Last week we talked about difficult emotions and how we often suppress them, turning ourselves into jailers. I read my article Emotions as Honored Guests that gives us a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, reminding us that we are in charge but we need to be good hosts.
The key to all of this is noticing. That’s the basis of insight meditation, this learning to become aware of our emotions, as well as the nature of our thoughts and of our physical sensations.
A strong emotion is rich with clues that we don’t want to waste. Experiencing a strong emotion, we are encouraged to pause and take a meditative moment to notice all that is going on. For example: Where in our body do we feel that strong emotion? What associative images or memories come to mind? We can look to see what triggered the strong emotion. Perhaps it was an odor, sight or sound that on its own seems neutral, but fueled by our associative memory, becomes powerful and disturbing. This is not a time to turn away and tell ourselves ‘Don’t be silly!’ or any other dismissive phrase.
As I suggested in the article, and as the poet Rumi suggested so long ago, we can be the welcoming host of any emotion that arrives at our door. But our main goal is to find out what the emotion has to tell us. So we are kind, caring and compassionate but we are also inquisitive.
The other day here at our house we had a visit from a Sherpa mountain guide! And I’ll tell you, we were welcoming but also intensely curious about Pasan, his life in Nepal, why he came here and how he’s finding it, etc. What an exciting surprise to have a visitor from a whole other world come in the form of a plumber! As we talked we were following the other plumber who was training Pasan on his new job and educating us about how to flush our tankless water heater. We didn’t expect such a memorable experience from a plumbing appointment, just as we don’t expect anything of real value to come from a run-in with a strong emotion. We think of it as one of life’s things to be gotten through.
Now usually I don’t ask personal questions of people who come to our house as part of their jobs, but Pasan offered up the first information, giving us the clue that he was quite willing to talk. That’s true with our strong emotions as well. In fact they are ‘talking’ already. But we need to listen, and to then ask questions that give us answers we can use. But many times the emotion stirs up other emotions of embarrassment or shame that try to shut that emotion up before it has a chance to tell us anything of value.
So how do you have a fruitful conversation with a strong emotion? The most important thing is to speak from your wisest inner self, your Buddha nature, and not from some other needy, demanding aspect that is perfectly happy to get into a shouting match, judging and condemning.
That’s why inquiry is best done after meditation to assure that we have given ourselves a chance to find that calm, loving voice within. Now if this sends you into a panic because you feel you haven’t found that voice, then let’s explore how to discern that wise inner voice from the rest of our cast of inner characters.
Our wise inner voice has certain distinctive qualities that you can notice if you are really paying attention. First, it is patient. It never makes demands, never uses the words ‘should’ or ‘must.’ It comes from a sense of timelessness, so there is no urgency. Its ease is somewhat disarming, putting all those things we thought were so important into perspective. It is the voice of life itself, aware of its intrinsic connection to all that is. From this vantage point we relax because we are aware we are life, not separate from it. There is nothing we could do or say that would expel us from the is-ness of being. But there is plenty we can do that can make us unaware of our connection, and through that lack of awareness we can do things that are incredibly unskillful, causing pain to ourselves, to those we come in contact with, and the earth itself.
But this wise inner voice, this Buddha nature, has no agenda except to remind us of our connection. So if we ask it, ‘What do you want me to know?’ it will first and foremost say, “I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.” Well, that’s a lot to know! Suddenly we don’t feel so needy. How much of what we fear and what we try to accomplish is in response to a feeling of being unloved and unlovable? How often are we simply trying to prove that we are deserving of a love that it turns out is already ours, without our having to do a thing?
Does this mean the wise inner voice is saying “Don’t bother!” about everything we are doing in our lives? Not necessarily. It depends on our intention. If we are trying to gain love and respect, then yes, don’t bother. If we are tapping into our innate capacity to love life in all its myriad expressions, then our inner wisdom heartily concurs.
Another question that is useful to ask is, ‘Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so tense? Why do I feel threatened? Why do I feel so bad about myself?’ These kinds of questions may bring answers from fear-based aspects, but with patience and careful listening, we will also hear that quiet still voice within answering our question either in words or images. Once in my 20’s I asked a ‘why’ question about an area of my life that felt especially dysfunctional, just out of despair, not knowing anything about this wise inner voice and not about to have a conversation with God as we hadn’t been on speaking terms in quite a while. And although no words arose, within the next few minutes as I sat there three powerful image memories rose up, and I sat and waited until I understood what those combined three memories were telling me. And they gave me a powerful answer to my question that I had assumed was unanswerable. The answer that came up changed my life and empowered me in a way that I could never have imagined. That was my first experience with understanding the power we have to inquire within and receive transformative answers.
This inner wisdom, this Buddha Nature, is not an aspect of us, the way all the other voices that create our thoughts and emotions are. We could instead think of ourselves as an aspect of it, as the temporal earthly life-experiencing sensors of this infinite wise loving energy. This is such a wonderful way to think of our interaction with life. Feeling this to be our role in life, we can easily access 'Beginner’s Mind.' Every sensation, every experience whether we judge it good or bad is still in this sense a gift of earthly life. When we come from that sense of wonder, that sense of oneness and connection, we are truly expressions of life loving itself. Whatever we do for each other from that place will be truly generous and kind.
If you have never noticed this inner wisdom, you might find inquiry to be your gateway as I did. You can also simply practice relaxing and being present, anchoring into all the senses that give us the opportunity to experience this gift of life.
Sometimes we only listen to wisdom that comes from outside ourselves because we don’t trust anything that comes from within. We may have very low self-esteem, and/or we may have been taught that to think that the answers come from within is turning ourselves into a god; that God is to be honored and set apart from our lowly selves and this mundane life. (Of course, if God created us doesn't that make us and all of life sacred? Isn't the profanity the unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of all God's creation, even the tight and twisted terrified places that most need awareness of God's infinite love? When we see ourselves as connected to God, as expressions of God, we are seeing God in all that is, not setting ourselves above. The personification of God as something apart from ourselves is a so pervasive that I have long since given up using the term, even though as you see, I can easily describe my understanding of God. I am not at odds with God. God and I are good. And Buddhist meditation and concepts are not at odds with God either. Believers from all faiths find that meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts enhance their understanding of their religion and deepens their faith.)
But whether we call this inner wisdom God or we call it the infinite energy of life loving itself, our resistance to trusting it comes from thinking that we could be the source of true wisdom. We still separate ourselves out, we still see ourselves as this amalgam of these whiny voices, our thoughts and emotions. But even if we hold that to be who we are, we can still access this inner wisdom. This inner access is like a well, but the well is not the source if the water, is it? The well is an access point to the water that travels under the ground. Through meditation and self-exploration we are bringing our attention to the existence of this well, this inner access to universal wisdom. Eventually we may see that the well is also a part of the infinite beingness of life, not separate, neither less nor more sacred.
When we deny the existence of inner access to wisdom, we are more receptive to it when offered up through outer sources: counselors, teachers, leaders, books, movies, magazines. So notice when something you see, hear or read resonates with its authenticity, clarity, compassion and feeling of calm. That’s your inner wisdom saying ‘Yes!’
If when you are watching or reading something, it’s activating the emotional inner aspects that are saying things like, “Yeah! The bastard deserved it!” or some such emotionally charged response, then by your viewing and reading habits you are giving your rowdier inner aspects confirmation that their world view is justified. The Buddha taught the importance of inclining the mind toward what is wholesome, so if you are activating anger, shame, revenge, etc. by your choice of entertainment, you are choosing to align with the rowdy aspects within, the ones that feed on fear and promote unskillful choices. But even in this setting, the wise inner voice is not the one that's saying, "This is terrible! This is bad for me! I've got to get out of here!" That's just another fear-based aspect.
When you sit quietly, listening in, noticing the various vociferous emotions spouting this thought and that, pay close attention to the quality of the voice. Is it urgent, demanding or caffeinated? Is it cynical, judgmental or hateful? Then it’s an aspect with a fear-based agenda that you will want to have a respectful inquiring conversation with. But if it is quiet, calm, loving, and offers love and when asked sincerely gives valuable guidance, without any sense of urgency, then you know that this is your deepest connected access. Whenever possible keep listening, keep asking in. You have found your teacher and your guiding light. Practice aligning with that wisdom, letting go of any sense of duality.
When you align with this inner wisdom you can then be the welcoming host to whatever guest emotion arrives at your door. Otherwise it is just a shouting match between two urgent aspects that both need to be heard and neither want to listen. Our inner wisdom is a great listener because it is the love of life itself.
So how does such a conversation with an inner aspect begin?
First we recognize an emotion that has come up. Naming it helps us to recognize it more quickly the next time it arises, and giving it a pet name not only locks it into our awareness but reminds us to be kind and respectful.
Once we have given it a name, we can greet this emotion as we would any guest who arrives at our door. Our emotions are so rarely acknowledged that this alone can meet needs.
What do we do next with any guest? We ask them to come in and sit down. This indicates that we want them to feel comfortable, and also that we have time for them. When it comes to a visiting emotion, our willingness to be present and to spend whatever amount of time is required needs to be clearly indicated. We physically sit down if we are not already seated. We turn off our cell phones and other distractions. We give this conversation whatever time is needed. This is another reason it is good to have these conversations following meditation where we have already set up a quiet zone for ourselves.
Then we can ask questions of our guest.
These questions need to be compassionate not accusatory. And the questions are better if they go deep to the achy source rather than encourage the emotion to get caught up in story. When I say story, I am talking about the experiential examples that such a voice will use to justify their existence. ‘I’m angry because she said this about that, or he did this and he’s evil, etc.’ This is all story and is just masking the core of this voice’s true concerns. Without being disrespectful, we can cut to the chase. Each time we are offered story, we can go deeper, we can take charge and the aspect will be grateful to surrender their suffering up.
‘What are you afraid of?’ is one of the most powerful questions we can ask. At the core of every negative emotion is fear. And the intention of every negative emotion is self-protection. We can see that their means of protecting us are unskillful and even unnecessary. Often they are trying to protect us from another part of ourselves that seems hell-bent on putting us in danger. For example we may have an aspect of self that seek external approval so doggedly that another aspect of self arises to undermine its efforts.
This has happened to me many times in my life, so I can see the pattern of it and when it arises I at some point recognize it and can go deeper into conversation. One of my patterns goes something like this: I am enjoying the process of some creative effort, then the aspect I’ve named Striver gets worried that I will be judged on the product of my creative effort, so that aspect takes charge to make sure that everything is perfect. Striver takes most of the fun out of the project and I begin to feel stressed. Even if there is no deadline for the project, Striver will create one. Then just when the product of Striver’s efforts is about to go out into the world, another aspect begins to make itself heard, one I’ve named Underminer. It too is terrified of public judgment, but it doesn’t trust perfection to be a solution, as it is judged just even more harshly than imperfection, so Underminer chooses instead to sabotage the whole enterprise. ‘A completed novel? Toss it in the drawer! Don’t put it out there in the world to be judged! Are you crazy?’
I don’t know why I was surprised recently to see that Striver and Underminer can still be activated if I’m not paying attention. In fact it was only upon rereading a section of my book Tapping the Wisdom Within in order to clarify the process of self-inquiry for this dharma talk that I came upon them and recognized how the past few weeks I have been increasingly stressed about producing an audio CD of my poems to have available at the poetry reading this Tuesday. Striver is frantically trying to produce perfection, when this is my first ever attempt to create a recording, and Underminer at the last minute jumped in and said, ‘Why bother? Just tell people you can’t do it.’
But my feelers have been tuned to tales of self-sabotage lately as it has come up in books and in conversations with family and friends. At every turn I get the message not to succumb to a life-long pattern of giving up at this critical stage, and also not to be so terrified that the product may not be perfect.
Also during this period I recognized how valuable an encouraging word from someone can be. I received several words of encouragement from friends and family that came at a moment where I was ready to abandon all hope that the project would get done. Those few words resonated with my own inner wisdom, ignored of late in the flurry of over-zealous activity, and also helped me get in touch with the negative aspects that were sabotaging me.
So since they are so present and available to hold up as examples of inner negative fear-based aspects, let’s use Striver and Underminer as the basis of our discussion. They are saying they are afraid of my being judged by others and found wanting. They have two different ways of dealing with that fear, both unskillful. So what do I do? I acknowledge their fear. I thank them for bringing that fear to my attention. I send metta to them and to myself. I rekindle my sense of connection with all that is. I remind myself that being human it is quite natural that these emotions will arise within me, that fear of disapproval is fear of separation, but that I can never truly be separate from the oneness of life. And in fact, awareness and acceptance of the existence of these emotions carves out more compassion within me for myself and for others, who also act out their fear of separation through unskillful means.
I also remind myself of that little note of insight I pinned on my bulletin board: I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear, I have something to give. Certainly the CD of me reading my poetry is something I have to give, something that has been requested even. All the negative judgments about ‘Who am I to..’ do something are acknowledged but not fed. Instead I attune to my interconnection. Let me be a conduit for life loving itself, not a tight shut down place in the flow of energy.
If there is a way to meet the guest emotion's needs without succumbing to their fears, then we do what we can. I have talked before about the deal I made with my inner aspect named Slug who doesn’t want to exercise but just wants to stay in bed because he misses his mommy and bed is a big mommy hug. I found a yoga teacher that tucks her students under blankets at the end of class for the final resting pose. Slug was in heaven and I was able to become more and more active.
When the inner conversation seems to be at an end, it’s important to remember to say thank you to the guest emotion, to make sure it knows that its concerns have been heard and will be incorporated into the greater awareness. It needs to know that we, the welcoming, patient and compassionate host, are in charge of our households and our lives, aligned with our Buddha nature, our access to universal inner wisdom.
One final caveat: In aligning with infinite inner wisdom, there will be a fear-based aspect that gets very attached to this idea of being wise and will cling to that image of self. This aspect can be more challenging to recognize than the rowdier ones, but it is just as destructive. What helps is to continually relax, stay anchored in the senses and send metta (loving kindness) even to this needy aspect that so longs for approval. When we find it, we may feel shame, sending it down to dungeon. But that's not necessary. Simply recognizing its hunger for love and approval reminds us to be compassionate. Refining our ability to distinguish between the infinite wisdom that flows throughout all and the finite 'see how wise I am?' hungering for the respect of others, is just another part of the practice of inquiry and deepening awareness.