Me and My Big Emotions

July 1st, 2009

In the Dharma talk I heard this weekend when visiting the Jewel Heart Buddhist Learning Center with the Buddhists meetup, the teacher mentioned that we tend to use anger to avoid taking responsibility for our own role in conflicts.  It was an interesting thought, and I hoped she would explore it more.  How is anger avoiding responsibility?

When we talk about emotional transactions, we have a number of ways to do it.  I remember when I took French classes in high school, the verb manquer puzzled me.  It’s used to talk about missing someone, but the way to say “I miss her” is “Elle me manque.”  “She” is the subject, “me” the object.

But then I realized that sometimes we do that in English too.  Some concepts can go both ways–“I like sushi” and “Sushi pleases me” mean more or less the same thing.  But more often, our words for negative emotions but the object as the subject.  “That music annoys me.”  “He pissed me off.”  “You make me sick.”  Even the way we can state those positively is a little bit passive: “I am upset with him” is the passive of “He upsets me.”

This way of thinking holds us back from acknowledging our own role in our interactions.  Buddha taught that our worlds are made by our minds.  Many Zen masters have advised us to meditate on that which causes resentment.  I realized after a meditation a few weeks ago that I spend much of my mental energy trying to justify my reactions.  When I am annoyed with someone, I dwell on those thoughts that run through my head explaining exactly why obviously my way of thinking about it is right and the other is wrong.  When I’m annoyed with the weather, I find myself saying that the weather isn’t supposed to do what it’s doing right now, that I’m justified in feeling annoyed because the weather is wrong.  If I rewrite the language to a more mindful way of thinking about it, I’d probably say something like, “I am resenting the weather.”

This doesn’t mean that we should stop reacting emotionally to things; we do and we will.  But when we do, that’s an opportunity to learn about ourselves, not necessarily about anyone else.  When I look at another person and experience disappointment or irritation or aversion, I examine my own role in that reaction.  Meditate on the resentment in learning about myself, not necessarily fixing someone else.

And it doesn’t mean that we can’t discern, that we can’t choose pleasant situations over unpleasant ones.  One thing we may learn about our emotional states is that they’re normal and healthy.  If I smell a rotten egg and I experience aversion, I am resenting the rotten egg, and what does that say about me?  It says that I have the normal human capacity to tell fresh food from decaying food.  That’s not a bad thing to learn about myself.

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