Gita in a Nutshell #7: Is the Gita Asking Us to Repress Our Emotions?

Via on Jan 5, 2011

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations.
For notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.
)

Another major difficulty many readers have with the Gita is that at first it seems to be telling us to repress all our ordinary human emotions.  Here is a wonderful conversation from Gita Talk #4 that deals directly with this question:

freesoul:
I so can relate w/Michele, when you say “you have no cause to grieve for any being…” that just got to me, I had to read chapter two a few times and then I was ready to bag the whole book. I kept thinking how can I turn off my emotions so easily.

Bob:
Dear freesoul. I’m so glad you hit us squarely with this issue: “Is the Gita telling us to turn off all our emotions, to live without passion?”, because I’m sure this is on the minds of many readers. It certainly was on mine the first time I read it.

I believe I can give you an answer that is crystal clear, profound, and readily usable in everyday life. But you be the judge.

The Gita does not, as whole, endorse emotional repression, even though it seems to be doing exactly that here. What the Gita asks us to do is be our human selves completely, feel deeply all our human emotions, but develop the ability to step outside ourselves and calmly witness those emotions in a completely non-judgmental way.

Even though the text right here seems to say otherwise, the situation itself supports this idea. Think about it. Krishna is urging Arjuna to fight a battle to the best of his abilities. Does Krishna think Arjuna can can fight his battle (just make that a metaphor for whatever challenges we face in life) without emotion and passion?

No, of course not. Even though the text isn’t clear on this, the situation is. Krishna is telling Arjuna to fight his battle with all this usual passion, but to be able, at the same time, to rise above it and objectively see that he is also a part of the infinite, unfathomable, wondrous universe, where these emotions hold no sway.

Tell me if this makes sense. And I hope other people will jump into this vital discussion as well. Your question really does go to the heart of the Gita.

Vanita:
Thanks for the great discussion, everyone.  I always reject 2.57 and sentiments like it. “who neither grieves or rejoices if good or bad things happen’.  It conjures up images of Stepford wives, mothers, friends….. fill in the blank.  For me, I prefer – grieve for a moment, rejoice for a moment, then accept it and move on.

Lucky for me “on this path no effort is wasted.. ” (2.40). There is hope, yet.

Bob:
Agree, Vanita. In the next chapter you’ll read the seemingly contradictory line:

All beings follow their nature.
What good can repression do? (3.33)

2.57 is actually part of a larger idea in Yoga philosophy called “Witness” Consciousness (what I describe above), which means simply the ability to step outside ourselves and watch our emotions non-judgmentally.

But that’s not described fully in 2.57. Obviously the whole idea of being a witness assumes there is something to witness, i.e. that we are still feeling all our human emotions. In 2.57 we have only the witness with no mention of the witnessed! That’s why I put an “E” for “Explain” next to this item in my list.

Does this make sense? Please ask follow-up questions.

Sevapuri:
i understand your feelings that this can be read as “just feel nothing” but i think Krishna is telling us to not let grief or joy overwhelm us to the point where we forget who we really are. Krishna’s dialogue is continually reminding Arjuna who he is, that he is not only Arjuna but part of the whole universe, this it what i think we can forget so easily when we get caught up in joy grief, pain pleasure etc.

John Morrison:
Yes, when one watches their emotions without judging – this is freedom. We can have emotions but engage them with equanimity. We are no longer swept along like a stick in a raging torrent, completely at the mercy of our own discursive thoughts and emotions. Instead we are a boulder within the river, watching the emotions pass around us. The boulder is not emotionless – it is effected by emotions – but it is not at their mercy….

This pivotal Yoga idea of “Witness Consciousness” is fully developed in Chapter 13 of the Gita.  Here are the highlights:

What are Nature and Self?
What are the field and its Knower,
knowledge and the object of knowledge?
Teach me about them, Krishna.

This Body is called the field,
Arjuna; the one who watches
whatever happens within it—
wise men call him the Knower.

I am the Knower of the field
in every body, Arjuna;
genuine knowledge means knowing
both the field and its Knower.   (BG 13.0-2)

 ~

It is called the witness, the consenter,
the sustainer, the enjoyer, the great Lord,
and also the highest Self,
the supreme Person in this body.   (BG 13.22)

~

By meditation, some men
can see the Self in the self;
others, by the yoga of knowledge;
others, by selfless action.

Still others, not seeing, only
hear about it and worship;
they too cross beyond death,
trusting in what they have heard.

Whatever exists, Arjuna,
animate or inanimate,
has come into existence
from the union of field and Knower.

He who sees that the great Lord
is equally in all beings,
deathless when every being
dies—that man sees truly.

Seeing the great Lord everywhere,
he knows beyond doubt that he cannot
harm the Self by the self,
and reaches the highest goal.

He who sees that all actions
are performed by Nature alone
and thus that the self is not
the doer—that man see truly.

When he sees that the myriad beings
emanate from the One
and have their source in the One,
that man gains absolute freedom.   (BG 13.24-30)

~

Just as the sun by itself
illumines the entire world,
so the field owner illumines
everything in the field.

He whose inner eye sees
how the Knower is distinct from the field,
and how men are set free from Nature,
arrives at the highest state.   (BG 13.33-34) 


Previous:
#6: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations
To receive notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.)

About Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg: Editor, Best of Yoga Philosophy / Former Assoc. Publisher, elephant journal / Author: Yoga Demystified * Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell * Leadership Is Like Tennis, Not Egyptology / Co-editor: Yoga in America (free eBook) / Creator: Gita Talk: Self-paced Online Seminar / Flamenco guitarist: "Live at Don Quijote" & "American Gypsy" (Free CD's) / Follow Bob on facebook, Twitter, or his main site: Wordpress.

1,703 views

17 Responses to “Gita in a Nutshell #7: Is the Gita Asking Us to Repress Our Emotions?”

  1. Bob, I completely agree with your comment to freesoul, that is what I think too, this is one of those situations that merit the quote: "Be in the world but not of the world"

  2. Ramesh says:

    Bob, great discussion and points. There is a story from the Mahabarata in which a soldier in a fight gets his opponent on the ground and is about to kill him. As he is about to strike the final blow, his opponent spits him in the face in contempt. This angers the soldier so much that he looses his cool and walks away without killing. The moral of the story: As Bob, suggests, due to anger, he lost the ability to be a witness to his own passionate warrior spirit, thus he chose not to kill as it would have been out of anger and revenge, not spiritual passion, not due to a sense of non-judgmental witness.

  3. morethanastretchdotcom says:

    Would you link "Witness Consciousness" to the relationship between purusha and prakriti?
    Andrew

    • Excellent question, Andrew. I think I know the answer, but frankly, I need to do a little research to make sure. For that, I always go to the more literal translations of Graham Schweig or Georg Feuerstein.

      But could I suggest you do the same and take a crack at answering your own question here. (Or perhaps you already know the answer and you're testing us!)

  4. BoepSaFrankJude says:

    Regarding the question of ‘feeling’ or experiencing (strong) emotions, the ‘notion’ of equanimity and ‘non-attachment’ (I do not like nor use the term ‘detachment’) I have found is often misunderstood by yogis of all stripes. I’ve had students ask me, when they hear the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment, or read passages such as this from the Gita, “Why would anyone not want to feel?” Yet, from my readings of the sutras, it is clear that the Buddha was a man of deep feeling; he expressed deep appreciation of sunsets, he’d look back with fondness on a village he knew he’d never visit again, he expressed sadness when his senior disciples died. But what is also clear is that he never got caught up in his emotions. They neither drowned him nor swept him away. He didn’t ‘suffer’ his emotions because he understood their true (empty/conditioned) nature.

    In fact, I’d say that unless we are mindful of our feelings and emotions, we do not actually fully experience them! Typically, when faced by strong feelings (especially unpleasant ones) we think that there are only two strategies to deal with them: either we can suppress them, or we can express them. Yet, we know that repression is unhealthy, and we now know that expressing them in an attempt to avoid or annihilate them is also unhealthy! The third option offered by all Yoga traditions is to simply know them! We show our warrior-yogi spirit by feeling fully without suppressing nor venting!

    And by fully knowing the feelings, feeling them fully, free from any conditioned reactivity of aversion or grasping, we free ourselves from the feeling’s determining how we act in the world. It’s not the feelings that we become free from; it’s the conditioning they create that we free ourselves from!

    However, and here’s where and why I chose Buddhist Yoga as my path, to reify ‘witnessing’ as “The Witness” or even “Witness Consciousness” is a conceptual error – one that separates Patanjali from the Buddha, though so much of their teachings otherwise are very similar. And of course, the Gita also posits a Self that is the Witness! But here’s how the Buddha put it while a student of his Yoga teachers:

    “Even when one has reached the level of neither perception nor nonperception, although there is then liberation from form and formlessness, there is still something left over – the thing that has been liberated from them, a watcher of ‘neither perception nor nonperception.’ As long as such a watcher, which some call a soul, remains, though one may momentarily be secluded from the cycle of suffering, the watcher remains as a seed of rebirth. As soon as the situation changes, rebirth easily takes place again. This is just what happens now when I get up from meditating. No matter how profound my absorption, after a short time I get caught up again in the world of the senses. The basic causes and conditions for rebirth have not been extinguished! Complete liberation has not been achieved.”

    The rebirth spoken of here by the Buddha is not necessarily some literal, metaphysical rebirth. He’s talking about self/ego consciousness. I saw this truth for myself and in my students: Samadhi is great and all for as long as it lasts, but it ends, and if a sense of Self persists, no full freedom is available. That sense of The Witness becomes the seed for another cycle of ‘selfing.’

    • Hi, Frank.

      As usual you've written a comment so thoughtful and profound that it deserves to be its own blog!

      I personally have made the opposite choice, that the Buddhist ideal of total escape from the self is unrealistic, and perhaps even undesirable, so I find the idea of Witness Consciousness to be the ideal, not just a stage to pass through on my way to some unattainable higher state.

      I wonder about your distinction between Patanjali and the Buddha as well. If I had to line up alternative philosophies, I would say the Yoga Sutra has much more in common with Buddhism than it does with the Gita and the Upanishads.

      Great stuff, Frank. I'm thrilled every time I see your name at the top of a comment.

      Bob W.
      Yoga Editor

  5. Gee, Frank, there you go again–writing another mere reply that's so meaty (whoops, probably the wrong word to in these circles!) that it also would make a great blog all on its own.

    I see what your saying, but for me it's pretty theoretical. I prefer the "radical acceptance" that my ego will always be there, or apparently there, if you prefer, and that the most desirable thing I can do is just observe it objectively. Of course, the very fact of observing it objectively changes the way it operates on me, so it's a lot more profound a process, in the end, than "just observing".

    Good stuff. You always make me think to the next level. Thanks for being here.

    Bob

  6. carrie says:

    love this discussion feelings are very natural free flowing and it is what we do with that counts in life.

  7. [...] #7: Is the Gita Asking Us to Repress Our Emotions? [...]

  8. Vanessa Study says:

    I don’t understand how 1. you can win with that.2. and how do you make sure you oopinite doesn’t do for move cheakmate?

  9. Bob, better late than never (all over again here at elephant :), I have come to your breathtaking pieces on the Gita. My heart is touched as it rarely has been since I sat with Bapuji decades ago and, at home, regularly chanted the Guru Gita and Sri Atma Gita as my morning practice. I especially love your simple answer to the question posed in the title to this piece: "What the Gita asks us to do is be our human selves completely, feel deeply all our human emotions, but develop the ability to step outside ourselves and calmly witness those emotions in a completely non-judgmental way."

    In my humble experience, witness consciousness *works* — at least when I remember ot apply it. And I agree 100% with your reply to Frank that "the Buddhist ideal of total escape from the self is unrealistic." Not least, it doesn't look nearly as fun! Bless you for this beautiful work, which I will read more of now that I've finally come to it!

    • Thank you for your warm and effusive appreciation, Suzanne. Gita in a Nutshell became an all-consuming labor of love for me for a couple of years, during which I became more and more astounded by the wisdom and modernity of this ancient text, and more and more immersed in surrendering to its meaning and joy in my daily life.

      This is, in fact, what Yoga practice is for me. To have a fellow seeker like yourself tune into my spiritual stream is a wonderful extra bonus! Thanks for writing.

      Bob

  10. Thanks for writing, harikirtana.

  11. BoepSaFrankJude says:

    Ha! Now THAT's funny! The post from last night is there now! Playing tricks, eh?

    It's a busy week here in Tucson, but I most certainly WILL get in touch with you when the more urgent aspect of our tragedy fall-out has passed.

    metta
    fjb

  12. Yes, Intense debate has been flaky recently. Let's hope it's a temporary problem.

    Bob

Leave a Reply