An Unglamorous Meditation Practice

by Dan Nussbaum

Angry thoughts can be allowed to have their say in meditation. That’s because when expressions of anger aren’t cut off, other thoughts and feelings can come in that question anger’s monolithic facade. Perhaps along with fury a feeling of regret shows up:  you got embroiled in a fight even though you saw all the warning signs flashing. Or there might be a whisper that tells you not to defend the position you’re holding with quite so much passion. Or maybe you agree with the thinking that justifies your anger, but the  voice making the case sounds so overwrought you have to wonder.

An experience of anger that includes contradictions and complications reflects an honest way of relating to it. From the Buddhist perspective an experience of an emotion can’t be reliably distilled into any single element. Along with inconsistent feelings, an episode of anger can be influenced by a personal style of being angry, memories about similar situations, family and cultural norms about showing emotion, often hidden rules about gender and rank as well as conditions such as how rested you are,  worries that impinge on your state of mind, and your perception of the other person’s reactions. When seen as arising along with an array of factors, rather than alone,  emotions don’t call for a single, predetermined response. After all, anger that’s experienced as anger plain and simple demands action. But anger mixed with regret that reminds you of something your father might have done? It’s hard to lash out based on that.

It’s better not to interrupt thoughts and feelings that come up in sittings so a wide variety of conditions can be known. Chogyam Trungpa famously said “first thought, best thought.” But when only the first thought is allowed in (and quickly ushered out) meditators come to know experience as much less layered than they would if the first thought, second thought and many subsequent thoughts were allowed. (At any rate, Trungpa aimed his motto at artists, advising them to follow their inspirations without holding back.)  If regret, anger or resentment arise, if memories come, or if doubt about this or any way of meditating asserts itself, the Recollective Awareness approach is to acknowledge all of it.

Seated figure, Mali, 13th century, Met Museum

I never meet people who join sitting groups or go on retreats out of a wish for more struggle. People with an interest in Buddhist meditation almost always want more peace. That’s just as true of someone who has a practice to replace angry thoughts with thoughts of lovingkindness as it is with someone who sits open to whatever arises; just as true for someone who lets thoughts float away like clouds on an empty sky as it is for someone who attends to thinking. So let’s give ourselves some credit. We all meditate with a sincere aspiration to become kinder and more peaceful. But someone unfamiliar with this method will wonder how allowing angry thoughts can bring peace. What doesn’t get asked is how chasing away unwelcome thoughts can.

A practice that relies on periods of honest exploration into thoughts and feelings sounds unglamorous when compared to one that stresses oneness with all beings. It’s true. This is an unglamorous, workaday practice. Then what can be said about the pursuit of liberation if it’s not a quest for total liberation or total awareness or total anything? A practice that includes periods of reflection about what comes up in meditation can lead to freedom from being blindsided by conflict. Liberation would mean becoming less and less susceptible to the demands of strong emotions like anger because now they are seen in context and understood. Awakening then might be experienced as simply becoming less ignorant about our lives, which seems to be what unglamorous Gotoma was talking about anyway.

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