Engaging Reactive Emotions Download
Major traditional metaphors in Buddhism include war and farming; sometimes more useful metaphors are space, weather and evolution; courage and faith needed to engage reactive emotions with loving-kindness; combining tenderness and effort.
Monday August 9th, A Trackless Path II, morning session.
This morning I thought it might be helpful to talk about metaphors. This evening I’m going to take a detailed look at the first part of the Ganges Mahamudra, which is on page 19. INSERT And the first thing that Tilopa says here is,
Mahamudra cannot be taught, and then he goes and talks about space for a while. And if you turn to the Wisdom Experience of Ever-Present Good on page 26, the first verse of that is,
Mind itself is utterly without root, like space.
Just as space does not refer to the nature of space,
Nor can awareness be pointed out by examples.
Yet I use such methods to explain the key points.
So, both of these teachers, Jigme Lingpa and Tilopa, are talking about something very, very subtle, the nature of knowing and the experience of knowing and there’s nothing to point to. And they know that there’s nothing to point to. And so they use a metaphor in order to be able to talk about it. And we find in the teachings of Buddhism there are two metaphors which come up again and again, which are quite understandable given the origins of Buddhism. And they are the metaphor of war and the metaphor of farming.
Student: I’m sorry?
Ken: Farming. You know, growing things. [Laughter] You know, you plow the field, and you plant seeds, [laughter] and you weed, and you provide water, and you see it’s the metaphor of farming.
And there’s the metaphor of war and this is very, very deep within Buddhism. One of the early formulations of level of spiritual attainment was arhat, which literally means the foe destroyer. You know, and even though it’s not quite accurate, the term bodhisattva, which means awakening being is sometimes translated awakening warrior because you have sem pa in Tibetan which means courageous mind. So the warrior metaphor, the war metaphor runs all through this. And we found this even in Tokmé Zongpo’s Thirty Seven Practices, where he’s talking about,
Crush the opponents of reactive emotions, and things like that. And we find the same thing in Jamgon Kongtrul’s commentary on The Seven Points of Mind Training, you know,
When you encounter reactive emotions round them up, crush them, flatten them. You know it is really violent imagery. And you come across, you know, weapons. They don’t talk about tools, they talk about weapons.
Now every culture uses metaphors that come out of their own lives, and in India at that stage, particularly in the era which Buddhism started, it was primarily an agricultural culture. The merchant class was in the process of forming. There were a number of more or less like a sort of expanded city-states, you know, controlling large areas around the cities, and there was a great deal of conflict. It’s somewhat comparable to China at this point because you had this vast flat plain, the Ganges Plain, and you had all these people staking out territory and jockeying with each other. And there was a lot of warfare. I mean armies would move back and forth, and beat each other up and of course the peasants were always the ones who got the worst of it. So this was a very present reality in people’s lives. And of course because it was primarily an agricultural society, everybody knew about growing things. You know even if you were a merchant you still knew about growing things because while you were off on your trading expedition, your wife and family were busy growing stuff in the backyard.
Well, the problem arises because we tend to take these metaphors literally. And every metaphor gives us a way of thinking which can be very, very illuminating, and very insightful, and very, very helpful. And at the same time it will eliminate or close off other ways of thinking, but ways of thinking, ways of approaching things that don’t fit that metaphor. So there’s always inclusion and exclusion.
Now, if I speak a little personally here, yeah I would read these texts and buy these metaphors and think, “Okay, really, push and break through things.” And you know in Tibet when you were meditating, when you really wanted to learn how to meditate, you put a butter lamp on top of your head, and you sat. And you just sat until the butter lamp burned out, which was several hours. That’s how some people trained. And I mentioned this to Kalu Rinpoche once, and he just laughed. He said, “Yeah, I can see you, Ken.” You know ten minutes later, “Ooohhh.” ’Cause it’s hot oil up there. So I didn’t try it. But that was what, you know, that was the picture you were presented. And I’m glad I didn’t try it because I probably wouldn’t have any hair. [Laughter]
And you come across this in the Zen tradition, where, you know, you just sit and it doesn’t matter what happens, you’re going to deal with it. And as I said earlier in this retreat, there’s a very definite tendency when you’re practicing that way, to harden against things, which I learned very slowly and very painfully was really counterproductive.
And so, very slowly—and we’re not talking about years here, we’re talking about decades—I came to understand the limitations of the war metaphor. And I’ve talked with a couple of you in individual conversations about this. If you go back to some remarks I made earlier in this retreat—well just let me step back so I can give a bit of context.
The metaphors that we currently find ourselves engaging, in this society—you know we carry on with some of the traditional metaphors—three I have found most useful are space, which we’ll talk about and is a very, very old metaphor in Buddhism; it’s very helpful. Weather, which actually is fairly closely related to space because you have the sky as the big example of space. And evolution. I found evolution a very, very helpful metaphor because it gives me a lot of different ways of relating to experience in ways which I have for the most part, found very helpful. And it’s actually fairly closely related to growing things, the farming metaphor.
Another metaphor that is gaining popularity, or is becoming more and more widespread is the computer. That the mind—or more generally, information processing—and so mind is talked about as, and the brain is talked about as, information processing devices. I have very, very deep reservations about this metaphor. I think it is problematic on a number of fronts, yet it is becoming increasingly popular and many people are flocking around it for various reasons. But I personally have very deep reservations about that, and so I don’t use that metaphor a lot.
And the war metaphor, I find quite problematic. And I want to make a distinction here. Conflict is an extremely useful way of thinking about things. But not really in terms of war. Conflict arises just in the natural growth of things and really understanding the nature of conflict can be very, very helpful for understanding processes that are taking place within ourselves or in our interactions with others.
War is a bit more problematic because the idea in war is annihilation of the opposition. I’m always reminded of a Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown and Lucy are walking along. And Lucy says, “The best defense is a good offense.” That’s the first frame. And the second frame is Charlie Brown looking at Lucy quizzically. And the third frame is “And the best offense is total annihilation of the opposition.” [Laughter]
Now the problem with this metaphor for practice. Earlier in this retreat I talked about how reactive patterns evolve from—well I can’t say this is how they do it. This is how I think about it. It’s a metaphor that I use—that reactive patterns are the product of an evolutionary process. Its genesis is when something arises in experience which we cannot take in. And so it becomes walled off. There’s fear associated with it, builds up layers and layers of mechanisms which deflect attention away from that unacceptable or unassimilable experience. And anything which resonates with that just sets all of those mechanisms going. And those mechanisms I refer to as reactive patterns.
That way of dealing with the situation made sense at the time. And basically that whole pattern was set up in us because it’s the only way that our system could figure out a response to that situation and survive.
So what reactive patterns know extremely well, really, really well—I shouldn’t say “know”—what they’re good at, because there isn’t any awareness in a reactive pattern—what they’re good at, they’re very, very finely-tuned mechanisms which are really good at surviving. I mean, they’re really good at it. They’re much better than you or me.
So if we approach a reactive pattern with the intention of getting rid of it what’s going to happen?
Student: [Unclear] war.
Ken: We’re gonna be in war. And who’s gonna win? It’s gonna win. Okay? And this is why I find the war metaphor not useful because it leads us to approach these things in a way which, in my own experience and you can listen to other teachers and other people who’ve practiced this. They may have other ways. But in my own experience, it’s always self-defeating.
Now Thich Nhat Hanh completely avoids the war metaphor. And he knows a lot about war. And that may have something to do with it. But he avoids the war metaphor completely. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him or read anywhere where he has engaged that metaphor.
And in a couple of exchanges in here with Jeff last night and with Christy earlier in the retreat, I proposed this idea of meeting the reactive pattern whether it’s meanness or anger or—and it could be any of the others—with loving-kindness. You know, opening and welcoming it.
Now, for us this feels very dangerous, feels very frightening because we know we have this pattern in us. And we know the damage that it can do. And the idea of just opening our arms to it is like, “Agh. I’m not going to be able to control it! Bad things are going to happen.” And so we can be quite hesitant about this. And there’s another reason that we’re hesitant to do this, we don’t know what we’re going to experience. And often there’s an intuition, “I’m going to experience stuff that I really don’t want to experience.” And that’s probably true. Why? Because when you open to that then there’s a possibility you’re going to experience what has been locked up for all these many long years. And that’s where courage and faith become very, very important in practice.
So rather than make war on these parts of ourselves, cultivate the ability to meet these parts of ourselves. And that there are many other metaphors that one can bring in here. One that Thich Nhat Hanh uses and also comes out of some twentieth century psychological thinking is the metaphor of a very upset child. And there’s actually a lot of accuracy in that metaphor. And many of you have heard me say this. The effort in practice is to hold in attention what is arising. But to do it very gently or tenderly. And so the image is of holding a very, very upset child. And it’s a demanding way of practice because there has to be a certain strength and firmness ’cause you actually got to provide support. But there can’t be any force or pressure because otherwise the child just gets more upset.
Gary: Ken, I was wondering how much patience has to do also with this process?
Ken: Hugely. It’s a very important point. Yes. Because—and this is where the evolutionary metaphor comes into play—you don’t get to control how things open or release.
T. S. Eliot says in Four Quartets at one point,
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business So you make the effort. And the result comes or doesn’t come on its own timetable. And you hear Tilopa—he says it actually pretty clearly, you have to admit:
Ambition clouds your clarity. Do not think about anything. Let all ambition drop. That’s fairly unambiguous [laughs].
And I should have said there’s one other metaphor which I’ve also found very useful. And in a certain sense this comes out of Gendlin’s work on focusing. But I don’t think he originated it. He may have been the first to write about it.
Student: What’s the name again?
Ken: Gendlin. G-e-n-d-l-i-n. And I can’t remember the other person, one of his students who—
Student: Ann Weiser Cornell.
Ken: Thank you. And she wrote a couple of books taking his work a bit further. And many of you have heard me say this but I think it bears repeating here, replace the word I with part of me. And so we shift from the metaphor of being an entity to the metaphor of being composed of numerous parts. I mean, Walt Whitman said this back in the nineteenth century,
I am multitudes. And there’s a song I can’t remember, I put it in an article but is by a rock group in the late ’90s or early twenty-first century. And the lyric is something to the effect of “I’m a thousand voices.”
When we think in terms of I, I think, okay, “I’m angry about this and I’m glad about this.” Or “I’m angry about this and I’m sad about this.” Or “I feel really good about this and I feel really bad about this.” And you end up in a conflict because there’s one entity and it’s got all of these different feelings. And you find yourself with this identity fighting against this identity but you’re still thinking of yourself as one person.
And many times in various workshops when this has come up I don’t know what to do because I feel this way about it some of the time and I feel that way about it some of the time. And I just have these conflicting feelings. That’s the internal experience of conflicting feelings.
If you replace that I with “Part of me feels upset about this, part of me feels very relieved,” the conflict immediately disappears. It just goes. And now there’s much more space for including more and more of our experience. So that I’ve also found very helpful. So when I’m sitting in meditation and it’s not going very well—and this happens quite frequently with me—I say, “Part of me wants to practice and part of me doesn’t.” Oh boy, is that ever true! You know, part of me can be patient with this and part of me just wants to get out of here. Wow.
But you can feel in that how I’m actually able to open to my experience.
Ken: And now you create the space in which all of these different parts of things, they can sort things out themselves. I don’t have to control it. I know that’s just anathema for some of you but you just grin and bear it, you know. And as we learn to let things sort themselves out inside us then that actually translates into being able to work with situations in creating very different ways of working with situations because we let things sort themselves out. And this moves very much in the direction of just providing conditions and not actually trying to make anything happen. And wonderful things happen as a consequence.
How many generations of cell division are there between the fertilized egg and a baby when it comes into the world? How many generations of cell division? How many think it’s more than a thousand? Yeah. It’s fifty.
Ken: Fifty generations of cell division over nine months.
Now there’s exponential growth in there. So you start off with one cell. It splits and the two cells are identical. Then it splits. And now there are four cells; they’re all identical. And then it splits again, now there are six cells. Now if you put those eight cells together, in the next generation something different has to happen. One cell—at least one cell usually more—has to be on the inside and the others are on the outside. It triggers different stuff. And this is where the fetus begins to evolve into being. And it reproduces the whole thing. You know, at first it becomes a fish and then it becomes a newt and then it becomes a shrimp or something. And then gradually, you know, it then becomes a frog. And you know, it just goes on and on and eventually becomes a human being.
But it recapitulates, you know, millions of years of evolution, you know. But here’s a very interesting thing. As the cells continue to divide some cells become heart cells and some cells become lung cells and some cells become brain cells and some cells become blood cells, you know. Is there any conflict?
Now if one’s group of cells decides they know what this whole thing is about and monopolize the resources, you got a pretty serious problem. And yeah, it’s cancer. That’s exactly what cancer is. This is my theory of leadership these days, it’s a cancer on our society. But that’s another whole discussion.
What happens is that all of the different things as they evolve are communicating with each other—a lot. And everything works out in balance. And in a very definite sense, that’s what we’re doing in meditation. We’re creating the space in which all of these parts can work out a balance and something can evolve. And what can evolve is a completely different way of experiencing the world and experiencing ourselves which has many grandiose names. The first grandiose name was non-self but that wasn’t sufficiently grandiose. So they came up with things like perfection of wisdom—that sounded better. But people weren’t satisfied with that so they came up with original purity, co-emergent pristine awareness—doesn’t that sound wonderful? You know and it goes on and on and on.
But all of these names refer to—not to entities—as Gampopa quotes Milarepa in [The] Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Whoever came up with the term pristine awareness was a numbskull because it creates this entity which people now grab onto. All of these names refer to a way of experiencing things. A way of experiencing which has this quality of freedom, openness, balance, clarity. I mean everything we’ve always heard about. And you hear we all have these abilities etc. It’s all in us. Yes, it’s possible. And what we’re doing in our practice is the way I like to look at it—I found helpful—is creating the conditions so that this can evolve in us. And that necessarily requires us to allow all of the different parts of us, even the parts we want to have nothing to do with, have to be part of this process. Otherwise it won’t be complete.
Okay, that’s all I have to say today.