Buddhism promises an end to suffering (strictly, dukkha), which is an attractive motivation. A vital means to this end is meditation, where we observe our experience as it arises. This can include difficult emotions, ones we’d be happier not to suffer. The instruction is to observe them impartially, which seems to accord with the first of the Buddha’s key teaching of Four Truths which lead to Awakening. So far, so good.
Since we view our experience in a subject-object framework, these uncomfortable feelings now become the object of our attention. This means that we are immediately less identified with the emotion, less taken over by it, as we now identify with the watching subject. We stand outside the emotion. For as long as we can do that successfully, we get an instant payback – what was felt as ‘suffering-me’, myself indistinguishable from the emotion, now becomes ‘observing-me’, and the emotion is something ‘other’, which can be safely watched.
We may not notice how seductive this process can be, of using meditation as a way of distancing ourselves from anything painful. It can seem like a step in the right direction, since it reduces suffering quite effectively. But we have subtly side-stepped something genuine here, we have turned away from our suffering, when the practice of investigating the first Noble Truth means turning towards it. We have slipped into trying to bypass the hard work of coming to comprehend suffering, opting instead for turning ourselves into a CCTV camera, seeing all and feeling nothing. It sounds like the perfect cure for the ills of attachment: the pain-killer of detachment.
Trouble is, it’s a dead-end, in all senses. It suppresses our life, our spirit, our humanness – and it leads nowhere. We are not going to realise the cause of dukkha, our unease and suffering, by avoiding it. But neither are we going to get anywhere if we are totally overtaken by emotion, unable to notice anything, stuck in feeling sorry for ourselves. There seem to be many ways in which the Buddha’s path is a ‘middle way’, and this is one sense in which that’s the case.
But there could be something to learn from this very mistake, this “spiritual bypassing” of emotion. What was a hot-seat, sitting in a storm of emotion, became cooler when we ceased to identify so much with it, switching instead to the role of a watcher of our experience. Perhaps this ‘me’ which suffers and wants to end its suffering is not so fixed as we had assumed. What is happening in this switch?
Read on in the next piece, The Watcher, or Witness