This article is excerpted from a talk given at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on September 18, 1994.
One of the most important teachings of the Buddha is the teaching about the nature of mind, the nature of awareness itself. Often in meditation practice we focus predominantly on the arising objects, like sounds, the breath, sensations, and thoughts.
But another side of the practice is to also notice the nature of that which is being aware.
Of course, that’s much more subtle. In a succinct teaching about this, the Buddha said the mind or awareness is luminous, radiant, but it is obscured by visiting defilements; and it is freed by letting go of these visiting defilements. [Anguttara Nikaya 1.10]
When we are not mindful, not abiding in awareness, as different kilesas (the Pali word usually translated as defilements or afflictive emotions) arise, we become imprisoned by these; we become identified with the afflictive emotions—and therefore we suffer. But the understanding that the mind is inherently empty and luminous means that this quality of awareness is something we can always come back to. When we forget, when we get lost (which we do a lot), the move is simply to come back to awareness.
For some reason, though, most of us do not live in this space of radiant clarity. It’s quite interesting: If the nature of the mind is awareness, openness, why do we get so caught up in what’s arising, especially in the afflictive emotions which cause suffering for ourselves and others? Can we learn to work with these afflictive mind states from a place of freedom rather than from contraction or bondage?
When we become quiet and take interest in the experience, we begin to untie the knots.
Acceptance is the first and fundamental step in working with these afflictive emotions, as well as with all other mind states. Care is needed here, because people sometimes misinterpret acceptance and may confuse it with condoning, justifying, or even wallowing in the emotion. Acceptance is something different. It is the full acknowledgment that a particular experience is present; Yes, ill will is present, fear is present, hatred is present, jealousy is present. Acceptance means we open to it all, without reaction, without judgment. If we can’t be accepting of what’s there, if we’re in some state either of not knowing or of denying, suppressing, or judging the different emotions that arise, it is impossible to be free in them.
Carl Jung once wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure however is disagreeable, and therefore not popular.” It’s easy to create an idealized version of ourselves, imagining ourselves to be a particular way, full of good motives and behavior, and to overlook our shadow side. But enlightenment comes not through imagination, or idealization, but by making the darkness conscious, by learning how to be open, to be accepting of the defilements, of the afflictive emotions. Acceptance makes letting go possible.
The question then is: How do we do this? How do we go about making the darkness conscious? How do we illuminate our shadow side, that side of ourselves that is difficult to see? Emotions are often difficult to recognize clearly. They are more amorphous than sounds, sensations, or even thoughts, and so we need a different strategy for learning how to recognize and be with them. It does not work very well to try to pinpoint our awareness on some particular experience and note, “Yes, there it is, there’s anger, there’s fear, there’s loneliness,” or whatever, because that is not the nature of emotion. In fact, we need to do exactly the opposite. Instead of trying to pinpoint emotion as a specific experience, wc need to settle back and open in a very receptive mode.
As an experiment, right now, sit back and become aware of the space in your room. How can you do that? If you look too hard, you will look right through the space to the various objects. But if you relax the eyes, and simply receive what appears, the experience of space becomes apparent.
A question that I’ve used often in practice, and in life, to help create this attitude of open receptivity is “What’s happening?” This question proves especially helpful at those times when we know something is going on but we’re not quite sure exactly what. When we ask “What’s happening?” there is an energetic sense of stepping back and opening to whatever mind state or emotion is present. And in that precise moment, what’s happening is often revealed. Sometimes it might be confusion, or chaos, or uncertainty—states that are, in their nature, not very clear.
We can make a big frame for these emotions and mind states, which might most closely resemble a Jackson Pollack painting! It doesn’t make much sense to look at the painting and try to pinpoint every little detail within it. Another way might be to open up and allow in the whole visual field. Then the details become more evident. We can do the same with our own emotional states.
As soon as we open to the underlying emotion, the mind relaxes and becomes more free.
Receptivity is the first step in clear recognition. If we feel something is going on, but we don’t quite know what it is, it’s worth spending the time to step back, to investigate: “O.K., what’s happening?”
Sometimes we don’t recognize our emotions because we misperceive them. We think they’re one thing, but they’re actually something else. This can happen often. During one self-retreat, a strong feeling of sadness arose. I noted “sadness” many times, but there was some sense of being stuck. Finally, I looked more closely and realized the feeling was not sadness, it was unhappiness; two states that are close, but not the same. In the moment of clear recognition, acceptance became possible and the mind came back to ease. As long as I was misperceiving the emotion there was no way to actually be with it.
Emotions don’t necessarily dissolve or disappear when we clearly recognize and accept them, although they might. Rather, we feel them from a place of freedom, rather than from a place of bondage.
There are other times when we clearly recognize what’s there but still feel caught or contracted in some way. This can happen when we don’t see the whole constellation of feelings. We might see the top layer and miss what’s underneath and feeding it.
For example, sometimes I might feel anger or ill-will, recognize it clearly, accept it, but still feel caught. Because suffering of one kind or another usually piques my interest, I begin to investigate further: “Is there something underneath this anger that I’m not seeing?” In one case, it was the feeling of self-righteousness. Often when we’re angry we do have that sense of “I’m right, and that person did this, and I should be angry.” If we’re noticing and accepting the anger but not clearly recognizing, opening to, or accepting the feeling of self-righteousness that is underneath it, what happens? The self-righteousness acts like an underground spring that keeps feeding the anger precisely because it remains unseen. As soon as we open to the underlying emotion, the mind relaxes and becomes freer in the experience of it.
There are times and situations where we really do have to investigate and bring a quality of interest to what’s happening. We do this not by thinking about what’s going on, but by the more intuitive, silent space of receptivity, perhaps using the question, “Well, what’s happening here?” All of this has to do with clearly recognizing what it is that we’re feeling, making sure that we’re not misperceiving it, and opening to any associated or underlying feelings that may be present.
The mental strategy of denial also prevents us from recognizing or accepting what’s actually there. Difficult emotions are often unpleasant and so we simply don’t like to feel them. It’s analogous to our reluctance to be with physical pain. In the beginning of meditation practice people have a lot of trouble with physical pain, because it goes against our conditioning to just be with it: “Why should I open to pain? It hurts.” And yet the practice is learning to open, learning to be with the whole range of experience, painful and pleasant,
with a great equanimity. This is the ground of freedom.
We need to go through just the same process with the afflictive or painful emotions. In doing that we transform the conditioning of denial into one of awareness.
Defensive and aggressive life patterns can come from our reluctance to feel unpleasant emotions. We defend ourselves against the feeling by acting out in various ways. How much of what we do in our lives comes from simply not wanting to feel bored? A lot! Somehow we’ve become afraid of this feeling (as just one example), and so look for all kinds of diversions. Forgetting that boredom is just another passing feeling, we fill our lives with endless activity. How much easier it would be to simply let the feeling come and go. It’s not a permanent state. So why are we so afraid of it? Boredom is an easy state both to recognize and practice being with. There are other emotions, however, that are more painful for us and take a great willingness and courage to feel.
For example, many people have feelings of unworthiness. Because it is an unpleasant afflictive emotion we defend against feeling it by imprisoning ourselves in certain self-images and lifestyles. The fear of feeling unworthy then conditions how we feel about ourselves and how we relate in the world.
But unworthiness—like boredom, like anger, like happiness, like sadness— is just another passing feeling. It comes because of certain conditions and it goes. If we are not afraid of that feeling, if we learn to be with it, even though it’s unpleasant, without resistance and without identification, then it doesn’t dictate how we live our lives. It doesn’t dictate a sense of ourselves, because we can be accepting of it simply as another passing mind state.
It might be interesting to consider what emotions in your life you find difficult to open to. Is it fear, is it anxiety, is it loneliness, is it boredom, is it jealousy? There is a long list of possibilities. Look honestly at what feelings are unacceptable, and then take the first steps back to the inherent clarity and awareness of mind.
Q: How do we truly investigate without getting caught in the story line?
A: The obsession with the story is itself the signal that there’s some emotion underneath that has not yet been recognized. So you can take it as a signal, rather than make it a problem.
Notice when the mind is obsessing about the story and let that prompt the investigation: Is there some underlying feeling I’m not yet seeing? The key quality in the mind that allows us to do that is interest. If there is a strong interest in discovering what’s really happening it will help you unhook from the identification with the story to see how you might be relating to the drama. Is there aversion to it, or self-pity? Is there another unrecognized feeling? The recognition of the underlying emotion is not going to come as an intellectual printout; it will come more intuitively. We’re not looking for something; we’re simply stepping back and becoming receptive: “O.K., what’s really here?” And using that question, using the body, using the feelings of the body, we access our own deep intuitive wisdom.
It’s like listening to a symphony orchestra, with lots of instruments joining in to create the music. Often our attention is drawn to the most predominant instruments. At other times we sit back and take it all in at once. We can also make a point of listening to the instruments underneath the predominant ones. We can listen to the bassoon through the violins.
It’s something like that—taking interest in the more subtle aspects. The story content of emotions is usually predominant; it’s the big news. But what’s the feeling underneath it? When we become quiet and take interest in the whole experience, we begin to untie the knots.
Q: Do you find it enough to simply accept, step back, over and over again?
A: Acceptance of the emotion is not the end point in our relationship to it; rather, it is the key step in getting free within ourselves. From that place of openness and non-contraction, we can then make whatever response feels appropriate. At that point we are responding to a situation instead of reacting. In my experience, the inner freedom or spaciousness that comes from acceptance of the emotion makes subsequent communication easier and more effective.
How much of what we do in our lives comes from simply not wanting to feel bored? A lot! But boredom is just another passing feeling. It’s not a permanent state. So why are we afraid of it?
Sometimes wanting to get rid of an emotion comes disguised as acceptance. We’re with something in order for it to leave. This is not genuine acceptance. There is a leaning on the experience that you can feel energetically. It’s a kind of bargaining: “I’ll watch you if you go away.” This is quite distinct from the space-like quality of acceptance. Space accepts everything.
There are so many levels in this practice. The more we do it, the more we know things not only cognitively, but energetically. When we’re with something in order for it go away, there’s an energetic contraction. When we really are accepting, our awareness is like space. It’s like listening to sound; the mind is completely open. And then whatever arises is simply there
One story about how the way we conceptualize things unwittingly reinforces the way we relate to them: One time I was doing a retreat with U Pandita Sayadaw and I went in for an interview. My body was quite open and clear and the energy was flowing, except for one very tight spot. So I went in and described what was happening. I said , “I’m feeling a flow of vibrations in my body but there’s one strong energy block.” He really got on my case for calling it a block! He said that I didn’t experience a block. It might be tightness, pressure, heaviness, burning. It was some sensation, but to call it a block already set up a relationship of wanting it to be different than what it was. His response, although surprising at first, helped me to truly accept it, and in the acceptance to see so much more clearly its impermanent, insubstantial nature.
Q: What you seem to be saying is that one could be in a totally uncomfortable situation—and still be free in it. How does the relationship with the difficult emotions feel differently then?
A: There are many ways of describing the difference, but the essential point is that in one there’s a sense of self, and in the other there’s not. When we are caught by an unpleasant situation, emotion, or reaction, there is a contraction of self, some sense of “I” in the experience. This sense of “I” is created in various ways. When denial is operative, there is the contraction of someone who’s denying it. Or we could be completely identified with whatever mind state has arisen, being caught in its grip, and feeling it as “I” or “mine.” As an experiment during the day, notice those times when there is a sense of contraction. It might be when you feel aversion to something, or when you are very attached to a point of view. It could be around anything at all. At those times, pay attention to the felt sense of self. Then let the mind relax around whatever emotion is there, being in a free, accepting relationship to it. Experience the difference between these two possibilities. Not that the uncomfortable emotion necessarily goes away, but it’s seen for just what it is: “This is an uncomfortable emotion.” It’s like a big, dark thundercloud going through the sky. The sky is not affected; the space is not affected. We can abide in that space of mind where we fully experience the whole range of emotions, pleasant ones and unpleasant ones, but we don’t take them to be “I”, to be self. We don’t imprison ourselves in them.
From this quality of openness, of wide-open space, comes clear seeing: What is the situation, what are we feeling, what is the appropriate action? We leam to let the afflictive emotions pass through and to respond increasingly from feelings rooted in friendship, kindness, wisdom and compassion.