Buddhist Techniques for Unpacking Emotions

Back to Blog   Posted:   January 13, 2021 by

Buddhist Techniques for Unpacking Emotions

Buddhist psychology is based on the notion of mental and emotional wellness. Western psychology, on the other hand, starts from a place of illness. Where Western psychology is predicated on the idea that there is something wrong with us, Buddhist psychology contends, to quote the Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, “You are perfect just the way you are—you just need a little work”.

Perfecting the Self

Perfection, in the context of Buddhist psychology, is much different than the notion of perfectionism found in the West. It’s centered more on the notion of human dignity, or becoming your best self, rather than ‘getting it exactly right’. Dignity in this regard also encompasses ideas of authenticity, transparency and, more importantly—when talking about mental and emotional health—self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the first step toward empathy and developing a consistent empathetic outlook. Without deep self-understanding, putting yourself into someone’s else shoes, or seeing the world from another person’s perspective, can be a significant challenge. This kind of self-understanding comes out of insight into, not just our emotions, but the source of those emotions—something that is not always so obvious.

Understanding the Source

First, it’s important to recognize Buddhism is not a religion. In some ways, it’s not even a spiritual practice, although it often leads to a deepening sense of spirituality. It is, most assuredly, a psychology—something consistently pointed to by Gautama Buddha who said, “Mind is everything. What we think, we become.”

Interestingly, despite the juxtaposition of the illness and wellness models of Self, Buddhist psychology, as well as its antecedent, yoga psychology—keep in mind, Buddha was a yogi, not a Buddhist—has deeply influenced the Western perspective.

Von Hartmann, in his Philosophy of the Unconscious, drew heavily on the work of Schopenhauer, who unabashedly stated his thinking was deeply influenced by Eastern mysticism, Buddhism and the Upanishads. Similarly, Freud’s theory of personality took it’s concept of the id directly from Georg Groddeck's teachings on the unconscious in The Book of the It, a seminal work still referred to as essential reading by modern-day Buddhist teachers, like Alan Watts and Jack Kornfield.

Unpacking Emotions

In any case, the primary premise in all of this is to get at what lies beneath. With regard to emotions, this means first understanding where a particular emotion is coming from and, secondly, what’s motivating it. One the most tangible techniques for understanding our emotions within the context of Buddhist psychological practice, both as they occur and from where they issue, is called ‘unpacking’.

When we experience an emotion, it is often through the lens of our worldview, or our assumptions, expectations and ideas about the way the world works. This means, essentially, that the emotions we experience are themselves secondary and issue from a deeper, more abiding place within our interior landscape.

Anger, for instance, could be coming from fear or sadness. Anxiety might be more about a lack of safety or feeling out of control. Whatever that initial emotion, it has a core emotion attached to it and that core emotion comes from somewhere deep in our socialization and acculturation. 

Buddhist psychology implores us to sit with our initial emotions and unpack them, peeling back the infinite layers of the onion to find its core. Then, once we have identified that core emotion—fear, jealousy, rage, resignation—to seek its source.

For instance, is your penchant for rule-breaking and rebelliousness really about righteous rage, or is it more about being emotionally straightjacketed as a child and unable to express yourself? Conversely, is your tendency to be rule-bound—rigid or even anal—a reaction to a sense of never being good enough, and over-compensating to be accepted or even feel loved? Whatever the case, there is typically a clear pattern for all of us—immediate emotion—often a reaction—coupled with behavior, driven by an underlying emotion, motivated by a specific shaping experience.

Deconstructing this pattern—unpacking these emotions—does two things. First, it diffuses the pattern, taking the charge out of the immediate emotion, and, secondly, it brings us closer to a sense of our own authenticity, self-transparency and self-compassion. This process of unpacking, ultimately, leads us back to the human dignity informing our best self

Lindsay Melka

I specialize in helping people struggling with insecurity and shame find peace and belonging. Much of my work


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Addiction, Alcohol Abuse, Asperger’s Syndrome, Relationship Issues, Self-Esteem

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