The Awakened Heart

by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.

Working with the Emotions after Awakening
THE BUDDHA TAUGHT THAT WE MUST become aware and accepting of the entire range of feelings—of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant feelings as each arises. He went on, “By becoming aware of the entire range of the emotions” and “experiencing the feelings in the feelings,” we can find peace in their midst and become free. But the process does not stop after an experience of realization. One Buddhist teacher recalls her study with her Zen master.

The Awakened HeartI was working on koans, and there were times I would go for an interview and couldn’t even speak about my koan. I’d have to talk about my emotions, because they were so central to my practice. Sometimes it was joy, but more often it would be the difficult feelings and struggles with my parents or in my relationship. He would listen and weep with me about it. He would say, “Yes, I know how hard it is. It’s like that sometimes in my family too.” I thought he wasn’t supposed to say that. His openness to feeling my life would open my heart. He was so human in his willingness to be right there.

I first met Buddhist teacher and psychiatrist Robert Hall in 1974. One of the chief protégés of Fritz Perls, he cofounded the Gestalt Institute in San Francisco in the 1960s. Then he began the Lomi School, one of the first trainings to combine spiritual work with that of the body and emotions. I was a new psychologist, and I remember telling him that I was learning to diagnose the difficulties of those who came to me reasonably well, to recognize their problems and sort through their clinical history, but what I was still shaky about was how to best help them change. “Oh, I don’t do that,” said Robert. “You don’t?” I asked incredulously. “No,” he went on, “I help them be with what is true. The healing comes from that.”

Without the ability to be present to our own feelings, we continue to blame our troubles on others, individually and collectively. As James Baldwin put it, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.” Only when we are permeable to what is true in us will our practice go forward.

To encourage an awareness of inner emotional richness during retreats, sometimes recite from a list of five hundred feelings. These include: affectionate, ambitious, ambivalent, amused, antagonistic, antsy, apathetic, appreciative, argumentative, blissful, brokenhearted, calm, cheerful, claustrophobic, compassionate, concentrated, concerned, curious, delighted, depressed, disheartened, driven, ebullient, fearful, frightened, hateful, honored, humble, hysterical, glad, gluttonous, grateful, grave, greedy, jealous, jovial, joyful, pissed-off, pleased, prudish, sad, silly, sleepy, sober, spacious, sympathetic—and so on.

In the awakened heart, we find a capacity to touch all parts of this amazing feeling-life with tenderness. As we begin to accept the rhythms and range of feelings, we bow to “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows” of the Tao. Accepting inner
and outer circumstances as they arise, the men and women of Tao did not “fight their way through life. They took life as it came, gladly . . . They did not try by their own contriving to help the Tao along. “

The Mind and the Heart
The “Jewel in the Lotus” is the translation of the universal compassion mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” While it has many meanings, one explanation of its symbolism is that compassion arises when the jewel of the mind rests in the lotus of the heart. The awakened mind has a diamondlike clarity. When this clear insight rests in the heart’s tender compassion, both dimensions of liberation are fulfilled.

In Buddhist psychology, mind and heart are often described by one word—“citta.” This heart-mind has many dimensions. It contains and includes all our thoughts, our feelings and emotions, responses, intuition, temperament, and consciousness itself. When we speak of mind in the West, we usually refer only to the rational thought process. Observing this aspect of mind, we see an endless stream of thoughts, ideas, and stories. While this discriminating mind has a practical value, it can also separate us from the world; our ideas easily create “us” and “them,” good and bad, past and future. Our thoughts also like to create imaginary problems. As Mark Twain put it, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes . . . most of which never happened.” Or, in the words of one of my teachers, Sri Nisargadatta, “The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.”

Along with thoughts and impulses, Buddhist psychology also describes feelings as a natural aspect of heart-mind. Initially we notice that pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant feelings arise with each experience. If we notice them mindfully, without clinging to the pleasant or condemning the unpleasant, we can discover how these basic feelings give rise to a full range of emotions. Some people believe that emotions are dangerous. But the emotions themselves are rarely a problem; it is our lack of awareness of them or the stories that we believe about them that create our suffering. Without awareness, painful feelings can fester into addiction or hatred or degenerate into numbness; eventually we can lose touch not only with what is felt but also with our heart’s essential wisdom. As the twentieth-century Christian mystic Simone Weil noted, “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”

The first woman I became involved with after I disrobed from being a monk was a college friend who was newly teaching at Harvard. Inside I still felt like a monk who had no preferences for or against anything, taking whatever was put in the begging bowl. When she would ask what I wanted for dinner or what movie I would like to see, I answered, “Whatever you like, dear; for me it doesn’t matter.” When she would ask how I felt about going out in the country or staying home, I said it was all okay with me. It drove her crazy. This wasn’t just a wise spiritual detachment; she observed that I was afraid of engagement and out of touch with feeling, and reminded me that I had been that way before the monastery too. It was true. I didn’t know what I felt. So she got me a small notebook with the suggestion that I write down ten things each day that I liked or disliked, until I could start to know my own feelings. Recovering my feelings was a long and life changing process.

Feelings and Temperament
Awakening to the emotions means to feel them—nothing less, nothing more. It does not require changing our feelings—feelings change all the time on their own. Nor does it mean changing our temperament. If we are intuitive or philosophical, sanguine or
melancholic, that will likely remain the same. Our range may expand, but our temperament and personality will likely continue. One Buddhist teacher said that he had expected awakening to bring a “personal transformation,” only to be surprised that it was actually an “impersonal transformation.” The transformation is the opening of the heart and not a personality change.

This teacher went on:
In many ways the spiritual transformation of the past decades is different than I had imagined. I’m still the same quirky person, with much the same style and ways of being. So that on the outside I’m not that amazingly transformed, enlightened person I first hoped to become. But there’s a big transformation inside. Years of working with my feelings and family patterns and temper have softened the way I hold them all. In the struggle to know and deeply accept my life, it has been transformed, and my love has grown larger. If my life was like a crowded garage where I kept bumping into the furniture and judging myself, now it’s like I’ve moved into an airplane hangar with the doors left open. I’ve got the old stuff there, yet it doesn’t limit me like before. I’m the same, yet now I’m free to move about, even to fly.

As we have seen earlier, it is a mistake to think we can evade our karma, the history of who we are. I saw this very clearly twenty years ago when I first taught a large retreat in Switzerland. Participants came from all over Europe. In private interviews with students I tried to open to each individual without prejudice, regardless of his or her culture or country. So I was shocked by the end of the retreat to discover that the interviews with nearly every German student who came to me were about struggle and anger and self-judgment, while most of the French students were plagued by existential questions of doubt and motivation. For the Italian students, the interviews and meditations were filled with emotion; they came in passionately gesticulating about how painful and beautiful and difficult and wonderful the process had been—every single one of them. Every individual was singular, but each was also conditioned by a greater cultural whole.

Emotional awakening, then, is not about becoming a different person. We may naturally be an introvert or an extrovert, a joyful person or an impatient one. Dzongsar Khyentsie Rinpoche goes so far as to say, “Sometimes a master can be a great teacher but not necessarily a great person. Perhaps he or she is short-tempered, not easy to get along with, or makes many demands.” When Ram Dass was asked after his years of spiritual discipline whether he had transformed his personality, he laughed and answered no. Instead he said he had become “a connoisseur of my neuroses.”

Like our gender, hair color, and height, personality and temperament are given to us for this life. They may be damaged in our childhood and redeemed with inner work, but they are part of our nature. In Buddhist psychology personality types remain after
awakening, but are ennobled by a wise and compassionate heart. There are desire temperaments, aversion temperaments, deluded temperaments. Yet each may become refined through awakening to express a love of beauty, clarity, and spaciousness. Nor is humor excluded. So when Joshu Sasaki Roshi, now the senior Rinzai Zen master in the West, was asked why he came here to teach, he replied, “I did not come to America to teach. I came to America to have a good time. I want Americans to learn how to truly laugh.”

There are many ways we have been taught to fear our emotions, and many misconceptions that trap us in this fear. The trauma, judgment, fear, and shame we encounter in childhood can be terribly constricting. Sometimes we imagine that spiritual
quietude is the best answer—don’t feel too much, don’t get excited or angry or you’ll rock the boat to enlightenment. Spiritual practice gets mixed up with ideas of passivity and self-effacement, a cessation of passionate aliveness.

Even sincere practitioners can mistake a false outer decorum for the peaceful demeanor of inner freedom. We may secretly believe that if we truly allow ourselves to experience our feelings and desires, our self-indulgence will run rampant, or our aggression and indolence will overwhelm us. In thinking this, we confuse our true nature with the feelings of a deficient and small sense of self. For while emotions are indeed powerful forces, it is not fear and repression that will release us from their grip awareness is the answer.

We fear the destructive power of our emotions when we haven’t seen them for what they really are. We confuse allowing ourselves to be aware of them with the necessity to act them out. But to include our full selves in our journey we need to understand how we have been entangled by and identified with our emotions. We need to see the identity of “the body of fear,” to see how the hurt and frustration of childhood, the forces of anger, greed, pride, sexual longing, and need have been conditioned in us. Experiencing the full range of these feelings as they come and go in our consciousness, we can begin to ask of each the question, “Is this who I am?” If we can hold our feelings in a spacious and
fearless heart, the lonely, broken, spiteful, confused feelings arise in a new way, transformed by our acceptance.

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Jack Kornfield was trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, and India and has taught around the world since 1974. He also holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Jack is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and of the Spirit Rock Center. His previous books include A Path with Heart, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom (with Joseph Goldstein), and Teachings of the Buddha.

From After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Copyright © 2000 by Jack Kornfield. Published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House.