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The Wisdom of Energy: Bringing Emotions to the Path

An interview with Sharon Salzberg, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Judith Simmer-Brown, and John Tarrant, Roshi. Excerpted from Twenty-First Century Buddhists in Conversation._____________________________________________________________________________

When people hear about things like nonattachment and mindfulness, they may think they’ll have to give up their emotional life when they become Buddhists. 

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Losing our emotions or thoughts is not something we need to worry about. When we meditate, they’re still there. They don’t go away. We couldn’t lose them, even if we wanted to!

When you enter the Buddhist path, the point is not to get rid of emotions or thoughts. The important thing is to be mindful of the emotions arising—whether they’re good or bad, or however you might choose to define them. As we progress along the path of meditation, the key point becomes developing a stillness in which we find freedom from the disturbing elements of emotions.

Sharon Salzberg: The Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said: “As you meditate, your mind will get quieter and quieter, like a still forest pool. Many wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”

I love the image of the wonderful and rare animals. The stillness is not holding down or repressing any experience. Everything still arrives, but what makes the difference is how all of those wonderful and rare animals are greeted.

Intention and motivation are what’s vital. Why do we act the way we do and how do we relate to our emotions? Do they subsume us? Do they overcome us? Are we propelled into actions we later regret? Do we try to hide emotions or do we denigrate ourselves for our emotions? 

So can we find a place in the middle, where we are neither overcome by emotion, which often leads to negative actions and consequences, nor repressing and avoiding our emotional states? That place in the middle, which is mindfulness, is a place of discovery, exploration, and enrichment. 

Is the full range of emotion, from rage to passion, included?

Sharon Salzberg: By practicing mindfulness, we are changing the conditions that will affect what might arise. But it wouldn’t be realistic to say that we assume control over what will arise in our experience. Control per se would not even be desirable, because in the space of rage or passion we can be free nonetheless, and perhaps utilize the energy within those emotions for something more positive in our lives. 

John Tarrant, Roshi: Freedom is just freedom, and it’s either there or not. It doesn’t matter what you’re feeling. In the long arc of a practice, most people do find that they have less intense aversions and so forth. They have less of what you would call disturbing emotions. But it’s also true that when it comes to so-called disturbing emotions, we can ask, who is it disturbing and why is it disturbing? The disturbance is measured against a framework that is illusory. Your disturbing emotions have buddha nature—just as much as your nice calm ones do—and they may actually be more likely to lead to a deeper level of awakening than your nice, calm ones. 

In evolutionary terms, biologists talk about emotions as necessary and adaptive, and many psychologists regard emotions as central to who we are. Yet emotions in Buddhism seem to be regarded as a problem. 

John Tarrant, Roshi: It’s true that when people talk about emotion in the Buddhist context, usually they’re talking about something that creates a problem. But what’s wrong with emotion, anyway? An emotion is something that arises because we have a body, an incarnation, and in that realm everything is a little bit imperfect. We can’t get anything quite the way we want it to be, and emotion is the indicator of that. Having an emotion is different from having an emotional problem, which is usually caused by fighting with the emotion, not exploring or having curiosity about it.

Judith Simmer-Brown: There’s an enormous science in Buddhism devoted to recognizing the experience of emotion. This is quite different from the practice of psychology, which has tended to be heavily interpersonal and management-oriented. However, some psychologists are beginning to appreciate that we can work with the direct experience of our state of mind. That’s a very fruitful way to appreciate that what we call emotion is, at its heart, an energetic experience that doesn’t have to be painful. 

Sharon Salzberg: Emotion is an element of relationship. It is how our awareness relates to anything that presents itself internally or externally. As a manifestation of relationship, emotion can be quite distorted, based in ignorance, so we misconstrue what we’re actually encountering. On the other hand, it can be based in something more truthful and wise and clear, and therein lies the tremendous variety of emotions we experience. 

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: From a classical Buddhist point of view, there’s not really a separate topic we would call emotions. Emotions would appear to be part of the wider topic of kleśas, the mental states or experiences that make the mind unsettled. Emotions can be disturbing and destructive when not experienced with mindfulness and compassion. But if we are able to see clearly what the true nature of the experience is, emotions can have tremendously powerful wisdom and compassion. 

John Tarrant, Roshi: Psychology takes the approach of fixing an emotional problem in order to make a person function again. That may be the goal of a society or a culture, but that is not necessarily the goal of a wisdom tradition. Anybody who has been in any tradition of depth has noticed that people who have what look like pathological emotions might be taking a positive step toward disassembling their old way of being, so that a new, greater possibility can come through. If you’re always fussing at and fixing your mind, you don’t get that journey. 

There’s also a kind of voluptuousness about what’s given by the psyche, which at some level is what’s given us by the universe. We can take a housekeeping attitude toward the emotion or we can take the ride and see what discovery is happening. Not a thrill ride, but more of a quest. The problem is not the emotion; the problem is being at war with the emotion or acting out the emotion. 

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