Zen & Buddhism Q&As

What should we do with our emotions in Zazen?

Often instructions are given for when we are doing Zazen about thoughts and emotions, to the effect that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely like clouds in the sky and not to attach to them. We don’t try to grab hold of them and we don’t push them away either.

The problem with that instruction is that it seems to assume that the primary thing which vexes us when we are sitting is  distracting buzzy thoughts that we somehow think we can clear, and when we clear them we are left with the wide open sky of pure awareness. Yet in fact what frequently vexes people when they are sitting isn’t ephemeral or repetitive thoughts coming and going, it’s one or two emotional states, disagreeable ones, which tend to stick around. These could variously be fear or anxiety, anger or bitterness, disappointment, hopelessness: obviously, the list is endless.

How should we approach these emotions?  There are several components to answering that. The first is the first bodhisattva vow: all living beings I vow to save them. I think we can take ‘living beings’ in a widest sense, so we can understand the vow as: all expressions, all existences, I vow to save them.

From this perspective we can describe these troublesome  emotions which we are experiencing as beings, as neglected and judged beings.

That being so, we should receive them with compassion and love.

Second, because these emotions have often taken the form which they do as a consequence of repression, of being judged by other people as being unacceptable, then we should allow them their full space. What this means  is that we don’t judge them,  we don’t say, ‘oh, this is anxiety’ or, ‘oh this is fear’. We allow the emotion its full space in our body, so it is not there simply as an idea of fear or anxiety, but that from the vantage point of that emotion, we are aware of everything that we feel: in our body, in our breath and in the wider environment.

As a part of that we hold on to the emotion’s changeability, as well as its indeterminacy. We maintain a sense of its texture and the memories and associations that are evoked, but which we don’t adhere to. We are just allowing all of this to come up, in the spirit of loving spaciousness. We are not trying to fix anything by our interpretation. If we can do that, then it’s as if something which has been frozen in us by our love or hate –  almost certainly our hate – can unfreeze and can live and can change and in that way, at last, depart.

More detailed teachings on our state in Zazen