Jay Michaelson led a retreat at the Garrison Institute entitled “Jhana Meditation,” on November 12 – 17, 2016.
The diversity of our emotional lives—especially difficult emotions like sadness, concern, and even anger—is both the context and the content of liberation.
On the one hand, life as it is, not as we might wish it to be, is the place where we work, practice, live, and love. And on the other, difficult emotions offer the opportunity of coexisting with everything, of making peace, of ending the war with experience. This is not an absence of feeling; the sadness is felt, as is the joy—but there is also a sense of spaciousness that arises.
This is quite different from the spirituality of pleasant experiences, in which we prefer some states to others, and go pursue the spiritual practices which bring them about. Like a lot of people, I enjoy feeling ecstasy, connectedness, holiness, and serenity (sometimes all at the same time), and I know a variety of spiritual techniques to bring these states about, in myself and others. One of the practices I teach, after all, is the cultivation of jhana, the absorptive, concentrated states described in the Pali Canon. The profundity of those states, itself, can be transformative.
But one quickly sees how insufficient pleasant, even profound, experiences are. They pass, they are unreliable, they are often not accessible. They may aid in the development of insight, but they are not the development itself. Yet making space for all experiences—the subject of my recent book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path—trains the mind and heart in capacities that do not depend on circumstances being just so.
Simply letting difficult emotions be what they are is a form of not-knowing, not-seeking, not-desiring. All animals are conditioned to push away the unpleasant; it is a natural thing to do. So the mere non-act of coexistence requires a kind of negative effort. Such effort can sometimes feel like restraint, a forced tamping-down of the urge to eliminate the difficult. Yet even this restraint can be released, revealing only relaxation, only the peace of ceasing to struggle.
The cessation is sweet in itself. At last, the fight is over. Grief is here; I surrender. I give up, and in the giving up, I can rest.
But this surrender is not a defeat, because one’s mental landscape is not a battlefield. Rather, what has been surrendered is the egoic need to control, know, understand, and shape the world in accord with our desires. And what remains when the dust-storm of ego has settled is a clearer vision, a more open vista. The mind wants to know, to understand; it wants to control and protect. It wants to know why there are negative emotions so it can stop them. It wants to eliminate sadness and replace it with anger, indignation, blame, or vengeance. So it undertakes the work of rationale in order to transform, because it knows what is best for us: not to host the unpleasant.
In contrast, the calmer, clearer mind allows itself to be overtaken, because it does not pretend to know what is best. It does not seek the destruction of that which is unpleasant, because wisdom has taught it that the effort of destruction is counterproductive, and obscures clear seeing. Of course, there is still some desire to feel better, but that desire is accommodated just as the sadness is: with equanimity and wisdom. I feel sad, I feel the desire not to feel sad, I do nothing but feel clearly and richly—and love.
The sadness, after all, is not the problem. The hatred of the sadness is the problem. The sadness is just a state of mind, heart, and body. It is a variation on a theme, a melody. In itself, it causes no suffering. Suffering derives from the momentum of dislike.
Thus the experience of liberation is simply sitting back, setting down the burden, declining to push or pull. It is acceptance of that which is. No more is needed: no secrets or magic. And so, when sadness, like anything else, is fully accepted, liberation is present in that instant. And then gone.
I should be clear that I fail as much as I succeed. Often, the urge to explore why I feel sad, or what is wrong, or some other aspect of the story of sadness—is irresistible. Like anyone else, I indulge, cry, plan, and plot. What I have learned, however, is not to fight even the fighting—not to hate even the hatred. It happens, when the conditions are present, and my wishing it were so only makes it worse. Other teachers, perhaps, can claim a better track record at the disciplines they teach. As for myself, I stumble often—but even in the stumbling is the opportunity of non-resistance.
It’s a cliché to say that difficult times are the best teachers—but so they are. Sometimes they teach by forcing us to marshal all our resources in order to persevere. Other times, though, they teach the opposite: the liberation of surrender, of ending the war between reality and the desire for it to be otherwise. As profound as profound experiences can be, surely this relinquishment is the greater of the gifts.
Jay Michaelson is a longtime teacher of insight meditation in Western Buddhist and secular mindfulness contexts. He is also a rabbi, and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought, and has taught Jewish mysticism in and outside the academic world.