I know better, I really do.
Emotions are pretty interesting to look at from a Buddhist perspective. And when I can look at them from a Buddhist perspective, I find that perspective very helpful. But I am a poor practitioner who is mostly immune to the Dharma, so oftentimes I find that I get entangled in my emotions and tend to stay right there, like a kid who won’t get out of a mud puddle.
Today I am sad. I feel helpless. Overwhelmed by my many failures.
What’s doing this to me?
I know, at least, that there isn’t anything objectively wrong outside of me that is causing me to experience these emotional shitstorms. That’s a Buddhist perspective, and I think it’s correct, and even in the midst of my meltdown I can recognize that as true. Which is helpful. Beneficial.
So. Maybe not totally immune to the Dharma. Just mostly.
Still, knowing this doesn’t shift the mood very much. I am still profoundly sad. I still feel helpless and overwhelmed by my many failures. But I recognize that what’s at the root of this experience of sadness is a mistake in my view, not something wrong with what’s happening. I’m feeling sad because I believe on some level that the experience I’m having is unfair to me, that it isn’t meeting my own expectations of how I think things should be going. I want things to be one way, and they are not that way.
To be upset about this, and to imagine, to feel, that being upset about this will change something outside of me, seems crazy. Because, you know, it is.
This is the action of both grasping and aversion. Grasping at things as if they are real, as if they have a solid existence somewhere out there. And aversion, because not only do I think they are real and solid, I think they are bad in some way, they are something I don’t want, and I push them away. So, also there is the action of ignorance– I don’t understand the way things really are.
Grasping. Aversion. Ignorance.
These are the big three in Buddhist thought, the three big errors, the three factors that lead to suffering and keep us trapped in Samsara. Keep me trapped in Samsara. Where I’ve been my whole life, and many, many lifetimes before, and where I will remain unless I change those factors for good, really uproot them and break their hold on me.
So in this way, these experiences of deep sadness, grief, rage, anger, stupidity- they are actually very good teachers. I can be caught up in these emotional storms and be completely overwhelmed by them- they color my whole world, my whole experience of what it is to be alive- they are very, very compelling. And yet, they arise because I am fundamentally confused about the nature of reality. And since this error is so compelling, I really do know that I’m confused. I can’t remain in denial about it. I’m seriously fucked up.
So, this is a great place to be, actually. I get it. I’m confused. I’m acting out of grasping, aversion, and ignorance, and this leads very reliably to the suffering that I’m experiencing right now. It’s very vivid and clear to me, I’m not confused about that at all.
Which is fantastic, because it means that I can let go of my grasping, stop trying to push away what I don’t want, stop running from it, stop judging it according to my ignorant understanding, and try to figure out what’s really happening. It doesn’t mean that doing any of this is easy for me, but it is at least possible, because I’m no longer completely convinced that how I see things is how they really are. There’s some space around the edges of my delusion. A little crack in the façade where some light can get in.
Right now I’m sad about something and I feel totally overwhelmed, like I can’t fix it and never will be able to. Instead of examining the thing itself, I’m fixated on my reaction to it. The thing itself is neutral, right? It just is. So maybe I can give it a little space to be the thing that it is, and take a breath and not make up my mind about what that means for my ego. What my ego thinks it means for my ego, which seems to pretty much always think the same thing- “This is fucked! This is totally fucked, and it’s not happening- this is NOT happening, we have to change this, this isn’t fair, nobody understands me, I’m being unfairly accused of something, I did it, yeah, but it’s not like they say, they don’t understand what I really meant to do, blah, blah, blah…Oh crap am I sad.”
The facts are unfair. The situation is unfair. The feelings and thoughts of the other person are unfair. All of these factors need to change, right fucking now. Once they have changed, once they are aligned in a way that I don’t find uncomfortable and threatening, then I can be happy again.
This is not a very reliable path towards happiness.
And yet, it’s also not the right approach to try to deny that you feel the way you feel, to suppress the feelings because they are wrong and bad. This is just making the same mistake and turning it inward rather than outward- I’m bad, I’m wrong, I’m mean and selfish and stupid and I need to stop it!
Now I’m real, and important, and terrible, and must be stopped!
So, that won’t work either.
What’s a feller to do?
Well, the instructions are pretty straightforward. On the mundane level, you can kind of just recognize where you are, and that you’re in pain and suffering, not because you are bad or wrong or someone else is bad or wrong, but because you are still a little bit ignorant and confused about things. And you can try to open up your view a little bit so that you’re not only focused completely on yourself and your own suffering, but you can see that everyone else suffers in the same way that you are suffering right now. And this can open and soften your heart, it can be the beginning of Bodhichitta, and you can have the aspiration that since you’re experiencing all of this sharp pain and suffering right now, maybe that can alleviate some of the suffering of others. You ask to take on all of that suffering so that others don’t have to experience it at all.
And you can let go of your attachment to the fantasy you have about how you wish things were. And you can sit in stillness and silence and try to relate to how things really are. Try to see the other person as just as confused as you are, and don’t focus on getting them to change- focus on seeing their suffering as just the same as yours, and see if your heart softens just a little bit.
And on the ultimate level, recognize your own nature and the nature of all phenomenon as non-dual. There isn’t any you or them, no inside or outside that has any real, solid existence. Not really. There is just awareness and manifestation continually unfolding in the limitless present moment. This can be a tall order, recognizing this, so if you can’t, just let it be.
Of course, I am writing this for myself. But I hope it might be of benefit to you today, whoever you are.