Photo of Taitaku Phelan Sensei

Friendliness to the Self, part 2

by Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan

According to Buddhist cosmology there are six realms of existence: the hell realms, the realm of hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the human realm, the realm of the jealous gods and the heavenly realm of gods and goddesses. These realms of existence are taught both as realms beings are born or reborn into as well as states of mind which we enter and leave throughout the day. It is considered quite rare and quite fortunate to be born as a human being because the human realm is generally considered the only realm in which Buddhism can be practiced.

So, if Buddhist practice is for human beings, if Buddhism is a human endeavor, then we have to be able to practice with all aspects of being human—not just our positive or uplifting qualities. We have to be able to practice with everything that makes up human character and experience. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing—that is what we have to practice with. It doesn’t work to try to purify yourself or perfect yourself, to overcome your anger or desire or whatever so that then you’ll be able to practice. Whatever we feel as a human being is completely acceptable for practice. However, this doesn’t mean that because whatever we feel is acceptable, that it is OK to express our feelings or to act on them. The activity of being aware of our feelings and accepting them is quite different from the activity of acting on our feelings.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Trungpa Rimpoche, taught that the way to work with our negative emotions is not to repress them and not to express them. This was an ongoing question for me for several years. If we don’t repress our emotions and if we don’t express then, then what are we left with? When we don’t repress or express our emotional states, we have the opportunity to just be present with them looking fully and directly at them without distracting ourselves by making a response to them. Trungpa said, if we follow our emotions and escape them by acting on them, that is not experiencing them properly. He said that the other way we try to escape from our emotions is by repressing them because we cannot bear to be in such a state. Trungpa talked about Milarepa, an important early Tibetan Buddhist teacher and yogi. Milarepa did a lot of solitary meditation in caves, and at one point in his training whenever he tried to meditate, he was confronted by a gang of demons, who interrupted his practice or who he felt interrupted his practice. He tried everything he could think of to get rid of them. He threatened them, he scolded them, he even tried preaching the dharma to them. But they would not leave until he stopped regarding them as "bad" and just saw them for what they were, just another form of distraction.

After I had done the visualization exercise for a couple of months, one day when I had finished, something else happened. It was as if my emotional terrain or emotional geography appeared. And I called up my jealousy by recreating how I felt when I was in a jealous state, and I directed the same phrases toward my jealously: "I love you, I care about you, I completely accept you." Before this I had always hated my jealousy, hated myself for feeling jealous, and the idea of accepting my jealousy or accepting myself as a human being who is sometimes jealous was completely new to me.

Next I called up my comparative thinking, my judgmental faculty, and instead of trying to stop it, I directed this same attitude of acceptance toward it. I tried to accept myself as a human being who sometimes judges and criticizes. Not long after that, I noticed that sometimes when I was sitting zazen, I would have an uneasy or unpleasant feeling in my gut. I had been pushing this uneasiness aside for so long that I was barely aware that it was even there. When I brought my attention to it and tried to be present with it, I found that it accompanied a low level of comparative thinking, in which I was comparing myself to someone else or comparing my practice to some external standard or ideal, and when I compared myself in this way, I had the unpleasant sensation that accompanies feeling inadequate. So I just tried to accept this–that judging or comparing is an aspect of being human; and it is completely acceptable for practice–as something to practice with–only when I judge, I feel uneasy. But it’s OK to feel uneasy sometimes. I’ve found that when I treat the parts of myself that I don’t like with friendliness and acceptance, they become much less powerful, and they lose their strength to push me around.

Once someone who had been sitting zazen for about twenty-five years and who has a strong temper told me that he had never been angry in zazen; while I, on the other hand, have experienced pretty strong states of anger while sitting, without even trying. When I experience anger in zazen, often it sneaks up on me or comes out of nowhere without warning so that I’m suddenly seized with anger. I think if you sit zazen long enough, sooner or later, you will experience in zazen just about every state of mind you have experienced anywhere else. One of the ways that zazen is misused is to block out feelings and emotions. I think it’s easy to confuse letting go of thoughts with freezing or repressing our emotions in zazen. The experience of suddenly being enmeshed in anger comes from ignoring the physical and psychological processes leading up to full-blown anger. Mindfulness of body and mind is the antidote to being taken by surprise by emotions.

Thich Nhat Hanh said that anger is a part of ourselves, and, if we fight our anger, we are fighting ourselves. I would encourage you to find whatever way you can to welcome and cultivate the attitude of embracing the parts of yourself that aren’t so uplifting, the parts that you are ashamed of or disgusted with or are a kind of taboo. So, for example, when I feel myself becoming jealous, I try to welcome it with the attitude, "Here’s my old friend jealousy" and I try to open myself to it with a friendly attitude and try to feel what it is, what it feels like throughout my body and mind. To do this, you need to be willing or devoted to not moving away from what is difficult. This reminds me of being with my extended family when I was a child at Thanksgiving. Some of my cousins were really good friends, but one used to twist my arm behind my back and I hated it. I had my favorite aunt and there was an uncle who was sort of annoying, but they were all part of the family.

Similarly, all of our mental and emotional states are part of ourselves and are something to practice with. We may not enjoy all states of mind, but nevertheless, we can practice with them. Having the ability to work with emotional states in zazen makes it easier to work with emotions in daily life. Through awareness and acceptance of whatever mental states arise, when we no longer try to avoid or ignore what we consider unpleasant, we then get to practice with all the parts of ourselves. When all these parts are supporting our practice, it becomes a much fuller practice, allowing us to just sit, without moving.

Part 1

© Copyright Taitaku Patricia Phelan, 2003

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