The goal is not to do away with negative emotions. The goal is to learn how to experience them in a way that bothers us less, like the old saying, “It hurts more but bothers you less.”
Eckhart Tolle was on Oprah Winfrey’s online show some years ago, reaching over a million people per broadcast. At one point during one of the shows, Winfrey started a dialogue with Tolle about negative emotions. Tolle stated that he hardly ever experiences negative emotions anymore. He claimed it happened only one time in the last few years, when he witnessed an animal being tortured. The anger was there for a minute or two, he said.
In 2008 I went to visit the American spiritual teacher, Gangaji (in the Indian lineage of Sri Ramana Maharshi) in Asheville, and I asked her about this Tolle incident. Her reply was, “Well, that may be what some people experience; it’s not what I experience.” The tone of her response was neutral–it’s fine for that to be Tolle’s experience, and it’s fine for it not to be her experience. Immediately, I realized she had less judgment about what Tolle said than I did. I found myself asking whether some part of Tolle–conscious or not–is trying to fend off negative emotions. There is no way for me to know. What I do know is that it is quite human to want to transcend our humanity. However as long as we are still here in this body, there is always more to surrender, no matter how one-with-everything we may appear to be.
My concern is that those among the million viewers of Tolle and Winfrey who are new to the path may assume Tolle’s idea of hardly-any-negative-emotions is the pinnacle of the path. Trying to achieve a state without negative emotions would only intensify our suffering. To push negativity away ups the ante of our inner conflicts, leading to more mental pain. When I voiced this concern to Gangagi, she said yes in a way that indicated she strongly agreed Tolle’s statement could be problematic.
When we’re really able to open up to whatever experience arises, then what is arising is not only happening to what I perceive of as me. It is happening to all beings simultaneously. There’s no sticking point. No judgment. Thoughts about the negative emotions are accepted and allowed to dissolve as they always do, whether accompanying emotions are positive or negative. When thought dissolves, my sense of a static me dissolves with it. In that way, the emotions are still deeply experienced, but the idea of a self to experience them is no longer of special importance.
The question arises for me, if you are human and you no longer experience negative emotions, is the capacity to experience these emotions diminished? And if this is the case, is not the capacity to experience joyful emotions also diminished? To no longer experience negative emotions perhaps blocks the potential for the full expression of human life, and constitutes an incomplete realization of what we are. There exists a heart of realization where the need to transcend anything, including the pain of being human, is itself transcended.
“Why does negativity arise?” a student asked at a recent retreat. “I don’t know,” was my reply. The real question, the deeper question, is not why. The deeper question is what? Is negativity real? What is it really? As we allow ourselves to sink into these questions, we’re no longer sure of who is experiencing our experience. So the goal is not to do away with negative emotions. The goal is to learn how to experience them in a way that can open us to the divine love which is the true source of all emotion.
When hurt is allowed to intensify, the intensity becomes less confined to the one experiencing it, simply because the emotion is freed from the limits of self to expand and dissipate. We may hurt more, but in the midst of the intensity, the idea of self-experiencing-hurt vanishes. So hurt is no longer happening only to me. We realize all beings are in league to help absorb our pain. And as the Buddhist loving kindness prayer goes, “May I accept my pain, knowing that my heart is not limited by it.”