Sunday, January 17, 2010

Releasing Emotional Reactions – Introduction

This is a near-transcript of Friday night's talk by Ken McLeod. To link to the full podcast and read more about this series, go to the class page on our website.

It could be said that the purpose of practice is fully knowing one’s experience without the projection of thoughts or emotions.

Ken tells a story:

Nasradin wanted to steal some fruit from a stall. But the stallholder had a fox which kept watch. He overheard the man say to his fox, “Foxes are craftier than dogs, and I want you to guard the stall with cunning. There are always thieves about. When you see anyone doing anything, ask yourself why he is doing it, and whether it could be related to the security of the stall."

When the man had gone away, the fox came to the front of the stall and looked at Nasradin lurking on the lawn opposite. Nasradin at once laid down and closed his eyes. The fox thought, “Sleeping is not doing anything.” As he watched Nasradin, he too began to feel tired. He laid down and went to sleep. Then Nasradin crept past him and stole some fruit.

How many of you have experienced Nasradin stealing some fruit? How many of you have gone to sleep because you thought your emotional reactions weren’t “doing” anything? And then you wake up and find that they’re in full swing?

Emotional reactions take us over because we regard the emotions as something real. Something solid. We believe them. They are the fact. They define the world.

So... when something happens with our spouse, we get angry. The emotion is saying, “This person is your enemy,” and we believe it and react accordingly. We have this kind of thing all over the place.

The point here is that… we react because we fall out of knowing our experience. We fall out of really knowing what is happening.

The knowing that I’m talking about isn’t like, “Yeah, I understand, I know what you’re talking about.” That’s a conceptual thing.

The knowing I’m talking about is being IN the experience and awake at the same time.

When we make that effort, life becomes much richer. But it also appears to be much more inconvenient. Because we’re experiencing everything. Including all the uncomfortable feelings that we normally try to avoid and which actually trick us into emotional reaction.

So the purpose of this talk is to develop an increased capacity to know our experience. When you know experience completely, then what arises as emotion is an experience. And you can know it completely. And the nature of experience is that it releases when it is experienced completely.

And we’ve all had that experience. That is, there will be some irritation or joy or high or low we’re feeling.... And it dissipates. It releases.

What is the function of a feeling? What does a feeling live for? Answer: It lives to be felt.

So whenever we’re avoiding feeling what is arising, we’re introducing an imbalance into our field of experience because there are things which are arising which we’re not letting ourselves experience. And they keep knocking at the door. And they can be quite persistent. And the more we push them away, the more circuitous and devious they become to try to get attention. So we want to learn to give them attention.

We’re going to work with three different techniques over the following three weeks.

The first is based on one of the most fundamental sutras, the Anapanasati Sutra which means "The Full Awareness of Breathing." (“sati” means mindfulness. Anapana refers to inhalation and exhalation.) Very simple, very profound, very helpful.

Next will be a technique which many of you are familiar with, the practice of taking and sending — a Mahayana practice. Creating the conditions so we can experience what is arising completely.

Finally, the practice of releasing through direct awareness, which is from the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Each of them we’ll speak of as a 5-step practice. Hopefully, this will give us all a number of tools that we can work with in our daily lives.

The key principle in all of this is to experience things as completely as possible. And this does not mean to think about them. It means to rest in the actual experience.

To practice resting in experience, there is an ancient formula:

Body on the cushion.
Mind in the body.
Relaxation in the mind.

Body in balance, back straight. Skeletal frame being used to support the body so there’s not a lot of muscular tension.

It’s good to start any meditation period by just resting in the body... shrug shoulders, rock a little to find your center, let your body find its resting in stillness. As you do that, you’ll naturally become aware of the breath. Let the body breathe. Let the breath find its own rhythm. Don’t try to breathe in any particular way.

As you do this, you may notice tightness here and there, and you think you have to get rid of the tightness. In this particular approach, I’m going to recommend that you not try to get rid of the tightness. That’s your first experience. Just experience the tightness. Any tension in the body, don’t try to get rid of it. Just experience it. And you’ll find that as you experience it, things shift and adjust and take care of themselves for the most part.

So now you’re resting in your body, and the body is breathing. Now you rest IN the experience of breathing.

The usual meditation instruction is, “Now watch the breath with your mind.” And that immediately introduces a separation. In this case, just be in the experience of breathing. Be aware of your body breathing. All the aspects of your body involved in breathing. But don’t concentrate on the breath. Just rest in the experience of breathing.

What happens is that a thought arises. And the next thing we know we’re thinking about this and that from the past and future.

Saraha said:
Mind is like a bird on a ship in the middle of the ocean. A thought flies up, and no matter how far away the bird flies from the ship, the bird has to come back to the ship.

So it doesn’t matter what thoughts arise. Sooner or later, that thought will dissolve and you’ll come back. And there will be “oh!” Usually followed by, “I’m supposed to be meditating.”

What I encourage you to do, when that happens, is come back to the body, back to breathing, back to resting in the experience of breathing. Don’t bother chastising yourself or even worry about whether you’re doing it right or wrong.

Body on the cushion.
Mind in the body.
Relaxation in the mind.

So you rest. In the experience of breathing. And whenever you recognize that you’ve been distracted by whatever, just come back to the experience of breathing. Check in with your body and rest in the experience.

Homework for this week: Sit in this way each day for at least five minutes, more if possible.

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