“Self-arising wisdom is the base. The five negative emotions are manifested energy. Seeing emotions as mistaken is an error. Letting them be in their nature is the method to find the non-dual state of Liberation. Overcoming hope and fear is the result.”
~Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Emotions are downloaded “software” programs that enable us to more fully enjoy the richness and complexity of the human incarnational experience. There is nothing wrong with them, and they certainly do not need to be eliminated. Far from representing some kind of enlightenment, a life without emotional energy would be robotic and stagnant. The only problem (entanglement) with emotions comes when we cling to some and avoid others. That alternating cycle of craving and aversion establishes the sense of a separate and enduring self — a “me” — who wants this but shuns that.
Identification with this imaginary creation, complete with a narrative storyline about surviving and thriving in challenging world of other selves, invariably turns out to be a major source of suffering, which is why some spiritual teachers traditionally describe emotions in negative terms. For example, a respected Tibetan Buddhist, Dzongsar Khyentse, is quoted as saying: “All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, ‘This is all suffering.’”
In any case, emotions themselves are not the problem. We are not victims of emotions. When they arise as they will, we do not need to grant them any enduring reality, but simply recognize them for what they are — temporary modifications of consciousness, with no inherent substantiality. They are part of the play of life, to which they add spice and interest, but emotions are not us, they are not who we are, and they do not constitute a justification for establishing any solid and unassailable personal identity based on their arrival and elaboration. Nor do they require any measure of reactivity, which invariably serves to merely complicate and confuse. Rather, emotions can simply be acknowledged as fundamental aspects of the human experience, without the addition of subjective praise or blame.
The same goes for thought, perception, sensation, and even consciousness. We can see them for what they are, watch them rise and dissolve like waves on the ocean, and let them be just that, without trying to manipulate, add to, or subtract anything from them. In that way, they can be appreciated as gifts that life presents to us. They need not be clung to or avoided, but simply experienced. We are curious by nature, and so seek out the infinite variety of experiences the cosmos has to offer, for the purposes of self-discovery and enjoyment. Grasping at nothing and yet turning nothing away is ancient wisdom, but ever-fresh and potent.
One of the reasons that we as immortal spirit are attracted to this momentary human circumstance is to experience the richness and innocent rawness of emotions. Those who proclaim that our task is to suppress, renounce, or flee from them have got it backwards. Rather than promoting and prolonging an internal conflict — a war with ourselves that cannot be won — we can instead allow them to reveal their self-liberating potential.
For example, if we are to embark upon the conscious process of transmuting fear into love in our life and relations, we must really get to know ourselves by paying careful attention to our present condition. We can’t release impediments that we are unaware of, so we need to first get intimately familiar with our emotional fluctuations, see how they arise, how they change in response to conditions, and how they tend to rule us, without our conscious intent. This is what real spiritual practice entails, as opposed to sitting around trying to be peaceful and blissful while by-passing the emotional aspect of one’s being (as some might imagine).
As Nisargadatta Maharaj wisely suggests: “Think clearly and deeply, go into the entire structure of your desires and their ramifications. They are a most important part of your mental and emotional make-up and powerfully affect your actions. Remember, you cannot abandon what you do not know. To go beyond yourself, you must know yourself.”
Just so, emotions themselves can be transmuted into living wisdom if recognized as transitory and non-binding energetic movements inherent in the human experience. In such recognition, our attention can be restored to the unchanging background against which the fleeting movement of thoughts, emotions, and personal stories appear and disappear – our prior, natural state, Awareness itself.
Alternately, emotions can become sources of trauma and suffering, if clung to and used as plot devices for the “me-story”, or not fully experienced and released, but instead ignored and repressed. In that regard, Don Juan Matus (in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan) shared a telling observation when he noted: “The remnants of pain left behind by every strong emotion that is not fully faced, accepted, and then let go of join together to form an energy field that lives in the very cells of your body.”
When we become emotionally invested in our self-images, the whole world can seem to represent a potential threat of emotional harm. Based on this dualistic view, we perceive the need to defend ourselves from possible danger by forging a kind of armor which we then wear into “battle”. Ironically, the more we fortify this armor in reaction to assumed emotional threats, the further we stray from our own inherent happiness. Rather than relaxing and resting in the care-free enjoyment of life and relationships, we must busy ourselves with strategies of ceaseless emotional warfare, marked by the struggle to protect and preserve the fictional person we have assembled out of bits of thoughts, emotions, and memories. What a nightmare, and yet it happens to be the usual conflicted condition with which most of us go through life.
One of the most powerful generators of emotional dysfunction is our habitual failure to maturely adapt to the sexual impulse. Sexual impulses arise naturally as part of a healthy human animal’s biological program. In other words, the impulse itself is what it is, but invariably we add something extra to it, superimposing emotionally reactive qualities on to that which is merely an innocent part of the human functioning. Indeed, upon inspection, we can see that a form of chronic emotional-sexual contraction is at the root of much of our personal and collective dis-ease, and as such is a big contributor to the presumption that we are the body.
Based on the mere presence of a sexual impulse, we mistakenly construe the sense of a concrete (and demanding) self through a process of ensuing identification with and consequent attachment to the body, thereby initiating and perpetuating the mechanics of suffering. In other words, by imagining that we are the body, we commit ourselves to the body’s fate – impermanence.
Now, whether or not one actually follows through on the sexual impulse from this point matters little, since a fictional but very realistic sense of self has already been assembled around the impulse. An internal division has been set in motion, a vicious cycle of desire and frustration that comes with the self-sense package, which then ripples on, even to the point of infecting the totality of our emotional life.
A powerful antidote to the contracting entanglement of that cycle is the practice of non-dwelling within the context of true meditation, which involves neither embracing the impulse nor turning it away. In fact, it entails doing exactly nothing about it — just letting it arise and dissolve as it naturally will, without using it as a platform to identify with the body and therefore establish a self-matrix, a “me-story”. It can be inspected, seen through, and released without creating the dramatic conditions which lead to the assumption of an independent and enduring self. Attention is simply returned again and again to the prior spaciousness of awake awareness itself.
Since what is not used or fueled becomes obsolete, so too do the afflictive poisons that characterize the usual human being’s emotional state, through the power of non-dwelling. Once freed up from the deluding influences of greed, envy, hatred, pride, and ignorance of one’s true nature and condition, the energy and attention that constitute the emotional and mental processes are naturally transmuted, becoming more and more characterized by spontaneity, wisdom, clarity, and above all, compassion.
Having recognized the ephemeral nature of all experience — whether it be in the form of emotion, thought, perception, sensation, or consciousness — we can relax. When we relax, we are freed of all associated binding emotional reactivity, such as fear, stress, annoyance, and moodiness. Having been thus liberated, we can say, “Released!”, and move on to enjoy the next scene in the panoramic movie entitled “The Play of Consciousness”.
“The method is directing attention upon attention or awareness. When any arising is experienced, especially thoughts, moods, emotions, or feeling of personal self identity, one simply notices one’s present naked awareness. By directing the attention back to awareness, the arising dissolves back into its origin and its essential nature, awareness. In doing this, the arising releases its formative energy in its dissolution as a surge of further clarity of Clear Light, the power and potency of awareness that energized the arising in the first place. Hence one’s Rigpa presence (Knowing Awareness) is enhanced in the collapse of the formative arising. Hence the Dzogchen comment that “The stronger the afflictive emotion upon dissolution, the stronger the enhancement to the clarity of presence.”