Dealing With Emotions: Levels of Practice in Buddhism and Gurdjieff Work

Listening to some Buddhist teachings for dealing with emotions last night, and to fellow students’ understandings these teachings, I put together a number of things that struck me is saying something about levels of dealing with emotions.

The first level, what we might call the level of not particularly dealing with an emotion, is the ordinary level of simply and automatically identifying with the emotion as it occurs.  This is the automatization of ordinary consciousness.  The emotion then mobilizes most or all of your consciousness to fit in with it, brings up related material like memories and similar emotions, and creates a “story” centered around the emotion that can take you far from reality, and that can goad you into doing things which will create a lot of karma, which you will later regret.  An emotional “storm” may go on for minutes or hours after the original stimulus arousing it has ended.

The next level of dealing with emotions would be trying to detect them as they happen but then keep them from rising to a strong level, where they take you over.  This could be done by concentrating on something else, by deliberately pushing the emotion down, by getting involved in some other activity to take your awareness energy away from the emotions.  This is useful if it keeps you from acting on emotions in a way which would get you into trouble or create bad karma, and/or reinforcing particular emotional triggers and reactions.

The next level of dealing with emotions, which I have heard Sogyal Rinpoche  stress the last couple of years, is when you realize that emotions are rising, direct your attention to the qualities, the nature of the emotion itself, rather than to the object the emotion has been aroused by.  If a person makes you angry, for example, stop focusing on that person, and try to note the qualities of anger itself.  From my own experience with Gurdjieff type work, I would say that means paying a lot of attention to body sensations, and, from Shinzen Young’s vipassana work, paying attention to the internal talk or internal imagery that’s associated with the emotion.  The big emphasis is on the ongoing, moment-by-moment qualities of the emotion, not the object of the emotion.  If Bob Smith, e.g., says something that gets me angry and I let the anger take me over, I will be focused on my negative perceptions and on that bastard Bob Smith, the anger will continue to run in an automatic way, etc.  Focusing on the qualities of the emotion itself will keep the story from developing and take the wind out of the sails of the emotion.

The highest level, what I think of as the Dzogchen level, will involve looking inward to try to perceive “who” is feeling the emotion.  This strikes me as the ultimate way of transcending the emotion, and I have some experiential feel what it is like, although it’s difficult to describe.

All of these ways of dealing with emotion strike me as useful, at a minimal level as tending to inhibit the expression of negative emotions which will probably generate negative karma, reactive consequences, and, at a deeper level, of cutting down identification with emotions and stories that are associated with various emotions.

What I find missing from Buddhist approaches, as I have been exposed to them to date, is Gurdjieff’s idea of emotional intelligence.  Gurdjieff taught that emotions, properly trained, are forms of intelligence.  They alert you to possible realities in your ongoing situation that may require your attention and action.  An intelligent, well functioning emotion then would grab your attention with its quality and power, you would then look more closely at various aspects of reality to see if there is something you need to do.  What you need to do might be take some external action or investigate some specific aspect of the workings of your mind.  Having alerted you, the emotion quickly dies away.  That is intelligent emotions, according to Gurdjieff, are very brief, rather than starting stories which go on for minutes or hours after the event that stimulated them.

I don’t think I’ve been exposed to teachings in a Buddhist framework which talk about making emotions more intelligent.  Rather the general attitude that I think has been there is that emotions are a source of suffering, they drive our samsaric existence, and so we want to disempower these motions.   Compassion is the big exception, as the development of it is an essential part of enlightenment.

As usual, I qualify the above thoughts my noting that I’m not a Buddhist scholar, so I’m sure there are some forms of Buddhism that are different from what I’ve said above.

One comment

  1. Well said, well said!

    looking inward to try to perceive “who” is feeling the emotion.

    that emotions, properly trained, are forms of intelligence. They alert you to possible realities in your ongoing situation that may require your attention and action. An intelligent, well functioning emotion then would grab your attention with its quality and power, you would then look more closely at various aspects of reality to see if there is something you need to do. What you need to do might be take some external action or investigate some specific aspect of the workings of your mind. Having alerted you, the emotion quickly dies away. That is intelligent emotions, according to Gurdjieff, are very brief, rather than starting stories which go on for minutes or hours after the event that stimulated them.

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