All these years I’ve meditated and been committed to a truly noble path, supported by extraordinary teachers and spiritual community, I kept waiting to calm down. Not to get so worked up– to have my big emotions and wild mind gently subside. I think I’ve finally stopped expecting that to happen, and started believing in what I’ve read and been taught over and over– that I’m fine just as I am.
Why now? The other night around 1am, after a stressful grant application process, I read a poorly composed email and got really angry. However, while quite expertly pitching a fit, with audience, at the surface, the rest of me rested in a sort of calm clarity that wasn’t reacting, or judging. Awareness prevailed, emotion subsided, and I was shocked.
We’ve all heard the cute admonishment, “You are what you eat.” From a meditation standpoint, “You are what you think” is a sound statement that after a few years of steady meditation, interlaced with bouts of mood-itation, I believe in from experience. Change how you think, check your motivation and amp up your positive aspirations, and you begin to change who and what you are at a very deep level.
“You are what you feel:” is this as true a statement? In the tradition that guides my life, Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan word for feelings or emotions often translates as afflictive emotions, while the word for thoughts, or concepts, usually translates as discursive thoughts. So am I afflicted by my emotions, or afflicting others, and merely led astray or burdened with non-essential stuff (one definition of discursive) in terms of my thoughts? One thing I’m sure of: stringing thoughts together like a train, constantly anticipating the future and retracing the past, only leads to more confusion, because I cannot be certain that every thought I have is altruistic and mindful. And even if I was, having tasted the open space that really is available when thinking subsides, when thoughts are just allowed to dissolve like the wispy, insubstantial things they are, I wouldn’t trade that glimpse into the non-dual expanse for a truck-load of shiny, happy, thoughts that still involve me taking myself seriously.
As for emotions, letting oneself be run by emotions is both exhausting and potentially dangerous. (Sometimes I read the news to remind myself of this.) Emotions are regarded differently than thoughts though. Of course, emotional responses, however grandiose or subtle, fuel thoughts and then actions, if things go that far. But within emotional reaction is a unique opportunity to watch on mind, as one of my teachers advises. And within big emotions–strong reactions and assertions of “how I feel”–is a unique opportunity to maintain awareness and even equanimity, while experiencing genuine and natural emotions. The tricky things is that these opportunities arise and dissolve in a heartbeat.
And for so long, I’ve slept through that heartbeat. I’ve thrown my fit, had my emotional response, and come through the other end feeling bashful and utterly lacking in awareness and grace. How many times have I heard or read from reliable sources that emotions don’t go away, and they don’t need to. Whatever our emotional constitution may be-angry, jealous, full of desire, inclined to dullness, proud as a rooster–are the tools we have to work with on and off the cushion to foster awareness and truly awaken to our in-dwelling divinity. Every moment on the cushion does inform our whole existence. It’s these moments when clarity and awareness prevail in a tough situation that affirms this. More practice needed? Definitely. Can I accept myself for what I am and have confidence within that? Now, I think so.