Student: How do we work with overwhelming emotion?
Roshi: Well, the only reason it’s overwhelming is that we’re not allowing our self to experience it fully. There’s no such thing as an overwhelming emotion; there’s just emotion. When we repress it, it becomes overwhelming. When we open ourselves to it, nothing’s overwhelming. It’s like a storm in the sky, the empty sky, and the storm fills the sky. But it’s not too much for the sky. When the sky closes down — if it could — then it becomes overwhelming. So I would say the only reason it would be overwhelming is if I don’t want to experience that emotion. And remember I said yesterday that all emotions are the petrol, they’re the gas, the juice of our life. If we suppress our emotions, we’re actually cutting off the gas, the petrol, from getting into the engine. So you want to experience those emotions, and you want to experience them fully and completely like a good bonfire. We don’t want to avoid the emotions.
In the early days of Zen in the West, too many people somehow got the idea — I don’t know from where — that we’re supposed to repress our emotions. Maybe in some traditional forms that has happened, maybe in the Japanese tradition or the Tibetan tradition or some of the other traditions emotions get repressed. But one of the things that we know — and I learned this in the 60s from my Gestalt therapy — is if I repress an emotion it will show up. It’s there and it can’t be repressed. It won’t be repressed. It will not allow us to keep it repressed forever, so it will come out kind of like a balloon that just kind of pops out in different places when we try to suppress it.
So the point to me, and I think one of the things Big Mind offers to Zen practice, is not only to allow our self to experience the thoughts that come and go but also to allow our self to experience the emotions completely. Now that’s the tantric part of the Zen that I teach. It’s not always found in Zen, but that’s where I think the tantric and Zen have united, and to me the emotions are the energy, that’s the tantric form, that’s the juice of our life. Robbing our self of our emotions is robbing our self of our life.