When we learn to respond more healthily to the emotions and feelings that arise, we can radically change the quality of our lives. One of the greatest disappointments I felt in growing up was that no one ever gave me help in dealing with emotions. The experience must be extremely widespread, because as a psychotherapist possibly the main aspect of my work is helping people discover how to live with their feelings.
In exploring the management of the emotional life, I have found it useful to bring together two threads of my own background, one drawn from my experience as a psychotherapist, the other from my experience as a meditator. When I first began to work as a therapist I was conscious of a difference in these two styles of dealing with the emotional life.
Initially, psychotherapy seemed absorbed in looking at the origins of our emotional habits and talking them through, while Buddhism seemed to be more interested in taming and controlling the emotions in order to achieve a state of mental quiescence. Over time, my understanding of both methods has deepened and become more subtle, and I now find that the reflective and contemplative approaches complement and inform each other, both in my work as a therapist and in my personal life.
Avoiding Feelings or Transforming Them?
This exploration has, however, highlighted a particular concern: namely, the potential for those who develop meditation practices to use them as a means to avoid feelings rather than to transform them.
When spiritual practice is genuinely integrated in daily life, this is reflected in how we are, moment by moment and day by day, with our feelings and emotions. Some who claim to have a great experience of meditation may still display strong emotional problems. Others equally experienced in meditation show signs of having repressed their capacity for feeling and emotions in quite unhealthy ways. The question then arises as to whether someone who is developing deep insights in meditation should be free of emotions and emotional reactions.
I have often been amused by people who say, when I honestly express how I have emotionally reacted to something, “But you’re a Buddhist, you shouldn’t have any emotional problems.” Evidently they think that Buddhist meditation practice is supposed to eliminate feelings and emotions.
Responding to Emotions in a Healthy Way?
My answer to this is that the intention of Buddhist practice is not to become emotionally sterile but to have the capacity to respond to emotions in a healthy way. In this respect, once again, it is not the fact that we have feeling or emotional responses to the world that is the problem, but exactly how we are with them.
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When an emotion arises we can respond to it in a number of ways. We may become completely absorbed in it or, to use the psychological language, “identified with it,” so that all we feel is the overwhelming power of the emotion. If we are hurt we may become so utterly absorbed in the hurt it is as though we are the hurt. At this time it can be unbearable and all-consuming, as though there is no other reality.
Witnessing the Experience
Furthermore, we may respond directly and instinctually from the place of hurt. We may break down, strike out, or become defensive. In this identified state there is little awareness of the emotional process unfolding. We are not able to witness the experience because we have become lost in it.
When we are so lost in our feelings and have no awareness that can witness them, it is as though we are unconscious. We will also be unable to observe the underlying process that has occurred to give rise to the emotional state. If we could slow the process down, so to speak, we might see that this emotion began in a relatively subtle feeling that grew as we intensified our contraction around and into the feeling. Eventually, it became the full-blown emotional response.
Accepting our Feelings without Judgment
Feelings we may have struggled with for years are transformed only when we utterly accept them without judgment and without contraction. This does not mean our feelings disappear, but we become able to live with them in a very different way. Emotions arise but are able to pass through without becoming stuck.
Our emotions are possibly the greatest challenge we ever encounter. It is central to Buddhist thinking, however, that the resolution to life’s problems comes through a change within the mind. This is certainly true in terms of our felt relationship to the world.
Feeling Pleasure or Pain Fully & Openly
There is, in this sense, no outer problem that will not be resolved through a capacity to change the way we relate to our emotional life. When we come to terms with this truth, there is a sense of liberation.
Transforming our lives is about more than just being positive all the time: it is the capacity to feel things fully, either in pleasure or pain, but to remain spacious and open. This spaciousness in our experience is not about making life positive; it is just being open, engaged, and authentic to what is.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications. ©2010.
The Wisdom of Imperfection: The Challenge of Individuation in Buddhist Life
by Rob Preece.
About the Author
Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Rob Preece draws on his 19 years as a psychotherapist and many years as a meditation teacher to explore and map the psychological influences on our struggle to awaken. Rob Preece has been a practicing Buddhist since 1973, principally within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since 1987 he has given many workshops on comparative Buddhist and Jungian psychology. He is an experienced meditation teacher and Thangka painter (Buddhist icons). Visit his website at http://www.mudra.co.uk/