How Do I Handle Difficult Emotions?
Painful emotions and feelings are generated and sustained by the sense of being a separate self, which, if investigated, can never be found. In its place we find the inherent peace of Awareness itself.
When you have really strong emotions come up, how do you look for the 'I'?
Take an example where somebody says something to you which is hurtful and you feel upset. What is it that is upset? Someone has said something to you. You’ve heard some words, and the words are heard by awareness. You’re aware of the words. You hear them.
For instance, if someone were to say something like, ‘What a beautiful afternoon it is’, that wouldn’t upset you. Two minutes later, somebody says something which is hurtful or upsetting. What’s the difference?
My story. Usually I would be like, ‘They shouldn’t have done that’.
But what is saying that? Because whatever it is that hears the words, ‘What a beautiful afternoon’, those words are heard, and there’s no response. They’re just heard. Then somebody says something which hurts you and there is a response: ‘I’m upset by that’. Now, what is it that is upset? Is whatever it is that heard the words upset? In other words, is awareness upset?
No. Awareness is like an empty space. Imagine awareness like the space of this room. It’s just pure sensitivity. It can’t be upset. Why not? It’s because it’s empty. There’s no resistance in it. In order to be upset, something has to rise up and say, ‘No, I don’t like what’s been said’. But in the absence of this something, the words just flow through. If someone were to throw a ball through this space it would just flow through. It wouldn’t meet with any resistance.
So awareness is like that. It hears the words and they just pass through, like the words, ‘What a lovely afternoon it is’. It just flows through and it doesn’t leave a trace in awareness. It doesn’t leave a trace in you. It doesn’t scar you, doesn’t hurt you.
Now, when you hear the hurtful words, something in you rises up and meets the words. The words are floating through you, and something rises up and clashes with the words and says, ‘I don’t like that’. What ‘I’ is that, the ‘I’ that doesn’t like these words? It’s not the ‘I’ of awareness, because awareness is like an empty space. So what ‘I’ is it?
The ‘I’ I think I am.
It’s the ‘I’ you think you are, okay, but now go to that ‘I’. Try to find that ‘I’. What ‘I’ exactly is that? Where is it? What’s it made of? You’re feeling on its behalf, you call it ‘I’, so you must know it. Where is it? What is it? What do you find when you go towards it?
I guess I see it as a story.
It’s a story, yes. Can a story be upset? On whose behalf is that story being told? Who is the central character in that story?
You point to your body, but is your body upset by these words?
It feels upset. I get tightness in my stomach and chest.
Yes, but your body has not been upset by the words. The tightness in your chest and stomach is the result of being upset. It’s the echo of the upset in your body, but it’s not the body itself. Your cheek or your nose or your ear doesn’t get upset when you hear the words. So leave the after-effect; we’re going to the actual feeling itself. So now go back. Who is the one, the central character of this story, the ‘I’ that is so hurt and upset?
I don’t find a thing. I just find…I guess that’s what I identify as me, that somehow I’ve been wronged.
Okay, but what is that ‘I’ that has been wronged? It’s not your body. We’ve already discovered it’s not your body. It’s not a thought. You can’t wrong a thought. You can’t upset a thought. So it’s not your thought that has been upset, it’s not your body that has been upset, and it’s not awareness, the one that hears the words, because that’s just an open, empty space that is open to everything.
So it’s some sense of myself.
What is that?
I don’t know what it is.
You don’t know what it is, but you spend much of your life thinking and feeling on its behalf.
Right! What is it?
You tell me! You’re the one who is claiming the existence of this one.
I can’t identify what it is.
Perfect. You’re quite right. Why can’t you identify it? It’s not there.
But it feels like it is!
It’s not there. It’s a fictional ‘I’, an imaginary self, on whose behalf we spend most of our lives thinking, feeling, acting and relating. And yet, we can just pause and say, ‘Okay, what exactly is this “I”? Let’s be really specific and scientific. What is this “I” on whose behalf I spend so much time thinking and feeling? It’s not my body. The body is not upset by some words. You can’t upset a thought or an image, so it’s not my mind that is upset, although the mind can express upset. And it’s not awareness, because awareness is open and empty.’ What else is there in your experience?
There isn’t anything else. It’s a fictitious ‘I’. It’s the ghost in the system that is not really there, on whose behalf we spend most of our lives thinking and feeling. Now, when you discover that, when you’re feeling upset, and instead of getting mad with the person who did whatever they did, you say, ‘Okay, I’m just going to go towards this “I” that is upset’, and when you don’t find it, when you can’t find the one on whose behalf the upset is taking place, what happens to the upset?
I assume it would just go away, because there are no shoulds anymore. There’s no reason to be upset. So I don’t have to fix it or do anything?
No, you don’t have to fix it. You’ve seen that the character upon whom the upset feeling depends has been discovered to be non-existent. When that happens, the bottom drops out of the story of the upset. What you will be left with is a wave, because as you rightly said, this feeling has an impact on the body, this feeling in the chest or in the belly. That will remain, but it’s no longer a feeling of being upset – it’s just a sensation. And because the sensation has no functional purpose, the residue of upset in the body has no purpose other than to support the separate self that was upset. It’s a kind of ally in the body of the separate self.
Now that this separate, upset self has been seen to be non-existent, this sensation in the body no longer has a job. It’s redundant. And it will just gradually dissipate out of the body as a result, because it’s not required any longer, and the body will be washed clean of this tension and will be returned to its natural state of openness and sensitivity.
And then, the next time the feeling comes up, you do the same thing again. You explore the ‘I’ around whom it revolves, and you go back again and again and again, and you experience for yourself, over and over again, that this separate ‘I’ on whose behalf you have been thinking and feeling for so long is not there. When you look for this ‘I’ you find the ‘I’ of awareness, open, empty, at peace, and this gradually becomes your identity. You begin to take your stand as that awareness, not as the reactive, upset self.
And then from that place you would actually react with wisdom in the situation?
Exactly. You still have reactions, but the reactions are no longer on behalf of a self that is always trying to defend or aggrandise itself through reactivity and relationship. There’ll still be a response to a situation; you don’t become a stone. On the contrary, you become very sensitive, but your responses will be of wisdom, of love, of understanding.
Then you would also recognise that that’s where it’s from, and not from a place of reactivity?
Yes, you would recognise that your response came from love. You just know. It’s like if you’re a musician and you play the right note, you just know it’s right. If your response has been a loving and intelligent response, even if it was a firm one, something in you knows, ‘I know that came from truth. I know that was a loving response. It wasn’t trying to defend myself or put the other person down or aggrandize myself.
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About Rupert Spira
From an early age Rupert Spira was deeply interested in the nature of reality. At the age of seventeen he learnt to meditate, and began studying and practicing the teachings of the classical Advaita Vedanta tradition under the guidance of Dr. Francis Roles and Shantananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of the north of India, which he continued for the next twenty years. During this time he immersed himself in the teachings of P.D.Ouspensky, Krishnamurti, Rumi, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, and Robert Adams, until he met his teacher, Francis Lucille, in 1997. Francis introduced Rupert to the Direct Path teachings of Atmanada Krishnamenon; Jean Klein and the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism; and, more importantly, directly indicated to him the true nature of experience.
In his meetings, Rupert explores the perennial, non-dual understanding that lies at the heart of all the great religious and spiritual traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mystical Christianity, Sufism, Zen etc., and which is also the direct, ever-present reality of our own experience. This is a contemporary, experiential approach involving silent meditation, guided meditation and conversation, and requires no affiliation to any particular religious or spiritual tradition. All that is required is an interest in the essential nature of experience, and in the longing for love, peace and happiness around which most of our lives revolve.
Rupert is the author of nine books, with his most recent book, Being Myself, published this year.