Tonight is the seventh in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from each chapter of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. Chapter seven is titled “Freedom from Troubled Emotions” and discusses difficult mental states, a component of the Buddha’s Third Foundation of Mindfulness. The chapter begins with a quotation from Deena Metzger, a writer and healer:
Give me everything mangled and bruised,
and I will make a light of it to make you weep,
and we will have rain, and we will begin again.
As Jack says, “Freedom does not mean fighting against or suppressing troubled emotions. That would be another form of tyranny.” To be free, we must first become conscious of our emotions and then learn to work with them wisely.
Reflect upon how your mood is today, amidst the joys and sorrows of your life. Are you feeling trapped, defeated and sad? Or are you feeling free, confidant and content? We often wait for our circumstances to change before our mood shifts and lifts. We have the capacity to transcend difficult situations at home, at work, or within the body, because our spirit is essentially free.
Jack points to modern psychology’s catalog of 300 mental disorders. But 2600 years ago, the Buddha recognized that the “three poisons” of greed, hatred and delusion pollute the mind. Throughout history, all around the world, people are affected by powerful emotions.
The first step in working with these difficult energies is to see them clearly. I have a friend who is an alcoholic. He is reluctant to face his addiction, which causes him to mess up or to postpone his work as a house painter. Occasionally, when he runs out of money and excuses, he goes to a rehabilitation clinic for short periods of time, but soon afterwards he returns to drinking alcohol. Witnessing his struggles saddens me.
Long ago, I realized that all human beings have some form of addiction, which can range from distracting to completely consuming. Western culture seems to have a collective addiction to cell phones and to listening to news about politics and society. On retreat and in psychotherapy, I have reflected upon my own addictions to work and to perfectionism, and I have made progress in lightening up my life.
When we are unconsciously caught in uncomfortable states of judgment, anger, rigidity and prejudice, we tend to blame others instead of examining our own insecurity and vulnerability. James Baldwin writes, “One of the reasons people cling to their hate and prejudice so stubbornly is that they sense once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.”
After developing self-awareness through the challenging task of inner investigation, we learn to bear our measure of pain and to accept life’s inevitable insecurities and limitations, without seeing others as their cause. Then we can laugh at P.J. O’Rourke’s satire: “One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding someone to blame [for] your troubles. When you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his [or her] picture turns up on your driver’s license.”
If we use mindfulness to fully recognize fear, anger, desire or loneliness, these emotions become workable. Sufi poet Hafiz cautions, “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut more deeply. Let it season you as few ingredients can.”
Until you learn to bear loneliness, boredom and anxiety, you tend to run away and to turn to distractions like raiding the refrigerator or surfing the Internet to avoid being with yourself. With loving awareness, you can endure and come to value loneliness and aloneness, which can teach you about your longings and about what you have been neglecting, leading to greater freedom.
Decades ago, in the aftermath of a painful divorce from my first husband, I decided to deepen my daily meditation practice by attending a retreat. In Noble Silence, I sat with tears of grief and exhaustion, discovering that I felt at home with the truth of my own emotions, no matter how difficult.
Freedom grows by turning awareness towards our full range of emotions. When he was in great physical pain, dying of cancer, Zen teacher Myogen Steve Stucky told his friends and students, “I’ve found relief from suffering not by turning away but by turning toward what is most difficult.”
Jack openly admits that his most challenging emotion was anger, which he associated fearfully with memories of his father’s violent outbursts. Through intensive meditation and therapy, Jack learned to recognize and tolerate the fiery energy of anger within, seeing that he could feel rage fully without acting violently. As he began to understand anger, he transformed its warmth into caring for himself and others. With compassion, he perceived the frustration, hurt and fear that had resulted in his father’s unskillful behavior.
At that point, Jack could channel angry outrage into advocating for peace and justice. Ancient Greeks called anger a “noble” emotion because it provides strength to stand up for what we care about most.
Freedom arrives when we recognize waves of emotions without identifying with them, staying present with an observing mind, while avoiding being caught up in dramatic stories that the mind creates.
Wanting to free himself from fear, the Buddha contemplated, “How would it be if, at the dark of the moon, I were to enter the most frightening places, near tombs and in the thick of the forest, that I might come to understand fear and terror. And being resolved to dispel the hold of fear, I did so, and remained facing that fear and terror until I was free of its hold upon me.”
We exhaust ourselves by believing that our worry and fear are real. Hafiz wrote, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. Id’ like to see you in better living conditions.” If we pause and observe carefully, we notice that fear is made of thoughts that we can witness as if they were anxious children. When we face our demons of fear, anger, boredom, shame, judgment or jealousy, they lose their power. We no longer believe their story lines and accept them simply as human feelings.
All of us have troubling emotions and shadows. The combination of awareness and compassion help us loosen their grip. The more we release fear, the more trust and love grow. Resting in loving awareness, we become more spacious, and unhealthy mental state begin to lose their power. We see that we are not our fear, our grasping, our anger, or our confusion.
As we learn to tolerate painful feelings without expending energy to judge or push them away, we create space for compassion and forgiveness to enter the body and mind. Well-being and equanimity grows when we realize that freedom is our true home.
Practicing Troubled Emotions (adapted from page 130)
Now close your eyes and sit quietly in a comfortable position.
Visualize or recall a difficult situation.
Notice any troubled emotions that are arising.
Reflect upon how they may worsen your problems.
Breathe and let the emotions be just as they are.
Remember that fear, frustration, anxiety, worry, anger, and rage are all natural parts of human experience.
Turn towards whatever emotions you notice, sensing how they manifest in your body, your heart, and your mind.
With loving awareness, simply acknowledge, “Fear feels like this,” or “Frustration feels like this,” or “Pain feels like this.” By naming each emotion, you become a mindful witness.
Now focus on one of the difficult emotions. Name it.
Notice where it is located in your body and any associated sensations.
Invite the emotion to become stronger, to expand and increase.
Sense yourself making space for it to grow as big as it wants.
Let it open up and fill your whole body. Free the energy to move.
Now imagine it expanding to fill the room… the space outside… and the vast sky.
As the emotion expands, notice what happens to it.
Perhaps at first it intensifies and grows stronger, but often it becomes softer, and its energy opens up to other experiences.
Sometimes it begins to feel less personal.
It becomes simply the energy of that particular emotion moving through you.
As the emotion expands and softens, another strong emotion may arise in its place. Anger can make way for hurt or sadness—and loneliness to worry or to tenderness.
As the energy grows more universal, it might even open to an opposite emotion.
No longer reactive or swept away, you are a present and gracious witness as waves of emotions rise and fall. Trust this process. It is healing and liberating to the heart.