Emotion: A Friendly Mystery

            Home is a clear river
            Of perceiving
            All is well
            This is a friendly mystery.                                                                  Enya

“Nobody else can really sort out for you what…opens up your world and…what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery…meditation helps us to know (our) basic energy really well, with tremendous honesty and warm-heartedness, and we begin to figure out for ourselves what is poison and what is medicine, which means something different for each of us.”                                          Pema Chodron.


It was a Saturday afternoon at the gym and an unexpected moment of clear seeing. I was bopping happily around the indoor track, earphones plugged into my favorite bluegrass track. Feet and legs and torso…arms and hands and fingers, neck and shoulders and head, thoughts, sensations and feelings were all bundled and balanced in the syncopated rhythms of easy movement and fun.  *?*!WHAM!??#**  Suddenly someone grabbed me from behind with a fierce growl, stopping all forward movement and sending my nervous system into a reversal of high alert and alarm as I came to a startled halt. Then my friend Roger popped around into view. “Wow, you scared me!” I admonished. He apologized, while I shook myself out as my nervous system calmed itself; then we laughed and caught up a bit. After a few minutes, I continued on my way, once again at ease and engaged with the deliciousness of movement and music and ease. As I walked, I reflected, seeing directly in my own experience the ordinary and wholesome functioning of this “soft animal of my body.”

In this most basic form, emotion alerts me and tells me, quickly, how to respond to both internal and external data. The emotional activity of my nervous system informs me whether to approach and welcome important and nourishing resources or to execute emergency response to perceived danger. This automatic emotional biology functions to help my human body/mind to maintain a wholesome balance. Like all living systems, mine “wants” to organize and coordinate itself in what Dan Siegel describes as a flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable dance of energy that can maintain stability even as it remains continually open to new internal and external information. What a lovely system human evolution has designed. Like an antelope grazing with its herd in the wild, as the soft animal of this human body moved around the gym that day, my body and mind were in just such an easy and balanced aliveness. Suddenly, danger had loomed and the body’s systems reacted in alert, fear, and the mobilization of self-protection. As the perceived sense of danger had quickly passed, my systems easily recalibrated, discharging their sense of alarm and returning to a more easy balance. “No dangerous lions here.” In this most simple and wholesome form, this process can simply be known with awareness as it guides my travels through life.

Often, however, my emotions can get quite a lot more sticky and complex, even destructive to myself and others. At these times, my conceptual mind adds layers of assessment which orient less to the immediate moment and more to memories of the past, predictions for the future, or judgments about what the mind thinks ought to be. Then, the simple protective arousals such as fear or anger or desire or sadness or shame come to narrow the capacity for awareness and lead to more rigidity or chaos than flexibility. Such less wholesome states deplete internal resources and seed responses that restrict, rather than enhance the capacity to respond fluently and skillfully to the ongoing challenges of life.

From a perspective of western neuroscience, emotions that are “destructive” can be similar to a map that provides either inaccurate or too much or too little information, throwing my brain or relationships out of fluidity and coherence and into the extremes of either chaos or rigidity. Dan Siegel describes destructive emotions as those which, by diminishing internal resources, “…may serve to paralyze our thinking, distort our perceptions, (and) imprison our behaviors.”   

There is a story about the communications of a naval officer whose perceptions and internal narratives created feedback loops which distorted and constrained both perception and behavior in just such a way. Here’s one version of the story, attributed to naval communications occurring off the coast of Spain:


Spain to USS Lincoln: Please adjust your course by 15 degrees to avoid collision. You are heading straight for us. Distance, 25 nautical miles.

USS Lincoln: We advise you to adjust your course 15 degrees to avoid collision.

Spain: Negative. We repeat. Adjust your course 15 degrees to avoid collision.

USS Lincoln: This is the Captain of a ship from the United States Navy. We insist that you adjust your course 15 degrees to avoid collision.

Spain: We do not consider this possible or convenient. We suggest you adjust your course 15 degrees north to avoid collision.

USS Lincoln: This is Captain****, at the command of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the second largest in the United States Navy. We are currently being escorted by 2 battleships, 6 destroyers, 5 cruisers, 4 submarines, and support vessels.  Please obey my orders immediately and get out of our way.

(10 second pause)

Spain: This is Juan Manuel Salaas Alcantra. We are two people, currently being escorted by our dog, our groceries, 2 beers, and our canary who’s asleep just now.   We’re not going anywhere since we are in a lighthouse.               Your call.   

While this story is an urban legend and not a true story, we may smile because we recognize mind states that construct perceptions, stories and behaviors that disrupt flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable processing of the everyday data of our human lives. We have all known circumstances like this where an initial response of confusion and/or fear and/or annoyance and/or desire, did not release but instead fed a particular perception which, in turn, fed internal narratives which further reinforced the perception and then drove unwholesome speech and behavior in defense of a personal self which all continued to further complicate communication and relationship. Whew. In those circumstances, where everything depends on everything else, it has been relatively easy for us to spiral into a less than wholesome interaction and into personal and relational suffering. With mindfulness and care, we all can see how this works in our ordinary daily lives and how these mind states maintain themselves over hours, years, decades and lifetimes.

Buddhist teachings also discuss emotion as something that conditions and restricts one’s relationship to experience. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, describes destructive emotion as “…something that prevents the mind from ascertaining reality as it is. With a destructive emotion, there will always be a gap between the way things appear and the way things are, thus, they impair one’s judgment……arise(ing) depending on circumstances and various habits and tendencies that express themselves from the outer (more surface) core of consciousness.”  The ultimate goal of Buddhist psychology, however, is a deeper and more comprehensive goal than western psychology. The Buddha taught the way to complete fluidity of mind and a total release from identification with a separate self who needs to be defended. Nevertheless, both Buddhist and western teachings on wholesome emotion strongly support one another in their respective goals of alleviating either some or all of human suffering.

In each case, the path to release involves cultivating deep, curious, patient and non-reactive awareness of the mind states of emotion (among other objects of attention). Through this awareness, we can, over time, refine the capacity to simply recognize where long standing conditioning may be feeding and sustaining unwholesome states. Sometimes this simple kind and clear observation brings us easily to the release of old, unwholesome emotional patterns; without continued reinforcement, they simply fade back into fluidity and impermanence allowing a graceful move to more skillful experience and action. At other times, there may be more highly conditioned mind states that require a more intentional period of patient and curious inquiry, often with the help of noble friends. What is this? How is it manifesting in the physical body? Which – often less immediately conscious – mind states keep my perceptions and responses locked in rigidity or chaos? Our practice relentlessly invites us into the friendly mystery: What kind of care is needed that will lead to a release into the wise and kind and compassionate awareness that is our own deepest nature? In this, we are guided to wholesome internal and external perception, understanding and responsiveness and to a quality of release that will ripen to ever more full and stable freedom from suffering.

running water

            Home is a clear river
            Of perceiving
            All is well
            This is a friendly mystery


























This entry was posted in The Second Noble Truth, Third Noble Truth: Letting Go, Working with Emotion. Bookmark the permalink.