I remember once, not so many years ago, sitting in my therapist’s office, telling him of an argument that I had had with someone close to me. I can no longer bring back the details, but I had done something to get my friend upset with me, and she had become quite angry, unjustifiably and disproportionately in my view. I remember feeling upset and frustrated as I recounted the events.

“All I can do is love her more strongly at those times,” I insisted somewhat plaintively, drawing on my years of meditation practice and the sincerity of my deeper feelings.

“That will never work,” he snapped, and it was like being hit with a Zen master’s stick. He looked at me somewhat quizzically, as if amazed at my foolishness. “What’s wrong with being angry?” he said.

This interaction has stayed with me for years because, in some way, it crystallizes the difficulties that we face in trying to integrate Buddhist and Western psychological approaches. Buddhism gives us a mixed message about the emotions, on the one hand supporting the notion that we must strive to eliminate them, and on the other hand teaching acceptance of whatever arises. Is there something wrong with being angry? Can we get rid of it? What does it mean to work it through? I have to address questions like this over and over again in my work as a therapist, where it has become clear to me that working through an emotion like anger often means something different than merely eliminating it. For, as the Buddhist view has consistently demonstrated, it is the perspective of the sufferer that determines whether a given experience perpetuates suffering or is a vehicle for awakening. To work something through means to change one’s view; if we try instead to change the emotion, we may achieve some short-term success, but we remain bound by forces of attachment and an aversion to the very feelings from which we are struggling to be free.

Of course, my desire to replace my difficult feelings with their opposite was not an original idea. It derived in my case from the Buddhist psychology of the abhidharma, the earliest psychological writings of Buddhism. There exists in most of us the desire to be free from the pressures of our emotions, to cast off the constraints of our emotional lives and replace the problematic feelings with their less conflicted opposites. There is a universal tendency toward debasement in the sphere of the emotions, it seems. We assume that the only way to be free of suffering is to be completely rid of it.

This longing for a realm of emotional quiescence has had an important impact on the way we practice Buddhism. The very teachings themselves often seem to suggest that this is the model that we must strive to achieve. Certain emotions are unwholesome, the abhidharma teaches. We must do whatever we can to diminish their influence in our minds. Consequently, when we read the stories of Buddhist teachers freely expressing sadness or rage, we become confused. These stories contradict the more formal teachings of Buddhism and force us to reevaluate our unconscious assumptions about how loathsome the emotions must be. Our willingness to believe in a model that denies a place for the emotions derives in part from the unconscious desire to split off the emotions from the rest of our experience, to make them the culprits for our predicament. If we could but root out and destroy our emotional natures, we think, we  could be following in the footsteps of the Buddha.

This desire to destroy the offending emotions is also one that is very common in people seeking psychotherapy. Just as many meditators assume that proper meditation means diminution of feeling, so many people entering psychotherapy demonize the unwanted emotions that propel them to seek help. After breaking up his ten-year marriage, for instance, a good friend of mine sought psychotherapy at a  local mental health clinic. His only wish, he told his new therapist, was to be free from what he was feeling. He implored his therapist to take his pain away, to rid him of his unwanted emotions.

Buddhist Nun, Linda Butler, Shiga-ken, Japan. Courtesy Linda Butler.
Buddhist Nun, Linda Butler, Shiga-ken, Japan. Courtesy Linda Butler.

His therapist, however, had just left a Zen community where she had been in residence for three years. When my friend approached her with his pain, she urged him only to stay with his feelings, no matter how unpleasant they were. She did not attempt to reassure him nor to help him change what he was feeling. When he would complain of his anxiety or his loneliness, she would encourage him to feel them more intensely. While my friend did not feel any better, he was intrigued by his therapist’s approach and began to practice meditation. He describes one pivotal moment in his meditation as the point in which his depression began to clear.

Terribly uncomfortable with the itchings, burnings, and pains of his practice, and unable to simply stay with the sensations, he remembers finally watching an itch develop, crest, and disappear without scratching it. In so doing, he says, he suddenly realized what his therapist had meant when she counseled him to stay with his emotional state, and from that moment on his depression began to lift. His feelings began to change only when he stopped wishing them to.

There are schools of thought—within both Buddhism and psychoanalysis—that do not readily admit to the possibility of an emotional transformation such as my friend experienced. Both orthodox psychoanalysts and fundamentalist Buddhists see the emotions as coercive forces which are, by their very nature, threatening, destabilizing, and potentially overwhelming. The best one can do with these passions, according to this view, is to control, master, or—in the Buddhist view at least—extinguish them. The common thread is that the passions are viewed as dark forces with wills of their own that must be strictly regulated. A successful graduate of a psychoanalysis influenced by this view is someone who has uncovered all of her primitive emotion, but has learned how to keep it from interfering with mature satisfactions. A successful practitioner of a Buddhism influenced by this view is imagined to be someone whose emotions no longer disturb a pervasive equanimity. This is why we can be so puzzled to read of Marpa weeping at the death of his son. Why has he not transcended his emotion?

There exists within both Buddhism and psychoanalysis another perspective on the emotions, however, one that senses the possibility of transformation rather than transcendence. In this view, the passions are not necessarily set up as the enemy, they are treated more like a long-lost cousin. By allowing them access to consciousness, the emotions cease to be felt as an alien force, but come to be experienced as an inseparable part of a larger whole. In so doing, the emotions are permitted to spontaneously mature, a process that my friend caught a glimpse of through his meditation.

Freud described this process in his discussions of sublimation, which he defined as the means by which “the energy of the infantile wishful impulses is not cut off but remains ready for use—the unserviceable aim of the various impulses being replaced by one that is higher, and perhaps no longer sexual.” Sublimation, for Freud, held out the possibility of escape from the impossible demands of the “infantile wishful impulses,” but did not mean that the passions, themselves, were inherently dangerous. Listen, for instance, to Freud’s description of Leonardo da Vinci:

His affects were controlled …; he did not love and hate, but asked himself about the origin and significance of what he was to love or hate. Thus he was bound at first to appear indifferent to good and evil, beauty and ugliness …. In reality Leonardo was not devoid of passion …. He had merely converted his passion into a thirst for knowledge. … When, at the climax of a discovery, he could survey a large portion of the whole nexus, he was overcome by emotion, and in ecstatic language praised the splendour of the part of creation that he had studied, or-in religious phraseology-the greatness of his Creator.

All of the qualities usually attributed to the Buddha are present in Freud’s description of da Vinci: the control of the affects, the transformation of love and hate into intellectual interest, the primacy of investigation, even the climactic ode to the greatness of his Creator. The Buddha’s exclamation at the moment of his enlightenment makes these similarities all the more apparent:

I wandered through the rounds of countless births,
Seeking but not finding the builder of this house.
Sorrowful indeed is birth again and again.
Oh, house builder!
You have now been seen.
You shall build the house no longer. All your rafters have been broken, Your ridgepole shattered.
My mind has attained to unconditional freedom.
Achieved is the end of craving.

Buddha, China, stone carving. Photograph by Sarito Carol Neiman.
Buddha, China, stone carving. Photograph by Sarito Carol Neiman.

In the Buddhist view, which emphasizes transformation rather than extinction of passion, transformation is accomplished, not by trying to eliminate troubling feelings, but by “wisely seeing them.” Even in Buddhist cultures, this has always been a difficult concept to convey. When Hungjen, the Fifth Zen Patriarch of seventh-century China, challenged his followers to compose a verse demonstrating their understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, his foremost student gave an answer that reinforced the view of emotions as polluting of mind and body. Shen-hsiu presented the following verse:

The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling.

Shen-hsiu’s verse made a virtue of the empty reflecting mind cleansed of all impurities. Today, he might be viewed by psychoanalysts as fixated in the anal stage. We can imagine him wiping his emotions away as fast as they materialize. An illiterate kitchen boy, Hui-neng (638-713), grasped the imperfection of Shen-hsiu’s response and presented the following alternative:

The Bodhi is not a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists;
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?

Hui-neng’s response avoided the trap of idealization that Shen-hsiu’s poem retained. We do not need to cleanse the mind and body, he implied, we must only learn how to see properly.

As a therapist, I often have the experience of helping someone discover a difficult feeling like anger and then hearing them ask, “I don’t quite understand. What should I do with this anger? Should I go home and get mad?” Like Shen-hsiu, we cannot help feeling that we have to eliminate the anger from our being. In today’s psychological culture, we speak of expressing our emotions, or acting them out, but the impulse is often still to get rid of them. If we fail to do this, we feel we are somehow cheating ourselves. Once we let the feeling back in, we then feel responsible to it. Yet this is still treating the feeling as if it were an independent entity. The idea of simply knowing the feeling does not often occur to us.

In a situation like this, I will often respond with something like, “You don’t have to do anything. Let it do you!”

“That’s a very Zen answer,” a patient recently responded. “How am I supposed to do that?”

The Buddha, of course, made this the focus of his teachings. His view was that awareness itself was the engine of sublimation; its cultivation permitted a method of working through emotions that would not have otherwise been available. In the Buddha’s view, one need not condemn the instinctual emotions once they are made conscious—one must instead carefully examine the underlying feeling of identification that accompanies emotion. In making this identification the focus, the Buddhist approach pulls the rug out from under the reactive emotions, while opening up a new avenue for working them through. Shifting attention from the emotion to the identification with the emotion, we experience it in a new way. It is analogous to the experience of trying to see a distant star with the naked eye: by looking away from it just a bit, we actually see it more clearly.

When we meditate with the idea of getting rid of our emotions, we are actually empowering the very forces that we seek to escape. On the other hand, when we can use the arising of emotion to examine our underlying sense of identification, we tap the transformative potential of sublimation. Rather than feeling guilty every time we experience an emotion, we can use the opportunity that the emotion provides to feel our most basic identifications. Then, like Freud’s da Vinci, we can find ourselves not devoid of passion but able to experience what Freud called the “persistence, constancy, and penetration which is derived from passion.” The Buddha did not describe himself as one who had put his emotional life to sleep, after all. He described himself as awake.

Adapted from Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, to be published by Basic Books in April, 1995. Visit his Facebook page here.

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