I was born in Massechusetts, I'm thirty-six years old. Four years ago, the emotion from a childhood trauma surfaced and the amount of terror I experienced was unimaginable. I felt like I was drowning, I nearly went under there for a while. I was basically terrifying myself, taking too big a dose. And it was a great teaching because with most of the things in my life, I just sort jump right in and work with it, and then I hit this terror and I had to learn this great respect. It's like these great big waves here in the Pacific, they're not like the little baby waves in the Atlantic. When those big waves hit, one has to learn how to work with them and respect them. It's like we take a little teeny bit of it, then a little bit more, and a little bit more, and then it's workeable. I tried to take terror in one big chunk and I just about drowned. It was an awful time. I was basically in a hell-realm for two years.
So I really recommend taking small doses and that means taking control. And this is where meditation is the great teacher because you don't have to be in it. An emotion happens, a thought happens, and the ability to pull out of that is essential, because that's the freedom. You're no longer a victim of it anymore. If you don't see it clearly in that moment, it's better to pull out, because you're just going to drown. If you see terror clearly, it's not a problem anymore, you just open to that feeling and it goes. But if you're identified with it, forget it, you drown. And that means getting totally into the content, or you're shaking so bad that you have to be held for five hours. It's just a matter of real time. If you're heart is pure, then all things in your world is pure, terror is okay, it's just like the sound of a bird, it's not a problem. It's easy to say, I spent two years in hell with this stuff, but it's very clear to me how it works now.
And some people don't have to go into that depth of suffering, that was my karma and everybody has their karma, and not everybody has to go through rage and terror. There are many people who don't have a lot of emotion come up in practice and that's fine. Some people hear me talk and they start thinking, "Oh my god, I've never had this come up." If you're not having it come up, that's great, enjoy it! It's not like, this is the road to freedom. If it's coming up, it's how to work with it. If it's not coming up, don't get out your shovel. Meditation isn't getting out your shovel. If you died tomorrow and you didn't know how to work with terror, that's not what meditation is all about. Freedom happens in a moment and it's not based on getting through all this stuff, or getting rid of all this stuff, it's working on a much deeper, more profound level. If you have a sense that you have to work all this stuff out, I think you become a packhorse. There's nothing heavier than having to work all this stuff out.
Every year I get older I keep getting a longer view. What's the hurry? When you start accepting it, that's when you can take the right dose, and when you're in a hurry that's when you take too big a dose. When there's a feeling of getting overwhelmed, it's because we're not feeling the feeling. The feeling is so intolerable that it's just too much. In the context of meditation, the content is almost irrevelant. And it's skilful to back off. I used to feel defeated when I backed off, but it's wisdom to know when to back off. And it will always be smaller than you think. Always take less than more when it comes to these very powerful feelings. Whenever you see something clearly, it's empty, and then it's very simple so the most primal emotion that you might be afraid of - terror or rage - there was probably a feeling as a child that it was going to kill you, which it would, and that's why you shut down and now as an adult, one can start learning how to open to that, if that's your particular karma, in the dose that you need to. As a child you have to shut down or you'll go crazy, you have a choice, you can shut down or go crazy, if you're not getting any help. But as an adult, you can start to open a little bit, you just can't rip the flower open, and shutting down isn't a defeat if you're aware that you're shutting down. If you're not aware that you're shutting down, and you're repressing it, then it's avoidance.
It's very easy to get sucked into the holidays that we all go on when when
resistance is happening. But remember it's important to feel it as body
sensations as much as possible. If it's too unpleasant to do that, I recommend
you return to what you're doing with your practice, it might be with the breath.
If it's too unpleasant, it's going to be too hard. Go back to the breath, then
go to the resistance, because this force in the mind of resistance is so strong
it tends to suck us right back into the fantasy land once again.
Q: A few weeks back I heard a criticism about Buddhism, many Buddhists that "know" don't do, and many people who don't "know", do. So I see something very positive in identification with emotion, this energy that you're talking about. Sometimes I think it is more important to take action and identify with rage or anger instead of letting it go.
A: I have two responses. The first is, I don't think identification is ever helpful. In any situation that feels unacceptable because it's harmful, say it's rape, or war or racial prejudice, and it's manifesting in action, I feel like it's really important to take responsibility for one's own feelings. Which means not identifying. So, say one becomes very angry because there's a nuclear power plant being built next door, one can feel that anger. You sit down and you feel that anger, then you let it go. Then you take action, and it will come from not an angry place but a pure, clear place. This is the difference between war and peace. Anybody who's into the whole anti-war thing and comes from an angry place is just reinforcing anger. It's the basis of non-violence and without it, we are reinforcing hatred. It doesn't mean we become this passive wimp, it means we can be very firm and direct, and the action has much more impact.
An example of this is any two human beings having a disagreement. I know if
somebody comes to me and they're angry and they direct their anger at me, I
don't like it, I get defensive. I naturally put up a block. I've learnt this
especially over the years, living with someone. If I have a problem with
something and I attack, I get a defense. It's natural, we don't like to be
attacked, it hurts, we protect ourselves. But if somebody comes to me and says,
what you did, your behaviour, upset me in this way, this is wrong, I don't want
you to do this any more. then people can hear it, and it's the same whether it's
one-to-one relationships, or group action, whatever it is, if the action comes
from a very deep place of understanding, it has a tremendous capacity to make an
effect. If it comes from anger, you'll always get a defense. I don't think it
has much to do with tradition, whether it's Muslim, or Christian, or Zen or
Theravadan, it's really a personal choice that people make and some people
choose to make that stand and some people don't.
Q: By training I'm a clinical psychologist, and a lot of what you're saying, I think, yeah, that's what I'm doing - do you think there's something purely Buddhistic though about this way of looking at emotions?
A: Emotions usually manifest as physical sensations, and if you can stay with that moment to moment heat, pressure, burning, tingling, whatever it is, it's incredibly freeing, and stay away from the content as much as possible. I think that's a very different angle from most of Western psychology. There are three characteristics of existence in Buddhism, there's dukkha, that sense of unsatisfactoriness, there'sanicca, that all things are changing, and anatta, meaning there's no solid ego entity behind the process, so in turns of working with the emotion with individuals in terms of therapy versus Buddhism, if one is working with the perspective that there's nobody behind the process, it really is just like the sound of a person, to a body sensation, to a thought, to heat, it's just this changing process, and there's no identification with it, there's no "I" there, it's very different from most Western psychology and that's a very deep level.
But in terms of Western psychology, to give it its credit, as a child in
terms of human development, one needs to learn that this is a zafu, this is a
rug, this is a glass, there's boundaries, you're working in the world of form,
this is a female, this is a male. In terms of human development, it's essential
for a child to learn this, because it gives the child a sense of security and
safety. If a child gets that protection and security and safety, then as one
grows up and goes through adolescence, there's this security inside to explore
and to be able to face anatta, to face that there's nobody there, and to have
the strength to do that. If the child doesn't have that developed, they're not
going to have the capacity to do that. And you see that with people who are very
deeply troubled, who are in mental institutions. It's very hard for them to
meditate, they don't have the inner strength. So Western psychology is very good
at working to try and develop that sense of form, of boundary, and it can be
quite helpful. I think that they stop at life becoming functional and that's
important, that we can adjust to what's happening, but then there's something
deeper that isn't even talked about.
Q: I was bothered by obsessive thoughts that have the nature of anger, and what I found myself doing this spring is making use of an experience of death as a counterweight. I've been aware that sometimes it's not been effective, it's a bit like the mechanism of a clock, wearing itself down. So I just wanted to ask you about this.
A: I have two responses. One is that when we're drowning I really believe that anything we can do to help us come up for air is essential because it's an imaginary war. If you even had those thoughts playing on a loud-speaker in the room where you're sitting would be amazingly embarrasing because you're just getting caught in this stuff and the reason we're getting caught in it is because we're not able to feel that feeling but there's usually good reasons for it. What's getting triggered is probably very deep. In the Buddha's teaching, he says that greed, desire and hatred have very deep roots in the mind and all the variations on that, even aversion, greed-hatred or greed-aversion, aversion to what's coming up has a very deep root in the mind so if you're drowning, I think reflecting on that has been the most helpful thing for me, any time, any place, because it cuts through it.
And the other response I have is that anything in this world that we can't meet up against and see clearly and let go of, anywhere that's occurring within us, and we all have those places within us where we're not free, we're imprisoned, and we're vulnerable because we're afraid. My own feeling is that that, like homeopathy, where you take just the right amount of the dose of what you're suffering from.