Letting go of an emotion can take time. Even though it may have completely ended in your mind, your body can still be filled with residual feelings of rage, greed or sadness. The body and mind don’t always talk to each other. You may need to be really patient and conscious of how the body absorbs and releases emotion much more slowly than the mind.
You may think that these emotions are happening because of something you did, but actually they are reactions to what we find pleasant or unpleasant, what we like or dislike. We don’t need to blame ourselves, but simply to recognize that when mindfulness is not present, life happens on automatic pilot! This is an aspect of anattā.
Sometimes the mind can be so filled up with emotion that the brain loses the capacity to think, and we cannot express ourselves. At such times of heightened emotion the mind seems to have a kind of protective mechanism, the capacity to disengage. When we have a strong emotional experience, we tend to overreact and lose clarity. Because we don’t have the ability to respond to the situation, the mind simply shuts down.
If we were truly in charge of our mind, we would rather have a calm and peaceful mind instead of the agitation and disturbances that we often have to experience. Yet when an emotion is present, we can see it as a priceless opportunity. Even though it may be a painful moment, when we stay very present and connected to the heat and energy coursing through us, we will see it change and lose its emotional charge. We will be able to let it go.
But if we’re not aware of it, it will revive a lot of old stories. If we believe our emotions, they drag countless stories along with them, everything associated with that particular emotion. And emotions are not choosy; any old thing may come up, and until we see through and understand those associations, they are a terrible burden. Sometimes you may wonder how our emotional nature and wisdom can come together.
A great master like Ajahn Chah would set up situations where his disciples would see their emotional nature. He would push their buttons to the point where they would become really angry, driving their minds into an intense emotional state. This is perhaps not the kind of teaching you would ask for right now, but if it came your way how would you respond? Would you start complaining and blaming the situation? Would you criticize the people involved? Or would you use the situation as a teaching?
In fact, you may have noticed that life gives plenty of opportunities to challenge and test us. Somebody always seems to be ‘stepping on our toes’. In that respect life is our great teacher. You may think: ‘No, I’m going to meditate so I can calm down. I’m going to stay away from all that.’ But remember that the state of calm is just one aspect of the practice. In Buddhism the mind is compared to a clear lake, but when we observe it, we may overlook the rubbish at the bottom and lose our chance to be free from delusion.
This reflection by Ajahn Sundara is an excerpt from the Dhamma talk, “The Wisdom of Emotions,” from Forest Sangha Newsletter, #93, 2014 (Annual Issue), (pdf) p. 21.