The following quote was published yesterday on Dr Rick Hanson’s Budda’s Brain page on FaceBook:
“When negative material arises, bring to mind the positive emotions and perspectives that will be it’s antidote.” -Dr. Rick Hanson
By negative material I guess are meant difficult thoughts and emotions like anger or jealousy but I could not be sure. I was somewhat surprised by the comment as I saw it as an encouragement to replace the negative states with the positive ones. But is this not like changing the black shades for the pink ones when none of them show us what reality is like?
This is a very interesting thread, and really gets at the not-always-easy balance between Wise Mindfulness on the one hand, and Wise Effort on the other. Libby is right, the single sentence from my book that started this thread… needs to be understood in context.
I think there are three basic phases in personal growth, psychological healing, and spiritual practice: mindful presence with what arises, working with what arises, and replacing what arises. Or in six words: let be, let go, let in.
Often the first phase alone is enough. But sometimes it’s not, and the Buddha himself – a great proponent of the power of mindfulness! – encouraged people to be active in the mind to reduce the negative and increase the positive. The trick is to be active in these ways without falling into the pitfalls noted in several of your posts of aversion to “negative” states of mind or craving “positive ones.” That’s where insight, equanimity, and practice come in.
I was glad to find out that Dr Hanson was reading our comments and found the explanation helpful to some degree but Dr Hanson seems to see replacing what arises as an important step in the process (Dr Hanson also recorded for Sounds True “Meditations to change your brain “). He did not give a source of the quote so I could not verify it right away but from the way he used it in the English translation -” to be active in the mind to reduce the negative and increase the positive” – I can interpret it as “to be active in the mind so that it will lead to reducing the negative and increasing the positive” where being active in the mind – mindful – would by itself lead to the increase of the negative emotions as they would dissipate. I do not know whether the Buddha was actually advising us to replace emotions but from my own experience of being with emotions (negative as positive), if they are not fed by thoughts, they dissipate in the matter of half an hour. Of course, if I engage in the story connected to the anger I am feeling in the body, it will fuel new waves of anger or sadness or whatever it is I might feel averse to and bring more suffering.
But what if the same negative or difficult emotions will keep coming up for me on the cushion?
In in zazen we practice showing up in the world, moment after moment, whatever they can bring, including so-called negative material. We deal with feelings and emotions in the way we deal with thoughts: we watch them arise and pass without trying to either find a fix for them or judge them. I believe that whatever arises on the emotional level has a lot of valuable information to offer us and we can pay high price for shutting it out what our bodies try to communicate to us through emotions. If thoughts and stories we are playing in our mind are mental formations, feelings and emotions are quite real – my heart rate increases whenever I get angry and I feel a very tangible tension in different parts of the body like throat, chest, stomach.
Just sitting for days with a lot of internal material I bring onto the cushion and getting tenderized by zazen in itself is not going to help me deal with those internal issues that keep showing up and is to a large degree material of the unconscious. Zazen in and by itself does not help us heal our wounds and get us freed from the past that we unconsciously bring with us into present relationships with ourselves and others.
In episode 178 of Buddhist Geeks “Growing Up versus Waking Up” clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner John Welwood explains that meditation was designed for liberation and not for helping us work through our relational wounds. He offers a couple of examples from his practice in which his clients (long time meditators) benefited from turning towards their emotions and embodying them instead of simply trying to observe them or cultivating compassion to counteract hate and anger that kept coming up. (As I understand they did not do that on the cushion but rather on the sofa, that is in their therapy sessions using the material that came up during mediation as a starting point). Anger can be a natural response to opression. It might keep coming up until we confront it and as well as the fears and hurt behind it and meet them with an open heart. A few tools for dealing with emotions were developed by experienced practitioners Gerry Shishin Wick and Ilia Shinko Perez (I believe one of them or both were also interviewed by Vince on BGs).
The approach with opening the heart or as John Welwood puts it of us becoming more like the Buddhas and the Buddhas becoming more human and embodied, feeling – is far more appealing to me that actively re-wiring my brain so I can increase the positive. In an open heart the negative will have nothing to feed on.