Releasing Emotional Reactions
Teachings | Basics, Training, Awareness
Working with painful or difficult emotions is something everyone encounters in practice. This series explores ways to let go of reactions associated with powerful emotions so you don’t have to repress them or express them in the world..

Opening talk of retreat Download

Aim of the retreat, overview of content including levels of practice and meditation methods, initial instruction.



Ken: The subject matter of the retreat is releasing emotional reactions.

Now, Nasrudin wanted to steal some fruit from a stall. Everybody here knows that Nasrudin is my favorite Buddhist teacher, I take it.

Nasrudin wanted to steal some fruit from a stall, but the stall holder had a fox which kept watch. He overheard the man say to his fox, “Foxes are craftier than dogs, and I want you to guard the stall with cunning. There are always thieves about. When you see anyone doing anything ask yourself why he is doing it and whether it be related to the security of the stall.”

When the man had gone away, the fox came to the front of the stall and looked at Nasrudin lurking on the lawn opposite. Nasrudin at once laid down and closed his eyes. The fox thought, “Sleeping is not doing anything.” As he watched Nasrudin, he too began to feel tired. He lay down and went to sleep. Then Nasrudin crept past him and stole some fruit.

Ken: Okay. How many of you have experienced Nasrudin stealing some fruit? How many of you have gone to sleep because you thought your emotional reactions weren’t doing anything? And then you wake up and you find that they’re in full swing? That’s maybe one of the things that this story’s about.

We react emotionally to things, or the emotional reactions take us over, because we regard the emotions as something real, something solid. We believe them; they are a fact; they define the world. So when something happens with our spouse, we get angry. The emotion is saying, “This person is your enemy” and we believe it and react accordingly. We have this kind of thing all over the place. The point here is that we react because we fall out of knowing our experience. We fall out of really knowing what is happening. Now the knowing that I’m talking about, is not like “Yeah I understand, I understand, I know what you’re talking about.” That’s a conceptional thing. The knowing that I’m talking about is being in the experience and awake at the same time. When we make that effort, life becomes much, much richer, but it also appears to be much more inconvenient because we’re experiencing everything, including all of the uncomfortable feelings that we ordinarily try to avoid and which actually trip us into emotional reaction.

Ken: So the purpose of our retreat is to develop an increased capacity to know our experience. When you know experience completely, then what arises as emotion is an experience. And you can know it completely. And the nature of experience is that it releases when it is experienced completely. And you’ve all had that experience, some of you’ve had it in your meditation, but all of us have had it in our lives. That is, there will be some irritation that we’re feeling, or maybe some joy, or love, or affection, or feeling of accomplishment or something like that. And there’s this edge and tension or frustration, but when circumstances arise and we can actually just go, “Yeah, this is what I’m feeling.” It’s like “ahhhh,” and then it dissipates. It releases.

Ken: And if you look at it in possibly a slightly overly simplistic way but, what is the function of a feeling? What does a feeling live for? It lives to be felt. So whenever we’re avoiding feeling what’s arising, we’re actually introducing an imbalance into our world of experience. Because there are things that are arising which we are not letting ourselves experience, and they keep knocking at the door. And they can be quite persistent and the more that we push them away, the more circuitous and devious they become in trying to get attention. So, what we’re doing in this retreat, is actually learning how just to give them attention.

Ken: We are going to work with three different techniques. The first technique is based on one of the fundamental sutras in Buddhism, in Sanskrit or Pali, it’s called the Anapanasati Sutra. Which basically translates to the Full Awareness of Breathing. And it’s a technique which I learned from my colleague and friend, Yvonne Rand, who in turn learned it from Thich Naht Hahn. And it’s his adaptation of the Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra. Very simple, very profound and very helpful for many people.

That’s Thursday. On Friday, we’ll work with another technique which many of you are familiar with, and that’s the practice of taking and sending which is a Mahayana technique based on compassion but works very much in the vein that I am talking about. About creating the condition so that we can experience what is arising completely.

And then on Saturday, we’ll work with the practice which is derived from dzogchen, which is one of the advanced awareness practices in the Tibetan tradition. And again, it’s very much in the same vein.

Now, Thich Naht Hahn’s practice is a five-step practice, the dzogchen practice is a five-step practice, and so I’m going to be talking about the taking and sending as a five-step practice too. So you’re going to end up with three different approaches. And part of the reason for this is that there are many different levels of experience here and everybody’s different in their proclivities and my hope is that through learning each of these three techniques, you’ll have a number of tools in your pocket to be able to work with emotions, reactive emotions, in your daily life. My main intention in this retreat is for you to gain sufficient practical experience in each of these techniques so that you understand how they work. Not just intellectually, but experientially. That may seem like a lot to accomplish in one day for each, but I’m optimistic, and I’m pretty sure we can do that.

Ken: The key principle in all of this is whatever tool you’re using to experience things as completely as possible, and this does not mean to think about them. It means to rest in the actual experience. So tomorrow morning, when we get up to meditate, I want you to take the first session, and practice resting in experience. Now for many of you this is not new material, but for some of you this is. So I’m going to go over these instructions again, and I think that it’ll be helpful.

Ken: We sit. And there’s an old expression in Tibetan: Body on the cushion, mind in the body, relaxation in the mind. So, we start with the body, and you sit appropriately, the body in balance, the back straight, and the body, the skeletal frame being use to support the body, so there isn’t a lot of muscular tension. And it’s very good to start any meditation period by just resting in the body. Letting it settle, naturally. So you may shrug your shoulders, dissipating a little tension there, rock a little bit so you feel firm in your seat. And then just let the body find it’s resting in stillness. And then as you do that, you’ll naturally become aware of the breath, and just let the body breathe. Let the breath find its own rhythm. Don’t try to breathe in any particular way.

Now, as you do this, you may notice that there is tightness in this area, or maybe tightness in this area, or tightness in this area. And you think “Oh, I’ve got to get rid of that tightness so I can breathe more fully.” In the approach that we’re taking, I’m going to recommend that you don’t try to get rid of the tightness. That’s your first experience. Okay, just experience the tightness! Any tension in the body. Don’t try to get rid of it, just experience it.

And you will find that as you experience it, things shift and adjust in ways that you may or may not be familiar with. But they take care of themselves, for the most part. So now you’re resting in your body, and the body’s breathing. And now you rest in the experience of breathing. The usual meditation instruction, is, “Now watch the breath with your mind,” and that immediately introduces a separation. I’m here, breath’s there, I’m going to watch it. Rather than that, just be in the experience of breathing. Be aware of your body breathing, all the different aspects of your body that are involved in the breathing. Expansion, the contraction of the stomach, the rising and falling of the diaphragm, flow of air at the back of the throat, flow of breath through the nostrils, the sensation of temperature and so forth. Oh, and that’s just a few of the facets—there are many many more that you can discover for yourself. But don’t concentrate on the breath; just rest in the experience of breathing.

Now what happens of course is that a thought arises. And the next thing we know we’re thinking about our trip here, what we’re going to do after the retreat, or what we had for dinner two days ago, or what our boss said to us the other day, and how we’re going to get even with him finally this one more time, and so forth. And all kinds of stuff, and thoughts come up and we’re gone!

Ken: Saraha was an Indian master who wrote a number of songs expressing his understanding and realization, which have survived to this day. And they’ve been translated into English. But one of the verses runs roughly, Mind is like a bird on a ship in the middle of the ocean, a thought flies up and no matter how far away the bird flies from the ship, the bird has to come back to the ship.

So it doesn’t matter what thoughts arise. Sooner or later, that thought’s going to dissolve and you’re going to come back. And when you come back there’s going to be “Oh”, which is usually followed by, “You’re meant to be meditating. Now there you go, wandering again” and all that kind of chit chat. But there always comes a point where you just come back: “Oh!” And what I encourage you do to is when that happens, come back to your body. Come back to the breathing. Come back to resting in the experience of breathing. Don’t bother chastising yourself, that’s just more thought. Don’t even worry about whether you are doing it right or wrong. Come back to your body; come back to the breathing in the body; come back to resting in the experience of breathing. Body on the cushion, mind in the body, relaxation in the mind.

So you rest in the experience of breathing. And whenever you recognize that you’ve been distracted by whatever, say to yourself, “thought,” and come back to the experience of breathing, checking the body quickly, the breath, and then resting in the experience.

Ken: Now, that’s the meditation we’ll do tomorrow morning. And then the morning teaching period I’ll introduce the five-step process of working with emotional reactions and then you’ll have a chance to practice that, and talk about it in the interviews. And then in the afternoon, allow for some additional commentary and perspectives on it, and then continue with that practice in the evening, and the next day we’ll start another practice and so forth. So that’s what we’re going to do in the retreat.

Many of you have practices that you do regularly. What I suggest you do is you take one of the half hour practices and do that practice, so that you keep that practice going. You don’t disrupt or interrupt that practice, but the rest of the time you spend it on the subject matter on the meditations that we’re doing in the retreat. And with that, I’m happy to take up any questions.

Student: [unintelligible]

Ken: Talk to Alicia afterwards about that.

Student: [unintelligible]

Ken: I’ll take that up on Sunday.

Student: [unintelligible]

Ken: Thank you Robert, yes. Steve could you give me one of the chant booklets.

As far as chants and prayers, compared to the Tibetan tradition, we’re pretty minimalist here. One of the ones that we’ll be doing, which is on page five here. First is Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom and then it just runs through different aspects of the spiritual practice. And it acts as a reminder of important themes in the practice. So for instance, The ultimate foe, the lord of death, can come at any time, give me energy to live a life of no regret. Well, most of the time we’re just going through life as if we’d live forever. But it’s not true. Death can and does come to people unexpectedly. And we had a tragic, but very vivid example of that with the tsunami, where on the island of Aceh, tens of thousands of people, their lives were taken just like that. No warning whatsoever. Bang.

In our circumstances, we think “It can’t happen here,” but it can. And so, since we don’t know when we’re going to die the view is, it is important to live each moment completely. That’s how you live a life of no regret. By living each moment completely.

Ken: So that’s one function that the prayers serve, as support, reminders and inspiration. Another prayer that we will do is refuge prayer. Refuge is a metaphor for orienting life towards this principle of being awake. That’s what Buddha means, is awake. And when people asked, “What makes you special?”, he’d say, “I’m awake.” And it’s the Sanskrit for awake—awake from the sleep of ignorance, or from the projections of thoughts and emotions. And so it’s a reminder of what we’re doing. And the bodhicitta—awakening mind aspect—Through the goodness and generosity and other virtues may I awaken fully in order to help all beings, that’s a reminder of fundamental motivation, and that’s something that matures through practice. And then we use dedication prayers at the end, and prayers for the well being of others. Which is a way of arousing positive sentiments because experience has shown that when you arouse positive sentiments your mind actually becomes clear and more open. And that actually creates the conditions for meditation—for the cultivation of attention, as well as reducing the amount of suffering in the world. Is that clear?

Student: “I pray to you.” What does that mean?

Ken: Well, do you have that one? It’s going to mean different things for different people. For some people they may take that to mean the historical Buddha, and the way that we approach that, usually is that by honoring the historical Buddha, you are honoring the potential for that in oneself. So the prayer is actually acting like a mirror. Okay?

Other people are engaged in things like yidam practice, and so this is the particular expression of awakening mind that they’re forming a relationship with. For some people, you is their teacher, and so it’s a way of deepening that connection and drawing inspiration from it. For other people, you is the awakened mind itself. And they’re drawing inspiration from that. So, the you can mean very different things for different people depending on their experience, their understanding, and how they approach practice. Okay?

Student: Yidams and protectors…

Ken: Yes, what about them?

Student: How should we regard them?

Ken: Oh, that’s a topic for another day; we are not getting in to that here. We’re not working with those particular principles, and that’s a whole other topic, so I’ll take that up with you another time. Okay, any other questions? Yes, David.

David: [unintelligible]

Ken: Now the approach that I intend to give you here—it’s all in the book, but it’s not presented in this particular format. So you won’t find it. But if you’re familiar with Wake Up To Your Life, when you go through this, you’ll see and understand the correspondences. So no, there’s no help there.

Student: [unintelligible]

Ken: Yes. That’s right, there will be tests! Okay, any other questions? Yes, Gail.

Gail: This is a technical question. Three bells to start… [unintelligible]

Ken: Yep, you know the drill. Fine. Any other questions about the practice? Yes Debra?

Debra: [unintelligible]

Ken: I can’t remember what I said.

Debra: [unintelligible] You were talking about experiencing what arises completely. [unintelligible]

Ken: Sure, You ever been angry with someone and not told them? I don’t want to cast aspersions. Has any of this ever happened? Okay, what happens in the interaction? It leaks out, doesn’t it? Right. Like, you’re not telling them you are angry and you say, “Can you pass the butter”? [in an angry tone] “What do you want the butter for?” They say, “Why are you speaking to me in that tone of voice? [in an angry tone] ”Why are you asking me all these questions?“ Are you angry with me?” [in an angry voice] “NO!”

It leaks out. Now, imagine, there you are, and you’re fully in the experience of anger. You know—they’ve slighted you in some way—and it’s just all seething, and they say, “Can you pass the butter?” What happens?

Student: [unintelligible]

Yeah [laughter] That’s a good way of putting it. You don’t use the butter to express your anger. Yeah. And you may have opportunity for this in the retreat, but whether it’s attraction, desire, anger, pride, any of these negative, unpleasant emotional reactions, we actually experience them. Desire is trying to own something which isn’t yours to begin with. When you’re actually in the experience of the emotion, then you find…when you are really in it, knowing the experience, then you can find—not always, but more often than not—interact with the object, free of the emotional reaction. And that’s the purpose here. Okay? One more question if there is. Then we’ll close for the evening. No, everybody clear about tomorrow?

Student: [unintelligible]

Ken: Well, if you hear a sound, what people tend to focus on is the sound, and their reaction to the sound, and say, “Oh, this is disturbing, this is distracting, I don’t like this” etc., etc., etc. If they know the sound completely, then they know the silence in which the sound arises. And then that’s like the bird with the eggs. But it’s all about knowing the experience completely. And one of the ways I found helpful to people is to say, “When sounds arise and you think that they’re disturbing, continue to hear the silence that is always there.” For instance, when you look at the open sky, what do you see? You see everything that’s in it. When you look at a plane, what do you see? You just see the plane. You stop seeing the sky, because the awareness collapses down. And what we’re trying to do here is not collapse it down into that partial knowing. So if the gong sounds, and you’re just right in the experience of it, that’s going to work in exactly the same way. It’s coming at it from the other direction, but it’s going to work in the same way. But a lot of people are irritated by noise.

Sometimes at Mount Baldy, a Zen center, a hotel across the way, and every now and then—it’s a terrible hotel—and every now and again they hold weddings, and they have terrible rock bands at these weddings. So sometimes you’d be sitting in meditation and it’s a very narrow valley—and then you’ve got this terrible rock music. And people say, “How can you meditate in this?” Well, you’re right in the experience. And then you can actually find, being right in the experience of that, you find a silence within the sound. Which I think is what you are talking about. Am I right? You want to follow up? No? Okay, I just wanted to make sure.

Student: [unintelligible]

Ken: It’s not a case of being anti-gong.

Student: [unintelligible] If you always assume that you have to stay in the silence and can’t be with the gong as opposed to just allowing the gong to be there.

Ken: Well that was the point of the question cause this person was saying, “I liked to be in nature, and hated to be in malls”, that’s why I was going into all of that: to show that it actually was her reaction to those—not the experience itself—but the reaction to the experience. So yes, gongs, malls, nature….

Okay, for those of you—is everyone clear about the meditation practice for tomorrow morning? Are you? No? Joe, you are. Okay.

Then let’s head for bed. It’s twenty past nine, and get a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you in the morning. Those of you who are new and haven’t done qi gong, please stay with me. George, can you assist me with that and we’ll go through the qi gong together. If any of you want a refresher in the qi gong, you’re very welcome to stay. Otherwise, have a good night’s sleep. Pick up the chant booklets so you have them with you.