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Essence of Life

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Many years ago I walked into the kitchen of my guru’s ashram and found him shouting at the cooks. Waves of anger were bouncing around the room, almost visible to the naked eye. Then, in midsentence, he turned, saw us standing there, and smiled. The energy in his eyes went soft. “How did you like the show?” he asked. Chuckling, he slapped the head cook playfully on the back and walked away. The cooks giggled and went back to work, galvanized by the energy he had injected into the afternoon.

That moment changed my understanding about emotions. The clarity and fluidity with which he had shifted from intense anger to good humor was only part of it. More interesting, I felt, was that he had been using anger as a teaching tool. Was he truly angry? I don’t know. All I know is he seemed able to ride the wave of his anger with perfect ease and let it pass without a trace. To me, that moment was the most stunning demonstration of emotional mastery I had ever seen.

One of the ideals of yogic freedom is detachment from emotions. Yet because we have so few models of what genuine detachment looks like, we tend to confuse yogic detachment with being buttoned up, inexpressive, or even unfeeling. My teacher was modeling something quite different. Rather than demonstrating freedom from emotions, he was displaying freedom in emotions. In other words, his mastery included the ability to choose and use emotion—even to play with emotion as the situation demanded.

I wondered if it was possible for all of us to be like that. Along with learning to disengage from, transcend, and balance the problematical aspects of your emotional nature, could you also learn the art of playing with emotional currents or inhabiting emotional energy without being ruled by it? Could the path to inner freedom include giving up the fear of emotional expression and even expanding one’s ability to enjoy different emotional states? Could it be that just as you might practice enlightened emotions like gratitude, generosity, and compassion, you might also find it liberating to try on expressions of anger, sadness, and fear?

That was certainly the view of some Tantric sages. In fact, one of the greatest of the Tantric teachers, Abhinava Gupta, a 10th-century philosopher and an enlightened yogi, approached life as an art form. He saw God as an artist and human beings as microcosms of Divine creativity. Gupta felt that humans could use feelings and emotions as a palette for creating each moment as a work of art.

Gupta’s famous treatises on aesthetics explored the basic “flavors,” or rasas, of emotional expression. The Sanskrit word rasa is sometimes translated as “flavor,” but it also means “juice”—the delicious essence of something. The sweet taste of a ripe peach is its rasa, its essence. Applied in a deeper sense, rasa is the juiciness in life, the subtle lusciousness that gives the world its taste. Without rasa, life would feel dry and flavorless.

A Taste for Life

The notion of rasa comes from Ayurveda, the ancient system of Indian medicine. Ayurvedic medicine recognizes six basic rasas, or tastes—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent—each of which has an important effect on the body. According to Ayurveda, a healthful diet should include all six tastes.

Gupta took this insight about rasa and applied it to the emotional resonances in music, dance, and drama—and, by extension, to life. He identified nine emotional rasas, or moods.

  • Erotic the flavor of love
  • Comic the flavor of laughter
  • Pathetic the flavor of sorrow
  • Furious the flavor of anger
  • Heroic the flavor of courageous ardor
  • Terrible the flavor of being scared
  • Odious the flavor of being repulsed
  • Marvelous the flavor of amazement
  • Peaceful the flavor of serenity

Just as a sophisticated cook balances different flavors, an artist of life learns how to balance different emotional rasas. You may have noticed that you do this unconsciously when you choose entertainment. You go to see a Julia Roberts movie like Pretty Woman because you’re in the mood for the erotic (romantic) with a flavor of the comic. You’d choose a film like Lethal Weapon for a taste of the heroic and furious, or perhaps a gross-out comedy like Wayne’s World to revel in the odious. Not everyone likes every rasa, of course. But a truly universal work of art has many rasas. Shakespeare’s tragedies, for example, always have a bit of the comic, the terrible, the heroic, the odious, the pathetic, and in many cases, a flavor of the erotic.

If you look at your own inner life, you may notice that your emotional energy tends to flow between four or five of these different rasas and only occasionally touches others. I generally find myself hanging out in the peaceful, the pathetic, and the erotic rasas, with periodic shifts into the comic. At times I get deeply stuck in one or the other, and my way of looking for excitement is to rouse myself through the terrible or the furious. I have my own methods for arousing fury or fear in myself, and if you think about it, so do you. Some people do it by reading reports on what’s happening to the oceans or watching TV news. Others go to horror movies or ride rollercoasters or tell gross jokes.

Of course, it’s common to engage these rasas unconsciously, and any rasa can become problematic if you overemphasize it. Even yogic peace can get, well, dull, if it’s the only flavor on the plate. However, when you engage rasas consciously, moving in and out of different ones can create more aliveness and more balance, not only in life but also in practice. Put simply, your consciousness needs a wide palette of emotional experience, and constantly moves to create it—internally as well as externally.

Let Your Feelings Flow

I got a radical realization about this need while I was taking care of my father during his last illness. One afternoon, as I was helping him to the bathroom, the two of us slipped and sprawled on the carpet. As I was hauling him to his feet, his pajamas fell down. I burst out laughing. It was involuntary: The laughter just bubbled up out of me, and of course I was appalled at myself. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you,” I said. “Oh, I understand,” my father said. “It’s gallows humor.” And he laughed too.

Much later, I realized the laughter was a natural movement of energy, a way of balancing the rasas in a situation that was both terrible and pathetic. Had I suppressed the laughter, the painful energy would not have been able to move, and we would have stayed stuck in the pathos of it. There’s an innate wisdom in the way emotional energy moves when it’s allowed to follow its natural course. Comedy lurks inside even terrible situations, just as pathos is the other face of comedy.

If you are willing to accept the way emotions flow, you can appreciate the miraculous fluidity with which your inner world keeps rebalancing itself. Then, when a poignant romantic moment morphs into an argument, instead of mourning the loss of the erotic rasa and wondering what went wrong, you can recognize and honor the sudden emergence of the furious. All these emotional flavors are part of the tapestry of human life. You can’t keep any of them out.

Drink in Experience

The secret to playing with freedom in emotion is to cultivate an attitude of appreciative observation—something like the appreciation you’d experience at a really good movie. At the same time, allow yourself to drink the juice of the emotion you’re experiencing. This combination of openness and detachment is key. Emotions become problematic only when you identify with them, when you get lost or stuck in them, when you privilege certain emotions and try to deny others. The Tantric attitude toward emotions—acceptance, openness to feeling, combined with the awareness of being a spectator—is really a quality of heart. It takes a certain receptivity and softness.

I’ve used a certain practice for years to cultivate that soft-hearted state of witness. It comes from the late French spiritual teacher, Jean Klein. Instead of being simply the observer of thoughts and feelings, you consciously welcome them as guests. Anger comes up and you think, “I welcome you.” A beautiful feeling arises: “I welcome you.”

After a while this conscious practice starts to be natural enough so that it becomes possible to stay genuinely open in the face of even painful emotional states. You can enter fully into a particular emotion, and let it go. When you can welcome a particular rasa without judging it, trying to hang on to it, or projecting it onto someone else, that’s when you begin to be truly free in your emotions.

Don’t mistake this kind of freedom with uncontrolled emotion. Yogic freedom isn’t a license to let your rage or grief take over; it requires practiced awareness and discipline. Surfing your emotions is possible only after you have cultivated some degree of separation from them, which requires you to have a built-in recognition that you aren’t just your emotions.

Contemporary yogic and Buddhist teachers offer a quiverful of strategies for interrupting the tendency to identify with thoughts and emotions. Basic mindfulness is one. Another is the process of recognizing and challenging the stories and beliefs that you hold about reality. Another, very powerful, practice comes from the devotional traditions and involves offering or turning your emotions to God. Instead of blocking emotion, you use your feeling states to give juice to your practice. There are examples of this in all the devotional traditions—mystical Christianity, Judaism, Sufism, and especially in the bhakti tradition of India.

The most famous, of course, is the tale of the gopis, Krishna’s milkmaid devotees, who directed their erotic impulses toward a Divine beloved and became utterly free in the process. Tukaram Maharaj, the 16th-century poet-saint, directed his rage at God, accusing the Almighty, in angry poems, of deliberately concealing himself. Maharaj’s rage actually helped him break through barriers in his inner world.

When you truly open yourself to the energy—the rasa—in emotions and contemplate how you can use that energy in the service of practice, the egoic stories you normally use to trap yourself in feeling states begin to give way to an experience that is called essential emotion. This is the direct experience of rasa. Egoic sadness is an expression of the ego’s sense of emptiness and loss. But that same sadness can also soften the heart, opening you to compassion for the poignancy of life or even longing for your divine home. Fear can paralyze you, or it can help you survive by fleeing or fighting. But as a spiritual emotion, it can morph into a mind-expanding awe as you contemplate the mystery at the heart of your being. Disgust or repulsion can inspire you to turn away from addictive or dysfunctional behaviors. Anger can be an expression of egoic frustration, but that same anger can give you energy in your practice.

Be a Spectator

As you get to know your own emotional rasas, you will begin to find ways of using them to infuse your practice with flavor and energy. To begin, it’s often enough just to observe emotions as they arise. You might try this first during meditation or Savasana (Corpse Pose) or when you’re riding in a car or taking a walk. You’ll find it easy to recognize certain familiar emotions, like love or anger. When you notice a particular feeling state arising, try to identify it—anger, guilt, pride mixed with embarrassment—then stand back from it for a moment, like a spectator at your own emotional drama.

At the beginning simply get to know these feelings more intimately. Your aim is to feel the different nuances of joy, the difference in texture between irritability and full-blown anger, the sharp burn of fear gripping your stomach or knotting your shoulders, or the soft lassitude of erotic opening. See if you can feel these emotions as sensations or feeling states in your body, and also notice the thoughts, the stories that tend to come up to justify your feelings. As you become more familiar with the feeling states of certain emotions, you will begin to recognize the approach of a particular emotion as it begins to appear in your field. And this is the first stage of mastery. When you can discern the initial bud of a strong feeling, you have a better chance of being able to choose what to do with it—whether to deflect a burst of fury, inquire into it, channel it into some sort of physical activity, or express it.

At this point, your practice of balancing emotion begins to become less of a discipline and more of an artistic practice. The art of cooking is all about the balance of flavors. If a dish is too spicy, you add some sweet. If it’s bland, you add a bit of the pungent. In the same way, you can learn to inject unexpected flavors into your own emotional mix. Every rasa has its place. You may not believe you like the feeling of disgust, yet one of the most popular perfume fragrances, jasmine, carries within it the slight odor of animal decay—and that touch of the odious is part of what gives a jasmine-flavored perfume its allure. So it is with certain emotions.

All Access Pass

In my practice of working with emotional rasa, I’ve been surprised to discover that as I learned to recognize the textures of my own emotional world, I became comfortable with feelings I had never allowed myself to admit to consciousness, much less express. At times I’ve even found myself trying on different emotional shadings. I’ve discovered that when I want to motivate myself to practice more intensely, it helps to cultivate fear—that is, the fear of dying before I’ve completed my spiritual journey. I’ve recognized that I receive energy from the heightened awareness that comes when you confront your fear of death. At one point I began looking at a certain quality of cold rage—an expression of the furious rasa—that I had often given in to unconsciously and had always tried to suppress or deny. What purpose could it serve in my life? I wondered. Over time, I’ve come to see that this aspect of the terrible rasa has a lot of power when I use it to cut through my own laziness or stuckness. And as I learned where and how to use these feelings skillfully, it became easier for me to recognize when it is better not to use them.

That was when I began to intuit what it was my teacher had shown me in the long-ago encounter in his kitchen. A Kabbalistic text says that to be a true master means to have mastery over your heart. Not just in the sense of being able to control emotions, but to have free access to all your emotions. A master is one who can recognize the unique texture of each feeling and deploy each emotion authentically at the exact moment it is needed. When you’ve mastered emotion, your emotional expression will naturally align you to the need of the occasion. You can cry when it’s time for grief and laugh when it’s time to celebrate, and your tears as well as your laughter will connect you to others. You can say “I love you” and genuinely mean it, and when fear rises up, you can inhabit that fear so that it wakes you up rather than shutting you down. Your emotions, in other words, become not just authentic but inspired and inspiring. They become like instruments in a perfectly attuned orchestral piece or a choral for blended voices. Then, you are both actor and spectator in the play of feeling that is creating your world. You play within the flavors and tastes that rise and fall, with the exquisite enjoyment of a true connoisseur.

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy and is the author of The Heart of Meditation.