I recently recorded a video in which I shared what I do when I feel helpless. I shared it because I figure that I’m not the only one feeling helpless, at least occasionally, when we look at the world situation, particularly climate change and the dire predictions for our future. In the video I share how the way I deal with such an emotion takes me from a place where I feel helpless to a place where I realise that I’m not actually as helpless as I think I am. In the video that’s a kind of esoteric place – for want of a better word – but that’s not the end of the story. What I find interesting is how the sense of empowerment gained through working with an emotion in that way can help me find ways to help on the level of action in the physical world.
Emotions in Buddhism & Rigpa
This story begins with allowing myself to truly feel that helplessness, trusting the wisdom in that and allowing the results of feeling deeply to naturally unfold. Too often in the past, I’ve given no credence to my emotions and not taken note of their message. Aspects of Buddhism can be misused or misunderstood in a way that diminishes the importance of paying attention to our emotions.
There’s a lot of helpful advice and teachings in Buddhism about dealing with emotions in a way that trains us not to get caught up in them, but if we’re someone who comes to Buddhism with a childhood training in repressing emotions, then these teachings can be used to continue that repression – especially if it’s in the interest of your teacher to stop you from listening to or acting on what you emotions are telling you.
In Rigpa, for instance, we were trained to watch Sogyal abuse others without having a reaction. If something ‘arose’ in us in reaction to his bullying, we were taught to ignore it, told to just ‘let it go’. Never were we allowed to consider that that feeling might have an important message for us – like, ‘Hey, wake up; this guy is abusing those people.’ No; emotions were to be mistrusted. Essentially, we were taught to ignore our emotions and see their expression as an indication of a lack of spiritual progress.
That isn’t what the Buddha actually taught, however. The basic meditation instructions are to neither repress nor indulge thoughts and emotions, but to simply watch and they will naturally pass. Some teachers – such as Tsoknyi Rinpoche – teach you to acknowledge feelings as part of the process of letting them go. In Rigpa, that part was missed out, and so ‘letting go’ easily became pushing them away or squashing them.
The mindfulness of feeling is an important part of Buddhist training, but it wasn’t something we spent much time on in Rigpa. We learned about it, practiced it for a bit and then ignored it, probably because having us all aware of our feelings wouldn’t serve Sogyal’s purpose. More of us would have left earlier had we listened to the feeling in our gut telling us that what we saw wasn’t kindness; it was verbal abuse.
Having emotions doesn’t mean you’re stupid
Even this wise quote from Shantideva can make you think – if you’re someone with a tendency to repress – that being unhappy is a problem. That you’re stupid because you’re unnecessarily feeling helpless or sad or whatever.
“Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy about something if it cannot be remedied?”Shantideva. Chapter 6, vs 10 of Bhodicharyavatara
I know that quote well. I’ve used it as a guide ever since I first heard HH Dalai Lama say it. It’s very useful in reminding us that there are simply some things that we can do nothing about, and accepting that fact is necessary for our own happiness. I can’t help vote Trump out and that doesn’t make me feel helpless, and I can’t stop a wildfire racing towards me, but that does make me feel helpless, no matter how pointless that feeling is according to Shantideva.
So to break out of the tendency to repress, I need to remember that it’s okay to feel something uncomfortable or even get upset, and HH Dalia Lama demonstrates this – I saw him weeping on a video when he heard about the way some teachers were abusing their students. I have to remind myself that it’s not only okay to feel however you feel, it’s also healthy and even wise – if you pay attention; it’s not foolish if it’s over something you can’t do anything about.
I can’t do anything about Trump, but I can still weep for all those people who died because of his negligence. If it throws me into a deep depression, that’s something else, but if we have a way to express our feelings in a healthy way – even if it is over something we can do nothing about – then they will naturally pass. It’s going over and over the same issue in our minds that will keep those emotions around and cause long term issues, not simply feeling it in the moment without indulging or repressing. And the feeling of it doesn’t mean you’re paralysed by it, not if you watch it with awareness, then it can lead to surprising realisations. Not allowing ourselves to feel, however, that is a problem. Now I’m learning the wisdom of acknowledging what I feel.
Breaking the pattern of repression
I have to consciously make an effort to pay attention and overcome my training from childhood and Rigpa in order not to rush to the ‘letting go’ stage. I have to allow myself to feel it and acknowledge it and then allow it go, rather than actively ‘letting it go’ which becomes more of a pushing it away. And if anyone suggests that there’s something wrong with me having a feeling of any kind, I have to remind myself that whatever I feel is okay, no matter what it is, and no matter what caused it. My psychologist emphasises this point – she also teaches the grounding techniques I mention in the video.
It’s interesting how insidiously the application of the teachings we received infiltrates our way of being. To overcome that warped application, we have to:
– know the actual teachings (neither indulge nor repress our emotions, and pay attention to them with mindfulness);
– understand in what way we were taught to apply them was twisted – it became repression/dissociation in the service of enabling an abuser;
– watch for negative attitudes – that displaying emotions indicates some lack of spiritual maturity – and habits – such as the habit of ignoring them – when they arise in ourselves;
– and notice when and how other’s reactions to our emotions affects us – perhaps making us feel bad about ourselves.
So that’s the background for this video. For me to be so public about feeling a feeling was quite a challenge.
Feeling helpless can lead to action
If you watched the video, you’ll see that the process of feeling and watching that feeling with awareness takes me to a place where I recognise that I’m not quite as helpless as I might feel. But even on a relative level, sometimes being unhappy about something that you think you can’t remedy pushes you to find a way to actually do something.
But since this post is long enough already I’ll go into that in my next post.
Does any of this resonate with you? What’s your relationship to your emotions these days? Has it changed since your time in Rigpa?