Practice Diary: On emotions

BG Krishna instructs Arjuna

I can think of hardly anything as moving in yogic literature as the image of Arjuna, overwhelmed by the prospect of facing the choices and consequences of engaging in the battlefield of life, succumbing to his confusion and fear.

“Better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand, were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting.” Overwhelmed by sorrow, Arjuna spoke these words. And casting away his bow and his arrows, he sat down in his chariot in the middle of the battlefield.

Bhagavad Gita, Easwaran translation, 1:46-47

I think we’ve all been there in some way or another. When the path before us seems too rocky, and the choices we face seem too difficult to make, that instead we put on the proverbial pyjamas, turn on the telly, and call it a day.

Arjuna was lucky to receive some expert instruction on how to live out his life, manage the extremes of emotion, reconnect to a more holistic view of existence, and find love in a world that can otherwise feel bent on chaos and destruction.

It’s a text that survives and inspires for good reason and I always find something new every time I open an edition or study it with a teacher.

We may become a seeker for many reasons, including the type of existential confusion that Arjuna experienced, however the spiritual path is also fraught with difficulties.  As T.K.V. Desikachar summarises of Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras:

…it is precisely those who are searching for clarity who often experience duhkha [feeling of discomfort or pain] particularly strongly. Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras gives a wonderful example of this…It says that dust that lands on the skin is harmless, but if only a tiny particle gets into the eye, it is very painful. In other words, someone who is searching for clarity becomes sensitive because the eyes must be open, even if what they see is sometimes very unpleasant. Someone who is searching feels or sees things long before other people do. He or she develops a special insight, a particular kind of sensitivity. We should see this positively – this insight or sensitivity can be as useful as a warning light in a car. It tells us that there is something wrong and we would be wise to find out what it is. Someone who is searching for clarity always sees more suffering than someone who is not. This awareness of suffering results from greater sensitivity. The person who is not searching for clarity does not even know what brings him or her happiness or sorrow.

Simply, by trying to calm down by learning to focus and pay attention, we may instead experience the ups and down more frighteningly intense for a time.  Something in modern life we try to avoid, distract, and medicate away as much as possible.

I have perhaps a slightly skewed view of emotional intensity and catharsis having attended four years of an intensive theatre conservatory programme. Often if I or another student had a tearful emotional collapse in the classroom we’d be applauded and congratulated. Emotions were good things. They connected you to the universal human experience. The shared act of catharsis and touching the great emotional abyss brought people together. The important qualification I’ve come to understand is that a trip down emotions lane needs to be prepared carefully by a skilled artist to lead you safely through its treacherous crossings with all limbs intact. Haruki Murakami darkly refers to these depths as “toxins” that an artist needs to gird himself up to work with. I’m not sure I’d go that far but I respond to the seriousness of his regard.

The path of yoga is not telling us to avoid transient emotions and feelings, or that one day they will no longer be part of our lives, but to rather learn to avoid being confused or overwhelmed by them. We are not to resist life and all its ups and downs but instead face it dead on with clear, fearless vision. To in effect change our relationship with the emotions that haunt us or tempt us. Pema Chodron, coming from a Buddhist approach, says it best for me:

All over the world, people are so caught in running that they forget to take advantage of the beauty around them. We become so accustomed to speeding ahead that we rob ourselves of joy…The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. After we have died, the ebb and flow will still continue. Like the tides of the sea, like day and night – this is the nature of things.

What would it be like to meet life? I have to admit this passage, especially read by Pema Chodron, cuts right through me and summons a bit of those theatre school classroom tears.

The Gita speaks of an unfiltered reality that is vast and loving. That among myriad manifestations it is the ‘silence of the unknown and the wisdom of the wise’ [10:38]. But it is indeed a long and winding road that leads to that door.