The Buddha taught that the greatest source of suffering in life arises from our attempts to avoid inevitable discomforts; essentially, we crave immunity from discomfort and an escape route from difficult emotions. Yet we humans all work from the same universal, basic emotional palette: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, disgust, contempt, surprise.
Now, many of us are trained, in the formative years of childhood, that some of these inevitable emotional states aren’t safe to express, such as sadness and anger; they must be avoided at all costs. (As infants we run to our caretakers during emotional events, seeking regulation and security; whatever emotions make our caretakers uncomfortable, we’ll struggle with as well). While many of our emotions will be tolerated, others will be rejected or shamed; this experience of disrupted connection creates what can be a lifelong tendency to suppress and repress core human energies, rather than learning to face and tolerate all of our core emotional states.
And so we try to feel good all the time, which results in desperate measures to avoid any emotional discomfort. At first we may choose unskillful strategies, such as drugs or alcohol to alter our emotional states; when these fail we may find ourselves turning to the more socially palatable strategies of yoga, meditation, fasting, and so on. In other words, we may seek a spiritual escapes, or spiritual bypasses, from our emotions, and mistake the initial elation as a form of emotional health.
As a meditation teacher I'd be thrilled if I could claim, with a straight face, that practice will lead to a life without frustration, sadness, disappointment. I can claim that spiritual practice will lead to a state where we can hold our difficult emotions.
The attempt to be without core emotional experiences is just another form of craving. Using spiritual endeavor as an attempt to bypass emotions is simply another escapist, avoidance tendency, like workaholism, rumination, indulging in the utopian day dream of "when the revolution comes..." While spiritual bypasses may be more palatable than slamming back a few drinks to cope with agitation and stress, all forms of bypass have the same ultimate goal, which is to disconnect us from feeling and holding difficult emotions. Essentially this is avoidance, tuning out from experience, even though we’re unaware.
There’s nothing healthy about using spiritual practice to escape loneliness, sadness, disappointment, whatever we’re feeling; its actually a form of self-harm to tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel something. Again: we only have a few emotions in our human palate, and many of them are unpleasant, but they’re necessary nonetheless; in life there’s anger, fear, sadness, whether we like it or not; attempting to circumvent these states creates even greater suppressive tendencies.
Every tool in spiritual practice has its uses, but when hijacked by avoidance strategies and defense mechanisms, they'll lead to only more suffering in life. For, while we may learn to detach from the stories that needlessly trigger depression or blame, the desire to fully escape sadness is unattainable, and we'll feel let down by our practice if we're hoping to achieve such an impossible state. While we can update our operating systems to trigger less fight-flight-or-freeze impulses, and we can be less reactive to emotions, we cannot transcend being in human bodies and brains, and bodies and brains create emotions, which are meant to be felt, attended to and processed. Attending to emotions requires sitting through difficult sensations, especially as we open to energies we’d prefer to suppress. Indeed, liberation is not a state without emotion; its a state where emotions and sensations can be held and tolerated without adding additional reactivity or suffering.
So spiritual growth should not be seen as the achievement of lasting elation or those “everything is beautiful” tones of voices one hears at some yoga centers. To be a spiritual practitioner means being available and present with whatever IS present, no matter what the sensations and energies are present, without anything defining us. It’s not really about being above it all; it’s about being with it all.
—Josh, dharmapunxnyc, august 17, 2014