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To Say Goodbye to Suffering, Learn to Say Hello to Difficult Emotions

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Dealing with the loss of a loved one and the intense emotions that surface while you grieve is easy—said NO ONE EVER! At least, no one I have met. I am not sure how much I would trust someone who would call grief easy to navigate.

Last year, 12 different Buddhist teachers spoke to me about death and grief and Buddhism. They came from various Buddhist traditions. Some were monks or nuns, some were lay practitioners, and each had spent various amounts of time on their respective paths. All of them recounted having strong feelings when their loved ones died. And several of them had encountered expectations from others around not feeling or acknowledging emotion. Some people expressed a belief that being Buddhist should have made them immune to dealing with difficult emotions. Or, when faced with sadness or regret, a “good” Buddhist can just cut off those emotions. Just. Cut. Them. Off. As if there is a point in our practice where we have a pair of invisible emotion-cutting scissors. Maybe I am not far enough along to have earned my scissors, but I think that no matter how far on the path I tread, there are no scissors.

Buddhist practice is not about cutting off your feelings. It is about meeting them. When emotions arise, do not try to turn them off. Repeatedly, the discussions I had with others would eventually land on the importance of being with your feelings. As human beings, we often resist facing challenging emotions. When it comes to dealing with death, the resistance is strong. One of my 12 teachers told a story of speaking about Buddhism to a delegation from France. As part of the talk, he introduced the topic of death. A reminder that we will all pass. When the conversation was over, one of the representatives approached him and admonished him for being inappropriate. The representative said that “we” do not talk about things like that. This and some other experiences showed him that there is a preference in much of Western society to hide death and shy away from discussing our impermanence.

Another teacher encountered students who thought that Buddhism would help them avoid all of the complicated feelings. That being enlightened means to be like a stone. Perhaps some interpret the point of the teachings, as expressed below, as a war on suffering. Winning that war requires not even allowing difficult emotions to surface.

And how is liberation its core? Here, the teachings have been taught by me to my disciples for the utterly complete destruction of suffering. Through liberation one experiences those teachings in just the way that I have taught them to my disciples for the utterly complete destruction of suffering. It is in this way that liberation is its core.” AN 4.245

I can think of one or two individuals in our meditation group who will tell people that they need to cut off their feelings. When you are meditating, and feelings distract you, just cut those feelings off. 

This shortest of suttas acknowledges feelings:

“Bhikkhus, there are these three feelings. What three? Pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.” SN 36.30

Fortunately, when someone advises others to cut off their feelings, our lead teacher will gently break in and suggest a different approach, reminding all of us that the answer is not to cut off feelings. The answer is to have the feeling. To greet it. To inwardly say, “Oh hello sadness, what will you teach me today?”

To acknowledge and to be with your emotions does not mean that you become those emotions. This is an important distinction, especially for those who come from just cutting off anything that causes discomfort. Just because you notice sadness arising does not mean you have to become sad. Just see that, oh, sadness is here. This is in keeping with this passage from the Satipatthana Sutta:

“And how does a monk remain focused on feelings in and of themselves? There is the case where a monk, when feeling a painful feeling, discerns, ‘I am feeling a painful feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant feeling, he discerns, ‘I am feeling a pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he discerns, ‘I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.’” MN 10

Discerning or noticing the feeling does not require you to go all in with that feeling. Maybe you are not strong enough to become one with your grief. It is to your benefit to be open to it. And to be compassionate of yourself and your experience as you feel it arising. Try observing how you have armored yourself. Have you tried to run away from the idea of losing a loved one? Have you tried to ignore it? You start by noticing the feeling. Do you feel it in your body? How does it feel? You are both the observer and the observed. You are connecting with your grief and how it impacts you. And as you watch it, you will see that as suffering arises it will also eventually fall. It will come back again and it will leave too. Using an expression that is less elegant than the suttas: the only way out is through. No magic scissors are involved.

The acknowledgment of complicated feelings is not the entire path to liberation. The Satipatthana Sutta covers focus on the body, mind, and mental qualities in addition to emotions. 

The sutta concludes:

“‘This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and distress, for the attainment of the right method, and for the realization of Unbinding—in other words, the four frames of reference.’ Thus was it said, and in reference to this was it said.” MN 10

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