Melissa Myozen Blacker, Roshi, one of three teachers leading this year’s Lion’s Roar Retreat, “Facing Life’s Challenges,” shares how to find space and relief when painful emotions are present.
It’s hard to be a human being.
Even if you live a life of privilege and luxury, you are still subject to aging, illness, and death. If you are born into poverty, or if you don’t conform to white Western standards of skin color, gender identity, religion, or sexuality, then life is even more challenging. Not to mention those of us with chronic mental or physical health problems, or survivors of all the forms of violence and conflict that fill this burning world. It can all feel pretty overwhelming.
Our hearts yearn for happiness, but life forces us to create survival strategies to protect ourselves from all the suffering. One common defence is to wall off our hearts from further pain. We become numb and withdrawn. Or we become sad and depressed, or anxious and fearful, or angry and hostile.
It takes courage to face unwanted conditions, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions.
When we first learn about Buddhist practice, we may view it as just another strategy—a way to escape our distress. But the real promise of Buddhist practice is not to protect us from further harm. What the Buddha invites us to discover is that we can learn to face everything that arises as an example of the awakened heart.
Everything we encounter is buddha (awakened) nature, including what we don’t want and what causes us to suffer. Once we can take the risk to meet our lives directly, we can also learn to make a bigger mental and emotional space around whatever is causing us pain.
It takes courage to face unwanted conditions, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. Making a bigger space doesn’t necessarily eliminate suffering. But it does give us more options for working internally with what is arising, and more clarity about what to do in the external world. As the Buddha says in “The Five Remembrances” from the Upajjhatthana Sutta: “My deeds are the ground on which I stand.” Being present to what is happening is just the first step. Then we have to do something.
I have discovered that the more I practice, the more layers of my endlessly perfected, elaborate self-construction fall away. Peeling away the layers of identity is sometimes very painful. Sometimes it has felt like I was going to die. Of course, while I didn’t die, something did.
Doing this practice of meeting everything as an example of the awakened heart means risking more and more tenderness. But as painful as it is to meet suffering directly, it’s also a relief. There is more spaciousness, more freedom to feel the wondrous aliveness of being. There is more energy available to do what must be done to heal the world.
Meditation Practice: Creating Space Around Difficulty
Here are some basic instructions on using awareness to engage with all the various forms of suffering we encounter as humans plagued by fear, anger, and delusion.
First, find a place where you can sit quietly and upright, lowering or closing your eyes. If you are aware of some difficulty or pain, gently bring it into the foreground of awareness. Be curious about what you are noticing. For example, if there is a particularly painful sensation, examine it with kindness and interest. What are the physical qualities of the discomfort? Notice if, by bringing this soft and curious attention to the sensation, it becomes more or less intense. You can do the same thing with painful or disturbing thoughts, sense perceptions, or emotions.
Sometimes meeting suffering for even a moment is too much—the experience is overwhelming. If that happens, be kind to yourself, and simply rest your awareness in the breath and body for a while. You can try returning to the difficulty later.
After a few moments of being with the difficult experience, rest your attention in your breath. Notice what is present now. It may be that the pain is still with you and your attention keeps being drawn back toward it. Continue to move back to the breath whenever this happens. You may also notice that there is more going on than just the difficulty. You can feel the breath and other sensations and sense perceptions. Encourage yourself to create a bigger space around your problem.
Last, be aware of any clarity that may be arising around the situation that has caused the difficulty. Maybe you need to take some medicine for a headache, or contact a friend or a teacher to discuss your insights about a troublesome situation, or take a walk, or go to sleep. Treat these actions as experiments—notice if the suffering changes through your actions.
Ultimately, the invitation is to let whatever is arising be present without meddling with it. Just by turning loving attention to how life is appearing in this moment, insight can arise and we can find a way forward through our difficulties.