Taking Emotion as the Path (Revised)

To enhance your Dharma practice, Tsoknyi Rinpoche requested that a series of short papers based on his retreat teachings. The Teachings section on the main web site also contains a library of previously published materials and chants.

The Vajrayana says we’re to take emotions as the path. This view is about not rejecting negative afflictions. But when anger (or another strong emotion arises), we experience it as something solid and quickly have a reaction based on it. Vajrayana and Dzogchen, however, teach that emotions are no more solid than any other phenomena. With anger, for example, we’re instructed to simply see its empty nature without rejecting, avoiding or transforming it. The spacious quality of mind dissolves anger and completely dissipates it. It ceases to be experienced as solid. Easier said then done! And then there’s an even more difficult approach to working with emotion that invites us to go along with the anger, bringing it to an extreme, to its peak. When the anger has reached its peak, emptiness, which lies behind it, is realized. But without proper training we can easily miss the mark, exploding into anger before it is purified by this method. What to do?

To start with, we need to develop an attitude that sees emotion not as the enemy, not as something to be abandoned and not as something with which to identify. Once we’ve established this neutral attitude we’re more able to bring the emotion into focus and do some “mental aikido” that moves with the emotion’s energy and not against it. By welcoming the emotion in this way, we’re bringing neutral attention to it, which relaxes the emotion and makes it more pliable. Through attention that doesn’t identify with the emotion, we are released from its dominance as its energy dissipates. By applying this method we’re beginning to take emotion as the path. Don’t confront, just welcome. But don’t stay with the emotion too long. If we engage too completely with an emotion, we’ll end up falling under its spell. We may theoretically understand this, but whether we can do it depends on how well we’ve developed our skill in mental aikido and how susceptible we are to particular emotions.

But where do these emotions come from? Emotions come from habitual patterns stored in the alaya. Sometimes emotions are not created from situations, but just pop up out of our alaya. Some emotions, particularly pure emotions, are not necessarily created by the mind, but when an emotion comes, it informs the mind. Some emotions are patterned into our physical system so that when the physical system is triggered emotions come up. Even during preliminary practice (ngondro), which is very physical, a lot of emotions can be triggered. Some people can cope with this situation well and some can’t take it, so preliminary practice can be a very emotionally challenging time. But no matter what emotions arise, taking emotion as the path requires skill because emotions are strongly experienced in the body’s chemistry, as well as the mind.

A prime example is fear. There are two kinds of fear. The first is a healthy fear, like when we’re walking and suddenly trip. Fear arises instantly, like a bad taste in our mouth. Until we become a rainbow body we need that fear. That fear is part of relative-truth wisdom. If we’re crossing a street and a car comes speeding at us, right along with the fear there’s an urge to do something to get out of the car’s path. Is it better to run back or go forward? Is standing still better so the driver can judge what needs to be done? Whatever we choose, we’re doing something to protect our physical body. If we’re already a rainbow body, there would be no fear and thinking, “Oh yeah–I’m really transparent, the car can just go through me, no problem,” would take care of the circumstance. But until we become transparent, we need this healthy fear.

Healthy fear is quite different from unhealthy fear, which is the buzz-fear, the deluded fear, the fear created by mental grasping. This is the fear we take as the Vajrayana path. But we encounter not only fear on the path; all strong emotions such as shame, longing, jealousy and anger will be encountered. These take hold of the body just as strongly as fear. For example, when we’re angry our hearts speed up, our faces become red, our temples may throb, our jaws, fists, throats and chests may tighten. All in all, we’re flooded, blinded by angry feelings and alert for action.

Like fear, there are two kinds of anger. One arises when we believe we’re right in the face of what we consider wrong. With it comes a lot of clarity and possibility for mirror-like wisdom to dissolve the anger in the emptiness of rigpa. However, if we are not careful with it, this can turn into a dangerous, righteous anger when taken to an extreme. There is another kind of anger that comes when we feel we’ve been wrong about something. It’s especially strong when we believe others also see us as wrong. It’s an anger based on feeling like a loser and is often mixed with shame. The negative mix of the two has the potential to make us quite aggressive. This self-blaming, often aggressive anger is more difficult to deal with because it has delusion connected to it and our clarity has been lost. It’s stickier than the pure anger and has two aspects that need to be dealt with, the emotional system that generates it and the mental understanding of it.

But before we can address either, we have to do something for our physical body to deal with the extreme agitation and chemical rush. Contrary to what you might expect, using Tibetan Buddhist body practices are generally not recommended. Most people have not been taught the right way to do these intense exercises and without that training the exercises won’t function correctly. Instead, it’s more important to do a simple body scan and then loosen up the knots with gentle practices such as yoga, qigong or easy physical exercise. Usually gentle nurturing of body and mind will open us up.

Once this begins to happen and we can stay in our physical body, it’s time to bring in the mental understanding needed to work with strong afflictive emotions. As long as clarity is mixed up with emotions in the body, there is a problem. So after we’ve loosened up the body, it’s easier to settle down and do some mantras, visualization and transformation practices. However, even then the strong chemical half-life of emotions will be experienced for awhile as sensations in the body. These sensations are often mistaken for the emotion itself. Don’t be confused by this; the strong emotion itself is no longer there. As long as ego is no longer grasping the emotion, the feeling can no longer become a karmic pattern. It’s just an uncomfortable, distracting sensation. It takes a little time for the body to clear the chemical flood, but the afflictive emotion is gone as soon as we let go of the ego-grasping.

It’s helpful to know how ego functions in our emotional life. Within all emotions there are the five poisons and within each and every poison there is one predominant element–the ego. Ego is the owner and promoter of emotions and very happy when we directly challenge it, for this acknowledges its powerful role in our lives. But by doing mental aikido with an emotion, relaxing the body, recognizing the bodily sensations’ chemical half-life and then moving into practice, we’re neither clinging to ego’s view of the emotion, nor directly challenging it. Practicing this way interrupts ego’s pattern of feeling so important, spiritual, and holy. We are simply dissipating the emotion’s solidity so we can look inward. When looking past ego and turning our attention inward, ego freaks out–it doesn’t know what to do. When the ego doesn’t know what to do, that’s the time to recognize rigpa, resting in timeless, self-arising awareness. When our body and mind are excited by emotion, it’s often difficult to rest the mind in rigpa without this mental aikido maneuver.

As skill with these techniques develops, ego is by-passed time and again, rendering emotions less distracting and disturbing. In this increasingly spacious and quiet atmosphere, stability of rigpa can mature. Once we have a stable rigpa practice, we can let go of these methods because rigpa is the best way of dealing with emotions. Just recognize rigpa, realize emptiness. That’s all. Any emotion can come. Simply re-recognize rigpa, realize emptiness and the emotion will naturally become purified. By realizing emptiness and resting in rigpa, we are dissolving the ego-clinging that gets hooked by the emotion. With no self to be hit by the emotion, there’s no need to reject the emotion. We’ll not be hooked by it. What we experience now is pure emotion without ego’s story or chemical reactivity. This is mirror-like wisdom, the opposite of reactive emotionality. When there is, for example, pure anger, it enhances the clarity of the mind and remains as rigpa clarity. And that is the quality of mirror-like wisdom that sees everything.

Always remember that our emotions are our emotions, whether we are skillfully managing them or not. They are our production. From the Mahayana or Vajrayana point of view, emotions are fine. But if we use them incorrectly, these emotions are harmful. We need to know how to welcome emotions. It doesn’t mean that we follow them into an obsessive mind state or unskillful action. That’s the samsaric way of welcoming. If we follow any emotion completely, there is no freedom, while skillfully taking emotions as the path brings liberation.

(copyright 2010 Pundarika Foundation)