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Emotions in zazen – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

Recently I found myself thinking about how important it has been for me to get comfortable with really feeling my emotions and how much constricted my life felt when I wasn’t doing this. As is so often the way, reminders of what was on my mind were everywhere:

  • Song lyrics including The Four Seasons’ “Big girls don’t cry” being sung acapella under the zendo as we sat,
  • A young relative being told. “You’re a big boy, big boys don’t cry”, to which I said nothing at the time but later wished I had,
  • An interview by comedian Robert Webb in which he spoke about how being repeatedly told to ‘man up’ left him with a narrowed emotional range within which blocked sadness often surfaced as anger, with damaging effects on his relationships.

I’d also been reflecting on people living in crisis that I have met through my work and how  behind the façade of the angriest behaving people can be a scared inner child deflecting their fear and sadness into rage, which they have learned gets a very different reaction from those around them. I’d also been reflecting on both how as a society we could help children grow up comfortable with the full range of human emotions and how, once habits of blocking emotions have been established, we can start to change these.

These rather vague thoughts made their way into writing when a discussion in an online forum included a comment that crying during zazen wasn’t really zazen and certainly not shikantaza. For me tears have often been part of my sitting. Once the crying was powerful enough to make my whole body convulse with noisy sobbing (fortunately this was during an after-hours sitting on retreat so there wasn’t a full zendo to disturb). More often I’ve sat still while silent tears dripped down my cheeks. It felt afterwards like something had lifted, another layer of my once tightly-guarded defences peeling away.

Sadness is obviously not the only emotion to have arisen for me while sitting, just probably the most visible. I’ve also sat with regret, guilt, fear, once with a murderous rage and several times with a black shame. There doesn’t seem to be any more reason to resist these than I would the joy that I more frequently sit with and which is marked by a huge involuntary grin. (I’ve got almost as expert now at laughing silently as I have at crying silently.)

Sometimes for me previously blocked emotions seem to be felt physically, like shaking off a trauma.  I suspect that some emotions and memories, especially those from a very young age, are stored more in the body than as word-associated mental memories. It feels that the emotions that I previously blocked in order to survive were somehow stored as invisible wounds and that dealing with these emotions is part of me opening up into the world and  belatedly growing up. People who have been less practised at hiding their emotions probably don’t have such a big backlog of stored emotions to catch up on.

Facing my emotions has been vital and hugely freeing but I don’t think it can be forced or rushed, just allowed, when the time is right. Before that maybe the blocking is exactly what is needed for self-protection. I’m starting to see that, at the time, blocking certain emotions, thoughts and memories was a helpful thing to do, perhaps the only thing I could have done and still functioned. Blocking served a purpose. However it also had a time and place and once it was no longer needed, the slow process of unwinding and unfolding into the life I’d been hiding from could begin. Much as I am grateful for having learned to begin to let this happen, and to surrender into it, I am equally grateful that the blocking happened. One couldn’t happen without the other, they are two sides of the same coin. Nothing it seems is wasted, nothing is unnecessary.

I know that some traditions of Buddhism practise transforming ‘negative’ emotions into ‘positive’ ones but I feel that no emotion is really positive or negative, it just is. Recognised and allowed emotions don’t need to dictate my actions in the often hidden way they do when I repress them.  When I instead let them arise and allow myself to fully feel them, they seem to change of their own accord, to feel less rigid or even to evaporate completely. Even if they linger, no longer being scared of them allows me a wider scope of action and enables a more nuanced reaction to what arises now. Things can be ok and not ok at the same time. I don’t need to label it or put in in a box. The same with my practice. Debates about what is and is not zazen and shikantaza don’t seem important. My sitting is as it is. Sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes with thoughts racing in the background, other times peaceful with thoughts slowed almost to a stop, sometimes filled with joy, sometimes sad. On occasions all of these in one sit. As in life, anything can and does arise and change moment to moment.

For me facing my emotions has been both one of the challenges and opportunities of zazen and in particular of sitting with others. StoneWater has provided me with a safe place for this to happen. Thank you to you all for providing and supporting the space where I could learn the therapeutic value of my own tears. Thank you also to the sangha’s other visible criers for sharing your tears too. That has helped. Maybe when we allow ourselves to cry we let go of some of our own wounds and help it feel safer for others to do the same.

I still find it hard to ask for and accept support which is maybe why crying in the zendo where no-one can offer a hug or even ask if I’m ok feels safer. I’m yet to ever (in my memory) cry in a situation where someone might actually provide emotional support. One day maybe. I’m still working on allowing people to be as kind as they are. It is a good job that practice lasts a lifetime. I need that long!