I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me,
and my enquiry is as to their working,
and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval,
and my effort is their self-expression.
As I watch my cats go around their day, I sometimes catch myself wondering what it means to be human. I know how it feels, at least when I allow myself to feel. I have no way of knowing what it is like to be a cat but I surely appreciate th spectre of human emotions and how at one and the same time we can feel a whole host of emotions. Just remembering the other evening when I was lucky to get hold of a ticket to the performance by Beijing Dance Theatre at the tiny local venue, I re-live some of those feelings again. I cried through the whole first part (Luminous) that was choreographed by the Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg to the music of Bach. It was not only sadness I was feeling but also joy, admiration and gratitude, all at the same time. There is no way to squeeze that array of feelings into a single word. At some point I wondered whether I was that touched by the performance itself or by the intensity of my emotions and how vulnerable and human I felt. Was there a difference?
Whenever I experience strong emotions that I want to hide from, I tell myself, “This is what being human feels like”. It helps me to stay open even for the most difficult emotions and approach them with gentle curiosity. It started as a little role play in which I pretended to be an alien in a human body (yes!) who was sent on planet Earth to experience everything humans feel to later report to the others (I read about in some book and it immediately appealed to me). “So this is how pain of a loss feels like!”, and – open to feel with the whole being.
I believe the only way to become an integrated human being is through opening up to all emotions and accepting them as part of us. Each of them carries a message for us and the question is whether we are ready to recieve it and make use of it in our lives. The tricky part is to open the heart to the emotion (instead of just dismissing it as we can do with thoughts) without getting totally owerwhelmed by it and at the same time disconnect it from the story line and blame. For example how do I feel the pain of being let down when this happens without slipping into a victim and/or blaming mode? This is where I find the little alien-exercise to be invaluable: I am experiencing the emotion yet I also have the role of an observer that helps me not to identify with the emotion.
For a long while I thought of anger as a negative emotion but once I started seeing all emotions as messangers, I no longer needed the labels of “good” and “bad”. Today I heard someone say that we do not get rid of stuff, we simply learn to live with it. It might take a few lifetimes to heal the wounds I am carrying but they, too, are valuable aspects of myself and can help me connect with other people.
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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?
Some people on Fb commented that the quote was too simplistic and probably taken out of the context which seemed to be the case. In the end Dr Hanson himself left a clarifying comment:
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.
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Posted in Ango, emotions, sangha, tagged Ango, change, connection, Dogen, needs, resistance, sangha on April 4, 2010|
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Well, maybe the new way will not be better. But it surely will be different. In retrospective I find that it is definitely worth trying: an external shift makes it easier to take a new perspective which is always enriching. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to learn something new about my own reactivity and resistance to change that I don’t approve of.
For a while I was at a loss: should I encourage my sangha-friend to open up to this change and at least give this new way a try? I noticed how my thoughts went in different directions almost simultaneously: one side of me was concerned with my self-image (how will this influence how others see me?); another side was glad the person spoke up; yet another one wished he had said something in the line of “I feel uncomfortable and disconnected from the sangha by splitting into groups for the discussion but I am willing to give it a try”. A friend and sangha-member helped me out by voicing the need she sensed coming from the person, that of connection, which I heard in the beginning but lost when it did not make sense to me (splitting into groups is not the same as splitting the sangha!)
Suddenly I felt the tiredness of the last few weeks coming down on me. I saw the person next to me, also quite tired and obviously very uncomfortable. I backed off, invited everyone to rejoin the circle and do it the way we used to do. I felt relieved as the peace in the room was restored and we could finally turn to the poem which, incidentally, was about impermanence and not clinging to the solid picture of the world we carry with us.
During the discussion one person said that he thought we did not have to be shaped only by “some immense storm” but in fact could allow every little thing influence us. Back then that comment didn’t strike a chord with me but as I am writing this I can see how our everyday lives here in the West are not that stormy but still consist of countless situations in which we can allow ourselves to get softer, let go of holding on to the ways we are comfortable with for the moment. A sensitive soul can feel the touch of a breeze…
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