Notes on Emotion

[NB: The following will be a messy set of notes, made with the intention of fleshing out a little bit of the general orientation towards emotions and the assumptions we have about them. This isn't intended as instruction. I'm writing them off the top of my head. I won't edit them beyond basic spell check.

My intention isn't to go into detail about the various practical methods one might employ as a way of working with emotions in the style I'm talking about. I am not a teacher, and these teachings require careful guidance from someone qualified. Contemplative technologies — so to speak — are not inert, and we should be respect nuance in various systems of practice and the existence of large asymmetries in expertise.

I will touch on some topics which I'm basically unqualified to talk about. If you are inspired to find out more about any of this, I suggest you do your own research and see what attracts you.]

Strong emotions can cause problems for ourselves and others, so it is understandable that we've developed the desire and methods to control them. One could go into great detail about these methods in the controlling approach, but that isn't really of interest here. The main point of interest here is to highlight how a subtle difference in attitude and instruction can have a disproportionate impact on how we relate to training, and how that training unfolds for us as people. If you build up from a foundational attitude of controlling or ignoring emotional energies, then we're going to end up with a very different outcome than if we enter from a relaxed, open attitude towards emotions.

Part of the reason for being willing to engage with strong emotions, is because they're obvious. Strong emotions present themselves in unmistakable fashion. Vajrayana works with the perspective that there is some quality of wisdom within all emotions, but it is much easier to link into this quality of wisdom when an emotion is strong instead of diffuse. Some Buddhists would get a bit nervous around the idea of working with strong emotion in an open way, because it can sound like you are encouraging the emotions which can cause so much suffering. Indeed, the tantric approach often comes with warning labels; if you aren't guided/trained well and you indulge in emotions blindly, you could seriously fuck your life up in short order. Sometimes people who engage with emotional energies without knowing what they are doing or being ready for that, get compared to drunken elephants who rampage through a town causing all sorts of destruction. A good example is if you have ever known someone become manic; where they externalise their excess energy, leading to all sorts of uncharacteristic sexual behaviour, shopping sprees, and the like. A good teacher will make sure their student has a good grounding in mental hygiene, basic contemplative disciplines, and so on. However, cutting off from the richness of emotions is not safe either, especially when done so in the name of a grand narrative about Enlightenment or what have you. When emotions become stagnant or frozen, people can do serious damage to their connections with other beings, and sometimes their own capacities for good.

There is a distinction here between a psychotherapeutic modality, and the working basis of Vajrayana. Although at certain points of the path, the practitioner may feel that the practice is working to make them feel better emotionally, socially or what have you — sometimes in laudable ways — there is a difference between the mental and emotional health sought after in therapeutic systems, and the orientation of a 'path of liberation', so to speak. Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the Three Lords of Materialism and although his teaching on Spiritual Materialism is particularly well known, he also addressed the ways in which we seek to cultivate more comfortable emotional and psychological environments, in a way which perpetuates our grasping and delusion. This isn't to say that one shouldn't want psychological well-being, but it is necessary to understand that these practices are working on different aspects of our being. Indeed, it is sometimes said that even people with quite deep insight into the nature of mind can still experience very human problems with their health or behaviour.

Emotions are a fundamental part of the way awareness manifests as the play between the self and other. The tantric perspective is not necessarily to manipulate the emotions which arise, but rather to recognise how it is that we distort the natural play of awareness, and how we end up shutting off from the world in a solipsistic way, or else we lash out at the external world on the basis of conviction in our confusion. This is a very tricky matter indeed, because part of the problem is that we imagine our own imprisonment. From the perspective of the teachers of Maha-Ati — such as Longchen Rabjam — there actually is no prison of delusion. It is the confused efforts of ego, trying to free itself, which creates all the confusion. It is partly for this reason, that from the perspective of the inner tantras we need the help of someone else (which is where all the discussion of lineage comes in). One way to address this as beginners, is that we can connect to some sense of inspiration that we don't have to strive for some perfect state in the future. We don't have to produce different experience, and we can see — even from quite early in our training — how it is that manipulating the mind in this way just produces more conditioned states which can warp the free flow of mind, and can cause all sorts of unnecessary tensions.

From this general orientation, emotionality is part of the mind's natural sensitivity. It is part of the quality of aliveness, which gives rise to both well-being and joy, but also suffering and unhappiness. For this reason we might want to cut off the mind's natural sensitivity or develop a thick skin, but if we allow that sensitivity to manifest naturally, it becomes part of the inspiration which allows us to deepen the sense of openness and clarity of mind, which can bring with it a whole different way of experiencing the world. From this perspective, the sensitivity and vividness of emotion is fundamentally inseparable from our capacity to respond to the world. Sometimes all it takes is confidence in our own mind to realise that we aren't completely at the mercy of emotions. This can lead to the mistaken notion that we can learn to control our emotions, but nevertheless it is important to recognise a certain degree of power.

It is important to want to know how emotions work, how they shape our world. We need to want to understand, in some hands on way, nuances such as the relationship between perception and emotion, emotion and action, etc. We have to see how it is that we are attached to emotions — both positive and negative — and how it is that confused perception of emotions is part of how we maintain a solid (and often negative) images of ourselves and our world; how we sure up ego and turn away from the underlying subtleties of awareness.

Therapeutic modalities talk about feeling our emotions and being more in touch with how we feel, which isn't a bad starting point. But what is being referred to here is a little bit different than just being connected to your emotions and feeling energised. This is more like being friends with the most pronounced negativity. It is like allowing yourself to be the emotions in such an all encompassing and relaxed way that you realise they aren't a problem at all. You might even begin to enjoy strong emotions, or learn from them, instead of merely being aware of it as a feeling about something out there in the world or about ourself. From this perspective, the emotional energies are actually nothing other than the spacious, bright nature of awareness....but we don't see them that way as confused humans.

In many ways of working, it is considered a good first step to get very close to the physical effects of emotions in the body. That sort of instruction is found in all sorts of different traditions, but here it is worth noting that the same instruction can have different effects depending on the broader context of their application. For example, if you get very concentrated on the feeling of emotions in the body, you might be subtly cutting off from the world, or ignoring other important effects, such as how we see the world, or how those body sensations change how we interact with other people. The devil is in the detail, or there lack of.

To expand on this point; one way of working with emotions in the Vajryana is connected to the principle of offering. This involves a whole way of talking which is very different from simply feeling emotions in the body. I'm not saying that people have to do offering practices — for a whole plethora of reasons — but I'm trying to draw attention to some of the ways that how we present the dharma back to ourselves, and how we understand the goals of practices, can have a significant impact on what those practices do. Some basic instruction to 'feel the emotions in the body' could turn out very differently if we are a) noting the feelings to get insight int impermanence, b) appreciating and offering the aesthetic power of emotions, c) feeling the emotions in order to become aware of traumas in a therapeutic sense d) using the energy of emotions to massage the 'subtle body') contacting emotions in order to build up a sense of enjoyment, f) invoke emotional qualities to change our perception of things .....the list could probably go on for while. The point is that there are many ways of working, and the growing trend to push all of this into the vague category of 'feeling emotions' or 'somatic work', is probably not very helpful.

Another point I'd like to address briefly, is that this goes beyond cheap tricks and techniques. This isn't about learning some theory and trying to make it work. It is no good simply saying that we can leave emotions as they are and let them self-liberate. That is very inspiring and so on, but if you don't perceive them that way, then you're going to need a method for learning to see in that way. For that, you need good guidance. Books simply do not cut it. You have to connect to your experience in a very alive way, with the guidance of someone who can transmit a wholly different way of being. With a spirit of discovery and playfulness, and a suitable guide, you might uncover a tremendously inspiring vision of life, and find that even in the darkest of emotions, you can connect to a quality of openness and love; which simply put, is much more fun than trying to react non-emotionally.


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