A dozen years ago I was at the end of my teacher training to be a Community Dharma Leader (CDL) at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Various of us trainees had the opportunity to give little talks or workshops on specialized or pet topics to the group. I started my talk by saying something like, “We all come to Buddhism to deal with our suffering.” Afterward several of my fellow CDL trainees voiced their disagreement with this premise. They had come to Buddhism in search of wisdom, truth and a spiritual experience.
For not the first time in my life, I felt like the defective member of the group. Sure, I’d always been interested in the insights and universal wisdom of Buddhism, but even my longing for enlightenment was mostly the desire to stop being depressed. My early experiences of practice focused more on emotional rather than spiritual questions, as even my teachers seemed to recognize that I needed to deal with these personal issues before I could see the traditional insights clearly. For three decades, even as my practice has evolved and deepened, these issues have never been far from the forefront of my exploration.
Today I mostly teach the blending of Buddhism and Twelve Step recovery, so perhaps it’s not surprising that many of the people who attend my retreats and workshops share similar emotional issues. When I occasionally talk about my personal struggles with depression, it seems to have particular resonance with the audience. So when I had the opportunity to participate as an editor of Inquiring Mind, I wanted to focus on the challenges of living with difficult emotions.
Meditation isn’t therapy, even though we increasingly see mindfulness being used in healing environments. Nonetheless, sitting down to follow the breath and watch the mind inevitably puts us in intimate contact with our emotional life. At that moment we can be faced with two contrasting approaches. One approach is to focus the mind elsewhere, trying to simply let go of or ignore emotions so that we can maintain a broader view of our experience through the lens of Dharma. At times, if the emotions aren’t deeply embedded or terribly painful, this strategy may work and we may move into a more impersonal relationship with what is happening in the mind and body.
The other approach is to focus on the emotion itself, which may be unavoidable—powerful emotions can be hard to ignore. In this case, we need strategies for being with our feelings. That’s what I was hoping this issue would be about, and it’s the kind of article I was looking for when we began work on the issue. Of course, editing a journal is like any other creative exercise—full of random, surprising and uncontrollable events. The articles that arrived in my in-box day by day have been fascinating, moving, revelatory and inspiring to me.
I hope you’ll find something in this issue that is helpful in your practice and in your life. I’m proud to work again with Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker and the whole Inquiring Mind family.
May all beings be free from difficult emotions.
— Kevin Griffin, Guest Editor
Empty Chair, Full Heart: A Conversation with Robert Hall
“Most people don’t have any idea what they’re feeling,” suggests Dharma teacher and therapist Robert Hall. In this interview, he takes us on a Gestalt trip to Mexico, with a stop in India for instructions from the Buddha.
The Terror Within
Zen teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel teaches us to release terror moment by moment, contacting an inner unencumbered being that is always present despite suffering.
Angry Because I Care
David Smith, a Dharma punk living in Nashville, was angry. Mindfulness practice showed him why; lovingkindness practice helped him change.
Tangled Up in Blue
Zen priest Alan Senauke describes his struggle with depression. He wonders whether Shakyamuni Buddha arrived at a place where he was always happy, never anxious.
Loosening the Knot
Ajahn Amaro offers advice on working with the body as an antidote to anxiety and other forms of suffering.
Stephanie Tate was abused, raped and became addicted to drugs. It took years of mindfulness and compassion practice, then volunteering as a hospice chaplain, to get to the other side.
When I’ve Seen Through the Horror: Compassion Training for Veterans
While one veteran warned, “I’d rather you hit me with a crutch than my having to spend five minutes alone with my thoughts,” James Hallenbeck and Leah Weiss piloted two richly successful compassion trainings at the VA Palo Alto.
Interview with Sylvia Boorstein: Medicine for the Brain, Dharma for the Mind
Spirit Rock teacher Sylvia Boorstein says that in the case of some meditation students, antidepressants allow them to move beyond the personal to shared, universal insights.
The Science of Antidepressants
Neuroscientist David E. Presti and psychoanalyst Kristi Panik explain the history and workings of antidepressants. Some of what they say may surprise you.
Popping Pills for Depression: A Buddhist View
Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace questions whether psychopharmacology is a way to end suffering, which he reminds us is rooted in the underlying mental afflictions of craving, hostility and delusion.
Resources for Practicing with Emotions
If you want to work more deeply with your emotions—as spiritual practice or simply as life practice—these links will get you started. The Internet provides an almost dizzying array of options; the programs and techniques listed here are offered by professionals with solid track records. Annotated and compiled by Margaret Cullen.
Landing on One’s Feet in the Void
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi inspires us with sutta tales of rapid attainment when the void opens.
Living Skillfully with the Difficult
In this excerpt from Emotional Chaos to Clarity, Phillip Moffitt counsels, “soften into the difficult,” with a reminder that “you are not your difficulty.”
Barbara Gates answers an old friend’s critique to stop writing memoir with (what else?) more memoir—presented with Genine Lentine’s graphic poem “The Good Arm” in counterpoint.
Practicing with Emotions
Kevin Griffin says the Four Foundations of Mindfulness can be therapeutic. He urges us to “breathe into” the tender spots in the body where sadness rests.
The Dharma & The Drama
Musing on life and aging, Wes Nisker invites us to take the whole of creation into our hearts, warts and all.