One of the pivotal understandings in meditation practice is the realization of the extent to which we live asleep. Let’s be honest: most of the time we are simply not aware. We get lost in virtually everything we do and every identity that we assume. Most of our thoughts and actions arise predictably and mechanically from our conditioning. Rarely do we know who we are, except in a narrow or self-conscious way.
We need to recognize the pervasiveness of this waking state of sleep as our normal mode of being. This is not a pessimistic assessment of the human condition; rather, it is a simple truth we must clearly understand in order to have an intelligent approach to spiritual practice.
Another pivotal realization is the extent to which we don’t want to wake up. Take, for example, all the times we make the choice not to meditate, or to entertain a fantasy, or to blame or complain. Again, the point is not self-condemnation, but to see these strategies clearly in order to understand the magnitude of what we’re up against.
The question is, Why is it so hard to awaken? In part, it’s because the life force, or energy, necessary to awaken is leaking away from morning until night. Four specific leaks are worth mentioning.
The first is unnecessary talking. This can take the form of mindless chatter, elevating ourselves, putting others down, gossiping, complaining or overdramatizing. Interestingly, unnecessary talking occurs almost every time we open our mouths to speak.
The second way we leak energy is through internal daydreams, whether it be planning, fantasizing, worrying or just random thoughts about nothing in particular. Every time we indulge in unnecessary thinking, we lose a small amount of energy.
The third leak is unnecessary muscular tension, the physical contraction that results from the constant struggle to make our life strategies work—trying to win, trying to please, trying to hide, trying to avoid discomfort.
The fourth leak is the manifestation of negative emotions, where energy is squandered in small and large doses throughout the day. Negative, as used here, does not mean bad; it means an emotion that negates or denies. It says “No” to life. Anger, for example, says, “I don’t want this!” I’m not talking just about loud outbursts of anger. We manifest negative emotions as irritability, as judgments of self and others, as impatience, as passive aggression, and on and on.
One important emphasis in practice is learning what is required to close these leaks. This is why silence is often stressed at retreats, so that we don’t leak energy through unnecessary talking. This is also why we focus on not getting lost in the storyline of our thoughts, where we leak energy through internal daydreams. We also bring experiential awareness to our strategies and to the bodily tensions that these strategies lock in place; this addresses leaking energy through unnecessary physical tension.
But the area that requires the most attention is how to work with our negative emotions, particularly with the many forms of anger. When we can stop the expression of anger, and instead experience the energy of anger, something begins to happen—something that we can call transformation.
Here’s an analogy that might be helpful in understanding this process. We all know that food gives energy to the body. But there’s another kind of “food”—namely our impressions or experience—which feeds what we can call our being. Every experience can be good food or bad food, depending on how much awareness is present. When we react to an experience negatively, it’s like eating bad food. It doesn’t digest. In fact, it can even poison us. And then we often spew the poison back out into the world, usually at another person.
The alternative is to bring physical awareness to the arising negative reaction. Normally we fuel our reaction by believing and justifying the thoughts. But when we can disengage from the thoughts and justifications, attention can be focused on the visceral experience of the negative energy itself. This allows a different type of digestion to take place. Through this process, the energy transforms into nourishment for our being.
Remember, I’m not suggesting that emotions should not arise, or that we should repress them. I’m talking about refraining from expressing them, either outwardly in words and actions or inwardly in thoughts. It is only by withholding this expression that we can actually experience the energy and digest it in a new way. The nonexpression of anger allows us to feel—to fully feel—the emotion of anger directly. In the process we learn to live, to be, in a way that is more in accord with our true nature, our open heart.
What does it mean to feel the emotion? It means bringing attention to the physical experience of your life right now. Is there heat? Is there pressure? Is there a tightness or contraction? Where, specifically, do you feel it? This is how we bring awareness to the immediacy of the experience.
One question that often arises is why it is so difficult to stop the expression of anger. We seem to hold on to this habit with a stubbornness that defies common sense. The simple answer is we want to be angry. We want to be right. We like the juiciness and the power that we feel when we express our anger.
However, there is more to it than that. Expressing negative emotion also protects us by covering over the fear-based pain that often underlies our anger—pain that we don’t want to feel. For example, we will often feel an immediate surge of anger when we are criticized. Most of the time we will jump directly into blaming and self-justifying, which is our strategy to avoid feeling the pain of rejection and unworthiness that the criticism triggers.
But if instead we refrain from expressing anger, it allows us to go deeper and truly feel the anger. This is a quiet, inner process, in which we naturally drop deeper into our experience. Staying intently present with our experience allows us to break through the layers of armoring and enter into the pain we’ve never wanted to feel. Although it is never pleasant to be with our deep-seated pain and fear, it is only by uncovering and residing in this place that true transformation can occur. It is only here that we can ultimately reconnect with our basic wholeness.
A practice I have been doing for many years, which I often recommend to students, is to take one entire day and devote it to the nonexpression of anger. From the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to sleep at night, you hold the firm intention not to express anger when it arises, either externally in words or actions, or internally through your thoughts. This does not mean that anger should not arise. What it means is that when it does arise, your practice will be to refrain from expressing it in any way, thereby enabling you to feel the physical energy of anger directly.
This exercise is not easy. First, we have to remember to do it. And once we remember, we will then have to confront the deeply ingrained habit of indulging our anger whenever it arises. This can be particularly difficult when the anger is strong, when we really want to hold on to the defensive strategies of blaming and self-justifying to avoid feeling the pain underneath. But at the very least we get to see our anger in a new way. We begin to see anger just as it arises, thereby seeing into its roots. And when we see it right as it arises, we learn to see how it is rooted in fear. We also begin to experience the transformative process that goes to the very heart of practice.
Until we learn to refrain from expressing anger and instead experience it, thus transforming the energy of anger, we will keep wondering why the life force necessary to awaken eludes us. This is not a conceptual process; no amount of thinking will allow us to understand what is at work here. The only way to verify the truth of this transformative process is to stop the habitual mode of expressing and justifying anger whenever it arises. This is crucial if we are to wake up.