MCTB Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements

I am astounded at how many people are completely paralyzed in their practice because they feel bad about so many of the types of emotional sensations that arise. Unrealistic ideals of the emotional perfection that meditation might bring often create an inability to face one’s actual humanity or to continue practicing. The energy in “undesirable” emotions can actually be used to fuel one’s practice, which is good, as this is much of what we have to work with.

This paralysis happens because people tend to feel that “bad” emotions should not arise and are worthless and embarrassing. While there is a lot to be said for repressing the “defilements,” there is also a lot to be said for using their tremendous energy in ways that are skillful. Basically, until we are very enlightened, some odd mixture of compassion and confusion motivates everything we do, as mentioned elsewhere, and so we have to learn to work with this. Further, these potentially useful emotional energies will continue to arise like the weather, even in very enlightened beings (contrary to popular belief), so we must learn how to deal with them and use them well.

Remember that these practices and teachings are not about becoming some kind of emotionally devoid, non-existent entity, but about clearly understanding the truth of our humanity and life. Becoming fluent in the true nature of all categories of sensations, including the sensations that make up all categories of emotions, is a particularly good idea and highly recommended. This might even be undertaken as a systematic practice by those who are dedicated to thorough understanding. Thus, those doing noting practice, which I highly recommend, can note which emotions they are feeling, such as fear, boredom, anger, confidence, restlessness, joy, jealousy, etc.

Further, if the powerful energy of the emotional life can be harnessed to energize our practice, this can be extremely helpful. Some level of skill and moderation is required here, a middle way between defilement restraint and energy transmutation. Either extreme can be harmful or helpful depending on how much wisdom the student has, how good their teachers are, and how well the student listens to their teachers.

It should be noted that those who are passionate about practice and learning to actually practice correctly are much more likely to make progress than those who are not. Those who are able to channel all their rage, frustration, lust, greed, despair, confusion and anguish into trying to find a better way are the only ones who are likely to have what it takes to finally attain freedom. Those who are actually able to sit with the specific sensations that make up rage, lust, anger, confusion and all the rest with clarity, precision, acceptance of their humanity, and equanimity are even more likely to get enlightened. This paragraph deserves to be read more than once.

It is common for people to feel bad about their lack of progress. This can cause them to feel extremely frustrated, and produce all sorts of self-judgment, jealousy, extremes of blind faith, and rigid adherence to dogma. It can paralyze a student’s practice if they get caught in these or in thinking that desire for enlightenment is a problem when in fact it is the most compassionate wish that someone could have for themselves or others. The whole trick is to channel this energy into actual practice using good technique rather than comparison or thoughts about progress. Simply examine the sensations that make up all of this frustration and comparison, i.e. don’t stop investigating when certain categories of sensations arise.

Try this little exercise the next time some kind of strong and seemingly useless or unskillful emotion arises. First, stabilize precisely on the sensations that make it up and perhaps even allow these to become stronger if this helps you to examine them more clearly. Find where these are in the body, and see as clearly as possible what sorts of images and story lines are associated with these physical sensations. Be absolutely clear about the full magnitude of the suffering in these, how long each lasts, that these sensations are observed and not particularly in one’s control.

Now, find the compassion in it. Take a minute or two (no more) to reflect on why this particular pattern of sensations seems to be of some use even though it may not seem completely useful in its current form. Is there a wish for yourself or others to be happy in these sensations? Is there a wish for the world to be a better place? Is there a wish for someone to understand something important? Is there a wish for things to be better than they are? Is there a wish to find pleasure, tranquility, or the end of suffering? Sit with these questions, with the sensations that make them up, allowing them to be strong enough to see what is going on but not so strong that you become completely overwhelmed by them.

Notice that fear has in it the desire to protect us or those about whom we care. Anger wants the world to be happy and work well or for justice to be done. Frustration comes from the caring sensations of anger being thwarted. Desire is rooted in the wish to be happy. Judgment comes from the wish for things to conform to high standards. Sadness comes from the sense of how good things could be. (I could go on like this for a whole book.)

Actively reflecting along these lines, sit with this compassionate wish, acknowledge it, and feel the compassionate aspect of it. Allow the actual sensations that seem to be fundamental to wanting to be directly understood as and where they are. Remember that this same quality of compassion is in all beings, in all their unskillful and confused attempts to find happiness and the end of suffering. Sit for a bit with this reflection as it relates directly to your experience.

Then, examine the mental sensations related to the object that you either wish for (attraction), wish to get away from (aversion), or wish could just be ignored (ignorance). Examine realistically if this will fundamentally help yourself and others and if these changes are within your power to bring about. If so, then plan and act with as much compassion and kindness as possible.

Remember then that all the rest of the suffering of that emotional pattern is created by your mind and its confusion, and vow to channel its force into developing morality, concentration, and wisdom. Reflection on the fact that the emotions have unskillful components as well as skillful ones can give us a more realistic relationship to our hearts, minds and bodies, and allow us to grow in wisdom and kindness without blindly shutting ourselves down or chaining ourselves to a wall. From a certain point of view, we are all doing our best all the time, and the problem is just that we do not see clearly enough.

There is a Tibetan teaching from Tantra called “The Five Buddha Families” or “Five Sky Dancers” that does a good job of dealing with the wide world of emotions and their helpful and less than helpful aspects. There is also a Tibetan teaching called “The Six Realms” that can help as well. Both of these teachings are too rich and deep to do them justice here. If you are interested in these fine teachings, you might check out Journey Without Goal, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and Transcending Madness, all by Chogyam Trungpa.

It should be noted that the fundamental rule when applying emotion-derived effort in practice is actually to put it into practice rather than thoughts about practice, thoughts about some goal that seems far-off, thoughts about success or failure, thoughts about one’s strengths or weaknesses, or even thoughts about putting effort into practice. These traps are all too common, blindly waste the vast power inherent in our emotional life, and cause rather than reduce difficulties. Some of us will have to learn the hard way.

I remember some time ago when I realized that something I thought that I had understood quite thoroughly was actually only partially understood. I was very much less than happy with this, and decided to put the fullness of this compassionate rage into relentless, focused investigation of the Three Characteristics during whatever periods of time I could find during my day for doing so. It was only two months later that I came to understand what I wished to, and I was grateful for the power of the emotional life and what it can lend to practice. Remember, there is love and wisdom mixed into even our “worst” emotions. If that is what we have to work with, let’s use it wisely!

Some may then say, “That is not right motivation! You cannot proceed without right motivation!” Well, aside from the fact that this simply isn’t true, such people trap themselves in a Catch 22. To attain this “very pure” motivation, to use dangerous language, one must understand what it is that one wants to use this “pure motivation” to understand. Thus, were we unable to proceed based upon our somewhat deluded motivations, awakening would be impossible by definition.

Luckily, awakening is possible, and the only tool we have is practice based upon semi-deluded motivations. I am extremely grateful that this seems to be sufficient if we are willing to use what we have rather than fantasizing about some perfect us that doesn’t exist. Without greed, rage, grandiosity, frustration, insecurity, fear and a host of other semi-deluded forces, we would hardly budge. We wouldn’t pick up dharma books, we wouldn’t go on retreats, we wouldn’t deal with our stuff, and we wouldn’t care at all. But we do care, and so we forge on. Thank the Metaphorical God for the power of our emotions and the pain the dark ones cause. They are the gasoline that drives us on the road to understanding.

MCTB Right Thought and the Augean Stables