Overwhelming emotion

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.

10 thoughts on “Overwhelming emotion”

  1. What is the difference between emotion and feeling? And what is the relationship between thought and emotion?

    I notice for example that I’ll have a thought which leads to a feeling…and that feeling, and resulting mood, which though it feels very real, might have originated with an old, habitual thought. So if I challenge the habitual thought, I might also shift the resulting feeling. Or does the emotion come first? Example scenario: I feel X. The thought: I should not feel X — it means I am Y — and I am not supposed to be Y. Then, more emotion/feeling results and I may be, as the original question suggested, “overwhelmed”.

    • To what Una says — about thoughts, emotions and feelings — my own path has been fraught with a jumble of these things until a combination of scientific study, psychotherapy and a variety of spiritual practices has helped me step out of judgment & moved me toward wisdom. We humans are complex creatures who have beautifully evolved from the same basic drives of all life, right down to the individual cell: attraction and aversion. We either like it or we don’t. We either want to be with it or separate from it. In my own understanding of our human nervous systems — an understanding based on informal, multidisciplinary study and direct personal experience — we have a triune mind roughly composed of the reptilian brain stem, mammalian emotional limbic system and the higher-order reasoning neocortex. I think what happens when we get overwhelmed is that there’s a short-circuit somewhere in this elegant system. Peter Levine and others have demonstrated that animals have a tremendous capacity for successfully processing traumatic experiences as long as the nervous system is allowed to bring that “negative” energy to a complete resolution. Here I have to point out that, to Nature, death is a perfectly successful resolution of a traumatic experience. It is what it is. Any positive/negative interpretation of what’s going on when a cheetah takes down a gazelle is a purely human invention. So when you say something like, if I feel X and it means I’m Y and Y is bad — that’s the short-circuit. In reality, there’s no such thing as bad, and I mean this sincerely, having experienced some very, very “bad” things. It is what it is. Neither I nor the experience is “bad”. Someone taught me this simple lesson: If, for example, you see a cookie and your immediate reaction is, “I want the cookie!” and you reach for it but then you think “wait, I shouldn’t have the cookie” and you hesitate. Why shouldn’t you have the cookie? Maybe you haven’t had dinner yet, or your mother says it will make you fat, or it has gluten or it isn’t organic or someone else who is more worthy than you should have the cookie instead. Perhaps there’s some validity to those things but if your “mind” spins off into too much higher-order complex reasoning what happens is your arm freezes and holds that energy without having a chance to resolve the motion. Repeat that enough times and you might end up with tennis elbow as well as an eating disorder! I know this is an extremely simple example but in my experience, the analogy works for almost every emotional block I’ve encountered. Simplify the context down to what’s happening in the actual, current moment. Only this moment. Then start peeling off layers of emotion and thought (Big Mind techniques work really, really well for this) and what you’ll find is that it’s only an out-of-context judgment. We just pulled out the hammer when a screw driver would have been a better tool. Then we can put away the hammer and pull out the screw driver or close the toolbox entirely and eat the cookie and be at peace.

  2. Two Buddhists went into a bar and ordered Saki,,,
    Since neither of them were thinking (very much) they soon became pretty (lets say) absorbed…
    One of them fell of his stool, but seemed oblivious..
    The other said “say man do realize you just fell in the floor?”
    The guy in the floor says “yes I just realized that, but did you realize the stool is empty?”

    Note: This is a great joke to tell in most any situation since there is no punch line that I know of…



  3. Ahhhhhhhhhh……just what I needed to read and assimilate right now. Thank you, Roshi. I am going through another depressive episode, feelings of hopelessness and despair are quite overwhelming this time. Acknowledging those emotions and allowing myself to feel them this time is a first for me. Usually I hide them and accommodate others’ feelings at the expense of my own. Mainly because it is not their shit, it is mine. Am I selfishly guarding these emotions from others? Well, from some. I do have some trusted friends that I can share this stuff with without them being overwhelmed or wanting to fix it for me. They want to ease it but not deny me the journey I am currently on. As I do for them. Emotion was described to me once as a feeling with energy attached to it. I like your alliance of Zen and Tantra.

  4. This was an interesting and timely blog as I have been reading and re-reading something about this topic for the last three weeks. I am not going to get into who it was by but it was not from the Zen perspective. What I have been reading is a commentary on “The Discourse on Loving-Kindness” from The Buddha’s Words in the Sutta Nipata, part of the Pali Canon. It speaks of becoming more skillful in calming the senses and avoiding harm to others by cultivating boundless love and mindfulness. What I notice is that it describes the problems and the desired result but is vague about how to get there.
    Though the text is fairly simple and straight forward I have re-read it several times wondering how it fits with your teaching of fully experiencing emotions. Though this may seem counter to what you teach, I can see it is possible that it isn’t at all. I have experienced enough of what happens when we suppress our emotions to understand the Western psychology view on this that you described. I also experienced getting in touch with my suppressed anger through therapy once and I am still paying for the damage caused by that time. Through that experience I got rid of a lot of my anger but the anger is still out there only now others are angry at me. For that reason I understand the need to be mindful where emotions are involved especially when we are learning to work with them. When the emotions are fully experienced through Big Mind / Big Heart work they seem to dissipate rather than cause damage. There is no need to act them out. Because of my bad experience releasing emotions before, I immediately saw the difference and was excited about a way around this issue.
    Big Mind work feels like an emotional rollercoaster and that is why it is so exhausting. Without the emotions I don’t think we could do Big Mind. However, we do this in a controlled environment and we explore the full range of emotions sparked by each voice. The exploration of the emotions is non-judgmental of the self, others, or other voices and this allows us to look more deeply and open more fully without the damage. I also need to add that this happens because you are able to keep the environment safe for us.
    Because of this work, I feel emotions more strongly and clearly and I am not afraid of my emotions. I listen to them yet I am not ruled by them. I have a much more settled relationship with my emotions and don’t consider them my enemy. I am getting more experienced at understanding my emotions. I am also much more interested in staying true to my true nature than following along with something because someone or society says I should and for that reason I am not suppressing my emotions as much as before. I think with time, and lots of it, a person could have enough experiences with strong emotions that they could accomplish the same thing as we can with Big Mind but that is only if enough control and awareness is also developed so that a person can do this work on their own without causing more harm. It would take a LOT of mindfulness or a really big trauma to accomplish the same thing.
    There is also the shadow work we do that also is important in making us more healthy as we go through the stages. You didn’t really address that in your blog so I too left it out. But it too is very important.
    You always emphasize the development of Big Heart and I think that is the key as it provides us with tremendous interest in and respect for all things but with deep emotion. You often say you think Big Mind may help us go through the stages of development more rapidly. I guess that is because Big Mind turns our emotions into well aimed rocket fuel, not just petrol. Maybe the NASA saying does apply after all, “It’s not rocket science, oh wait, yes it is”.

  5. Actually the Tibetan tradtion works directly with using the energy of negative and postive emotion to save all sentient beings–dedicating the ripening of them on us as the gateway to peace, enlightenment and joy for all. This IS the bodhidattva vow.
    Jesus also did this work. It gets stuck on the cross when we think he took on the sins of the world to save us–thereby giving us a pass on treading the same ‘scary’ path.
    Zen has been crippled by a lack of mind training–assuming that the koan system or in this case Big Mind before your FALL from GRACE would somehow take care of it. It seems these practices are very good at dismantling ego grasping through the dance/play of form and emptiness but not ego cherishing. Hakuin struggled with this Zen sickness as well.
    I admire your fearless engagement, honesty, sincerity. and willness to publically let it all hang out. May this good work benefit all beings.

    • In responce to Rev. Do’on Weik:
      I am no expert but my experience with Big Mind has ALL been about dismantling ego grasping. Through Big Mind I have been able to see that my idea of Self is insubstantial and is in fact the problem. This has been the most important lesson from my Big Mind experience. When we are in different voices we are able to take a glance at the self from there and learn more about it from different points of view. That is the beauty of Big Mind for me at this point. But we learn soooo much about the self along the way. I don’t know of another way to learn so much so fast. I have a lot more respect for the self than I used to have before. When I cherished it more I really didn’t respect it in this way. Cherishing and respecting are not the same. I have much more respect for what it is and how it came to be. I am actually empathetic about the self. I am much less attached to it now that I respect it more. I don’t hate it and I don’t love it but I respect and understand it more. To me that seems much more normal.
      I look forward to your response to this.

  6. It has been my greatest pleasure and privilege to have been a Sangha member at the Zen Center in Salt Lake City for the past seven years. It has been a time of so many openings, knots undone,apexes reached,voices given freedom of expression and many new beginnings. For all that, I feel great full.
    I am leaving to California,and will continue being a Sangha member here. I have gained so much from this group, in so many ways…I will take the teachings with me, as they have become part of who I am, and will do my best to give them freely to whoever will listen. With much love and respect, Clea

  7. “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.

    Here lies the power of Taoist energetic practice. Agreed that energy contained can only move itself from place to place. Fully experienced, as you suggest above, the energy moves in and through and life becomes a continuous flow of experience.

    We are humans, however, and do have the ability to channel energy. It requires an act of will and the intention to direct our lives rather simply observe them as they happen. It is a valid path. It is not for everyone.

    Yoga and Chi Kung, in the hands of teachers who know what they are doing, provide technologies for transmuting the arising energies of emotion and sensation from one form to another. Learning how to manipulate anger while transforming it into love is a powerful skill. Not for the faint of heart!


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