Day 3: Working with Emotions
On day three of this series we began to move into the domain of our emotions. Breath and body awareness will be the foundation for this next inquiry. If at any point in your personal practice you feel that you would benefit most from continuing to explore shamatha, please do so. Inquiry practice is most rewarding when your mind feels stable, alert and at ease. A shamatha practice comes with immense benefits on its own.
Our emotional state of being can be quite complex. In an effort to build balanced awareness, we hope to complement sensitivity to our emotions with perspective. We neither want to be trapped by our feelings, nor vacant of them. We aspire to open lightly and clearly to all nature of emotions that pass through our field of experience.
Experiencing our emotions with clarity is a skill that requires practice, and methods can be a great value. When strong emotions move through us, it is easy to get drawn into the story triggering the emotion. For example, if I feel angry, instead of staying with the immediate experience of anger, I may be spinning through the mental chatter that supports it. Trunga Rinpoche, a master teacher in these practices, said, “Emotion is energy mixed with thoughts. If you can let the thoughts go or interrupt the conversation, then you just have energy.” Energy is something that is quite fluid and changing. It is the story in our minds that can feel narrow and stagnant. In working with emotions, we begin to dive more deeply into the nature of ego, impermanence and dissatisfaction. There are many questions we can consider when we feel ready. Are feelings absolute or relative? Do my past experiences influence my emotional response to the present moment? Does my identification with a story make the emotion appear to be more solid? When I soften my attachment to dialogue, do emotions begin to feel more fluid? Do I prefer some emotions more than others? Can I explore opening to all nature of emotions equally and without conditions? Does this capacity help me to feel a greater sense of ease even when I am experiencing difficulty?
As we explore emotions that arise in seated practice, our first step will be to pause and recognize what has come up. If there is a conversation around the feeling, we gently disrupt the flow of thought and drop back into the pure feeling itself. Disrupting the flow of thought is not done with a sense of struggle, but instead a conscious choice to not add to it. We take a few moments to label the feelings that are passing through and then kindly return to our breath. We may begin to notice that feelings are constantly changing. It is our identification (ego) with a story that can make our experience seem more fixed and solid. The simple act of labeling feelings gives us the opportunity for perspective. I no longer identify as “being angry”, but rather see that “this moment is one of anger”. As we continue to investigate, we may also discover that beneath anger lie more deeply rooted feelings like fear, shame or sadness. Through a safe and open inquiry, we hope to dive deep into the layers of our experience and being with greater clarity.
The second step in our investigation is to notice if our feelings correlate to sensations in our physical body. For example, some physical signs of anger may be tightening of fists, contraction of shoulders or gripping of teeth. In practice, we begin to strengthen our emotional awareness through our bodies. For those that have difficulty recognizing emotions, this can be a useful tool. As a method, if we recognize anger moving through our experience, we pause, gently interrupt the story (thoughts), but direct our attention to the pure feeling tone. We may take time to note anger, and then drop into an examination of anger in our bodies in the same we explored physical sensations last week. For example, we may take a few moments to notice tight fists, tight jaw, gripping teeth and then return to our breath. We can cycle through this technique as needed. Perhaps at some point in our inquiry, we find that our jaw and fingers feel soft and skin feels relaxed. For some moments, the immediate experience of anger has actually subsided. If and when the original story re-enters our mind, the anger will likely resurface with it. We can continue to recycle this method through the duration of practice. If there are no obvious physical sensations arising with our emotions, just stay with the practice of labeling emotions and gently returning your attention to the breath.
As we practice this week, we will begin to balance our emotional awareness by understanding its connection to both the mind and body. There is a significant difference between being angry and being aware of anger. Emotions do not have to define us. They are simply a moment passing through the field of our experience, like clouds that pass through the vast sky.
Remember to practice with kindness as you explore this week. The idea of this exploration is not to feel clear of emotions or to only experience the pleasant ones. It is to discover our capacity to open to all emotions equally and lightly. Balanced and skillful emotional awareness are essential to living a balanced and healthful life.