In my ongoing quest for understanding about the life of the feelings, yesterday I attended a half-day event on “Dealing with Destructive Emotions.” Now, this was not some egregiously awful, dumbed-down positive psychology event, but a “meditation workshop” led by Dr. Barry Kerzin, personal physician of the Dalai Lama and a Buddhist monk.
I had had the pleasure of joining a group that took Dr. Kerzin to dinner on a previous visit to UCF last April, and I found him charming, compassionate, and intelligent. He had been particularly kind to me in that vulnerable time after my brain hemorrhage—that time when some people were so very kind and others showed their cruelty and indifference so clearly. I also know and admire the two organizers of the event, both of whom are leaving UCF for better positions elsewhere, and I wanted to support their final efforts here.
In addition, though I’m not a Buddhist and I can’t even claim to be all that knowledgeable, I was motivated to attend because I find much appealing in the Buddhist approach to happiness. I’ve posted before about the Buddhist concept of self-compassion, and there are other ways in which I think the Buddhists have it right. For one, they readily acknowledge that suffering is also a part of life, and they refrain from the blame that so many purveyors of popularized positive psychology allow themselves to indulge in.
For instance, in the talk I link to above, Dr. Kerzin cites a study about women with breast cancer and happiness. What’s different about this from so many of the kinds of “if you’re happier you will be healthier and live longer” assertions is that Kerzin notes not that the happier patients who lived longer were somehow innately more happy as persons (and therefore superior), but that they received tender loving care and that it was this compassion that contributed to their happiness and better health outcomes.
I think this is a radically important difference. In Buddhist thinking, we are responsible for helping ourselves be happier, but we are just as called upon to help other people. That mutuality and interdependence is key to keeping the search for happiness from becoming a weapon against those less fortunate than oneself. This kind of nuance distinguishes many Buddhist teachings from a lot of junk positive psychology, and so I feel myself more open to its strivings for a better world.
But I also attended with some apprehension based on my own make-up as a human being. As I put it to my husband yesterday, my pathology is such that group hugs just make me feel more alone and alienated than almost anything else. I am squeamish about crowds of all sorts, and the most common of types—the roaring audience of the sporting event or the rock concert—I find downright revolting, terrifying, really. Even a lecture given and a meditation practice led by someone I find intelligent and compelling can make me feel queasy in a large-group setting. When everyone else is sharing life-affirming togetherness, I usually feel more and more as though I don’t belong anywhere. So, I went with my mind as far open to that sort of thing as I could pry it, though I knew I would find myself uncomfortable. I assured myself that I nonetheless would be able to use it as a point of useful contemplation. Everything, as they say, is grist.
The day was divided into three segments, one before lunch and two after lunch. Each hour, Dr. Kerzin would talk for a while, take questions, and then lead a brief meditation.
In the opening session, Dr. Kerzin talked for quite a bit about where he had recently traveled, where he was traveling next, and the few days he had spent on a silent retreat near Deland, writing, reading, and kayaking. He talked a bit about his encounter on the St. John’s River with an alligator, which he would touch upon throughout the talk.
What I noticed right away was my own destructive impatience. I wanted Dr. Kerzin to start getting to the point, to give me something that I could take away from this talk. He wasn’t, after all, talking in any way about how to deal with destructive emotions, but about the pleasures and challenges of his lifestyle.
After a while, he transitioned into talking about the way that Buddhism defines “destructive emotions” or kleshas in Sanskrit. (He gave us Tibetan terms as well, but I could not venture to spell those.) He spoke of the three roots of these kleshas—anger, desire, and distorted ignorance—from which negative feelings arise. This all seemed obvious to me—of course, while I understand the need to define things clearly, I felt I knew what destructive emotions are, including the ones I was having in that moment. I wanted not to define them, but to work on “dealing with” them.
By the end of the day, I would realize, of course, that in itself this was a productive lesson for me. As the day went on, it dawned on me how utterly exhausted I would be by giving a program that lasted so many hours, especially one where my presence and wisdom might be sources of expected sustenance for so many. And yet, Dr. Kerzin did not show signs of exhaustion or stress. The slow pace of his talk, rather, allowed a relaxed approach that might help prevent burn-out. I will think much more about this as I return to teaching next year with a desire not to kill myself with frenzied overwork.
Kerzin’s entire first segment, it seems to me now, was about sticking with things and how you can do that in spite of impatience. He noted several times the Dalai Lama’s fondness for saying, “Never give up,” and he went through a long and rather elaborate description of various phases of awareness and practice—at first, you may have an intellectual understanding, and only later will that become felt or experienced. You start with an awareness that there’s another possible way of responding other than getting angry, and from the brief “sigh of relief” that can give, you keep trying and move on to being able to laugh at appearances, then to a point when “love boils up” and the conflictual appearances subside.
As I sat in the ballroom, I contemplated a task that faces me today—calling the health insurance company and the hospital about bills that I’ve been receiving and don’t understand. If there is one thing that sends me into a rage, it is dealing with the medical world in our bureaucratized and profit-motivated system. The last time I talked with someone in the billing department at the hospital and he kept repeating, “That’s our policy,” I ended up calling him a drone. He got all insulted and told me he was a human being. I told him he didn’t act like one. It was a terrible impasse all around. We’ll see if I can do better today, because one thing is certain, and it’s that my fury about this system does me no good on a daily basis. I need to transform that fury into larger action rather than letting it eat me up or letting it make me mean.
At one point, as in the video above, Kerzin asked the audience if there was anyone who had let go of all of his or her anger. There were actually a couple of people who raised their hands. Perhaps it was then I began to feel alienated. How can anyone claim that? I felt suddenly as though I were in a room of poseurs, fake Buddhas. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have no anger left in me, only what it is like to keep trying to let go of it. Probably, if I’m honest, I’m not even fully convinced that I should let go of all of it.
Kerzin ended the first session by taking some questions and then leading us in a five-minute meditation, starting and ending with a toll of a chime, in which we were to empty our minds and concentrate only on our breathing. Once, years ago, when I regularly practiced yoga, I could sometimes do this. Lately, I can only observe as the thoughts fly in and out of my brain like so many pieces of confetti. If meditation could produce a panic attack, I’m a likely candidate these days.
Once dismissed for lunch, I discovered my blood sugar was a low 63, and I stumbled out onto the empty campus and found a vending machine. No doubt the low affected my responses, and I hoped I’d feel better later on. I had told myself that I would go to the library over the hour-and-a-half-long lunch period, but it was closed for semester break, and so I sat on a bench and enjoyed the sunshine until the ants started biting my ankles.
As I watched two middle-school-aged boys playing in the fountain, I contemplated Kerzin’s talk. I was grateful at his nuance. It seemed to me that some of the audience questions had been agenda-driven and tended toward the oversimplifications that so offend me. Kerzin always made important distinctions. “Anger,” he noted, “needs to be distinguished from strength and courage and passion. The problem with anger is that its motivation is harm or revenge, even directed at oneself.”
“Fear,” he noted, on the other hand, “can in itself be sensible.” When you face an alligator, he noted, some fear is a correct response and can keep you alive. “Fear becomes a problem when it becomes habitual anxiety that doesn’t serve to remove you from the danger.”
Dr. Kerzin started the afternoon sessions with reminders once again to be patient and to be gentle with ourselves and others. Once again, he made a distinction important to me: If you ever think you’ve “got it,” he said, you are falling into a trap, the trap of arrogance. He emphasized the lack of right answers and formulas.
He posed the question of how it is that distorted ignorance appears and noted that it’s built in to the assumptions we live with and are born into. Then he used an acronym—PPI—for permanent, partless, and independent. Leisurely, he discussed how people assume these qualities for themselves and other things in the world.
Another destructive emotion invaded me at this point… I felt a little bored. Certainly, on an intellectual basis, I have understood a world that is ever-changing, multi-faceted, and interdependent for a long time. True that I often don’t experience it that way, and in that ballroom I felt atomistic as can be. But this wasn’t introducing me to new concepts.
I felt relieved when we moved on to the practice of a new meditation—that he called “tonglen”—where you breathe in the sorrow or pain (of one person or animal or a group or opened to the general sorrow of the world), and then transform it on the out breath to healing love to alleviate that suffering. It was striking to me throughout the day that Dr. Kerzin included animals as sentient beings, especially because I was once again very worried about my elderly cat, who had done so well over the past couple of weeks but who has now taken another down turn. I was grateful to be able to focus my meditation at least in part on my little cat.
After this second meditation, while we took a short break, I also thought about how it is that I am a practice person rather than an intellectual one. This, of course, is always a factor in academia and one of the reasons why I seldom feel truly at home there. Academia is a traditionally scholarly place, and scholars are oriented toward concepts and ideas, whereas artists of various stripes are oriented toward practice.
This led me to thinking about myself in the context of a large lecture hall full of people. I feel so fortunate to teach the generally small and often truly intimate creative writing courses that I teach. For some in the ballroom yesterday, there was a sense of closeness and sharing encouraged by Dr. Kerzin, but because I am so used to the much more intimate workshop setting, it continued to feel rather abstract and distant to me. This made me grateful for the usual practice of which I’m a part, and reinforced once again my sense of the value and specialness of that method. There are workshops that do unfortunately become the site of intimate brutalization, but for the most part I think the creative writing workshop is a primary location of exploration and sharing of human qualities. When Kerzin mentioned how in his study with his Buddhist teachers, there was often a lot of laughter, I thought of my workshops.
The last hour of the day, Dr. Kerzin mostly took questions from the audience. Several people seemed to me again to have come with agendas—to show off their knowledge, to question him about Taoist principles (not his area), to demonstrate to this wise man how good they were. One even seemed to have that good old positive psychology agenda. I had heard him during the break talking about studies that supposedly showed that people could affect reality with the strength of their thoughts. He asked about the Buddhist precept that “nothing exists.”
Dr. Kerzin gently corrected him. The Buddha, he noted, taught that nothing exists in itself, but he also taught that there is a reality behind the common reality based on experience. The way that we commonly perceive things may be an illusion, but a belief that nothing exists at all would be considered nihilism, and is not a tenet of most kinds of Buddhism. (See also, the third paragraph in the Second Dharmachakra here.) This is another one of those oversimplifications that tend to infest people’s thinking, and I was grateful he pointed that out.
We ended the day with a walking meditation, in which we all stood, found a spot in the room and began walking as slowly as possible, paying attention to the way our feet moved and touched the carpet. This was delightfully new for me. Sitting meditation was always hard for my fluttering mind, but recently has also become physically hard for me with my back aches. Many of the yoga practices I used to do to work on my sense of balance (such as the tree pose), I simply can’t hold now. Even walking itself has sometimes become painful with my arthritic foot.
I found it amazingly challenging to walk so slowly, and it proved a great balance exercise. It also was easy on my foot, as the slowness prevented any pounding of my bones on the floor. Perhaps it was also true for me that the activity helped calm and focus my mind, so that I felt more meditative than I usually ever accomplish sitting.
Besides, as the featured video below will show, it’s wacky to do in close proximity to others, and I am always glad to greet the wacky. Finally, I enjoyed all the other people in the room, their various and varied bodies moving around the space, encountering each other and yet not colliding, all of us doing the best we could do at this deceptively simple task.
It was a good way to end the day, and I came home with plenty to think about and the empty spaces in my head in which to do so.
I enjoyed the walking meditation so much, I’ll include links to a few more videos about it in addition to the one below.
Minimalist instructions (1 minute, 40 seconds)
Calming verbal instructions with pretty pictures (3:12)
Monk Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrating and discussing walking meditation (5:44)
Longer step-by-step instructions (10:00)
Perky, Westernized instructions (2:49 plus ad)