Spectrum of Ecstasy: The Five Wisdom Emotions According to Vajrayana Buddhismby Ngakpa Chogyam, Khandro Dechen
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Here two Western-born lamas of the Nyingma tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism explore what it means to be utterly emotionally alive. Written in contemporary, nonacademic language, this book is a radical challenge to the misconception that inner Vajrayana is primarily an esoteric system of ritual and liturgy. The authors teach that emotions can be embraced as a rich and profound opportunity for realization. This fiercely compassionate battle cry rallies all who are audacious enough to appreciate emotions for their supreme potential as vehicles for awakening.
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Read an Excerpt
Our being is a brilliant pattern of energies, a spectrum of possibilities. At every moment we have the capacity to experience the open dimension of what we are.
Living as we do with alternating pleasure and irritation prompts us to evolve different styles of approaching life. Sometimes our living context voluptuates with seductive possibilities. Sometimes we experience the world as a series of confrontations and antagonisms. Sometimes our situation is confusing and we experience life as a scenario that merely generates bewilderment.
This alternating display of life circumstances can become intense, and if our lives appear to be lurching out of control, we might be tempted to take ourselves in hand by instigating a 'tyranny of the will'. If we experience some success in this endeavour, we may decide to take refuge in 'the will'; because suppression of emotion might seem to make life a little less chaotic. For anyone who has come to rely on such methods, the idea of embracing emotions
the path could appear quite horrific. If we find the vivid display of our feelings somewhat inconvenient, then the idea of opening ourselves to the free-flowing quality of our emotions may seem too dangerous—especially if the texture of our lives is rather raw.
We may not want to rip ourselves open just to experiment with what it feels like to be a gutted fish. If we were to do that, then anything could happen. We could put ourselves at risk in ways that might prove too hideous to bear. We could involve ourselves in areas of experience that might prove too explosive to handle. We might have to sacrifice certain comforts and securities that we have come to regard as indispensable. The whole idea could start to seem a trifle terrible. In the face of this, it might seem better to be 'sensible'.
For life to be as smooth and undisturbing as we might like it to be, we need to keep our feelings strictly under control. If we have spawned the conviction that freely experienced emotions are rather disagreeable, then being sensible could seem to be the safest option. This could be described as 'taking refuge in tepid safety'. But the problem with a tepid existence, is that it continues to cool—our relationships, and our interpersonal environment all become stiff and lifeless. This is the trade-off for feeling safe.
We may decide to dominate our emotions, and attempt to become some kind of
'will-powered athlete'. We can become quite devious in how we deal with our tightly-bound emotions. For example, we might indulge in the insulated pride of feeling that we will not burden others with our feelings. We find it necessary to exercise an emotional discipline that turns life into a tight-rope walk with a tight-lipped stoicism. We cannot sympathise with anyone because we expect the same constrictive behaviour from others. If this athletic wilfulness is taken to an extreme, we simply ossify. We may tell ourselves it is possible to make up for any lack of sparkle with our enhanced efficiency, but all we actually manage to accomplish is to wrap our life in cling-film. Suppression of emotion and deification of the will have distinct drawbacks
We have undergone some kind of emotional lobotomy in which we have gained the dubious and vaguely arid comfort of 'feeling in control of the situation'. This is rather like saying: "I know that life is a bit limited now that I've decided to put myself in this wheelchair, but at least I'll never sprain my ankle again".
Using the same kind of nervous logic, we can come to believe that we should 'rise above' our emotions—as if human feelings were some sort of spiritual disability. From this fragile perspective we may attempt to reject our emotional personality in favour of a 'spiritual' calm—a state in which the pause button has been securely depressed, where there is no chance of feeling anything at all. But 'rising above' our emotions in this manner amounts to little more than attempting to vaccinate ourselves against life. By this means,
we gain the dubious benefits of experiential impotence; or at best, some form of pseudo-spiritual emotional sterility.
We might become rarefied aetheric but slightly bloodless beings. It might seem preferable to be untouched by the dynamic earthiness of life, and to be oblivious to our loss—because, after all, who needs emotional depth in the stratosphere? From this neutered position we might well begin to find the body an encumbrance—we would prefer to fly away to some other realm where pastel-coloured beings are constantly smiling.
we could be conspicuously unattracted by the timidity and shallowness of this type of control. We might feel that living by whim and wild impetuosity are what life is really about. So we could abandon ourselves to our impulses, and see where that led. We could experience our lives as a series of juxtaposed extremes: pain and pleasure, agony and ecstasy, tragedy and comedy, boredom and obsession.
We could be said to be relating to life
as if intensity held some kind of meaning in itself. We might view the tangles of our emotions—the giddy highs and the heavy devastating lows—as 'the rich tapestry of life'. But this cliché is little more than a way of looking back at pain in order that it appears to have been to our advantage. When we are actually experiencing pain, our 'rich tapestry' more often reveals itself as mere flaccid verbiage.
When we abandon ourselves to impulse in search of intensity, life can become very earthy indeed. We may have experiences of the earth in which we collide with it a little too heavily. The more we throw ourselves at life in an attempt to feel real, the more pain we tend to inflict on ourselves. If we pursue this approach, we may find ourselves meeting the earth at terminal velocity. In seeking intensity our contact with the world becomes explosive—the repercussions throw us off balance, and the ricochets whine alarmingly around our ears. Contacts become head-on collisions and we sustain repeated emotional injuries, often without understanding what is happening. We could become completely brutalised by our interaction with the earth element. In fact, our relationship with all the elements could become extreme—a truly rich assault on our sensory being. If you were strong enough you could feed on this bombardment. You could experience fire and water in direct conflict.
But with either extreme—controlling our emotions or abandoning ourselves to intensity—what we are avoiding is direct and naked confrontation with the real nature of our energy. With either extreme we never actually experience ourselves. We never
the texture of our world. We never
the qualities of our own being in their incredible fullness and variety
We never make real contact with the totality of our being or our sphere of perception.
It is important to experience our emotional energies simply and directly. Our emotions are a spectrum of fluid and fluent energies, and experiencing their energy fields is the purpose of our exploration. This might seem a wild proposition, and you may feel that you do not have the right qualifications to embark upon a spiritual path. You may feel that you are not the right sort of person for this kind of enterprise. You could even imagine that 'spiritual people' are somehow intrinsically different, as if they had specialised spiritual organs that you lack. Ideas have proliferated in most societies that practices for realisation are for 'advanced beings'. Psychologists might say that only certain personality types are drawn to this kind of activity. Some people might consider themselves too pedestrian or down-to-earth to engage in spiritual practices.
These ideas miss the point completely. They fail to recognise the unique qualification of all human beings—that we are all beginninglessly enlightened.
Whether we comprehend it or not, it is important to allow ourselves to be open to the idea that we could well have more potential than we ever dreamed. Our being is a brilliant pattern of energies, a spectrum of possibilities. At every moment we have the capacity to experience the open dimension of what we are.
But somehow awakened Mind appears rather remote from where we find ourselves—confused and bewildered by the alternating patterns of pleasure and pain that form the landscape of our emotions. One of the most enlivening,
exciting, and fulfilling discoveries we can make as human beings is finding that our emotions are actually reflections of our awakened enlightened potentialities. The complete unexpurgated range of what we feel is a spectrum of ecstasy.
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Meet the Author
Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen, both Westerners, are teachers in the Nyingma School of Vajrayana Buddhism in the lineage of the Aro gTer. A married couple who teach together, they spend much of their time traveling and teaching in Europe and the United States. They live in Penarth, Wales.
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