Archive | September, 2017

Negative Emotions

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.”


No Vacancy

The spirit of Soen Roshi’s laughter is the spirit of liberation. It’s like a Zen master banging his staff on the ground – THIS IS IT!


During a retreat a some years ago, Zen teacher Lou Nordstrom told a story about the famous Zen Roshi, Soen, an eccentric and deeply realized Zen master who spent some time in America during his later years when Lou was a young student. Lou claims there are not many real Zen teachers, but that Soen Roshi was undeniably one of them.  Lou told us Soen often appeared to be in another world.  One day the two of them were driving by a motel on the side of the road, and Soen Roshi noticed a sign that read No Vacancy.  He began to laugh and said in his heavily Japanese flavored English, “No Vacancy, No Vacancy!” That was all he said.

What did this crazy old man mean? This story is a koan. In fact, if Western or American modern koans are ever collected, I would surely vote this one in. We think of the word Vacancy as an open space inside of something else.  When there is No Vacancy, there is no such space, and therefore, no place to put anything. In the world of duality, there is inside and outside, and there is one object separate from the other objects, and countless others separated from all the rest. If we do not limit ourselves to a specific place, there is an infinite space in which to locate objects and create endless vacancies.

It seems to me that when Soen said “no vacancy,” he was referring to awareness or consciousness itself. We are so conditioned to think dualistically that when we hear the words awareness or consciousness, we create a concept of something outside of us.  Our creation is just a fantasy. Where can you find its reality?  In our dualistic minds, awareness becomes an object of thought.  This object is only a thought, but awareness cannot be grasped by thought. Thought arises. Awareness makes it possible. Awareness expresses itself while thought arises and morphs into many new forms.

Soen Roshi spent so much of his life inquiring about the source of awareness that eventually his identity shifted from the perspective of an individual mind and body to that of the open space of awareness from which all manifestations of a separate mind and body flow. The spirit of Soen Roshi’s laughter is the spirit of liberation. It’s like a Zen master banging his staff on the ground – THIS IS IT!

For Soen, taking a drive in a car on a highway was not any different from hanging out in outer space. He embodied the unity of the world of form and infinite space. The world of form is a manifestation of infinite space, not at all separate from it. No Vacancy, then, means the infinite possible expressions of form are one with the substance of space, of universal mind. There are no gaps in boundless space. The Dharma body, our true body, pervades everything. No Vacancy also means nothing can come in from the outside because there is no outside.

When we realize that whatever manifests is one with space, we are no longer confined to a human body. The body of infinite space is what we are.  There is nothing separate from this infinite body of awareness, which has no beginning nor end, and no locale, nothing separate. No space separates phenomena. What was humorous to Soen Roshi was that whoever posted the motel sign referring to an empty room was unwittingly declaring the condition of the cosmos.

It is impossible to create any true separation. The universe expresses itself as a unified whole, with diversity as one color of its rainbow. The universe is a component of the whole. Ungraspable, totally vacant, this wholeness contains no vacancy. It is always full and complete, as is, and there is always room for everything.


The Current of Our True Nature

The Hindu saint, Anandamayi Ma says “Everything becomes smooth once the blessing of HIS touch has been felt.” She uses the word HIS, to demonstrate her complete surrender to the omnipotent Spirit; which of course is beyond male and female. “It is just as when bathing in a river, one at first swims by one’s own strength; but once caught in the current, whether a good swimmer or not, one is simply carried away.” The current is the life force circulating throughout our bodies, we experience it as seeing objects, feeling sensations, hearing sounds, and thinking thoughts. It’s also flowing like a river throughout all of creation. The current is vast boundlessness itself; the center where we experience it as located in our body, actually has no center at all. The appearance of a body is only a fleeting expression of the boundless current. 

The blessing of HIS touch is the grace of the Supreme Reality of this moment, of all moments. HIS touch is THIS touch, the aliveness we are always bringing to THIS moment. This touch is the constant flowing current of our experience, the continual arising and dissolving of our seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. When we are willing to receive THIS touch, all moments are seen as this moment, and all moments are seen as our moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘then we know this moment is a wonderful moment, full of wonder.’

He has a song:

The River is Flowing, Flowing and Growing,                                          

 The River is Flowing, Down to the Sea  

Oh Mother, Carry Me, Your Child I Shall Always Be

Oh Mother, Carry Me, Down to the Sea

Our Mother is the mother of all creation, delighting in the recognition of herself in our lives. For she so loved the world that she gave us life to delight in the recognition of her light of love. This light of love is the light that God gave Christ in giving his only son. We are his only sons and daughters, for he so loved us that he gave us to the world, as he gave the world to us that we might realize our oneness with him. If we have not yet felt THIS touch, we need to dedicate to God whatever inclinations or disinclinations we have, and devote ourselves to service, meditation or contemplation. We need to deeply commit to asking for this touch by opening to our true nature, and going beyond the confines of discursive mind in our deep asking.

When the movement of our true nature is surrendered to, when we’ve allowed ourselves to be swept into and carried away by the current of THIS touch, the knots of resistance will begin to be loosened and our impurities simply fall away on their own. Meditation on our breath can be a powerful way to allow ourselves to become intimate with this process.  Our breath is powered and expressed by the current of THIS touch. Our breath carries healing currents of energy, sweeping away our attachments to discursive thinking. Zen master Kwong Roshi coined the phrase ‘Breath sweeps mind.’

Then the world of sense delights, of excessive attachment to our desires and fears, lose their allure. We begin to be able to see them as they really are, without own being, other dependent, and free of what we think about them. The further we travel on the path, we will continue to be tested, sometimes tested with seemingly more powerful tests. But more and more, we sense HIS touch there as ineffable support, right in the middle of the pain of desire or fear.

There is then a more willing attitude of offering our pain to the current. We learn to rejoice in allowing the pain to be swept into and carried away by the current of our true nature. We will at some stage realize this is always already happening. But we’ve been too busy ignoring the flow of the current with our self centered preoccupations. We’re preoccupied with our little container of self, held together by attachment to desires and fears, so we don’t notice this.

Being willing to continually take the first step, the first step into the flow of the current of the river of our true nature, will open the way for us to receive THIS touch. We will realize that we are unconditionally welcomed into this river. The dissolving of experience of our very concept of separate existence is a free gift offered unconditionally to us. When we realize our whole life is always welcomed unconditionally, we will learn to welcome all of life unconditionally.