No Feelings? No Chance

Watching a Dhamma Q&A this week I noticed there was something of a theme in the questions. Many of them revolved around asking about ways to alleviate fear, pain, grief, or anger. While it isn’t unusual to ask these kinds of questions, even of ourselves, I wondered if this was part of a tendency we have towards wanting to get rid of feelings.

Many people imagine advanced practice, or enlightenment will mean that they won’t have to deal with feelings any more. For some this viewpoint is borne of their own primary source of suffering; they struggle most with their feelings and they wish they could find a way to make them go away. Likewise many people imagine advanced practice requires you to stop all thinking, or at least they hope it does, because the source of their greatest suffering is the relentless barrage of their thoughts.

These kinds of hopes and wishes can become an obstacle in our practice. Whether you will be released from these experiences with practice isn’t important; the fact that these are preconceptions and suppositions about the practice is.

Any preconception we bring to the practice can become a hindrance for us. The ultimate goal of practice is to see things as they really are, but when we hold onto ideas of how we want things to be we block our receptivity to how things actually are. We only see what we want to see, and we overlook what doesn’t fit into our idea of how it should be.

This is not the practice; we must see everything as it is, whether it was what we wanted to see or not. Everything has to be open to investigation, everything is up for grabs. Take every assumption you have and be prepared to challenge it.

There are these persistent myths that Buddhist practice should lead us to having no feelings, but this is not correct. What it should lead us to is not suffering, and that is quite a different thing.

One of the problems with misconceptions of what enlightenment or advanced practice will be like is that they can come from an ego-centric position. I have this problem in my life and I want to get rid of it, and I want Buddhism to do that for me. Buddhism can become just a commodity for some, another way to try to get what they want from the world. This obscures what the real problem actually is, and stops them from making the right investigations to find that out.

We might come to the practice with the idea that we want to feel better about ourselves or our situation, and focus on just the teachings and practices that relate to this. But this really won’t work. Just the same way that you can’t do 300 sit ups to burn off fat only from your belly, you can’t just practice only the bits that might make you feel better. In the same way you have to lose fat from your whole body to get that flat tummy, you have to do the full practice to experience specific changes – like thinking less, or being less overwhelmed by your feelings.

The Buddha didn’t give us a linear practice to follow, but a circular one. We can talk about teachings that are suitable for beginners, but we never forget or overlook any teaching because it’s ‘just for the noobs’. The Four Noble Truths is just as an important teaching in the first year of your practice as it is in the thirtieth. What changes over the years is your perspective on it, and what you understand about it. I like to think about practice as being like training to improve your eyesight – the more you practice the more fine detail you can see.

So we can’t ever just put our efforts on only one quality to develop, or only one practice because we need to constantly allow our ability to see in greater detail to evolve. The extra levels of details are developed by our deepening understanding of the interconnectedness of the different teachings and practices, so we have to keep going back to the things we already know to see if there is anything new to learn. It is only by doing this that we come to really understand the teachings and get the most benefit from them. Spot training, in practice terms, is impossible.

Yes you can use a certain practice to cultivate a particular quality, such as using metta practice to work on being more caring, and it will help, but only in tandem your wider practice. The more you work on one element, the more you will uncover other things that are impacting on it.
If you do metta practice, you might uncover that you only want to care about people who are ‘worthy of it’ in your eyes, or you might only want to care a certain amount because you are ‘not the kind of person who goes around love bombing everyone’. So you might have started metta practice with the intention of being more open hearted but what you really end up working on is your deep rooted opinions about yourself and other people.

Another major problem with coming to practice with the intention of getting away from your feelings is that you can’t. Time and time again in the teachings it is pointed out to us that feelings do not go away through practice; what changes is how we understand and react to them.

The Salla Sutta makes this perfectly clear in it’s first paragraph:

“Bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling feels a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling, and a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. The instructed noble disciple too feels a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling, and a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.”

SN36.6 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

So there it is, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, the Buddha said you still experience feelings when you are an advanced practitioner.

So if you still have feelings then how does suffering end? The Buddha goes on to explain the difference between the experience of an uninstructed worldling (ie a person who doesn’t practice or isn’t very advanced) and that of a noble disciple (someone who has a more advanced practice).

He explains that the difference is what is often described as the two arrows, or, as in this translation, two darts.

“Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, and then they would strike him immediately afterwards with a second dart, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by two darts. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling … he feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one.”

SN36.6 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The first arrow, or dart, is the one we can’t avoid, but the second arrow is one that we can. If we just stop at the painful feeling, we only have one arrow, but if we then make an issue of it – grieving, lamenting, weeping – we shoot ourself with the second arrow.

As the sutta continues the Buddha then details the process by which we create the second arrow through our misunderstanding of our experience; and that fundamentally the issue is that we attach to our feelings, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This includes both mental and physical feelings. We can have a mental experience as the first arrow, but we can still create more suffering around it with the second arrow.

So for example if you lose someone you are close to, it is perfectly natural that a feeling of sadness will arise, this is the first arrow. When you understand how the human mind and body’s functions operate to create bonds between people (because we are social animals), then you accept that the feeling of sadness or loss that comes up when a bond is broken is part of a natural process. The pain of loss is the first arrow. Accepting it is avoiding the second arrow. Trying to make it stop is shooting yourself with the second arrow.

Whenever I write about accepting your feelings, or accepting your experience, this is kind of situation I mean. You have to allow the first arrow to be there, you can’t stop it from happening. The teachings on the Worldly Winds are there to remind us that human life is full of first arrows, and everyone will experience them at one time or another. The practice isn’t to learn how to avoid the pain of the conditioned world, it is to learn how to deal with it skilfully, and not make things worse for ourselves:

“Though touched by worldly circumstances,
never his mind is wavering.
Sorrowless, stainless and secure:
This is the highest blessing.”

Maha Mangala Sutta SN2.4 trans R.L.Soni

We have to allow experiences to be as they are. Part of our realisation is seeing and accepting the things that are beyond our control; to accept the conditions that we are working within. The Worldly Winds are one set of those conditions.

Having a human body that evolved in a certain way is another one of those conditions. If you have a human body then you will experience pain, you will experience emotion, and you will experience feelings; these come as part of the package. You might like to have some gills and live underwater, but you can’t; the limitations on the features of your human body were already established by processes of evolution that started many millions of years ago. You might like to not have any feelings, but you can’t.

So while we can’t avoid having feelings, we often spend quite a lot of time trying to do just that. This isn’t useful way to use our time and energy, but it is also not useful for our practice; we need to get everything out in the open where we can see it. Squashing our feelings down means we never get the opportunity to investigate them.

Imagine a laboratory that was trying to create a vaccine but every time they got a sample of the virus they panicked and sprayed it with bleach to get rid of it, because it was infectious. This is similar to what we do when we try to bat away inconvenient thoughts, or bury our feelings. To work on the dangerous substance safely the laboratory needs to create a secure space to work in. Meditation is like creating a laboratory in our mind, through cultivating calm and attention we make a secure space where we can investigate our thoughts and feelings safely, and in greater detail than we could in our ordinary lives.

In the teachings we can find an example of the Buddha working on his own feelings. In the Ukkacela Sutta we find two lessons, firstly that an enlightened being can still experience the feeling of loss, and that allowing our feelings to be present is an important part of not creating the second arrow for ourselves. In this sutta the Buddha was addressing an assembly of monks shortly after the death of two of his most long standing companions, Sariputta and Mogalana.

“Bhikkhus, this assembly appears to me empty now that Sāriputta and Moggallana have attained final Nibbāna. This assembly was not empty for me earlier, and I had no concern for whatever quarter Sāriputta and Moggallana were dwelling in.”

SN47.14 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

But he continues talking about the two and eventually says:

“It is wonderful, bhikkhus, on the part of the Tathagata*, it is amazing on the part of the Tathagata, that when such a pair of disciples has attained final Nibbāna, there is no sorrow or lamentation in the Tathagata.”

SN47.14 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

It is a great example to us, because the Buddha allows this experience to be in his awareness – this feeling that the assembly is empty without them. But he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Instead he notices there is a difference between his experience before they died and after. He doesn’t dismiss the difference, he acknowledges and accepts its presence. Because he is able to allow it to be there, he is able to talk and reflect on the fine qualities of the two, and on the processes of nature; so he doesn’t feel sorrow at their passing.

But sometimes when the feeling is happening all we can actually do is to try to stop ourselves from firing the second arrow. Sometimes we do just have to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed: to feel sad, to cry, whatever the feeling is, but to not interfere with the feeling, just let it happen. When we talk about ‘sitting with something’, this is what we mean. It’s like the feeling is a hot bath, and all you can do is just sit in it and either get used to it, or wait for the water to get cold. Practices around being able to deal with discomfort are for these kind of situations when all we can to do is hold still and to not make it worse.

Perhaps the only investigations we can do when we are in that kind of situation are really basic ones – what does it feel like, where do you feel it, how strong is it, does it change, what kind of things are coming up in your mind because of it? Trying to analyse when all you should be doing is holding on is sometimes the cause of firing the second arrow; frantically looking for a solution because you don’t like the way you feel right now can create extra stress and anxiety.

We can do a deeper investigation of our big feelings like sadness, pain, or grief at a time when we are not overwhelmed by them. We can look more deeply at the thoughts that come up and perhaps engage with them, exploring where they come from. We can investigate our experience through the teachings of the Dhamma, so for example we can look for the second arrow, we can look for where we are attaching to our feelings, we can look for the presence of self in the process.

Whenever we investigate we try to do it with the spirit of curiosity; we can do it with the rigorous mind of a scientist, or with the wonder of an inquisitive child, whatever style suits you best. Investigate with the intention of not trying to get rid of the feeling, but instead of really wanting to understand everything about it.

In the UK many people are scared of spiders, yet there are no venomous spiders here- they don’t even bite you. So the spiders here can’t harm you, their presence just might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Feelings are a bit like this too. Don’t be scared of the feeling, it can’t harm you, it just might make you feel a bit uncomfortable while it is around.

There is no single practice that will allow you to sit more easily with difficult feelings, nor is there one that will allow you to see deeply into the heart of the issue. We are all different and we all need different things, what works well for one person might be no use to you at all. So we have to do the work for ourselves, all the different variations of it, until finally we learn enough things that allow change to start to happen.

So the practice is long, and hard, because it requires us to accept fully that there is no way to not have feelings. But what we learn along the way is that having feelings isn’t really the problem at all, the problem how we respond to them.

This is the way that suffering finally ends, we realise that having feelings isn’t a problem after all. So bring on that uncomfortably hot summer day, that terrible tasting food, that loss, that thing that was almost exactly the way you wanted it – but not quite; bring them all on because once you learn to stop shooting yourself with the second arrow, they don’t have to be big problems any more.

*The Buddha never called himself the Buddha, he always referred to himself as the Tathagata. This is a bit of a play on words because it could both be understood to mean ‘the one who is completely gone’ and ‘the one who is completely here’.

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