Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Source of Your Joy

During the past month here at the Abbey, we've been immersed in studying and practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness -- a traditional form of meditation practiced since the time of the Buddha, 2500 years ago -- with Pema Chodron. It has been an unexpectedly wild ride, full of emotional drama and personal discoveries. I think each participant in the retreat feels that they've gotten to know themselves better this month.

We spent a good couple of weeks working with the first foundation, Mindfulness of Body -- repeatedly doing very slow body scans and bringing our attention as fully as possible into experiencing each part of our bodies. This was the first step in getting to know ourselves; that's because ordinarily we're not really in our bodies, or not in any genuine, meaningful way. You might have a concept of your left foot and where it is located in relation to the rest of your body; but how often do you actually descend into your left foot and remain there, experiencing the sensations that arise and pass at each moment? By being willing to remain with the unfabricated experience that is unfolding within our bodies, moment by moment, we begin to more fully inhabit our own human existence -- we come home to ourselves.

In practicing the second foundation, Mindfulness of Feeling, we began to explore the realm of feeling tones and emotional reactions. Every sensation or experience that arises is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral -- or at least we perceive it that way -- and then we're off to the races, reacting automatically, unthinkingly, with attachment or aversion or zoning out. What's more, we frequently escalate our elemental reactions of attachment and aversion into heightened states of emotional drama. The essence of Mindfulness of Feeling is allowing the mind to simply notice and rest with these intangible feeling tones and emotional energies, without adopting or rejecting them.

When we spend enough time with these foundations of mindfulness, we might notice that they blur into one another. Ordinarily, we think that our physical sensations are cut from a very different cloth than our emotional feelings, that these two elements of experience take place in different locations or that they enter through different doors of perception. But as we descend more deeply into our sensations and perceptions, we start to glimpse that it's all one big mash-up of experience unfolding in different ways. When we look beyond our assumption that experience can be neatly compartmentalized into different categories -- thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and perceptions -- we discover that it's difficult to draw hard and fast lines anywhere. Gaylon Ferguson compares this to the rooms of a house, which we think of as being very separate; but the smell of breakfast cooking travels through the whole house and finds you wherever you are.

Emotions, for example, can be embedded and expressed right within our bodies; they can, in fact, be carried there (and perhaps without our awareness) for years. During the first week of the retreat I noticed that each time we did the body scans, there was a particular moment when I would start to freak out. In the area of my solar plexus and stomach, I could feel a kind of gripping tension, a hot and tight and uncomfortable feeling. I knew I had stumbled across something that needed closer inspection.

As I stayed with this uncomfortable sensation in my abdomen, and the feelings of aversion and fear that arose in response to it, I gradually realized that the physical sensation itself was intertwined with a particular emotional feeling of grief that I had been carrying, in a rather unfelt way, for quite some time. Grief, and my resistance towards feeling it, were being expressed in my body, held in my gut like a stone. As I continued working with this tangle of emotional and physical feelings, I was able to begin letting go of the resistance, and moving into the grief itself.

I spent one afternoon weeping (weeping mindfully, if I may say so), and saw that indeed the feeling of grief arose and expressed itself right there in my solar plexus where I had felt the initial push and pull of something unfelt and unwanted. I had the image of a wet towel in my abdomen being squeezed tightly; the water that came out of the towel seemed to emerge as tears, and the whole physical display of grief. Afterwards, I felt somewhat as if a storm -- one that had perhaps been brewing and building for a long time -- had blown through and cleared the air. And the physical sensation of tightness and clutching in my solar plexus was noticeably diminished.

Later, as we went deeper into Mindfulness of Body and Feeling, I found that my attention and awareness were drawn very intensely, for several days, into my face. This felt like a natural emphasis, since the face is such an important part of how we humans embody and express our emotions; the face is perhaps the busiest intersection of mind and body. I began to notice subtle patterns of physical tension in my face: a gripping of the muscles below and above the eyes, a hardening of the eyebrows and a worried pinching of the area between the brows. The more I paid attention to these patterns, the less subtle they became.

But more significantly, I noticed how these habitual patterns of tension in my face seemed to go hand in hand with emotional drama or discursiveness in my mind. Each time my mind wandered off into some kind of story-line or discursive fantasy, my face would also assume a mask of tension reflecting the tension in my mind. I found it was impossible to determine which was the chicken and which was the egg: did the discursiveness in my mind trigger a reflexive tension in my face, or did the tension in my face invite and open the door for discursiveness to enter my mind? The two always seemed to be there at the same time, so it was impossible for me to say. But I noticed, too, that if I consciously relaxed the tension in my face, my mind also relaxed.

I was reminded of the psychologist Paul Ekman, whose pioneering work produced a tremendously nuanced and accurate system (the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS) for reading emotions on people’s faces. To develop this science, Ekman took himself as a test subject; in a process that was often grueling, he learned to control each and every muscle in his face individually, at will, sometimes even using electrical stimulation to get at certain muscles he could not control consciously. He also studied how people in various cultures express and interpret emotions on the face.

Along the way, Ekman made several startling discoveries. Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally determined, as most scientists had always assumed. They are universal, and are hard-wired into our biology. Moreover, Ekman revealed something called facial micro-expressions, which are fleeting, instantaneous glimpses of emotion that pass across the face so quickly that they go unnoticed by most people. Micro-expressions, too, are involuntary, and when one knows how to identify and interpret them, it becomes possible to read people’s true emotions even when they are trying to pretend they feel otherwise.

Another of Ekman’s discoveries, which he stumbled upon through his early experimentation on his own face, is that there is no clear separation between the emotion itself and its corresponding facial expression. We might assume that first there is an emotion and then there a reactive facial expression that signals the presence of that emotion. What Ekman found, however, was that simply by adopting a particular facial expression, he would actually experience the corresponding emotion. Which is the chicken and which the egg, indeed?

When I shared my recent experience with Pema Chodron, she pointed out that this is probably why many Buddhist teachers stress the importance of smiling. Some even teach smiling as an actual practice to their students. I have to admit that, until now, that kind of instruction always sounded incredibly cheesy to me, and I dismissed it rather cynically. But my own experiments in meditation this month, not to mention the decades of scientific work produced by Paul Ekman, suggest that there might be something to it. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Dark Side of Emotions

I awoke this morning to an email with dreadful news. Someone I knew in New York (I'll call him Bill; I don't feel entirely comfortable using his real name) was found yesterday in his apartment, with his throat slit and multiple stab wounds (some of them on his hands, indicating that he tried to defend himself). His body was discovered beneath a pile of clothes and bedding that had been laid over him by the murderer to cover up the sight of his own crime.

Just a couple of months ago, I lost another friend from Los Angeles, Marco, who overdosed on drugs. Both of these friends died such needless, unnatural deaths -- which somehow makes the news of their loss even sadder. Death is seldom an easy experience for anyone, but the tragedy shocks us more deeply when people die in a gruesome or sudden, unexpected way.

Over the past two years I've spent quite a bit of time contemplating emotions, studying what Buddhism says about the nature of emotions and how to work skillfully with them. I've worked extensively on editing a book about emotions written by a Buddhist teacher. I've struggled with my own emotional earthquakes and aftershocks relating to the loss of a relationship in which I was heavily invested emotionally, and all of the lessons I've learned from that first-hand experience. And for the past three weeks, I've been engaged in an intensive retreat in which we've gone deeply into practicing mindfulness of body and emotions.

In short, emotions have been on my mind a lot. So, with this latest terrible news, my mind goes automatically beyond the facts and speculations printed in the newspaper -- police believe Bill was murdered by his recently acquired lover (I'll call him David, because he has not been convicted yet), a shady character who was down on his luck and homeless, and who had moved in with Bill temporarily -- and towards what I imagine to be the emotional story underlying this tragedy. Bill, according to friends, had been planning to ask David to move out of the apartment this week, and it's not difficult to imagine how that kind of emotional confrontation, in the hands of someone like David -- unstable, argumentative and "mean-spirited" (according to one neighbor who was "creeped out" by him) -- might end in violence.

Marco, too, was tormented by emotional demons, although he seemed to be more the type who swallowed his emotions. He shared some of his struggles with me in the brief time I knew him. It was those demons, and Marco's unsuccessful attempts to anaesthetize and escape and change his feelings, that led him so deeply into the habitual drug use that eventually killed him. (This is certainly an over-simplification of a human being's complex motives for self-destructive behavior, but knowing Marco as I did, I know too that there is some truth in it.)

Both of these tragedies underscore for me, in a personal way, the truly dangerous aspect of human emotions. Emotions not only can be painful psychologically, or hurt us indirectly -- they can actually kill us, and they can drive us to kill others. The traditional Buddhist term for emotion is the Sanskrit word, klesha, which is often translated into English as 'destructive' or 'afflictive' emotion. Our emotions -- especially the nasty, uncomfortable ones like anger and jealousy and hate -- agitate and disturb our minds and stir us towards a whole range of dysfunctional and destructive coping strategies. We stuff our emotions down and anaesthetize them; or we act them out and direct their full fury at the people who provoke them; or we vacillate between these two extremes.

Developing what Daniel Goleman termed "emotional intelligence" -- a realistic awareness of what we are feeling and the ability to experience and process emotional discomfort without repressing it or acting out on it -- is not a secondary consideration, or a minor part of the spiritual path. It is a life's work, and we ignore this work at the risk of our lives.

With the news of Bill's gruesome murder, I also find myself thinking about another topic that has been on my mind a lot in recent months: mindful speech. That's because in reflecting back on my memories of Bill, I cannot avoid recalling how often I bad-mouthed him to others. Bill and I were not close friends, but we were part of a group that met often, and we had a certain kind of bond based on that experience. Bill was by nature an extrovert and a very outgoing, talkative, loud, social and gregarious person; and he was almost relentlessly cheerful. By contrast, I was a bit of a loner, introverted and shy and quiet, even somber at times; it was like I was on some kind of mission to make everyone around me understand that life is serious business. I could see that Bill was a good-natured person with a light heart, and I liked him for those qualities; but his ebullience and talkativeness also rubbed me the wrong way at times.

One weekend about six years ago, I shared a very small room with Bill in a Fire Island beach house. Bill was at the peak of his powers of chattiness that weekend, and all my buttons were being pushed. On the first night we were there, I was shocked to find that he continued talking in his sleep -- even unconsciousness couldn't make him be quiet! Being a light sleeper myself, this irritated me even more. I vented my frustration by taking every opportunity I could to complain about Bill's behavior to other people in the house, and make jokes at his expense, behind his back.

The thing about bad-mouthing people is that it's so easy, and even seems like fun; but somewhere, in the back of the mind, there's always a still, quiet voice -- it has a name, by the way: it's called a conscience -- that says, "It isn't right, what you're saying. How would you feel if someone talked about you this way?" Of course the answer is that my feelings would be hurt if another person talked about me the way I talked about Bill sometimes; and I imagine that, if he had heard me complaining and making jokes about him, his feelings would have been hurt too.

The other thing about bad-mouthing people is that it's easy to pretend like there's no harm done, as long as they don't find out about it. But that pretense rings very hollow today, knowing what happened to Bill this week. I am filled with regret for the things that I said about him, and for the bad karmic connection my speech forged between us; I wish I could apologize in person, but now that I realize this, it is too late. It is further, humbling evidence (add it to the growing mountain of evidence) of just how far I still have to go in developing and practicing mindful speech. This, too, I've come to believe, is a life's work, and no less essential.

And I want to say in all fairness that, although he often pushed my buttons by being loud and talkative, I own my "buttons" -- my reactions to Bill were simply my reactions, and reflected my own issues. Bill was a deeply kind-hearted, warm, cheerful, and optimistic person whose presence in the world made it a better place. I never anticipated I would be saying this, but I will miss him profoundly now that he is gone (as will, I suspect, everyone else who knew him). I would happily put up with his talkativeness all day, every single day, for the rest of my life, if it would bring him back.