Emotions I think are something that are still identifiably human.
Neuroscientist Dr. Kay Tye.
And very difficult to create full, complex, convincing models of.
Welcome to AWAKEN, a podcast from the Rubin Museum of Art about the dynamic path to enlightenment and what it means to “wake up.” I am singer and songwriter Falu. At the Rubin, a museum dedicated to art from the Himalayas, we believe art can nurture awakening. This season, we delve into the notion of life after —those big transitional moments throughout our lives that propel us into the unknown. We’ve gathered artists, writers, scientists, poets, Buddhist teachers, and others to explore key events and characteristics of a human life—from birth to death and everything in between—as well as grapple with the ultimate mystery: the afterlife.
Their stories offer insights on how to approach change with openness, even amid possible grief or joy, fear or excitement. And with art from the Rubin Museum as the connecting thread, we can make even better sense of those changes. Because art has the ability to wake us up to what is possible.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
When we see art, it breaks the concepts.
Then, we feel happy normally, when we see the art. There’s a moment that we connect with our fundamental quality. It brings the—the more we connect with our innate quality, it will help us more happy, more free, more kind of genuine. So normally, any forms of arts really helps to connect with our inner state.
In this episode, emotion. Philosopher René Descartes famously said “I think therefore I am.” But I would argue, I feel therefore I am. Feelings are what make up our daily existence, they are the spice of life, the markers in our brain. And they are also the things we need to really be aware of, because when we hold on too tightly to an emotion, we risk getting caught up. Highly respected Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher and author Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
Feeling, which is really important in our life, it’s the major driving force of our life. For example, “How many of you want to be happy?” Normally, everybody raise hand. We are looking for the feeling, the emotion, which is happiness.
Dopamine is usually released into the ventral striatum.
Again, neuroscientist Dr. Kay Tye, describing joy.
Certain neurons that are distributed in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex will fire. It’s going to put yourself into a brain state where a certain neuromodulatory cocktail will preserve that state for some period of time. So, it’s going to be reinforcing. You’ll probably remember this moment more than a moment that you were not emotionally activated. And you’ll want to think—feel it again.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
And how many of you don’t want to suffer? Everybody will raise hand.
According to Dr. Kay Tye, our behaviors center around two poles: Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
Approach things that are good for you, avoid things that are bad for you. This is the, you know, most fundamental basic level of survival.
But so often, those two are somehow intertwined, or one begets the other. There are all kinds of inspiring quotes that speak to this, quotes like “no pain no gain” or “new beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” There’s a reason why they seem universal, because they are. And it’s not only true from an emotional perspective but from a neuroscientific one. Dr. Kay Tye.
To feel total joy, you need the delta. It’s all about getting everything to a dynamic range. So if, for example, you know, we did something to make you feel joy all the time—like let’s—it could be drug-induced, it could be you just surround yourself into like some sort of hedonistic paradise, you know—would it be possible to feel joy all the time?
The answer is no. The brain has lots of adaptive measures to make it dynamic. And so, if everything was so great, and we have all the food that I need, and I have all the shelter that I need, and all the love and warmth that I need, then I’ll just find something else to like want, you know, actually, and find something else to get upset about, to be honest. Because your brain needs to be in a dynamic range, we can’t just be like blissfully joyful all the time.
It’s all about the deltas, and the relative differences.
The creative process can be a reflection of the relative changes that happen, that delta that Dr. Kay Tye speaks of: We struggle, we can’t figure something out, we wrestle with an idea, a line, a riff and then something changes. Poet Marie Howe experienced this when writing one of her most famous poems.
I was writing all day, and these are the days when I would drink, you know, a pot of coffee, and smoke a pack of cigarettes by noon. And try and try and try and try. And everything was failing. Failing, failing, failing. And um, I could—like bumping my head against the wall, bumping my head against the wall.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
So a lot of disturbing emotions, or what we call negative emotions—connected with unhealthy sense of self, which is very touchy. And this unhealthy, normally, what we call permanent independent singularity. Singularity meaning, like, everything like become sort of tight, one small thing. And disappointed, most of the—many of the time. Depression, panic also. And it is really difficult.
I gave up. These are the days when we had typewriters, you know. And I remember just pushing everything out of the way, and—just—“I can’t do anything. I’m just going to write a letter to John, even though he’s dead. And that’s how this happened.
John is Marie’s brother.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
When we look at the deeper level, there’s a sense of love, compassion, awareness. There’s a healthy sense of self. We have a lot of those. Normally what we call 90% of are the healthy; only 10% is unhealthy. But we manifest the 10%. Making it huge, you know? We make mountain out of molehill. So—so then at deeper level, there’s luminous self, self beyond self, which is all this pure, present, and unconditional, and beyond concept.
Surrender is the answer to everything for me, pretty much, in my life. Because I’m willful. And so just—and then, just giving up, and you have to give up.
A truly stunning poem came from that surrender: What the Living Do. Here is Marie, reading it to us.
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
Release, letting go, allowing for something else to come in can be so very powerful and teach us something about ourselves and how we move through times of transition.
Writer and meditation teacher Sebene Selassie is familiar with making space for traversing her emotional landscape in many parts of her life. One of her earlier experiences with this was when she went back to her homeland of Ethiopia.
I do remember returning for the very first time, to Ethiopia, when I was probably 21? And the moment the plane touched the ground, I burst into tears. And with that, many people were returning for the first time, this was right after the revolution in 1991, and the whole section around us burst into tears because I started crying. I think there were two older women next to us who didn’t speak English very well. They didn’t know what was happening, why I got so emotional. Because I was quite—it wasn’t just I was having a few tears; like I was sobbing. So my mom explained to them in Amarəñña that I left when I was a baby and I hadn’t been back. And that got them crying, and then that sort of made the whole section cry. But I—I didn’t have words. It wasn’t sort of thoughts that were going through my head. It was really that feeling of touching ground. There was a sense of relief, and homecoming. There was—I’m feeling a sense of release in the body, too—this opening, to something that I didn’t know I was closed off from.
Because I really, besides a few photographs, I had no sense of the country. Not consciously. And I had, as I mentioned, no memories. So even I remember the plane door opening. And at that time, you walked straight out into the tarmac. And just the different sense of the air.
Addis Ababa is quite high elevation, about 7,000 feet. And so, the air felt so different. And the smell was so different. And just immediately seeing a sea of people who all looked somewhat like me was—that alone was just, you know—wondrous.
The evolution of emotions that Sebene had, from this sadness to this sense of wonder, happened within a few minutes. And emotions are fascinating, because they seem to come from the heart, but they’re essentially lots of neurons in the brain going off and creating a reaction within us.
Neuroscientist and author Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor was a rising star at Harvard when she experienced a completely debilitating stroke that took her eight years to recover from. My Stroke of Insight, speaks to the remarkable experience she had and we will hear all about this later in the series. But one of the many magnificent insights she gained from that stroke was how emotions work, and how quickly they can evolve.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR:
Fortunately, from the moment we get triggered to the time we have a neurophysiological stimulation of something into our bloodstream like adrenaline, noradrenaline, something dumps into my bloodstream, floods through me, flushes out of me, takes less than 90 seconds. So, we can watch ourselves, and actually time how long are we triggered when we get triggered. And most people will say, “Oh, Jill, I can stay mad for days.” And it’s like, well, that’s because you’re rethinking the thoughts, refeeling the emotions, rerunning the neurophysiological experience, and it is exhausting, and it is part of our stress circuitry, so it really brings wear and tear down to the whole biological system.
Getting into that rethinking, refeeling space is so so common and we have all been there, playing and replaying something that upset us or harmed us. But when we gain the awareness and vigilance to take a moment to cut through it, as Dr. Taylor suggests, with a breath, a counter thought, whatever technique that works best for you, then that repetitive thinking can actually have an opportunity to evolve and potentially have an afterlife of profound insight. Dr. Taylor discovered that the acute stage of an emotion lasts 90 seconds. After that it’s our repeated reaction to that emotion, something we can be more in control of.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR:
You know that feeling. It’s like, turn around, walk out of the room, and go think about something that brings you pleasure. Choice! And what are you doing? All you’re doing is saying to this circuitry, “No, I’m not going to run you. I’m not going to let the trigger hit and run for the 90 seconds. I’m going to bypass that trigger and I’m going to go think about something more pleasant.”
I just remember sitting, and paying attention to my breath, paying attention to my body. The mind would wander and get lost and fixated, and then I would come back to my breath, and cut through. Just, oh, thinking, thinking. Come back to the moment. Then my mind would go off on another tangent, and I’d get all whipped up. And then I’d go, “Oh wait! It’s just a thought!” Come back.
Meditation teacher and author Spring Washam reflects on when she first started meditating and observing her thoughts.
This was the practice, right? It’s like cutting through, cutting through. I just remember feeling so much freedom, that I could actually direct my mind. That I wasn’t just kind of lost in this, you know, out of control place. I actually could exert some effort and actually work with my mind, train my mind.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
There’s no one answer they are positive or negative. By nature, everything is wonderful, but how—the manifest depend on whether when you recognize these nature, this root or not.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR:
We’re making these choices. And the more we realize that everything that we’re doing, every thought we’re thinking, every emotion we’re feeling, every physiological response we’re having, is based on cells inside of our brain that are running in circuitry, and that the more often we run any circuit, the more inclined that circuit is to run on its own and become automatic.
So we have habitual patterns, but we can change our habitual patterns, but we have to be aware, we have to be willing, and we have to do it.
It’s like that cartoon Training Your Dragon. Yep, welcome to your mind. You start to see how out of control everything is. But that you can pay attention, and you could move your awareness in your body, and you could start to practice something that feels like the end of suffering—“Yes, I’ll come back to the present. I’ll cut through.” So, that’s what happened. I sat and trained my mind, and then I walked, and I felt my body. And then interwoven throughout the day was all these inspirational guided meditations, and dharma talks, and support, and heart practice.
And then we walked, and we sat, and we walked, and we sat. And something really important happened—this joy, of being, started to appear, and this peace, for the first time in my whole life! So it was tasting it. The taste of freedom! Even if it was just momentary, it’s still powerful!
That moment for Spring set the trajectory for her adult life. Discovering the power of observing emotions rather than investing in them gave her a deeper sense of possibility. Writer and meditation teacher Sebene Selassie knows this all too well. For a good chunk of her life, she has been battling cancer and that condition has been the jumping off point for a depth of insight that she has been sharing through her teachings and writing. She was living in DC when she received her diagnosis.
It was—shocking. So I don’t remember a lot, because I really believe I went into some kind of shock response.
I really upped my meditation game in that time, and it’s really the time when I started doing much more regular practice and retreats, and finding ways to deal with all of the emotions, and also the insights, that were arising through that.
Shock of facing my mortality, yes, jettisoned me into reckoning with, what does it mean? What do I want my response to that to be? How will I care for this situation? And how do I want to be in the world? And how do I want to take care of myself?
And I really do believe how we decide to take care of ourselves is so much about how much well-being we can have. I don’t think there’s a right way to respond to cancer, or to any health condition, or to life in general, but our wellbeing is very much going to be determined by how we do what we do, if we can do it with openness and care and mindfulness and a real acceptance and allowing for the choices we make.
And so, the impulse is to brace and defend. And this isn’t about not having boundaries around things that are harmful or hurtful, but it’s really knowing the difference, and understanding when we’re creating that brittle, hard defense towards life, and whatever life may bring, and realizing that we’re also keeping out and guarding ourselves from the beauty and the gifts by opening up to whatever is present.
There are many paths to working with our emotions. Meditation is one. Therapy is another. Exercise, movement and, for some, looking at and reflecting upon art.
In each episode, we invite one of our guests to reflect on an artwork from the Rubin Museum’s collection. For Emotion, artist and co-founder of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors Alex Grey looked at a painting of Vajradhara with Eighty-Five Great Adepts, known as mahasiddhas. The mahasiddhas were masters of Tantric Buddhism who used a unique approach as a means to attain enlightenment. They did not view emotions as a hindrance for spiritual awakening—instead, emotions, used carefully and insightfully, can be a great source of energy and fuel for attaining higher wisdom.
Alex is an artist who uses art to explore our unconscious minds. Here’s what he had to say about this piece:
The color, you know is so red, and gold. That’s one of my favorite sensuous experiences, is just looking at those colors. That like distinguishes each one of the adepts, of the accomplished masters, that surround this clearly visionary being, who is the great guru, the icon of the guru, there in the center.
And so he’s a larger presence, physically. A giant, among other normal people. So, the beings of the gods, you know, the presence of the higher order of spiritual intelligence in the celestial hierarchy, and really the source of all the tantras.
I think that an image like this gives us the underlying kind of confidence in the master that is this spiritual authority by whatever guise it wears. And that there is something, like in their case a bond, you know, that they’ve made with this archetype. So, in the Buddhist teachings that I’ve studied, they’re really saying that this archetype of the Buddha, or the enlightened master, even in the visionary realms, is representing your true nature. And that the master archetype is one that you’re introduced to in these images, and is something that you seek toward your own realization, ultimately, that will help you in this same way, and that this implanted seed of liberation, you know, that is to manifest the guru inside of you, is the archetype inherent in any of these great master images.
I mean, we’re talking about the tantric path, you know, and the Vajrayana, that sees afflictive emotions sometimes as not something to resist, but something to integrate somehow, to understand that these feelings will happen. It’s part of the active nature of the mind, and the reflections that come up, undigested psychological things. So it’s important that our spiritual life take on our psychological life.
YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE:
There’s three layers, three layers of reality, or sometime what I call three sense of self. Unhealthy sense of self, which is on the surface level. Then, if you go more deeper level to our self, there’s healthy sense of self. Then the essence, what the ultimate, what we call luminous self, or self beyond self. So there’s three layers.
Alex Gray was navigating different aspects of himself and found himself in a dark place. A chance encounter not only changed his life but saved it by instigating a profound shift in his emotional state. Although Alex grew up in the generation of psychedelic research and discovery, he hadn’t experienced LSD, but when he met Allyson on May 30, 1975, everything changed.
It was the last day of art school, and she, by chance encounter, had seen me and my professor on a street corner. And I was saying goodbye to my professor at the end of the day, and there for probably two minutes at most. During that time, Allyson drove around the corner in a yellow VW, and said, “Hey, you guys, having a party later tonight. You want to come?”
And so, it was kind of like—I had asked God to show me a sign. So, the first sign, if I could have recognized it, was I got invited to a party. And we went, and that’s where I took my first LSD. Because I think I had nothing left to lose, in a way, you know, was the way that I thought. Like, “Well, what the hell.” And for me, it really turned my life around. Literally, in a visionary sense, because I was inside my head, and spinning through a tunnel, and I’ve recounted this like many times, but it’s still an amazing image to me in my soul. That I was in the dark, and right around the corner was this brilliant light, the light of—that answered every question you ever had, that was a source of wisdom.
It was the source of love. And this light was right around the corner. Now, I could see it. I was in the dark, but all these different shades of gray brought the dark and the light together down this tunnel. And so, I realized, that’s what I want to do with my art, is bring the opposites together, and I’m going to change my name to “Grey” because it brings the opposites together. So, it was a conversion from a nihilist to a mystic like overnight, and it inspired me. Because I wouldn’t have had the guts to call Allyson myself, and just say, “Hey, I just had a really like big experience, and I know you drank some of that potion, too. Can we get together basically and talk about it?”
And so, that’s the date I’m still on.
Alex and Allyson have now been together for nearly 50 years. Their union opened the door to such beauty, for them as a couple and for others.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR:
Oh my god! I get to have a relationship with this beautiful soul, just so filled with openness and gratitude.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR:
When we meet one another in that space, we’re—the awe and the wonder and just the gratitude, but the appreciation and the acceptance and the openness of—of—teach me, train—be with me, share with me, nurture me, show me a different way of living that I don’t know, approach me with curiosity so that we really are this incredibly diverse humanity.
Instead of us hiding in our fear of that which is different, we open our hearts to—open curiosity of, oh my god! What is that spice I smell? Right? Instead of going, “Oh my god! It’s a spice I’ve never seen before!” It’s like—it is the difference. We make this choice, moment by moment, to hook into the fear of the moment, or to hook into the curiosity. And I want to live my life with curiosity. And the more of us who do that, the more often, wow, that’s when we really begin to meld as humanity.
As we said at the beginning of this episode, we are made up of so many feelings, neurons communicating in our brains to create a response. And we are given an opportunity to observe and transform, with the right practice. Feelings have a beginning and an end, a life after, and can be great teachers for us, revealing insight over time. We can wake up anew. As Dr. Taylor says, we can make a choice.
And art, with its representation, its invitation to look deeper, both at an object and within yourself, can offer space to reflect, because when we pay attention, when we pause, we can become aware and find new paths forward.
You just heard the voices of Alex Grey, Marie Howe, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Sebene Selassie, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Dr. Kay Tye, Spring Washam, and me, Falu. To see the artwork discussed in this episode, go to rubinmuseum.org/awakenpod.
You can continue the conversation by following us on Instagram @rubinmuseum. And if you’re enjoying the podcast, leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts, and tell your friends.
AWAKEN Season 3 is an eight-part series from the Rubin Museum. Come visit us in New York City, or explore rubinmuseum.org to learn more about the Museum and about art, cultures, and ideas from the Himalayan region.
AWAKEN is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art with Jamie Lawyer, Sarah Zabrodski, Christina Watson, Gracie Marotta, and Tenzin Gelek in collaboration with SOUND MADE PUBLIC, including Tania Ketenjian, Sarah Conlisk, Philip Wood, Alessandro Santoro, and Jeremiah Moore.
Original music has been produced by Hannis Brown with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.
AWAKEN Season 3 and the exhibition Death Is Not the End are supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, Robert Lehman Foundation, and The Prospect Hill Foundation. The Rubin Museum’s programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature. Death Is Not the End is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Thank you for listening.