by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Some people allow emotions to rule how they interact with the causal Universe. Whatever emotion arises they let it have full rein in determining what action is taken regardless of the known or unknown consequences. Achieving the disposition of emotional equanimity will enable a greater possibility of positive consequences for it won’t be emotions but wisdom that step to front.
There are two ways that emotions manifest themselves. Sometimes they arise only to overwhelm us. Or, we strive to analyze them by defining their characteristics and studying how they impact our life, and the lives of others. The first instance is one in which emotions are in control. In the second we can engaged in experiential verification, the opportunity to determine the value of that emotion and choose to act with its influence or discard it for what will most likely be a better choice. Thing is we can’t do both at once because to analyze requires us to detach from the emotion so that reflection and contemplation can occur. Detachment isn’t easy.
To detach we must first realize and admit to ourselves that emotions are not us. They do not have to be HOW we are. Often people will say, “I don’t have any control over what my emotions cause me to do.” That is a convenient excuse for the lazy and the ignorant . . . not for someone walking the Noble Path.
Francis Bacon (English philosopher, scientist and essayist – 1561-1626) unknowingly described a very Buddhist concept of understanding emotions. He was referring to the paths that emotions have taken in the writings of history and literature, but his words speak clearly to us on the Noble Path. Bacon offers that “the best doctors of this knowledge ( i.e., emotions); where we may find painted forth with great life, how affections are kindled and incited; and how pacified and refrained; and how again contained from act and further degree; how they disclose themselves; how they work; how they vary; how they gather and fortify; how they are enwrapped one within another; and how they do fight and encounter one with another, . . .” Unknown to Mr. Bacon he was describing the process a Buddhist practitioner goes through on the path of changing their view of their emotions. There is recognition of what emotions are, what triggers their arising, how to gain control over them, how one emotion revolves around and initiates another, and how they cause suffering, discontent and anguish in us.
Emotional experience involves widespread commotion in the body as well as in the mind; it is a holistic bodymind experience no matter the emotion that arises. When the mind is seized by anger the eyes take on a fiery aspect and the body tenses, by modesty and cheeks reddened and shame arises in the mind, by fear and the face pales while the body prepares to take flight or fight, and by lust . . . well we all know how our bodies react to that. There are both psychological and physiological effects from emotions, some degree of disturbance in the bodymind. Those effects are not equal in all emotions.
William James (American philosopher, psychologist, who is associated with the School of Pragmatic Philosophy) distinguished the coarser emotions that cause the arising of easily recognized reverberations in the bodymind, to the subtler emotions in which the effects are less apparent. The truth of this realization is what makes the development of mindfulness of self and awareness of consequence so important in a Buddhist practice.
James offered a different view of how emotions affect us that might seem to be the opposite of a common sense view. A hiker in the mountains encounters a bear. Seeing it they are frightened and run away. Experience brings on mental phenomena that causes flight. Sounds logical. James reversed the order of effect. The hiker encounters a bear. Seeing it they run away, becoming afraid. James is saying that pragmatically we know to run from a bear, that we automatically know it is a danger. The emotion of fear isn’t the driver of action here. Instead it is the knowledge of what a bear might do that causes the hiker to run. Fear arises with the action. For James the emotion is a byproduct of the action rather than the instigator of that action. This was his experience and may be the experience of others as well.
When it comes to engaging emotions it doesn’t really matter if emotion leads to action, or action leads to emotion. What matters is recognizing the arising of emotion and not allowing it to have any impact on what action is chosen in the face of any situation. To do this one must realize that emotions are not how we have to be, they are only transitory bodymind phenomena that can be controlled and eventually ignored all-together.
Why is a practice of emotional equanimity important? Because, to quote the author Rudyard Kipling from his poem ‘If’, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . .” then our response to emotional situations will be met with calm and balance, with equanimity.
That emotions are a cause of human suffering is clear. Whether it is in the adverse effects on the bodymind, or that acting on emotion commonly leads to bad decisions and negative consequences; the dharma is there for all to experience. Emotions distract us from the reality a given situation, and they are hindrances to the development of a bodymind grounded in serenity.
William James’ view of action leading to emotion rather than the other way around does have value in a practice of emotional equanimity. In my own experience there is a sequence of situation, emotion, action, and reinforced emotion. At the office you are expected to have a client presentation ready for tomorrow. It causes the arising of anxiety about the project and anger that you alone are expected to take care it. The anxiety hinders your confidence in your ability to develop the presentation, the anger distracts you from focusing fully on what needs to be done. The following morning you decide (take action) to call in sick, to avoid the situation. That action causes reinforces anxiety because what will be the consequence of the choice, and possibly anger at yourself for giving up. The trick to developing emotional equanimity is to not allow the emotions to cloud a view of the situation based in reality. Understanding the boss made the choice for a good reason will allow anxiety to fall away and be replaced by a calm realization that you can do the job well. An appropriate view that the other people in your office are tasked with projects, that you were best suited for the project at that moment reveals a balance of consequence across the office. This same ideal can be applied to any situation in which emotions are likely to arise.
For many years I worked in a variety of offices and in them experienced how the emotional upheaval of one person could sweep through and completely alter the mood and actions of anyone not able to attain emotional equanimity. From those experiences arose this observation:
A “mood tsunami” thundered through the office.
It birthed negativity and unleashed it on the uninvolved. An unsuspecting co-worker pondering their own problematic personal events got swept up in the moods of others. Engulfed by it their faint agitation transformed into crippling anxiety.
The mood tsunami rolled on and forced its way through a closed door inundating another unprepared victim. A day that began sunny turned cloudy. The tsumani’s strength trebled and it widened its influence.
Washing into the open sales floor it quickly spread losing none of its power. The insidious wave transformed minor disagreements between friendly coworkers to raised voices and name baiting. Sensing the abrupt change in the emotional climate one person stretched their tentacles of unhappiness, snaring the inexperienced. Their unhappiness could become the unhappiness of others.
Drowning in the rising negativity the inexperienced hurriedly cast hooks into perceived wrongs.
A few employees reached islands of peace where they watched the swirling turmoil in mental safety. Anchored by compassion and wisdom they resisted being swept up by the “mood tsunami”.
Emotions are not hard-wired into us. We develop the triggers for our emotions. Once those triggers are recognized then it becomes easier to disable those triggers in our bodymind. Emotions are one of the causes of human self-imposed suffering. Sadness held for too long, joy that is missed once it falls away, romantic love that ends, and the elation that comes with a new car (until it develops wear and tear) are examples of that type of discontent and anguish. To alleviate emotional impact takes developing an emotional equanimity, a calm and balanced view of every moment-to-moment experience. Whatever the emotion it will not last, it will fall away, unless we grasp onto it, become attached to it for whatever reason we use to justify its existence.