Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Teeter Totter

A Guest Post by Kenneth Folk

I love you./I hate you.

You make me smile./You make me sick.

I’ve never met anyone like you./You aren’t the person I thought you were.

Question: What is the difference between the first and second statement in each set above?

Answer: A couple of years, give or take.

By now, you recognize the theme. We’re talking about relationships and how they can flip-flop from love to hate. The pattern is best-known in primary relationships like love affairs. But it doesn’t stop there. You can find the same pattern in all kinds of relationships—parent/child, friend/friend, student/teacher, peer/peer. It happens the way it does because of something that is built into the emotions themselves, a kind of bipolarity that is inherent in emotion.

Think of a teeter totter. You can make one out of a long plank balanced on a big rock. You sit on one end of the plank, your playmate sits on the other, and you can seesaw up and down. But both ends of the seesaw can’t be up at the same time or down at the same time; being on a teeter totter is a bipolar situation. Emotions are like that. You can be happy or sad, angry or loving, anxious or calm. This bipolarity is inherent, both to teeter totters and to emotions. If there is stability to be found, it must lie beyond the extremes.

Now look at the rock that serves as the fulcrum for the seesaw. It’s just sitting there peacefully, holding up the whole affair without having a stake in it one way or another. Your mind has a place like that too, a place that is calm, complete, accepting, and stable. If there is peace to be found in your life (and there is) it will be found not at the edges, but at the heart.

Feel your body now, all at once. Notice that you can feel anxiety or calm, fear or safety, irritation or acceptance, impatience or patience, agitation or tranquility, boredom or interest, aversion or desire. Notice that these mind states, each of which can be paired with its opposite, has a signature constellation of body sensations. In fact, that is how you can tell them apart; fear hurts the body in a particular way, while safety feels like a soothing balm. You could never mistake one for the other, because they are so firmly rooted in body sensations.

You can also look at what underlies the fear or safety. Look at the rock that holds it all up. There is a part of the mind that is not afraid and therefore does not require safety. It doesn’t get bored, so it doesn’t rely on interest. Whether the body is reacting with irritation or acceptance, this deeper place in the mind has no problems; it’s just OK. This is equanimity.

Equanimity is not an emotion as we usually think of emotions. It has no opposite. Emotions are bipolar, always coming in pairs, but equanimity is just OK. Notice that when you are in touch with this deeper, more fundamental aspect of yourself that is just OK with things as they are, you can accept yourself and others. This is lovingkindness. When you are not distracted by your need for things to be other than they are, you can truly see another person; you can feel what it might be like to be them. This is compassion. And when you are tuned in to another person, you can share in his or her triumphs. This is sympathetic joy for the good fortune of another.

The four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes of Buddhism are all aspects of the same, simple, subjectless emotion: the sense of well-being. The bipolar emotions that see-saw back and forth over the rock of contentment will never be at rest and will never bring peace. That’s okay, because all the while they are riding on this great unshakeable mountain of equanimity.

By the way, why are you able to see your loved ones through the constantly flip-flopping lenses of love and hate? Because in either case, you are not looking at them at all. You are looking at your projection, a composite of sensations and mental impressions in your body and mind. You have invented your loved ones just as you have invented yourself. If you want to see your loved ones clearly, you must see yourself clearly...in which case you will find no one at all.

When you look at yourself and find no one, when you look at your mind and find only contentment, you are enlightened, which is another way of saying that you have found the happiness that does not depend on conditions. In order to find enlightenment, you must make your mind and body transparent in realtime. To make your mind and body transparent in realtime, you must feel your body and watch your mind.

Start with your body. Start now. Feel your body, all at once. Notice the way it is constantly contracting and releasing, holding you up, holding you steady. Notice all the little sensations that let you know you are anxious or afraid or hopeful or excited. You don’t have to fix any of this; this is your body and it knows better than you. Feel it as it is. Now see that underlying all of this is a part of the mind that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. You don’t have to choose; it’s all here at once, the teeter totter of emotions, the body sensations, the ideas, and the equanimity. None of this is up to you. Let it be as it is.

It’s not bad that you see-saw between love and hate, happiness and unhappiness, anger and good will; it’s built into the system. You didn’t create the system and you don’t have to fix it. But you can see through it. To see through it is to be free. Feel your body now, all at once. Let it be as it is.

Explore more of Kenneth Folk's work at his web site.

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