We all have emotional experiences that feel terrifying, and in order to experience our natural state, we have to be willing to experience these emotions—to actually experience our ego and our ego clinging. This may feel disturbing and negative, or even insane. Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, would like meditation to be a chill-out session where we don’t have to relate to unpleasantness. Actually, a lot of people have the misunderstanding that this is what meditation is about. They believe meditation includes everything except that which feels bad. And if something does feel bad, you’re supposed to label it “thinking” and shove it away or hit it on the head with a mallet. When you feel even the slightest hint of panic that you’re about to feel or experience something unpleasant, you use the label “thinking” as a way to repress it, and you rush back to the object of meditation, hoping that you never have to go into this uncomfortable place.

081_PracticePonlop Rinpoche said, “In the process of uncovering buddhanature, in the process of uncovering our open, unfixated quality of our mind, we have to be willing to get our hands dirty.” In other words, he was saying that we need to be willing to work with our disturbing emotions, the ones that feel entirely dark. But Ponlop Rinpoche added something really important to this statement. He said that without having a direct experience of our emotions, we can never touch the heart of buddhanature. We can never actually hear the message of awakening. The only way out, so to speak, is through. But what does this word “experiencing” mean? And how can we experience emotions? How can we experience this negative, disturbing, unsettling stuff that we generally avoid? How do we get our hands dirty with them?

Ponlop Rinpoche says, “It’s only by really tasting your experience of emotions that you get a taste of enlightenment.” Buddhanature and the natural state are not just made up of happy, sweet emotions; buddhanature includes everything. It’s the calm, and the disturbed, and the roiled up, and the still; it’s the bitter and the sweet, the comfortable and the uncomfortable. Buddhanature includes opening to all of these things, and it’s found in the midst of all of them.

Because we perceive dualistically and have this black-or-white thinking where we label things either “good” or “bad,” we shut down when strong energy arises. We associate this strong energy with different thoughts—memories of the past or fantasies about the future—and then this somewhat indescribable thing happens, which we call “feeling an emotion.” Emotions, in essence, are just pure energy, but because of dualistic perception we identify the emotion as “me,” and it gets very locked in.

The energy gets frozen. Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “Emotions are composed of energy, which can be likened to water, and a dualistic thought process, which could be likened to pigment or paint. When energy and thought are mixed together, they become vivid and colorful emotions. Concept gives the energy a particular location, a sense of relationship, which makes the emotions vivid and strong. Fundamentally, the reason emotions are discomforting, painful, frustrating is that our relationship to the emotions is not quite clear.”

This is to say that energy itself is not a problem. We always associate our emotions with thoughts—we’re scared of something, or we’re angry at somebody, or we’re feeling lonely or ashamed or lustful in relationship with either ourselves or somebody else. Our emotions have a lot of mental conversation—and, in my experience, it is often hard to discern between what is the thought and what is the emotion. In any given sitting period, in any given half hour of our lives, there are a lot of things that come and go. But we don’t need to try so hard to sort it all out. We don’t have to attach so much meaning to what arises, and we also don’t have to identify with our emotions so strongly. All we need to do is allow ourselves to experience the energy—and in time it will move through you. It will. But we need to experience the emotion—not think about the emotion. It’s the same thing that I’ve been talking about with the breath: experiencing the breath going in and out, trying to find a way to breathe in and out without thinking about the breath or conceptualizing the breath or watching the breath.

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