding of the Dhamma after working with meditators for many years. Over the years I discovered what I call tools to work with these emotions.
I have already mentioned the first tool, which is learning to be open to them - learning to say okay to them, learning not to give very strong minuses to them. This is not easy, but it is very important to learn this first tool.
Discover Emotions by Experiencing them
The second tool is related to learning, discovering or investigating them, as it is said in the Dhamma. But to really investigate them and work with them, we have to really experience them first. How do you work with them if you do not realise that you are experiencing them? So if you can fully experience them, then once you know that they are there, finding out, learning, discovering and exploring them is very interesting. In addition, there are very different emotions, and each emotion is something special. Thus we can learn something different from each of them.
Yesterday anger was mentioned. Let us take this emotion as an example, because I think we all can relate to it very easily. So when anger comes, you must say: Wonderful! I am going to learn from this anger. And then you try to find out - now what causes the anger? What is the reason for this anger? When you explore in this way what might you learn?
Retreatant: Bad thoughts cause the anger.
Godwin: I think we can all relate to that experience. You have an expectation of how the other person should behave - this is very important. It is natural that we expect people to behave in the way we think that he or she should behave. And we should see this as very interesting, to discover: Ah, I get angry because I have this idea of how others should behave. So when you get angry, if you can learn to see that, realise that, then you can be with the anger and not so much with the person who is creating the anger. You can watch what exactly is happening inside your mind. If you can do that, the anger can become an object of meditation.
Perhaps another tool related to anger is not to repress it, not to push it away, and not to indulge it, but just to be with the anger with awareness. What is more fascinating and more interesting is to find out what happens to the body when there is anger. Here again you can see the importance of awareness - if you can learn to be aware of these sensations or whatever you experience in the body with the anger, you will realise there is no more build up. I think what happens with most of these emotions is that there is a build up with thoughts, and more emotions arise. But here just being with the sensations prevents this huge build up.
You can do this exploration, this investigation, this discovery, in relation to any emotion and you will learn how each single emotion is different from the other, but at the same time there is also an interesting pattern to all of them, and to discover the pattern is fascinating.
Now an interesting practical question arises in everyday life. Does this mean that you allow everyone to behave in his own way, and then you look at your own anger and you do nothing else about it? Is this a solution? What do you think of this solution?
Retreatant: It can be dangerous.
Godwin: The point I am making is that if you are always passive and just watching, this can be easily exploited by others. People would say: He is a meditator, you can do anything with him. He will only look at his breath, he will just investigate it, so you can do anything to him. This is the challenge we have in everyday life. There are times when you have to assert yourself, when you have to be honest and communicate this to other people.
This is the second tool. The first tool is being open to it, braving the conditioning we have; and the second tool is exploring, investigating, learning and so on.
The third tool, which I consider extremely important, is to know that these emotions are not there when they do not arise. We give them such power, such energy that when they are not there we are hardly aware of this fact! I would consider this as a real tragedy in the human condition. There are moments when we are free, but it is too good to believe that we can be free. Some people come to me and say: Maybe I am repressing the emotions. It is really funny that we have this reaction, this position in relation to these emotions.
On this, Thich Nhat Hanh once said something very beautiful, which I like very much. He said: When you have a toothache you suffer from it, so when you do not have one why can’t you say: Wow! I have no toothache! and enjoy that? This is a very simple, practical and direct teaching which comes from the Dhamma itself. This is very much emphasised in the Dhamma: to know when the emotions are there and to know when they are not there. When they are there you use the tools, and when they are not around, just be aware of their absence.
Another very strong conditioning we have is that when they are not there we give a big plus, and when the emotions are there we give a big minus. We have to slowly learn not to give a minus or plus, but as I said this morning: just being with and learning to reflect things as they are.
Making Friends with your Emotions
Another tool which I have mentioned very often is making friends with these emotions. As I said earlier, due to our conditioning we hate them, we really dislike them. It would be a very good experience if you can see for yourself that by hating and disliking them, by not wanting them to be there, you give them more power and more energy.
There is a very interesting story in Buddhism, which presents this important aspect in the form of an allegory. It seems there was a demon, and this demon would live on other people’s anger. So you can just imagine that he never had a lack of food! He had food wherever he went: Sri Lankan food, German food ... The demon eventually got tired with the same food he was always getting from humans, and he wanted to taste something new. So he thought of visiting the gods to find out whether he would starve or whether he would get divine food.
Then, as the story goes, he went to the world of the gods. A security officer of the gods was there as he entered into this world, and this officer got angry. Thus the demon had his first taste of divine food and he liked it very much! He went in to find out more about the place. Finding the throne of the chief god empty, he went and sat on the throne. When some gods saw that a demon was sitting on their boss’ seat, they got angry too. And something very interesting happened. The demon grew bigger and bigger! He was very tiny when he first sat on the throne but the more the gods got angry the larger the demon became!
By then the chief of the gods had got wind of what was happening. He came and spoke to the demon in a very friendly way, welcoming him and showing him every kindness. Of course, the demon started to shrink as there was no food for him to feed on!
So when working with a person having strong emotions, I would say: Just invite the emotions and see what happens, and then I would urge the person to do that from time to time so as to get used to it. Sometimes I would also get these meditators to sketch their monsters. Even just to sketch these things they would become nervous and insecure. The principle is that by making friends with them, by saying okay to them, the power and energy that we give to the monsters become less when they emerge unexpectedly.
It is the same when working with fear, phobias and similar emotions. The practice is not to move away from them. When you move away from them, you give them more power and energy; but instead you should slowly, very slowly experiment with them, and explore them. This is a very important practice in the Dhamma. One way you could use this method is that when you have fear, you deliberately and consciously expose yourself to fearful situations and watch these fears. I know there are young monks in Thailand and Tibet, who would go and spend a night with their teacher in the cemetery. This becomes a learning experience for them to see what happens in that situation. This example is related to this principle of inviting the monsters, bringing them up.
Another tool to use is when you are having an emotion, avoid labelling it and just be with what you are really experiencing without the word. Please try this. Sometimes we become victims of words, of concepts. The other day someone was telling me that he was feeling depressed. When I questioned him, asking what exactly was his experience when he was depressed, he said: I am having negative thoughts about myself, and giving minuses to the thoughts. Just this process of giving minuses to the thoughts, you label it depression. So the next time, try taking away the label ‘depression’ and just watch this process of giving minuses.
One last tool I would like to mention comes from a meditation technique called noting. You can try this. It is very interesting. You do this by labelling whatever you are experiencing. You do not control or try to push away whatever that arises. You acknowledge very honestly what is happening. For instance, you just say: Sadness, sadness; fear, fear; thoughts, thoughts; sensations, sensations.
I have given you 7 or 8 tools, so I would like to pause here. If you have any questions, any difficulties, please raise them, because this is a very important theme, especially in everyday life. Generally speaking, on a retreat the monsters are sleeping. Everyone is practising loving-kindness.
Everyone is smiling. The bell rings and you get good meals. There is beautiful nature all around. It is easy to put the monsters to sleep, but when you are back home they will really wake up. This is why before they are aroused from their slumber, I am giving you the tools.
Questions Relating to Emotions
Retreatant: What to do if many different monsters are coming up at the same time?
Godwin: Some people might say, I cannot handle even two or three! This brings up a very important point about how these monsters are related. They are all one family. Let us take one emotion as an example: anger. When there is anger you can also have guilt. When you have guilt there is another emotion that arises, and so on - they are all related, they come as a team and they work very well as a team, they are very powerful.
Retreatant: Perhaps you can give them a ball to play with.
Godwin: That is one solution. I am happy you mentioned this idea of playing. When you play, you learn you can’t always win - sometimes they win, sometimes you win. When they win, do not give a minus, when you win, do not give a plus. Just see it as a fact. Here again what is important is just to have friendliness. The phrase that you can use is: I do not feel okay with all these monsters, but it is okay not to feel okay.
When there are so many and you are overwhelmed by them, it is impossible to have even a little space. But there will come a time, maybe after one day, two days or three weeks, when you recover from them. Then you can take your mind backwards and reflect: Now what really happened to me? What is the mechanism by which this family of monsters come together? I must understand their secret. So this becomes an exploration, an investigation - but again in a very friendly manner just to understand them. Say honestly: Now last time they won. Let me wait for the next time they come. With an open mind, you wait with friendliness: When are they coming, how are they coming?
And you will discover there is a paradox: when you are open to them, waiting for them, they do not come. This principle is presented in the Dhamma in a most beautiful way. According to the Dhamma, the biggest monster is Mara. It is Mara, according to Buddhist concepts, who is bringing up these different monsters in different ways. And it is said that Mara really likes people to fight with him, because when you fight with Mara he becomes very powerful. So again you should just say: There you are, Mara. It is okay that you are here, Mara. Then he becomes very insecure.
Any other questions?
Retreatant: There is one technique where we are not using words, and another technique where we are labelling - isn’t this a little contradictory?
Godwin: They seem contradictory. This is why I offer many tools - for some the noting technique helps, and for others they need to drop the labels to get the same distance. I give you different techniques, because different people, depending where you are at, have to use different techniques. You have to find out which one works best for you and is most effective.
The crux is you do not give anything special importance. You just see it as another thing that is happening - that is a very interesting principle.
Retreatant: Should I also use the labelling technique for positive emotions?
Godwin: This is why I said when these unpleasant emotions are not there, be aware and know that they are not there. Then eventually you will see no difference whether they are there or not.
Retreatant: Are there positive aspects of so-called negative emotions?
Godwin: In other words, you are asking if the so-called negative emotions can have a positive aspect? A very important point to reflect upon. There are stories in the Buddhist text where people have had these negative emotions and they made them the object of meditation which in turn helped them to become enlightened. So no plus, no minus. States of mind arise, states of mind pass away. Just seeing them as they are.
Retreatant: How can I handle very powerful emotions?
Godwin: The unfortunate thing is that if you fear something or if you do not want something that can be a means of inviting it to come. Once again the solution here is not to give these particular emotions a lot of power and energy, but to see that there is no difference between these particular emotions and other emotions. Also be sure of the tools that you are using in working with these emotions. This is one point.
Secondly, it is very interesting that from the Buddhist point of view depression has a strong element of self-hatred. That is why I have been emphasising the technique of loving-kindness meditation so often. With more and more practice of this meditation, you can be almost certain that such states of mind will not arise. Even if they do arise, if you can really have loving-kindness towards them their power and energy become less.
Thirdly, by using these tools you develop more and more self-confidence. Self-confidence is extremely important. With increasing self-confidence you will come to a position where any state of mind may arise but as you know the tools to deal with them no problem is created. When that happens you will reach a state of mind in which whether these emotions are there or not makes no difference. You will experience what I would consider as a breakthrough. So this is how we should practise meditation, in this practical way.
We will do some chanting and then end the day with meditation on loving-kindness.