Introduction to Feeling Wisdom
Possibly the single strongest motivating factors in our lives are our feelings. We can see this on the level of strong emotions like anger or subtler feelings of care and compassion. Whether we are able to be aware of these feelings and live in relation to them or whether they drive us unconsciously depends on the individual. They are in any case there in our body. For most of us the way we learn to live with our emotional and feeling life arises in a relatively arbitrary way. I was certainly never given any guidance when I was at school or growing up regarding how to cope with strong emotions and feelings. Unfortunately, there was something of a taboo, for a man in the United Kingdom, around expressing feelings, and so I felt they needed to be held in and potentially suppressed.
When I became involved in Tibetan Buddhism at a young age some forty years ago, one of my hopes was that it would offer me a way of both understanding and working with my emotional life. What I found was that within the world of Buddhist thinking, there are contrasting views around the subject of feeling and emotion and how we are supposed to deal with them or work with them. There is one view that sees feelings and emotions as something that should be controlled and overcome because they are the root of suffering. Then there is another perspective that sees emotions as the source of transformation. It is often because of problems with our emotional life that some of us study Buddhist ideas and meditation practices that might offer a kind of panacea—but is it that simple?
One of my reasons for engaging with Buddhist practice was that I often suffered periods of depression and anxiety when I was in my twenties. I found that Buddhist thinking gave some valuable answers that were often of an existential nature. Its recognition of the root of suffering in the way we grasp at a sense of self was radical for me at the time. What I needed to find, however, was a way of actually addressing and dealing directly with strong emotional states such as depression. I spent many years studying profound teachings on Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and what is known as “mind training,” and yet I did not feel that what I was experiencing psychologically was really being addressed. While many of these teachings provided a significant cognitive, intellectual understanding of Buddhist psychology, I still seemed unable to resolve the more painful and complex aspects of my emotional life. I found myself in a place of some conflict because I felt that within my study of Buddhist philosophy, I had begun to place all feelings and emotions in one bag as things that needed to be pacified because they give rise to suffering.
It was during a period of retreat that I began to discover a different Buddhist approach that did provide a means of working with my emotional life and with the depressions I experienced. This was an approach that went beneath my conceptual, intellectual knowledge and related more directly to my experience, exemplified by the practice known as Mahamudra, which was taught me by my teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe. This practice from the Tibetan tradition has many similarities to what is now familiar in the West as the practice of mindfulness. Mahamudra specifically leads us to rest in a state of present awareness, the natural clarity of the mind. Within this state of clear, present awareness, I began to live with painful feelings in a way that actually helped for the first time. I found myself able to witness feelings without drowning in their power. My relationship to feelings became more open, accepting, and less of a struggle.
When I later began to train as a psychotherapist, I found another level of insight into the nature of feeling and emotion that became very important to me alongside this Buddhist approach. This was the view that recognized that my feeling life was part of a psychological process that needed to be given certain conditions to unfold. There was also the recognition that our emotions often have origins earlier in life that need to be explored more deeply. Recognizing the psychological wounds that contribute to our emotional life then helps a healing process to unfold. While it is clear that some therapeutic approaches are more effective than others, what they all offer is an appreciation of and respect for the subtleties of an individual’s emotional process. What I have subsequently come to see is that it is a combination of Eastern Buddhist and Western psychological understanding in practice that really helps with the complexity of our psychological nature and the transformation of emotions. It has led me to follow what might then be called a contemplative style of psychotherapy that combines aspects of both meditation and reflection.
In the West we could be seen as very dominated by our emotions, and if we compare ourselves with the Tibetans, for example, this would certainly seem to be the case. As I lived among the Tibetans for many years, I was surprised to discover that they do not relate to questions of feeling in the same way that we do. There seems to be no word in Tibetan that is an actual equivalent to emotion, and the term Tibetans use for feeling does not have the same connotations as ours or convey the same sense. It does not seem to be important to ask a Tibetan how he or she feels about something. This seems to be a psychological territory that has far greater significance to us in the West, where the nature of our feeling life has, for good or ill, become so important.
I was partly prompted to write this book when I began to see that some Tibetan teachers actually think that being in touch with our feelings may be doing us Westerners more harm than good. It may be true that in the West we are more governed by our feeling and emotional life than Tibetans are, but having spent a considerable amount of my adult life trying to get in touch with my feelings, I found this view very confusing. What I began to consider is that we are looking across a divide that has more to do with East-West cultural and psychological differences than with Buddhism itself. There is within the Tibetan Buddhist world, partly because of language, a tendency to conflate feeling and emotion into one package in a way that can cause us to see all emotion as delusion and affliction. Perhaps we can consider that Tibetans do not “do” feelings as we do in the West; they have their own cultural way with their feeling life, and it is very different from ours. Fortunately, there is a growing number of Tibetan teachers,and I include His Holiness the Dalai Lama among them, who are really looking at the way we use the term emotion in the West and at how we may need to bring Buddhist knowledge together with modern psychological understanding.
It may nevertheless be useful to ask the question, “Do feelings matter?” And from my experience as both a psychotherapist and a meditator, it would seem they most certainly do. At the heart of this question is a potential confusion in the way we use the terms feeling and emotion to cover a spectrum of experiences. As a Buddhist, this confusion is compounded by the fact that there is no word for emotion in Tibetan, and the word for feeling is used slightly differently. There is an important distinction between emotion and feeling and also between feeling as a physical tone of an experience that includes sensation and feeling as a way of evaluating or knowing about the world. When I ask myself how I felt about the tsunami in Japan, I am aware of feelings of horror, shock, awe, and huge compassion. When I consider the way reckless practices in the banking world have allowed people to become extremely rich at the expense of millions, I feel anger and outrage. When I feel hunger at the end of the day and delight in the flavors of a good curry, I am filled with pleasure. All of these different feelings demonstrate a huge range of responses. They are not all of the same order. They are not merely delusions to be abandoned because they are the basis of suffering. There is a spectrum of feelings that can be important responses to situations and experiences without which our life would be sterile and unfeeling. My compassion for the people of Japan is a strong feeling that is at the heart of Buddhism. My sense of horror and shock may be an important way of assessing the nature of people’s difficulties. My anger and outrage at the banks is based on a deep ethical feeling that knows something is not right. My feeling of hunger and the pleasure of eating are natural responses to my body and its sensory capacity.
The founder of analytical psychology, C. G. Jung, said that without the “feeling function,” as he called it, we would have no discernment of an ethical or moral gauge. When we speak of feeling in this sense, it is not the experience of affect but, rather, a subtle evaluation process that goes on at a level beneath the conceptual mind. Within Buddhist understanding, the most fundamental experience of feeling arises in relation to our sensory contact with the world and is also a very basic and raw evaluation of what is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. What we have to learn in our life is to discern the differences between these levels and modes of feeling so that we can recognise those occasions when we are in touch with some important knowledge about our experience and those when we are just caught in reactive affect.
Feeling and our entire feeling life can actually bring with it a great source of insight and wisdom. It is a reference point through which we can evaluate the world that sometimes warns us of dangers. It is a way of being in relationship to our experiences that enables us to develop important and significant feelings such as compassion, love, concern, care, and so on. If we can learn to be with our feeling reality, it will ultimately begin to open us to the deepest level of felt experience, which is intimately tied up with the innate nature of mind.
In Buddhist understanding the mind’s true nature is essentially clear and free of defilement even though it is obscured by our psychological and emotional life. But this innate primordial mind, or clear-light mind, as it is sometimes called, has two dimensions. One is a significant aspect of mind that is a natural clarity and wisdom awareness that recognizes the true nature of reality. But this experience has a feeling tone intimately associated with it that is present because it is intrinsic to the very nature of primordial mind. This intrinsic nature of mind is therefore described as the inseparable union of clarity, or wisdom, with the feeling of bliss. In the Tibetan tradition there is a particular emphasis on the feeling of bliss, but this could equally be love, compassion, and joy, which are some of its natural tones.
So in our spiritual journey we try to bring together a profound insight into the nature of reality but also a deep awakening of feeling. Feeling is not something that we should dismiss or disregard in favor of mind. As Westerners we may be considerably more entangled in our emotions than are those in the East, but it is nonetheless our feeling life that needs to be understood and, indeed, transformed and awakened. This means that the practice of meditation needs to bring us into relationship with the emotional life that we need to transform. It will also bring us into relationship with deeper, subtle levels of felt experience that tell us a great deal about our relationship to life. More deeply, we will come to experience a quality of feeling that has profound meaning to it. The qualities of love, compassion, joy, and, ultimately, bliss are all within our nature. We may be able to develop wisdom through meditation, but without the feeling dimension, that can be arid. It is often said in Buddhist teachings that in our life we need the two wings of a bird: one is wisdom and the other is a feeling of compassion and love.
In this book I wish to look at ways in which we can live with our feeling life that will begin to bring to light the wisdom that lies within it, drawing on both Buddhist and Western approaches. For many of us, feelings and emotions are the root of so much of our suffering, but equally they can be the ground of our awakening. It is sometimes said that we can experience happiness only if we truly embrace our pain. To lose relationship to feeling would be to become barren and dry. In discussing the feeling reality, I wish to differentiate the notions of delusion, emotion, feeling, and felt sense and to explore the distinction between emotions and what are sometimes called destructive emotions. These are all important considerations if we are to live more comfortably with our emotional life and gain insight and wisdom. I wish to draw on my own psychotherapeutic background as well as the work of people such as John Welwood, the psychotherapist and writer, and others in the West who have brought together Eastern and Western understanding. I will touch on Jung’s “feeling function” and look at some of the traditional Buddhist views on this subject. In part 1 I will be exploring and mapping the territory of our feeling life, drawing on Buddhist and Western perspectives. In part 2 I will be looking at some of the important ingredients in and ways of transforming our emotional life, and in part 3 I will be looking at the quality of feeling as it unfolds into its wisdom nature.
Feeling is the source of so much wisdom if we know how to live with it. Ultimately, it is the deepest level of feeling—universal compassion and bliss, conjoined with wisdom realizing the nature of reality—that becomes a buddha’s awakened experience. This is the same “stuff ” as our current day-to-day feelings; it is just a refined and more illuminated aspect of it. Our feelings and emotions are the raw material of our awakening. If we disregard them, we miss a vital resource