Difficult Feelings In a Changing World
Writings | Life

I’ve spoken to more than a few people who say that the results of the election have brought up difficult feelings of a kind they have not encountered before. That’s understandable. It’s not every day that we experience the world we have known crumbling and collapsing around us.

After the election, it became very clear that here, in one of the more progressive counties of one of the more progressive states in the US, I am living in a bubble. In fact, if we step back a bit, we can see that many of us have lived in a series of both nested and overlapping bubbles and they are all popping. Here are a few I’ve been able to identify. Anyone care to add to the list?

  • the bubble of Anglo-American domination of the globe (several hundred years) with China and India poised to resume their historical dominance
  • the Age of Enlightenment bubble (300 years, and it was a good run),
  • the bubble of growth based on technological innovation (basically, we’ve been riding on the innovations of the last 100 years)
  • the bubble of liberalism in the US that was capitalism’s defense against the threat of communism (granted, that bubble popped in 1989, but the effects of unchecked capitalism are really being felt now)
  • the bubble of affluence in the US that followed WW2 that left the US as the only country with an intact industrial base
  • the bubble of environmental and climate security (human predations on both have now reached the critical point, though some would argue that we reached the critical point some time ago)
  • the bubble of the assumed inevitability and stability of democracy (markers for the strength in democracy are dropping in all industrialized nations)

Yes, the world we have known is changing in very fundamental ways and those changes do evoke unsettling feelings.

Practice tip: working with difficult feelings

For me, the real value of Buddhist practice is that, whatever I may be experiencing, however difficult or painful, it gives me a way of touching the peace, freedom, clarity, presence — whatever you want to call it — that is the essence of our being human.

At this point in my life, I feel very fortunate. It wasn’t always this way, but here in Northern California I have a good home, my health is good, and I have the time to focus on what matters to me. Pretty well every day, feelings of gratitude and appreciation well up. How long this phase of life will last, I don’t know, but I’m making use of it to work on my next book, on vajrayana.

Even though everything is good, from time to time difficult feelings arise — unprompted and unbidden. I could attribute them to various frustrations and inconveniences in my life, and probably would have at another stage of life. But I like to think I know better now, and I suspect that these eruptions have more to do with work on this book, which is presenting a set of challenges I have not faced before.

Be that as it may, the genesis of the feelings is often not all that important. While understanding where certain feelings come from can and does help in some cases, we are still left with the not so small matter of meeting them when they do arise, whatever their provenance.

How to meet them, how to experience them, without blocking them or being consumed by them? When I block, suppress or repress feelings, it’s as if I’m cutting out a part of my own being. At best it’s a short term solution. The feelings usually comes back with a power and seeming vengeance all their own, and they tend to cause rather more havoc second time around. On the other hand, when I’m consumed by a feeling, I lose touch with the world around me and everything I say, do or feel is based on the world projected by that feeling and not the world that I actually inhabit.

My usual approach these days is to rely on the methods of mahamudra and dzogchen. I sit and do nothing — whatever I’m feeling, whatever is happening in my body or in the world around me. I wouldn’t even say that I sit in awareness, though some may choose to use such a phrase. Basically, I just sit there. A pithy teaching from Mipam, one of the great 19th century teachers in Eastern Tibet, describes one way to just sit and do nothing.

In doing so, I am not waiting for the feelings to dissipate. Nor am I seeking to transform the feelings into their corresponding manifestations of awakening.

Traditional vajrayana teachings describe how anger is transformed into a mirror-like timeless awareness, pride is transformed into a timeless awareness of balance, etc. Many people misinterpret these descriptions of results as instructions and try to transform their emotions into experiences of timeless awareness.

If I’m waiting to let the feelings dissipate, I’m doing something. If I try to transform the feelings into something else, I am also trying to do something. No, I do nothing, to the extent that I am able. There is nothing outside me that can resolve these feelings. The often overlooked corollary is that there is nothing inside that can resolve them, either.

What I am left with is the feeling itself, naked, red and raw. It manifests in sensory sensations in my body, surges of emotion and, not infrequently, a Pandora’s box of stories, sayings, images, or scenarios. Such difficult feelings are usually connected with difficult bodily sensations: pain, tension, agitation, and other forms of discomfort. The stories, too, tend to be unpleasant, negative and catastrophic. Invariably, I am the hero of the story, or the victim, which is another way of being the hero. (In the stories generated by patterns to dissipate attention, one is always the hero or victim, a characteristic that makes it easy to identify that a pattern has taken over.) I am often caught by one or other of these movements in mind and I fall into confusion, which is kind of bad daydream. When I wake up, I come back to the naked raw feeling and return to doing nothing.

That’s all method, what to do.

And then something strange happens. This is result, what happens, not what you do. It doesn’t happen all the time, and it doesn’t happen according to any identifiable timetable. But it happens often enough and it happens consistently enough that I have come to trust it, even though I cannot say what “it” is.

A clarity and peace are present and manifest in the very midst of whatever turmoil I’m experiencing. Forget Parmenides’ law of the excluded middle. It is a cognitive construct and it doesn’t apply to this kind of experience. The feelings, along with their body sensations and cognitive ravings, are still present and at the same time there is an absolute complete peace and clarity.

The blue expanse of the sky
does not obstruct
the floating white cloud.

The floating white cloud
does not obstruct
the blue expanse of the sky.

The thoughts, feelings and sensations do not disturb the peace. They do not dim the clarity. And the peace and clarity do not block the thoughts and feeling and physical sensations. And as long as the clarity is there, they do not take over, either.

Back to method. Sometimes, however, the turmoil of what is arising in me is just too intense. I am just not able to sit and do nothing. At such times, I turn to an old friend, taking and sending. We’ve known each other for many, many years now, so the practice comes easily. Whatever turmoil I’m experiencing, I take it in, taking it away from all beings. Every time I breath in, I take the noisome, boiling, toxic black brew in through my right nostril and into my heart and adding it to the pain, fear and turmoil I am already experiencing. And every time I breath out, I send out the good fortune I experience in my life today, my home, my health, my friends, the support I receive from many different sources, along with all the understanding, compassion, patience, joy, and peace I have experienced in my life, in short, everything that I value and hold dear. All that goes out from my heart through my left nostril, filling the world with the magical silvery light of a full moon in a clear sky, bringing peace and joy to all who are touched by it.

It doesn’t help with the feelings. They still rage. Taking and sending practice isn’t meant to make the feelings go away. It isn’t meant make me to feel better. Any effort to use taking and sending that way is exactly the kind of subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation of experience that Chekawa Yeshe Dorje warned against when he wrote, “Don’t make practice a sham.” It’s also the same kind of manipulation that Kongtrül the Great denounced in his commentary on the practice of Chö.

In the case of taking and sending, the instruction is quite clear. Again, from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, “When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants/Make adversity the path of awakening.” This instruction doesn’t mean working to remake the world in such a way that I feel good. It means that by engaging this exchange, by using it to experience deeply whatever is arising, I may discover an awakening, a peace, a clarity — again, whatever you want to call it — in the experience of the adversity itself. In the process, those difficulty feelings may change. They may dissipate, they may transform or something else may happen. None of that is my business. My business is very simple: experience what is arising and experience it as completely as possible without getting lost in it.

Do I do anything to address the adversity? Well, as long as the reactive patterns are running, it’s generally better not to. If, in the process of practice, my relationship with the emotional reactions shift, that I’ll be able to see more clearly what can or cannot be done. But I have learned that if I sit down with the intention of “working through these feelings,” then I am doing something — I am trying to control my experience and the feelings just laugh at me.

This is not a process I control. On more than one occasion, what seemed to be a relatively innocuous feeling has proven to be remarkably persistent. “Oh, I can deal with this, no problem!” I think, but there it is, quietly (or not so quietly) impervious to every effort I make. That is how I discover how I am trying to manipulate or control my experience once again. And it is how I discovered, and continue to discover, the importance of yet another mind training instruction: give up any hope for results.

This instruction is important enough in mahayana mind training as it helps to mitigate the subtle attempts to manipulate and control experience. In mahamudra and dzogchen, it is even more important. In A Trackless Path, the whole first section of Jigmé Lingpa’s Revelations of Ever Present Good is about how practice goes astray when we have fixed ideas about what the results should be and try to control what arises to conform to those ideas. In fact, any effort to control our experience reflects a lack of faith and confidence in what Suzuki Roshi calls our fundamental nature, in what it is to be human. Suzuki Roshi is not postulating that we have a fundamental nature (a misinterpretation that philosophers, particularly ontologists, are prone to). He is describing a certain attitude to practice, an attitude of just letting things be, of just letting things sort themselves out, without any attempt to control, much less dictate, the process or the result.

Significant amounts of what are called Buddhist teachings are really descriptions of the results of years of practice by great masters in the past. As I’ve written before, time and again, people take these results and try to use them as methods of practice. It’s a bit like listening to a master musician describe how playing a piece of music moves her and then trying to duplicate the same experience on one’s own.

Get clear about the methods of practice, what efforts to make and how to make them. Grill your teacher on these points if you need to. Once you are clear about how to practice, that is, you understand how to do the practice and you have a taste, however fleeting of how it works, then practice without any concern for results. Realistically, you will probably end up letting go of your concern for results over and over again, as you would any other form of thinking.

Trust your own experience. Use your the methods of practice that work for you to plumb your experience to its depths so that you know for yourself, without any need for corroboration or reinforcement, that there is nothing that prevents you from being clear and awake and free right now, whatever is happening around you, whatever is arising in you.