Episode 12: Emotions

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Today we're going to take another break from Jane's story to talk more about emotions. This is an important topic for cancer patients, and really, for all of us. We all spend a fair amount of time wrestling with our own emotional demons. Learning how to manage them will make our own lives better, whether we're facing a potentially fatal illness or not. (And really, we're all facing a fatal illness. It's called life. All of us have a limited amount of time left. For some it's more limited than for others.)

I've written before about the negative things my own mind says to me from time to time. I know I'm not alone in dealing with thoughts like that. Those mean thoughts can be really disturbing.

I've had a little exposure to Buddhism in my life, enough to know that it can often offer insight and help with what might be politely called "difficult mind states," but which I think of as "really s#*tty thoughts." I recently had a chance to talk to a wise and accomplished Buddhist meditation teacher, Janice Cittasubha Sheppard, about these thoughts, and how upsetting they are to me. Her response was an absolute revelation. It consisted of two parts:

1. What's wrong with feeling unlovable? she asked. ALL of us feel unlovable sometimes. All of us ARE unlovable sometimes! That's part of being human! There's really nothing wrong with it. As long as we're alive, it's going to be part of our experience from time to time. Don't freak out about it. It's normal.

2. She then told me a story she had read about a famous Buddhist meditation teacher named Ajahn Sumedho. (She told the story really well. I'm sure I'm getting some details wrong--please forgive my inaccuracies.) 

His original name was Robert Jackman, and he was was born in Seattle, WA. He served in the Peace Corps in East Asia, and while there he was inspired to learn about Buddhism. He eventually became a Buddhist monk and studied under a well-known Thai meditation master named Ajahn Chah.

Sumedho is a big, tall Caucasian guy, and he stood out from the other monks, who tended to be shorter and of Thai heritage. He became something of a celebrity among the villagers near Ajahn Chah's forest monastery. They liked that this tall foreigner had come to study with their revered meditation teacher. He was also something of a favorite of Ajahn Chah's.

As he progressed in learning about Buddhism and became more and more well-known for his growing mastery of meditation, he noticed a troubling pattern. Whenever Ajahn Chah praised another monk, he felt jealous.

This really bothered him. After all, he was a Buddhist! Not only was he a Buddhist, he was a highly accomplished, renowned Buddhist! He wasn't supposed to feel things like jealousy!

He tried specific meditations to make the jealousy go away. He said to himself, "I hope that other monk being praised is happy, healthy, and has a great life." He could think the words, but it didn't change the emotions he was having. He tried thinking, "I am so happy for that other monk that he is being praised!" You can imagine how much good that did. In fact, it seemed to him, the more he fought against the jealousy, the stronger it became. It just wouldn't go away.

Finally, after struggling with the jealousy for a long time, he had a revelation: feeling jealous is normal!

It's part of being human! Everyone feels jealous from time to time! Really, jealousy is no big deal. As long as we're alive, we're going to feel jealousy now and then. The important thing is to notice when we're feeling jealous, and pay attention to make sure we don't do something stupid because of that emotion.

As soon as he realized that, he felt A LOT better. In fact, it seemed to him that the jealousy eased off quite a bit. It still came up when he saw Ajahn Chah praising other monks, but now it didn't bother him nearly as much. "Oh, here's jealousy again," he thought. "Jealousy comes and jealousy goes. If I just wait a bit, it will go away." And like all emotions, it always did go away. In fact, because he wasn't struggling with it, it went away much faster than before.

This happens to all of us. We get some emotion we don't like, and we think, "I'm not supposed to be feeling this! Something is wrong!" Sometimes something IS wrong, but the words not supposed to often make the problem worse. We're never not supposed to feel what we're feeling. Our emotions are always okay. The more we fight against them, the more trouble we're going to cause. In fact, when we fight them is often when we end up doing something foolish and short-sighted, something we later regret. (I've sometimes reacted to feeling stressed by eating a cookie. Sometimes several cookies. Not the wisest course of action.)

This is my second post on managing one's emotional life. Did you like it? Did you hate it? Should I keep doing posts like this from time to time, or should I stick more to biology-and-treatment-of-cancer stuff? Let me know in the comments below, or shoot me an email at CancerFightingNinja [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks!