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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
How to Work with Emotions IntroductIon by Polly young-EIsEndrath IllustratIons by andré slob forum • John tarrant • Judith simmer-brown • • the dzogchen ponlop rinpoche • sharon salzberg • M any of us were originally attracted to the dharma, perhaps initially to meditation, because we had problems with our emotions or emotional problems. After practicing Buddhism over time, however, some of us feel that we still have emotional difficulties—sudden out- bursts, emotional withdrawal, or a criti- cal judgment of our emotionality—that we hadn’t expected would continue after some skill in practice. A number of books have been written to address these issues. Among them are Harvey Aronson’s Buddhist Prac- tice on Western Ground (Shambhala, 2004) and Dan Goleman’s Destructive Emotions (Bantam, 2004). Still, much confusion remains about the relationship between the dharma and our emotional lives. In this forum, Buddhadharma’s Barry Boyce speaks with Sharon Salzberg, Judith Simmer-Brown, John Tarrant, and the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche about their views on skillful and unskillful involvement with our emotions. Their descriptions of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana prac- tices open new perspectives on how to think about and engage with our emotional lives. In the past couple of decades, as we have studied human emotions through the lenses of neuroscience, psychology, and psychotherapy, we have clarified more fully how and why our emotions present special challenges in our relationships with others and ourselves. The early founders of psy- choanalysis, especially Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, witnessed the fact that emotional dynamics from our early lives shaped habit patterns in our minds and hearts with strong staying power. Freud dubbed this power a “repetition compulsion,” and Jung called it an “autonomous complex.” Both described how certain fundamental emotional pat- terns, when triggered in adults or children, can set the stage for an entire drama played out within or between people (with ready- made scripts). Contemporary neuroscience now rec- ognizes that the limbic brain (the mid- brain, between the frontal cortex and the brain stem) is the seat of fight-flight reac- tivity and many aspects of unconscious emotional memory. This part of our brain contains powerful motivators to perceive and to act, driving us to react in certain ways that may fall outside of our aware- ness until we have acted them out. For example, brain researcher Joseph LeDoux, in his book The Emotional Brain, explains that memories triggering the flight-fight response “are rigidly coupled to specific kinds of responses ... wired so as to pre- empt the need for thinking about what to do.” In our families, close relationships, and work environments, this kind of triggering can cause impulsive discharges of emotional reactions or non-communicative walling off of our reactions. Neither of these is a mindful response. In the lively discussion that follows, the participants give clear and detailed examples of their own emotional development through applying the wisdom of the dharma. Polly young-EisEndrath is a Jungian psychologist and psychoanalyst and co-editor of Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy (routledge). buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summEr 20 0 8 46