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Godwin Samararatne
4: Emotions

Zonnewende, Dwingeloo, Holland (25th July 1996)

What I call tools are ways to work with our so-called negative emotions, the monsters. It's interesting to draw up a list of the emotions that sometimes bother us. You can ask yourselves what are these monsters: what are the names of these emotions? It is a long list: fear, shame, lust, jealousy, greed, anger, distrust, sadness, guilt, self-pity, insecurity, loneliness, doubt, and so on. A long list, and I don't think there is anyone who likes the emotions on this list.

A tool for working with them is to see them as opportunities, learning experiences, and opening ourselves to them. By hating, disliking and resisting them we give them a lot of power. I know it is not an easy thing but slowly, slowly, I think we need to learn to be open to these emotions.

Related to this is that when they are there, not to be surprised! Often in our model of perfection there is no place for such emotions, and we feel we should not have them. I suppose only enlightened people may not be having these unpleasant emotions. But as we are still human, as we are still imperfect, we should not be surprised when they come. Not being surprised and being open are related. There is a phrase that I use very often: learning to be friendly to them.

When I say this I am reminded of a myth which is presented in one of the Buddhist texts. It is about a demon who was living among human beings. When a human being got angry the demon used this anger as food, so as you can just imagine he had plenty of food. But demons can get bored with the same food every day, and one day this demon thought: "Maybe I should go to the heavens where the gods live and see whether they will have any food for me". So he goes to heaven, he looks around and he finds that the throne of the chief god is vacant. Nobody was there so he sat himself down uninvited on the throne. When the gods arrived and saw this they got angry. And when they got angry, the demon for the first time had a taste of divine food.

In the beginning when this demon had sat down on the throne he was very small, but when the gods were getting angry with him, shouting and resenting his presence, he became bigger and bigger. The boss, the chief god, realised something was happening. He came to see what was going on and he spoke to the demon in a very friendly, a very gentle way. He welcomed the demon and said: "Would you like anything to drink?" and so on. You can guess what happened to the demon when the chief god became friendly to him: the demon could no longer feed himself on the divine food and so he shrank.

Psychologically this is really interesting. What we are trying to do with an open attitude towards our negative emotions is to learn to make friends with our monsters. A phrase you can say to yourself which can be helpful sometimes is: "It's okay not to feel okay." It is really about being friendly with yourself, accepting what is happening. I know it is not easy, but slowly, slowly, something interesting might happen. Your monsters might lose some of their strength. Helpful here is our friend the breath and the sensations in our body. These two friends help us to experience the present moment, and they can prevent emotions from blowing up.

Another tool related to this is learning about our negative emotions, learning about our monsters. Because we don't like them we don't experience them fully. We don't really make an effort to know them, to learn about them, to discover, to explore. There are so many things that we can learn about these emotions. One thing you may discover is the connection between thoughts and emotions. It can be a very useful discovery, that it is really the thought that is creating the emotion. One can then work with the thought that precedes the emotion as it arises.

Normally when we have these emotions, we give ourselves a minus. As a reaction to our negative emotions we start hating and disliking ourselves. It is very interesting to explore emotions without giving them and yourself a minus. If you can develop this attitude of wanting to learn, you are really waiting for them to arise. And what might happen if you are really waiting for them to come is that they don't come! When we don't want them to come, they come and when we want them to come, they don't come!

Another tool is: when they are not there, just to know that they are not there. Often when we take to meditation, when we start to follow the spiritual path, we are trying our best to get rid of our monsters. By doing that we give them a lot of power. But when they are absent we hardly know that they are absent. Sometimes I feel that this is one of the tragedies of the human condition. We don't realise that there are moments when we are really free of our so-called negative emotions. When they are absent, it is too good to believe that they are really not there. Meditators come and tell me: "Maybe I am repressing them!" So they don't really want to accept that they are truly not there.

In this connection, I like this very simple quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh, a meditation master from Vietnam. He says that when we have a toothache we suffer from the toothache, but when we don't have a toothache do we ever say: "Wow, I don't have a toothache today!" Even when we don't have a toothache we are thinking: "Maybe I will get one tomorrow". Aren't we funny?

I really like to emphasise this aspect very much. When negative emotions are absent really to know that they are absent. There is an interesting Zen story in this connection. Someone went to a Zen master and said: "I have a big problem." The Zen master asked: "Well, what is your big problem?" "My big problem is that I get angry". "So", the Zen master replied, "where is your anger now?" Of course, the anger was not there. The Zen master continued: "If it is your anger, you should be able to produce it!"

This brings up an important perspective: the realisation that our emotions don't really belong to us. Because we have a strong sense of ownership, we think we own things, we also think that we own these emotions. This is my anger, this is my fear. Of course, what you own, what you think you own, you don't want to give up.

The Buddhist perspective here is that emotions are empty of a separate self. There is no real owner. All things arise due to causes and conditions and all things pass away due to causes and conditions. This idea is also presented in the Buddha's teaching in another way, which I like very much. One can treat these monsters, or even pleasant emotions, as our visitors, our guests. We are the host, and as a good host we should be open to any visitor who comes. When visitors come, as a good host we are not surprised, rather we are friendly and we welcome the visitors. When they leave we just say, "Bye-bye, please come back again". This sounds very simple. When the visitor comes, when the visitor stays, when the visitor goes, the host remains the same: no problem. Just visitors coming, visitors going. This brings up the Buddhist perspective of impermanence: everything changes, there is coming and going, going and coming.

While working with emotions you can sometimes ask the question: "Who is having this emotion? Who is having this joy? Who is having this sadness?" When you explore this question your attention goes to something other then the emotion. You might realise that there is no-one having the emotion, but only emotions that come and go: there is no owner.

I am suggesting many tools to you, because if you can learn to play with these different tools you can alternate them and use them skilfully. Sometimes one may work, sometimes another may work. If you can see it as a play, then sometimes the monsters win and sometimes the tools might work and you win. In a game you can't always win. Situations become learning experiences, and our so-called failures help us in our spiritual growth. I think this is a very important perspective to have.

Having a certain lightness can make such a big difference. What is important when we experiment with these tools is that we see that we have a tendency to look for pleasant, positive experiences, and we don't like unpleasant experiences. Our spiritual path can become a battle. If you can really be open to both what is considered as pleasant and what is considered as unpleasant, then you can see the spiritual practice as a going beyond this division, this duality that we have created.