Dealing with the tempest

The Tempest“Through direct and fearless perception of the swirling energies of anger, hatred, jealousy, pride and doubt, we come to experience that they are inseparable from our own highest wisdom and thus are a doorway to an open heart.

These emotions that can seem to consume us become, in fact, a constant and faithful teacher.”  [Khenmo Drolma]


As we attempt to walk a meaningful path through life, we tend to think that it’s wrong to think negative thoughts, or feel anything but love and bliss – and so we may do our best to extinguish any feelings that are not “correct.”

The truth is that negative emotions are as much a part of us as positive ones; and although it isn’t very comfortable to see and recognize our experiences of jealousy, or anger, or spite, the only way to grow beyond these unpleasant emotions is to experience them – to just “be” with them with open awareness until they fade on their own.   

As my first spiritual teacher once said, “Each of us carries the whole bag:  love and joy and compassion and all those positive and good feelings – and we also have pride and jealousy and hatred and anger and all those emotions that frighten us or make us feel negative or crazy or destructive.”

The trick with any emotion that arises is to recognize it when it’s happening and not attempt to block it out if it’s not as positive as we judge it should be (coming as it does from a “good” person like ourselves).

And of course, experiencing and welcoming strong emotions as tools for learning is not an excuse to inflict them on others, mentally clutching the idea that it’s good to “express yourself.”  Rather, it’s simply a turning inward without shrinking away from that part of ourselves that isn’t as pure as we might like it to be.

Pema Chödrön of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, internationally-known Buddhist teacher and writer, talks about this issue with a down-to-earth authority that is typical of her writing.  Here she is:

Pema ChodronOur Life, as Spiritual Practice

There isn’t anything except your own life that can be used as ground for spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is your life, twenty-four hours a day. There’s no time off. We do formal practice  –  meditation  –  because it brings us closer to those states of mind we experience in our lives during times of crisis.

For a Buddhist, negative emotions are something to work with. There’s a joke about bodhisattvas, who are a kind of spiritual warrior in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition: the biggest problem for bodhisattvas is that they don’t have much to work with anymore, because fewer and fewer things trigger their negative emotions.

It’s humorous because this is everyone else’s dream come true, but it’s a big problem for bodhisattvas. I’m not saying that I’m at that level, but I do know from personal experience that life can become smoother.

Turning toward pain instead of avoiding it is a common theme in my books, because I realized what a source of happiness turning toward pain actually is. Our avoidance of pain keeps us locked in a cycle of suffering.

What we think of as our worst nightmares are what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle would call “portals.” They are doorways that can take you to a different state of mind. Typically what happens when we experience pain is that our habit of avoiding pain gets stronger, or the pain gives birth to other sorrow-producing habits based on the fiction that there’s something wrong. But when you taste experience fully, the doorway opens into what I would call “a timeless now.”

There’s nothing wrong with our thoughts and emotions except that we identify with them and make them seem solid. But if you don’t identify with them, you begin to see life as a sort of movie in which you are the main character. It still has plot and conflict – there’s no other way it could be – but you don’t have this tight grip on it all. We need to let the story line go and have an immediate experience of what’s actually happening, without blaming ourselves or anyone else.

This is an important message for Westerners, because we get hooked on a story about a problem. That hooked feeling is an urge, a knee-jerk response, that we keep repeating over and over again. We lose our balance and intelligence. But you can notice when it happens. You can acknowledge it. You can catch yourself. You can do something different, choose a fresh alternative.  Because if you do what you’ve always done, you’re never going to get unhooked.”

This woman’s teachings are so clear and easy to understand.  Don’t know which of her many books to begin with?  No problem; just close your eyes and pick any one of  them; they’re all that good!