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.