One of the ten qualities of Buddhism is equanimity, and perfect equanimity is one of the main aims of this meditation. To practice the quality of equanimity, it is important to learn how to stop being a slave of one’s emotions. In the meditation of this school, we aim to be able to observe how any emotion is born and drop it right at the place where it is born. We should be able to do this throughout our daily lives, and not only in concentrated meditation.
Why do we want to do that? What is wrong with emotion? Do we want to be unfeeling robots, totally indifferent to the world around us? Isn’t emotion part of the human experience, shouldn’t we live our emotions to the full, and accept whatever emotion is there in the moment as part of our human experience?
(These are questions and complaints we get quite a lot, as you may guess.)
We will try to answer these questions properly. To begin:
What is emotion?
How is it formed? How many kinds of emotion are there?
We hear often that emotions are in the body, but is this true? If you have a body but without a mind, if the mind is gone from the body, can that body have emotion? Does someone in a coma have emotion? Does a dead body have emotion?
And if you have a mind without a body, if you were to be able to transplant your mind into a computer, do you stop having emotion? If you have your same mind, but in a computer, and you hear that someone you love has died, won’t you still feel sad?
So emotion is always in the mind, isn’t it? The confusion comes from the fact that when we are emotional, we often feel physical sensations on the body linked with that emotion: sadness is associated with the throat tightening, the eyes making tears, pain in the chest; fear is associated with a fast-beating heart and the hair standing up on one’s skin. Because the sensation always comes with the emotion, we think that the physical sensation is the emotion, but it’s not. It’s possible with meditation to remove the fear inside, yet meanwhile, the body is still reacting, it’s already sent all the hormones and the hair on the skin is still standing up.
Emotions are born from contact with what is agreeable, and contact with what is disagreeable. There are pleasant emotions, emotions that are enjoyable, born whenever we hear, see, or sense something we find agreeable. Then there are unpleasant ones born whenever we hear, see or sense something we find disagreeable; these are painful, suffering.
People say that one should welcome both kinds of emotion equally, embrace the suffering and pain along with the happiness; this is what life is about. We often hear that if we did not have suffering, we would not know how to appreciate happiness, and that without suffering, we would not learn anything.
Despite all this, there are books and books written, and university degrees and PhDs studied, and documentaries and brain research made, all about how to somehow lighten or deal with the pain of unpleasant emotions, and how to keep the positive emotions as long as possible and have them as often as possible.
Do we really need to suffer to learn?
And is suffering truly the way to appreciate happiness? All the victims of the holocaust, did they all learn more and become wiser than everybody else on the planet? Are people starving to death in Africa more appreciative of happiness than people who have three meals a day and access to decent healthcare?
If it is the case that suffering is a source of learning and makes you appreciate happiness, it seems nobody really wants to learn, and everyone finds that they already appreciate happiness quite enough – because nobody goes looking for suffering. On the contrary, everyone tries to escape it in whatever way they can – sometimes in very stupid ways that lead to more suffering very soon afterwards, but that still in that moment make them feel better.
We don’t like negative emotion. We don’t like to feel anxious, to feel guilty, to feel stressed and worried and doubtful and confused and sad and all the rest of it. We like to feel happy, joyful, pleased with ourselves and with our life. That’s why anything that makes us feel happy, we want to keep it as long as possible. That’s why we become depressed when we lose whatever it was that made us happy.
Most of those books that are written and research that is made, they focus a lot on how to get more of whatever objects from outside bring positive emotion, and how to have less of whatever brings negative emotion. So they’ll talk about how to get a better job, how to make more money, how to be more successful, how to have more friends, how to have better relationships, better sex, how to be more beautiful, and so on.
Many other books and psychology degrees focus on trying somehow to rid oneself of the effects of emotions that have stayed inside for a long time. Emotions aren’t always expressed, aren’t always allowed to act – a lot of the time, instead of just punching the one who made us angry, we suppress the anger and keep it inside, sometimes for a long long time, and we do this with quite a lot of unpleasant emotions.
The cooking pot of suppressed emotion
These emotions, like layers of grease and crusts of burned material gathering on the bottom of a cooking pot, continue to build up and build up over time until it makes a big thick layer one inch thick, black and brown and smelling quite horrible. Every time you keep an emotion inside, it is as if a new layer of burned material gets added to the bottom of the pan, and you just keep it there and continue living with it, ignoring it there at the bottom, adding a lot of new liquid and stews on top of it.
But at some point it becomes so thick and strong-smelling that it infects and gets into everything you try to cook – anything you touch brings up this old emotion you’ve been carrying around, and you become affected by it all the time. This is when you realise you might have to do something about it.
Then there are people that spend their lives helping you to look at the dirty, greasy, burned bottom of the pot through a microscope, digging into it with a tweezers to find what elements are inside, doing a chemical analysis on it, trying to discover the exact food that would have left this layer of grease and know the history of it.
Hardly anyone tells you how to clean it from your pot, how to remove all these layers of built-up grease, fat and dirt. They’ll tell you instead that you have to learn to live with this pot as you find it, accept it just the way it is, see that it is really beautiful just the way it is, the pot together with all its layers of smelly, crusty, brown-and-green grease.
In this school, we don’t care where the grease came from, we just want to get rid of it and have a clean pot out of which we can eat. We have to go with a wire brush, boiling hot water and a lot of strong soap and wash out this bowl, scrape it, rinse it again and again until it is clean, shining and free from dirt. We clean the mind of the left-over emotion, all these past suppressed problems that were never dealt with.
Then we have to keep it clean – any time we see a little piece of dust or grease starting to collect on it, we wash it away quickly – we don’t leave it to gather there and get stuck and have other dirt gather on top of it. We aim to keep the mind free and clear.
When we are working to keep the mind free and clear in this way, we don’t care so much about having more and more of whatever objects outside that keep us happy, because we are keeping ourselves happy from inside, washing our own pot and constantly taking care of it. Whatever gets poured into it does not matter – whether pure water, sweet-smelling tea or greasy french fries, we’ll rinse it out just the same. We try not to stick to pleasure that arises from any object, and we work to drop any negative emotion right away when it arises. It’s a work, a practice, and we don’t always succeed all the time, but this is what we aim for.
The benefits of a clear mind
When you keep the mind clear and clean like this, it means that you are free to make wise decisions, and you can start to become more concentrated; to see reality clearly as it is. When the ocean is stormy and full of waves and foam, it’s not easy to see clearly into what lies in the water; but when the water is calm, flat, with no wind, then you can see down deep into the depths of it.
Instead of just being overwhelmed with grief if your mother is dying; wailing and crying by her bedside – if your mind is free from the heaviness of this sadness, what is left is your compassion for her, your love for her. Then you can think of how best to help her, how best to care for her, how best to lift her spirits and make her comfortable.
People are afraid that if they remove emotions they will become indifferent, uncaring, cold. It’s not the case. We have a horrible kind of image of a psychopath who appears totally indifferent, prepared to kill without feeling a hint of remorse or sympathy with his victim, but this psychopath is necessarily driven by cruelty and selfishness. Being selfish, he will get pissed off if he doesn’t get something he wants. It’s not possible for him to live with equanimity.
It is selfishness that is indifferent, that is uncaring and cold, that does not care about other people’s suffering. It is different to equanimity. Perfect equanimity is only possible if you are completely unselfish.
We can decide to live all the emotion to the full, but it means that we have to accept all the painful emotions as well as the pleasant ones. If we accept to feel joy and happiness when someone says “you’re beautiful,” we are accepting at the same time to feel depressed and annoyed if someone tells us “you’re really fat and ugly, do you know that?” We accept being a yoyo, going constantly up, down, up, down, with each little touch from outside.
When you are a yoyo, it means that you are always, always depending on things going well around you for your happiness. It’s always something good you hear, something nice you see, something pleasant you touch, an idea that comes in your mind, that brings your happiness. The opposite of this is not to be an emotionless robot, but to build your happiness, contentment and peace from inside.
If you are full of compassion towards the whole world, if you’re totally selfless, then you are simply content in yourself; only then can you live without needing some pleasant event from outside to bring you into pleasant emotion, and you don’t fall into negative emotion with one word, look, or rainy day. You’re no more a yoyo, no more a tree that bends way over to the right, to the left, in every direction with every touch of wind, needing a stake to stand up straight. You are strong and stable. You stand on your own.