One time I went to see the Dalai Lama speak. He was presented with two gifts: a baseball cap and a basketball jersey. He put on the cap and said in his laughing voice: “Oh yes, very useful.” He held up the over-sized jersey and said quite seriously: “Not useful.” he dropped it on the floor next to his chair.
Since then, I have tried to sort things in that same way. Honestly, I do it with emotions and actions more than objects. That’s partly because I don’t own much anymore, having given most of my stuff away, and also because I want to reserve this powerful sorting mechanism for the important stuff.
At first it seemed really easy. If I felt something uncomfortable or negative I dropped it like the jersey on the floor. But now I see this is not the way to sort. Many of our hardest emotions are also our most useful.
During my eight-week stay at Upaya Zen Center, it was nearly impossible to sort so easily. We are “on the cushion” or meditating for three to four hours daily. No matter how badly you might want to dump a negative feeling or a thought, it follows you like dogs at a picnic. It must be seen and dealt with.
So here’s how to sort your feelings and thoughts like a Zen pro, according to my teachers:
Don’t sort by what feels good, sort by what persists. And then ask, “Where do you come from?” or “What is the nature of this feeling? Are you grief or pride? Are you coming from my comparing or judgmental mind? What are you here to show me?”
This comes from the Buddha’s own tool kit. It’s said that toward the end of his seven weeks of meditation, Mara, who is the embodiment of all our deepest fears and negative thoughts and feelings, came to see him. He asked Mara to sit with him and tell all. By the end there was nothing more to say.
Dismissed feelings and thoughts cannot be overcome by running away from them through busyness or even thinking you’ve “moved past it.” They are like little bullies in your brain who will chase you if you run.
Instead, my teachers suggest, meet them head on and look at them so fully they eventually vanish. To be sure, some of these bullies may have been addressed many times for years in many formats and still be there. But you must continue to see them and deal with them no matter how many years you think you’ve been at it until they are finally ready to go. The only way for that to happen is to sit with them and interview them until the answers reveal themselves–and they will–they really will if you are patient.
If difficult emotions are in fact “useful,” and should be mulled over rather than dismissed, then how do we apply the Dalai Lama’s principle of “useful/not useful”? It’s a great sorting mechanism when you’re judging someone based on a superficial unknowing basis like how they look, if you’re pouting because your lunch plans were changed, or someone won’t let you merge in traffic. Those things don’t need a good viewing and rigorous inquiry. Most likely they just need a reminder that they are not useful.
Photo: LethaColleen via Flickr/Peaceful Dumpling