1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Being Honest With Feelings

By December 20, 2012

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Here's a little more about mindfulness of feeling, which is the second of the four foundations of mindfulness.

Mindfulness of feelings begins by being honest with ourselves about what we feel. In the realm of emotions, this means being mindful of our deepest emotions without separating from them or avoiding them.

I wrote in the last post that very often the first emotions that arise in response to something are buried by "secondary" emotions. Let's look at how that happens. We can use responses to the Newtown, Connecticut shooting as examples.

Usually after a tragedy there is a big (and understandable) rush toward judging and blaming. If you watch closely, you see that much of the judging and blaming behavior is about separating from the "perpetrator" or causes of the tragedy. The "perp" often is labeled "a monster" or "evil." This is a way of saying "whoever did this is not a normal person, as I am. He is a freak, an aberration who does not deserve to be treated as a human being."

Such thought usually are accompanied by an indulgent wallow in self-righteousness, which is a much more pleasant feeling than  grief.

Of course, human civilization requires laws and some sort of criminal justice system to determine guilt and enforce penalties. We're talking only about our emotional responses to tragedy here. But separating humanity into those who deserve consideration and those who don't is a dangerous thing. Such thinking often leads to the next violent tragedy.

It's also common for people to numb themselves by intellectualizing the tragedy somehow. Often this is done by using the tragedy as "proof" of the truthfulness of one's ideological views. In the past few days the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has been blamed on the prohibition of sectarian religious observances in public schools; a "culture of narcissism"; and women. Seriously.

Certainly there are many tangible issues touching on society and public policy that need discussing, and reasonable people will disagree about these issues, sometimes with great emotion. But some of the more off-the-wall responses to Sandy Hook strike me as a way to avoid thinking and feeling about the terrible reality of the deaths of 20 little children. It's much more fun to ride our favorite ideological hobby horse (and see above about self-righteousness).

We humans are social animals, and often our initial emotional responses to public tragedy are conditioned by others. While one person alone might quietly grieve, 20 people together might incite themselves into a mob.

In the age of mass media, our emotional responses to a public tragedy are likely to be conditioned by how the tragedy is presented to us on television. And television coverage generally is calibrated to excite our emotions as much as possible, so that we'll keep watching.  Brad Warner writes that the news coverage "presents to us a consensus of what we supposedly ought to be feeling."

(On a personal note, I was in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and so watched the World Trade Center towers collapse with my own eyes and not on television. It took most of the day to get out of Manhattan, so I didn't see much television at all that day. As time went on it often struck me that most of the country had a very different emotional reaction to the terrorist attacks than most of those who were close enough to witness it. It's hard to explain what that difference was. But some of the difference was, I think, that for many eyewitnesses the usual emotion-avoidance strategies simply did not work. The experience was too intense.)

What usually crowds in after the first flush of fear, sorrow, or joy, are our conditioned and self-clinging feelings. This reminds of the dharma seals, one of which is often translated "all stained emotions are painful." These self-clinging, secondary feelings are good examples of "stained emotions."


December 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm
(1) Mila says:

I agree that Tonglen practice (suggested in the previous post) can be a wonderful support, in situations such as this one — a way of welcoming the arising & dissolving of emotional energy, and nurturing & expressing our hearts of compassion.

When I feel into and think about this latest eruption of seemingly-senseless violence, I can’t help but consider all 28 of those people — not excluding the man-child who pulled the trigger — as victims of a much deeper social/cultural disharmony — one which it would obviously be in our collective interest to resolve, as quickly as possible.

In Canada, the number of homicides via gunshot wound is about 200 per year. Compare this to in the United States, where it’s more in the neighborhood of 8,500 per year! According to Michael Moore, “the United States is responsible for over 80 percent of all the gun deaths in the 23 richest countries combined.” Yikes.

If I drink a pint of whiskey every day, should I really be shocked, surprised, horrified and appalled when, ten years down the road, liver cancer “suddenly and inexplicably” appears? The Newtown murders are simply the latest symptom of a larger social/cultural dis-ease. It’s dependent-origination in action: causes and conditions coming together to bear the fruit of the seeds we have collectively planted. So: are we willing now, collectively, to set into motion a new set of causes and conditions? I would hope so …..

December 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm
(2) Mila says:

Also part of the larger dis-ease, as I see it, is the way mass-media functions, to reinforce ADD attention-spans, a numbing of our capacity to “feel” with every cell of our bodies, and — as a consequence — a generalized dumbing-down of emotional intelligence. All this contributing to a greatly reduced capacity to “stay with” the “primary emotions” until they resolve once again into flowing energy.

Honestly, what tends to “overload my senses” — more than news of some misfortune, per se — is the wild proliferation of a media machine which tends to feed like rabid dogs on tragedy and misfortune of all sorts. And of course, reports of the murders are consistently interspersed with 15- or 30-second commercials, for the newest iPad, or barbeque chicken-wings, or whatever. Absurd …..

A sane society would follow an announcement of something like the Newtown murders with thirty seconds (or how about 30 minutes?) of silence: an opportunity to truly integrate the feelings and thoughts that quite naturally arise. But instead, we’re bombarded, right at the moment of our greatest vulnerability, with the suggestion that the solution to this and all of our problems lies in simply forking out the cash for the newest car, iPhone, soft drink or [fill in the blank].

December 20, 2012 at 2:44 pm
(3) Mila says:

As a Buddhist practitioner, what comes to mind is the story of a woman, distraught by the recent death of her child, who comes to the Buddha, carrying the body of her dead child, asking for his help. The Buddha agrees to help, on the condition that the woman collect a certain number of mustard-seeds — one from each household she can find, which has not in some way or another been touched by death. Of course, the woman comes back empty-handed, in terms of mustard seeds, but enriched by the reminder that each and every phenomena which is born, will at some point die. (It’s pretty much of a package deal.)

So, given that my human life is precious, and that it really could end at any moment, how am I using my days, my moments? To grow in wisdom and compassion, or to rehearse attachment, aggression and ignorance? It’s a choice ….

December 20, 2012 at 3:56 pm
(4) William says:

You write about emotional responses to incidences or events in our environment. But can you say something about emotions that arise for no apparent reason, that do not appear to be triggered by any incident or an event in the environment that is discernible to the person experiencing it. Is the idea of primary and secondary emotional responses applicable in such cases, given that one might not know why one is feeling what one is feeling in the first instant? Such emotional occurrences once recognised may then sequentially latch on to something to feel sad or angry about, but these may not be the cause of the underlying emotion.

In the context of practising mindfulness, what would you say about these emotional situations?

December 21, 2012 at 3:20 am
(5) sherrh says:

It is so wonderful to read a wonderful article and have comments that are helpful not with people arguing and calling names in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy. I’m sure other sites are having helpful comments but I have so far only found them here. Thanks to each of you.

December 21, 2012 at 1:30 pm
(6) Lee says:

Gashho! Perfectly right on …. I can only bow to both of you.
I live close to the Clackamas Mal where a shooting occured several days prior to this school shooting. The emotional reaction to such a series of terrible things has been hard and i’ve turned away from the media because of it… thank you for your comments.

December 28, 2012 at 5:21 am
(7) Hein says:

What usually crowds in after the first flush of fear, sorrow, or joy, are our conditioned and self-clinging feelings. This reminds of the dharma seals, one of which is often translated “all stained emotions are painful.” These self-clinging, secondary feelings are good examples of “stained emotions.”

And this one will only be able to discern once you have trained yourself to have a fixed point of focus for observation like the breath.

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