Mar 27, 2008
Anxiety, depression, anger… Paths to purification?
Contrary to what you might think, negative emotions are not “bad” things we need to get rid of. Sunada sees them as gold mines – opportunities to learn more about ourselves and walk the path toward uncovering our innate purity.
Meditation is supposed to help us become calm, peaceful, and happy, right? But then when we sit, all this other stuff seems to get in our way – anxiety, worry, depression, irritation, hateful thoughts … So we try harder to get rid of them because, after all, meditation is supposed be about freeing ourselves of all these ugly states of mind, right?
Well, let me stop you right there. Meditation isn’t about willfully fighting and pushing our way to calm and peace. If you go back and read that last sentence, maybe you can sense the incongruity of the whole idea. It’s like going to war in order to enforce peace. There may be short term gains, but there will likely be long-term costs. Also, the struggle itself creates a negative sort of energy that feeds into the situation, making matters only worse.
The kind of unencumbered joy that we see radiating from people like the Dalai Lama doesn’t come about by battling with ourselves. It comes by accepting all of ourselves (yes, even the hateful sides!) with patience and loving-kindness, and giving them all the care and attention they need, so they become our peaceful allies and friends. OK, sounds nice you say, but how do we do that? The best teaching I’ve found on this comes not from the Buddha, but from Rumi, the beloved Sufi poet from the 13th century.
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
- Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)
Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard.
What would happen if you were to treat your anger or depression as an honored guest, as Rumi suggests? What if you imagined it not as an enemy that’s come to irritate and annoy you, but as a good friend who is feeling down and wants to talk? I suppose there are many different ways to interpret what Rumi means by a “guide from beyond,” but this is how I see it. Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard. Somewhere inside, there’s a being that is crying out for love and caring, because it’s feeling hurt, afraid, lonely, or is just simply in pain. That suffering being is you. Why on earth wouldn’t you stop and listen? So next time one of those “guests” stops by, welcome him in. Give him the best, most comfortable chair in your house, and invite him to tell you all his troubles. You might be amazed by what you hear.
And how do we do this “listening” on a practical level, you ask. Well, let’s take depression for example, since he’s been among my frequent guests in the past. When I sat with my depression, I started by observing what the physical experience of it was. As dispassionately as possible, and without passing judgment, I tried to observe how every part of my body and mind felt at the moment. So I observed that my body felt heavy, my chest felt tight, my breathing was shallow, my shoulders were slumped, my chest was caved in. My mind felt sluggish, fogged in, and dull. Doing this sort of careful observation in the context of a sitting practice is a great way to practice mindfulness. Sure, it’s unpleasant and no fun. But how else are we going to help our guest feel better, if we don’t fully understand what’s ailing him?
The next step after that would be to follow up when we’re off the cushion by reflecting on the situation. With a spirit of experimentation, we might try a few things and then mindfullly observe what effect it has. For example, what happens if I do some yoga or go for a walk and get my physical energies moving a bit? Does that make me feel better? If I listen to my favorite music or talk with a good friend, what effect does it have? Do I feel different at different times of the day? Different days of the week? Different seasons? How do different foods affect me? All of these information-gathering activities can help us learn to manage ourselves better and establish routines or activities that nudge us along slowly and gently in a happier direction.
Then we might reflect on some of the psychological factors affecting our moods. Perhaps we can trace our long-term emotional patterns to our childhood or family conditioning. Or we can examine some of our current habits and thoughts that might be contributing. For example, I noticed that I had a tendency to focus on what’s wrong with things. To some extent it was a professionally-trained skill that I gained in my former work as a project manager – it’s good to be able to foresee all the ways that plans might go awry and have contingencies for them. But as a way of living life in general, I realized that it contributed in a big way toward my seeing everything as a dark cloud.
All this sort of reflection is a purposeful, directed mindfulness practice that extends well beyond one’s time on the cushion. It’s also about listening ever more deeply to ourselves, getting to know our inner being intimately, and responding to its needs. And in this way we slowly dissolve the layers of negativity and pain we’ve been carrying around with us all our lives, and start allowing something else from deeper within to shine through.
So are you beginning to see how listening to our uninvited “guests” can be a gold mine for helping us to go deeper into understanding ourselves? Over time, I’ve come to see those guests as real treasures. On one level, they’re like warning alarms telling us that something in our life is out of balance and needs attention. But on a deeper, spiritual level, they open up a direct and authentic pathway for reaching out to that pure, lovely Buddha-being within each of us. As you might suspect, that being is much quieter and less assertive than the side of us that faces the world out there, so we need to be very still and patient. But at the same time, this being is infinitely wise and loving. If we take the time to listen and care for it, it will return the favor in more ways than you can imagine.
Sunada teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, including the Level 2 course “Change Your Mind,” which explores various ways to work with negative emotions like what she discusses in this article. She also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.