Reflections on Emotion and Their Creation and Liberation
I once was asked in an interview, “What is an emotion?” Spontaneously, a wide grin spread across my face, and I responded, “That’s a mystery!” I went on to share how I feel emotions very deeply, but what they are remains a mystery, a mystery to be encountered.
I’ll say more about encountering the mystery of emotion soon. Now I invite you to draw upon your direct experience of emotion and to compare my observations with your own. Emotion seems to arise first as a constellation of energy, that is then sensed and registered as feeling. Often the word “emotion” is used when the atmosphere of sensation and feeling become a state. Frequently, the state is then identified with, shaping consciousness; “I feel sadness” becomes “I am sad.” In states of identification, the senses of experience and experiencer are intertwined. In movements toward liberation, this intertwining becomes unlinked.
Inquiries like “Who is sad?” or “Who feels sadness?” are commonly asked to allow the mind to shift focus from the experience and to displace the sense of experiencer (if no experiencer is found) or to encounter presence, free of identity. As identification is relinquished, it is possible to clearly see and observe the remaining emotion (if any does remain) and to intimately encounter it.
In observing emotion, one may come up short when trying to locate who is experiencing emotion. Yet even without a sense of subject, there can still be a host of thoughts that create a narrative about the emotion. Most narratives either stoke or mitigate the emotion, or do some of both.
I clearly remember a statement that Adya made to me not long after we met, while at a café on one of our early dates. I was sharing with him about a shock I’d received at work that day. A boss that I was very close to and a true mentor was let go, despite the person who let him go telling me two weeks earlier what a wonderful salesman my boss was and how I should pay close attention to all that he had to teach me. This same person’s decision to replace my boss with a V.P. of Sales more well-known in the industry, landed as “wrong” in me. Adya asked if he could share something that might help, and when I gladly agreed he said, “In Zen we are taught not to see things in terms of right or wrong.”
I had never heard, or truly heard, such a statement before. I felt the ground shifting out from under my conclusion of “wrong” and my whole narrative coming to a halt. I could sense unknown, open possibility. In that openness, I was available to join in a new direction of conversation and to listen to more of Adya’s sharing. Looking back, it was upon hearing his statement that I became a student of Zen.
Studying emotion involves clearly seeing through labels and narratives overlaid upon feelings. These overlays need not be rejected out of hand, but it can be helpful to suspend them in order to look afresh. Encountering emotion often begins simply with acknowledging that feelings are present and with allowing oneself to feel what is felt without indulgence or resistance. In my conversation with Adya in the café, I was indulging (stoking) and resisting the feeling of “wrong.” Even if the feeling that’s present is noted to be resistance itself, it is possible to allow that feeling without resisting its occurring and with an openness to seeing it anew.
Bearing witness is to see through what I like to call “the eyes of Spirit.” It is to observe with the sense of what has been silently looking through your eyes and witnessing all of the experiences of your life with constancy and without reference to time, preferences, or conclusions.
When narrative is set aside and when feelings are witnessed and regarded with care and love, they are supported to energetically unfold and to express of their own accord. This is how feelings and emotion move toward their own liberation, without interference. Adya modeled and stated a path to emotional transformation that night in the café many years ago. Through willingness and care, you too can be a model for others by engaging this transformation within yourself, in the here and now.
“Be here now” was a big catch phrase and powerful spiritual pointer in the ’70s, made popular from the title of a book by Ram Dass published at the time. I remember Adya having a chuckle about the phrase during a talk he gave about 25 years ago, after which he said, “As if there was anywhere else you could be!” It is funny, and not so funny, how we can have the experience of not being “here,” but “there”—caught up in our mind, in the past, or in the future—all the while missing what we are and what’s before us. Sometimes it can feel like we must journey back to where we already are, back to finding a greater appreciation of arriving and being present, without the pulls to “there.”
A sense of “rightness” registers when being both conscious of the present (personally unifying) and being the consciousness of the present (universally unifying). This is true alignment.
A powerful pointer that Adya uses to this end, is to “Allow what is.” He is speaking of meeting the actuality of what’s unfolding (within or without). When our attention narrows and is pulled into thought or emotion and you recognize what is happening, you can then orient out of resistance and into allowance.
Refraining from resisting our experience (even resisting resistance) can be like dropping your end of the rope in a game of tug of war.
To allow what we don’t like to be happening is not to condone it, but to take a step toward peace. What is happening is no longer fueled by unconscious or reflexive resistance, and energy is freed up to mobilize toward more fully meeting the moment, and toward effective response.
Meeting the moment offers a fresh perspective of what is before us, and also of what is perceiving. In its fundamental essence, what is perceiving is free of resistance and is always and ever allowing, simply because it cannot function otherwise. Being conscious of this fundamental expression of unconditional allowance opens one to both a wider field of possibility and to one’s nature as the eternal, that only ever dwells in the here and now: true home.
Each of us is unique in our journey of awakening and in how we express Spirit. Our individual temperaments and varied life experiences make us one of a kind. I once heard Adya say, “In all of history, in all of time, there will only and ever be one of you. Eternity only expresses uniquely as you this once.”
Adya has also encouraged us to question, to ask, “Who or what is living this life?”
One way of approaching this inquiry is to turn toward the foundation of your uniqueness, toward the inner atmosphere of your personal depth . . . whether that be in your heart, your core, or your mysterious body form.
As your inner gaze and attention resides in this atmosphere of depth, become curious: “What is this ‘I am’?” or “What is it to intimately know this depth, this essential being?”
Our essential being registers each unique and sincere call, each whole-hearted offering of devoted attention and present availability. As we carry such attention inward and offer our consciousness to depth, our call or query ripples through essential being, awakening the unconscious to its consciousness in form.
Realization is entering the doorway of your own uniqueness to discover the totality and to be seated in the One. Embodiment is the totality, the One, coming home to its seat in personhood, to be known and expressed uniquely as you. The one and the One return home.
Here in the northern hemisphere, it is early spring—a reminder of the nourishment of renewal. I write to encourage you to receive the energy of spring into your spiritual practice and to renew your dedication.
The spirit of fresh beginning that is associated with spring reminds me of a term used in Zen, “beginner’s mind.” Beginner’s mind expresses much like your open hand when it carries nothing and grasps at nothing, yet is full of readiness to receive or respond. With clearing out and spring cleaning being a custom of the season, why not take time to empty your mind and, with a fresh heart, discover what remains?
I have pointed to beginner’s mind when giving instructions for self-inquiry. One can put down ideas and approach the question, “What am I?,” openly. By not insisting to know the mystery of existence in thought, one can encounter mystery through the intimacy of direct experience. By dwelling in the sense of mystery that is pregnant with possibility, one is dwelling in the ground in which all acquired knowledge is relinquished, and in which all Self-knowledge is born.
The green sprout, symbolic of spring, grows toward the light because it is its nature to do so. It does so without any gaining idea. Being free of gaining ideas is an expression of beginner’s mind. In supportive conditions, below the disturbances of the winds of change, the seed breaks open and the sprout gains momentum.
Outer life is not free of disturbance. We have only to open our eyes to see this in our midst or in the midst of our world brothers and sisters. Inner life is not free of disturbance either, but the innermost life is. As practitioners, we take time to gather ourselves into the seed. Return your consciousness to essential being, so that it might vitalize and renew again and carry forward the perfume of peace that comes from union with the Root.
Excerpted from Mukti’s self-guided course Got Juice (Q&A)
Q: I would like to ask about the nature of love. I think one reason I have felt a disconnection from my heart is that I started dismissing the feeling of love as just a passing phenomenon. In particular, I find myself mistrusting the love that arises in response to directed attention, as if I have manipulated or even manufactured my experience. How does love relate to that which doesn’t come and go?
A: Your question “What is Love?” is one that can be more meaningful without a fixed conclusion, as it invites the questioner more fully into the living mystery (of oneself, another, life, and love). There is a beauty in leaving the question open-ended, so that its response continues to reveal itself over the course of a lifetime. As I speak more to your question and risk “pinning it down” to give context, please remember the importance of letting the response to your question live on.
Your sharing and question, as to how love relates to That which does not come and go, brings forward some tricky juxtapositions along the spiritual path. When one becomes more conscious of the workings of thought, one can see how it can shape experience. There can be a discounting or shying away from any experience that seems created or referenced in thought. There can even be a subtle conclusion (conscious or unconscious thought) that what does not come and go is more important to embrace than impermanence is. Upon hearing or following pointers to That which does not come and go (or the Eternal), impermanence can be rejected. (Like some hear pointers to go beyond ego and then reject ego.)
When dualistic thought is still, the choosing of one position over its opposite quiets. In the absence of position, the knowing (in one’s being) of what is permanent and impermanent are revealed to be inseparable. This can set the stage for awareness to wake up to itself as all that it is aware of, to the perspective that nothing is apart from awareness. Such a realization can be called awakening to oneness. From this universal consciousness, That which does not come and go knows itself as the comings and goings and can love itself as them. Love feels to be awareness in relation to itself, through intimately recognizing and knowing itself. This is a knowingness of being, of the manifest made conscious (aware).
Your sharing leads me to believe that you may be interested in my sharing the following: You may have heard Adya speak of head awakening being associated with “freedom from,” heart awakening with “freedom to,” and gut or hara awakening with “freedom from freedom.” You could think of head awakening as freedom from boundaries of thought (especially identification with the “I” thought) and expressing as clarity, and heart awakening as freedom from distance (especially identification with “inside” vs. outside) and expressing as intimacy, and gut awakening as freedom from referencing or identifying with freedom, expressing as fluidity within stillness.
These awakenings may occur suddenly and/or gradually. From my past and current experience, the expression of these awakenings factor in one’s finite, imperfect human expression. Thus, it is helpful to come to love and be at peace with imperfection as another expression of awareness loving itself.
In last month’s newsletter article, “Living Spiritual Autonomy,” [November 2021] I shared that this article would further explore the embodiment of spiritual autonomy. As a point of reference, I again offer Adyashanti’s definition for spiritual autonomy, taken from his “Taking the One Seat” course: To be a simple force of nature, a selfless and creative expression of the whole, possessing an independence of spirit capable of manifesting the enlightened condition in daily living for the highest possible good.
In Buddhism and in Zen, in particular, there is a directive: take the one seat. In this pointer, we have the key to embodying spiritual autonomy. It’s a pointer that conveys simplicity, while also speaking volumes to body, mind, and spirit.
Along my journey, this pointer has been an encouragement to first seek to know the one most important direction for living and then to see that my sense of self and Self is established in that. As I know it, this most important direction has been to align with life, as life. From a more personal perspective, this has meant dropping the arguments about what I want and don’t want, and navigating away from this push and pull toward a discovery of foundational stillness. It has meant that I’ve needed to align “my will” with “God’s will”—and God’s will, simply put, is: whatever is happening. In sensing this alignment with what is, I discovered that what I wanted most was to not want, and to be at home in what is. This discovery and shift helps free vision to see what is, to see the moment, more clearly.
It has meant “my life” and “my being” sync to a greater orchestration of life and totality of being, to the One expressing as beingness. Being or beingness is the primordial expression of what you are and we are, what life is, what the moment is. The more we shift from the mode of grasping at life to fill a sense of internal lack to the mode of giving ourselves to life, joining in the moment . . . the more we know the wholeness of being. This is the human’s journey to awakening and the embodiment of that awakening.
Realization is not just about a person’s journey to awakening. It’s also a journey of immaculate spirit, empty of the qualities and conditions of form, waking up to itself within you, and recognizing Itself as all of form through you. This is Emptiness waking up to its expression as fullness in being. This is spirit’s journey of awakening and its embodiment.
Together, the journeys of spirit and human are: the totality finding Its place—known and expressed through the individual, and the individual finding its seat, its home, in the totality: the One in the one, and the one in the One.
Spiritual Autonomy ~ To be a simple force of nature, a selfless and creative expression of the whole, possessing an independence of spirit capable of manifesting the enlightened condition in daily living for the highest possible good.
This month I invite you to reflect upon and sense into expressing “spiritual autonomy.” Next month’s newsletter will further point toward living this unique autonomy in an embodied way. Adya has defined spiritual autonomy for us beautifully in his Taking the One Seat course. (Please see above.)
Presently, please take a moment to call forward any images, sensations, or orientations of mind and body that come forward as you read his definition and step into its expression—in whatever ways it is known to you. And please continue to sense what you’ve just called forward as you read on.
To express spiritual autonomy, you must fully occupy your own life, even consciously consent to inhabiting your incarnation. And you must intend to align with life as a whole. Engaging these actions (occupying, consenting, aligning) begs several questions, such as those below. As you sense into expressing spiritual autonomy, see if exploring any of the following questions shift or deepen your sense of it.
In what ways am I avoiding, rejecting, and resisting my experience of myself and the moment?
What comes forward, once avoiding, rejecting and resisting are at rest? What remains?
What becomes revealed that I might now orient to? . . . be nurtured by? . . . rest into?
How does what I orient to change my perception?
What is perceiving this life? How might I sense what is looking through my eyes, listening through my ears, feeling with my body?
As I become more still and cease referring to myself or asserting myself as a perceiver, how might the moment be sensed? Can I sense what arises within (thoughts, heartbeat, breath) and what arises without (sounds, vibrations, temperature) arising in a shared moment, a shared space from which each thing appears and into which it returns?
To express spiritual autonomy, it is not necessary to be perfect, but it is necessary to consciously reside within your own person and within being. Being is the primordial expression of what you are, what life is, what the moment is.
Autonomy in general, spiritual or not, is expressed well by those who have a healthy ego, or a quiescent ego—certainly one that is free of a sense of inflation or lack. When lack is sensed and believed, a person is often under the illusion that lack can be put to rest by acquiring from the outer world—whether the acquisition be material or emotional (as in the seeking of love, attention, and approval). Inflation often occurs when one presumes or takes undue personal pride in possessing or outwardly displaying strength, wealth, or social position. Often simultaneously their inner life (where true power, wealth and identity lie) is being dismissed or avoided. In each case, the person is disconnected from their inner worth and is preoccupied externally.
When you assume that you are “more than” or “less than,” you will feel a push-pull relationship with life. Whether in overly asserting or displaying yourself (push) or grasping to fill yourself (pull), to be enslaved in a push-pull relationship with the external world for your happiness is inherently dissatisfying. Freedom in spirit as well as fulfillment arise from a deep connection with your self, especially with the inner peace that develops from withdrawing from the overdrive of push-pull and turning your interest and consciousness toward primordial being. Such peace makes it possible to perceive and know the real. Without this peace, perceptions are forever filtered through what is to be acquired and displayed. With this peace, autonomy expresses as spiritual autonomy.
If not peace, what do you experience when you suspend belief in lack and suspend movements to reject or resist? What remains? Whether it be quiet, stillness, openness, clarity, or even disorientation . . . how might you encounter what remains? How might your steady, intimate attention touch into, even fall into what arises?
What I now speak of does not sound like the independence typically associated with autonomy; it likely sounds and feels more like joining, like orienting toward unity. I propose that unity be one of the aims and hallmarks of spiritual autonomy, differentiating it from other expressions of autonomy. In such a union, the separate self may give way and be fundamentally changed by its return to and recognition of the ground of being. This ground, which is the space from which all things arise, upon which all things take shape, and to which all things return, may then become conscious of Itself through you—through your senses, your body and mind, and your heart and soul.
In this union, realization of the interrelated self that is conscious of the oneness of reality becomes possible—perhaps even dominant . . . until it integrates with its co-arising expression of the autonomous, individuated self. In this integration of the One as wholeness as well as specificity, autonomy of the individual is established in spirit. Such establishment in the Way of things, offers a “place” so primary it has the power to subplant ego-centricity and to bring division and lack to a remembrance of wholeness, to true healing.
From the time we are small, we are told that plants need light and water to grow. To grow in spirit and wakeful, conscious being, we need engaged attention and true intention very much like plants need light and water. In fact, I associate attention with light and intention with water.
“How might intention be associated with water?”, you may ask. True intention is born of the deeper waters within us, arising as wisdom that guides us in form. It acts as an organizing principle of energy that guides the direction of growth—for oneself and one’s life. If, for example, your intention is to be loving, then it becomes possible to learn love and grow in living love, within and out. The stronger the intention, the more powerfully one’s life flows in its direction.
As powerful and important as true intention is, my intent for this article is to focus primarily on its power partner: attention.
In spiritual circles, there’s lots of talk of awareness. Attention is simply directed awareness. Your mind’s eye functions as a lens of consciousness with its light’s direction determined by placement of your attention. Attention has great power; it brings life to form. What was unseen appears, and what is latent comes to life.
I imagine you have observed how much a child lights up when they are given loving attention. Adults perk up too! Clearly, it helps us thrive. Focusing your attention gathers your powers of perception so that you become more conscious of what you are focused upon, while what you are focused upon can shine more brightly.
Attention is not only expressed through seeing or hearing, it also functions through the whole body. Think of how the whole body attends to recognizing the activity of a busy mouse in the house. Mouse or no, when we cast our attention into our surroundings in a global manner, we attend to the larger body of life, engaging boundless awareness as well as local body awareness.
A harmonization of boundless awareness and body awareness can occur, especially in peaceful environments. This harmonization does require the stewarding of attention, as energy and attention are intimately linked. Think of times you may have been on a beautiful walk in nature but caught in thought. Once your attention shifts from its narrow focus to the beauty of your surroundings, energy is freed up, and opens and harmonizes.
Energy and attention just go together. From the simple annoying clock tick or alluring “me” thought to great suffering and yearning, when attention arises from a place of wrongness or lack, energy becomes resistance or desire, fueling the push-pull of division.
When engaging attention free from division, it furthers clear seeing. When we turn such attention within, it energizes the intelligence of being. This intelligence can present as wisdom and intuition, which can inform intentions that help you steward your actions and powerfully engage in life.
Engaging the outer successfully, frequently starts with engaging the inner. Inner magic happens when energy and attention come together. That’s the basis of healing, of liberation, and of conscious action. Healing happens when you turn attention within to an emotion that’s been calling, waiting for its trapped energy to be allowed to take the lead and express and release in the light of awareness. Peace comes when you turn attention into the felt sense of yearning (e.g., for spirit), and lead attention to the root of sensation, to yearning’s beginnings in a place that is free of want. One-pointed attention has the capacity to rectify; the stillness within such attention, when attending to strong energetic movement, can calm and pacify. Or, the power within one-pointed attention can further energize the movement toward spontaneous expression, release, or completion.
When identification as “the one doing such things” is at rest, abdicating itself to the whole offering of attention, attention can join with what or who it is focused upon. Separation disappears and union expresses. These disappearances and appearances are what we love about magic, are they not? I hope so. May you come alive for the magic show and enjoy wearing your magic hat ;-)
When I consider Adya describing the sense of “I am” as a doorway to the essential, the universal, and the sacred, I am reminded of some powerful self-inquiry questions he has given instruction on. In particular, he has suggested different variations on the question “What am I?”
Before I recount these inquiry variations, I would first like to share one foundational approach to engaging in any self-inquiry question, an approach that Adya has taught. That is to drop a question into one’s system such that it registers not only in mind and intention, but also in one’s body and in one’s whole being. He has used the image of one’s body sitting still in meditation, presenting as a calm lake, and the question being imbued within a smooth stone that could be dropped into this lake of being.
Here’s how I would put it: As the stone, or inquiry, moves from one’s head (mind) to below the neck, into the dark waters of stillness (when the body is settled), it can ripple in the unknown, thereby illuminating mystery, while also expressing one’s intention to know, illuminating curiosity. Curiosity causes one to metaphorically “lean in” and “hold forth” with attention as the inquiry evokes the mystery of being, causing it to come forth as well. The sense of mystery may come forth primarily as the questioner shifts into sensing and receptivity.
While sitting quietly, engage the question, “What am I?” Drop it into “the lake of your being,” letting it slowly descend from head to chest to lower belly: “What . . . am . . . I?” (Pause indefinitely.) Let the question carry your consciousness and orientation to silent sensing, to being, to resting in being as being.
After a time, you might also drop the question in reverse, “I . . . am . . . what?” (pause indefinitely) into the silent sensing and mystery. Or, in the spirit of Adya’s article, The Doorway of I Am, and his specific encouragement to focus on the sense of “I am,” you might instead ask, “What . . . is . . . I . . . am?”
This last variation of “What is this ‘I am’?” can be more of an evocation than a simple inquiry—though you are asking the felt sense of being/existing, or the felt sense of mystery (the first perhaps feeling more essential and the second perhaps more sacred) to reveal itself and become more conscious in body and mind—as if to say, “What are you, ‘I am?’ Reveal yourself.” The important thing is to go with what resonates for you, and to make the question your own.
Something else that can be very helpful is to rest in meditation with a sense of general, global awareness, as well as settling in your specific local body. This pairing of universal awareness and body-awareness offers insight for both types of awareness, as the self-inquiry question is at work. So inquiry is then not just about the sense of one’s person engaging in a personal inquiry, but is also about the sense of a global, unbounded awareness being anchored in the question, such that it becomes embodied as the inquiry “stone” drops into the “lake of being,” harnessing awareness that is without specific location to know itself in form, in your body-mind-being, as “I am.”
There are other ways to work with “I am,” but these are ways I have taken Adya’s pointers about inquiry and worked with them myself. Each variation has its own power, and one may resonate for you uniquely. I encourage you to listen within to stirrings of curiosity and to hold forth and call forth.
One of the great koans of a spiritual life is “What is a spiritual life?” Such a question can take form in one’s being before such words even register, often on the heels of a series of other questions. As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter (May 2021), Adya has often spoken of putting first things first in our questioning, one example being, “Instead of always asking what to do and how to live your life, might you ask, ‘Who is it that is living this life?’”
Some of the earliest questions about life and living that I began asking as a child in Catholic school revolved around the notion of God. I had been told that God is within, and I also had been told that God is everywhere. I was even told that God walks by our side, as the great Comforter. The very notion that there was not one orientation toward God left me disoriented, and thus I fell upon my first koan in life, the “God koan,” if you will. At the time, I had no idea that koan practice had existed for centuries in the East, to purposefully disorient and push one beyond concepts and orienting references.
That was my first blessed push deeper into being, although I didn’t much care for my confusion at the time. It was likely the beginning of my spiritual life, a life in which conceptual discomfort yields to a comfortability with not knowing and then to even greater comfort in the great unknown, the great mystery of being. What kept me going may have been the confusion itself, but also some overriding sense that God was of paramount importance and that I must therefore orient toward God, even as I had little satisfactory understanding of what God is. How does one proceed when they don’t understand? With our confusion, yes, but also with our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open, to the best of our ability. Which is exactly what I did.
Looking back, I believe that my disorientation in the God koan paradoxically gave me a tremendous orientation, an orientation toward God. The notions I was given of the great significance of God, something greater than any one individual, instilled a desire to know God and to serve God, to serve something greater than myself. From there, over years, I began to see what in that desire was born of egoic coping, and what was a call beyond myself altogether.
The story of the unfolding of any spiritual life has layers that give way to other layers, above and below, inside and out. My story is too long to go into further here. But in its moments of disorientation fraught with insistence upon orienting, there has always been comfort to be found in stopping, a comfort born of encountering the living moment with an open heart.