Create a Safe Place for All Your Emotıons
An Interview with Josh Korda
Illustration Credit: Peaceful in the Thick of It All by Mali Fischer
We often try to rid ourselves of emotions we don’t want to feel—such as anger or sadness—using coping mechanisms that can lead to addiction or obsessive behaviors. Meditation teacher Josh Korda uses insights from contemporary psychology, traditional Buddhism, and his own personal experience with addiction to work with people navigating the ups and downs of their emotional and spiritual lives. Korda is the presiding teacher at Dharma Punx NYC in New York. He spoke with S&H about healthy ways to feel negative emotions, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and pursuing authentic goals.
Q: You’ve said “a lot of meditation and spiritual practice boils down to people allowing themselves to feel all of their emotions safely.”
Josh Korda: Many people prioritize experiencing positive emotions. Other emotions—like anger, fear, doubt, sadness, or grief—are seen as signs that you’re doing something wrong or that you aren’t spiritually evolved. Many spiritual practitioners have this idea that you should be able to uproot negative emotions.
I believe that the goal is to create a safe container where you can hold all of life’s natural emotional activations. For example, if you lose someone, it is absolutely natural and important to grieve. You really can’t move on from a loss until you grieve the loss. There is no other way.
So the attempt to bypass a feeling like grief is ludicrous. First, create a spiritual container where any emotion can arise—by spiritual container, I mean the ability to bring awareness to the emotion. Then you can turn toward these emotions and nurture them back to a place of greater regulation, where you can express them to other people in a meaningful way.
Are you saying that it’s impossible to control our emotions?
You can learn to regulate emotions by being able to be with them, hold them, express them to other people, and have them mirrored back safely. Then, eventually, those emotions will find their own natural ebb and flow. So when anger or fear rises, you won’t necessarily need to follow through on the extreme impulses of running away or beating someone up. You’ll be able to experience the pure emotion in the body, but you won’t act it out. Whereas, you will choose to act out other emotions, like happiness.
If we repress anger, it doesn’t just go away. It will come out, but in short bursts of outrage. Or if we suppress our fear or sadness, it will lead us toward addictive behaviors or toward obsessive behavioral patterns to get rid of those emotions and they will create havoc in our lives.
You mentioned some coping strategies that people might use to deal with negative emotions if they don’t learn how to regulate them, such as addiction and obsessive behavioral patterns. Are there others?
Yes, another one is deflecting. You can deflect an emotion you feel for one person to another person. You can be at a job where your boss is enraging, but if you were taught not to express your disappointment or frustration to an authority figure, then what you’ll do is come home and express your anger and frustration at your partner or your child or your pet.
How do you know when something is an addiction and not just something you enjoy?
I would argue along the same lines as the great addiction specialist Philip Flores, who says that any addiction is an attempt to bypass the role that other people should play in our lives. Ideally, when we have a difficult emotion that we have to experience, part of the process of being with that emotion is being able to express it to other people safely—without fear that they’ll reject us, shame us, abandon us, or criticize us. By listening and mirroring the emotions they can help us regulate them.
When we experience a set of emotions that we don’t trust other people to help us with, we’ll turn instead to using a substance or behavior to get rid of the emotional experience. So people who feel uninspired or bored in life may gamble or shop or do something that releases dopamine to make them feel more inspired, more enthusiastic, more alive. People who feel self-conscious and anxious might seek out alcohol.
All addicts, if you observe them, will become increasingly isolated. It doesn’t matter what they’re addicted to. If you have a behavior that you do regularly but it doesn’t lead to any form of isolation, I would argue that it’s a behavioral process worth investigating, but not an addiction. An addiction, from my perspective, always leads to disconnection. It keeps us stuck in a place where we can’t safely express certain emotions. As we get caught in repetitive behaviors or substance dependency, those emotions will become increasingly dysregulated. They’ll become more and more extreme the more we numb ourselves.
Say somebody has a few beers and watches a few hours of television every night. I would argue that, so long as they’re still able to express their full range of emotions, that’s not an addiction. Even if they’re drinking seven beers and two shots a night. They’d be a heavy drinker, but not an alcoholic.
So the coping mechanisms we’ve been talking about are expressions of being disconnected from other people. Where do we learn these strategies?
Any maladaptive coping mechanism is something that worked during periods of childhood but no longer works in adult life. For example, if a child is caught having eaten the cookies when it was told by the caretaker not to eat the cookies—if the caretaker punishes in a way that’s scary—the child will learn that it’s safer to lie than to acknowledge culpability. So a child who ate the cookies will say, “I didn’t. It was my sister.”
That makes complete sense for a child. All behaviors make complete sense, given the emotional learnings that a child has in its early environment. But then when that child grows up to be an adult, a partner or friend might ask, “Hey, why did you do that?” and that person feels the compulsion to lie because he or she hasn’t adopted new behaviors in adult life.
A coping strategy that made sense in the context of having a scary caretaker no longer makes sense. It’s maladaptive. The emotional mind doesn’t change as we move through life, until we literally show it that its coping mechanisms no longer work. And to show that our emotional behaviors don’t work, we literally have to be able to first feel them and acknowledge them and talk about them with others.
You’ve written about solutions that the Buddha offers for updating maladaptive coping mechanisms, some of which seem to line up with what contemporary psychology suggests. How can we update coping mechanisms that used to work in childhood but don’t in adult life?
The Buddha called it yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana. It means seeing things clearly. Essentially, it boils down to three practices. He mentions this again and again throughout the sutras. The process goes like this: When you have an obsessive behavior that feels self-destructive or sabotages relationships, there are three practices to use.
The first practice is to simply see the advantages to the coping mechanism. For instance, suppose you’re a chronic worrier. The advantage of worry is that it makes us feel more prepared. When we worry, we think we can prepare for even the most catastrophic outcomes in life by visualizing what they might be like. In this way worrying actually does have an advantage to the mind. It makes us feel safer and more prepared for unlikely outcomes.
The next practice is to look at the disadvantages of the coping mechanism. One of the disadvantages of worry is that it becomes obsessive. It makes us miserable and stressed out, and generally life doesn’t turn out the way our worries would have us believe. Or even if life does turn out the way our worries predict, our worries don’t actually make us any safer. It just makes it so that we’re no longer fluid when bad things happen or able to trust our instincts or reach out to others for help.
Then, the third practice is to find the escape from the behavior. To find an escape, you should recognize what it is you have been seeking from the maladaptive behavior and address the underlying need. So the escape from worry might be to reflect on times in life we’ve been caught off guard and still did fine. Or we might reflect on all the people who are available in our lives to help us if anything bad happens. That would help provide us new behaviors that are not addictive like worrying.
This time of year people are setting resolutions and goals—either to stop certain behaviors or to start new ones—that they think will help them become the person they want to be. How do you determine whether a resolution is worth pursuing or not?
Well, the first question to ask is whether a resolution will cause harm to self or others. So long as you’re very certain you pass that basic test, what you will find is that actions that don’t cause harm will make you feel good about yourself. Actions that cause harm to self or others will, of course, cause agitation and stress and suffering.
The next question worth considering is to look at the resolution from the perspective of your mortality. We only have so much time. As anybody has done hospice work will tell you, people often have far less time than they believe they do. Look at your goals from the perspective of somebody looking back on their life. How would you feel if you only had three months left to live? Would this resolution be something that would be important?
Writers like Bronnie Ware or Maggie Callanan have written about how people facing their mortality all have the same regrets: I wish I hadn’t worked as hard. I wish I had connected with the people I loved. I wish I had been more authentic in my choices. What is authentic in our choices is pursuing the actions that deeply make us feel joy and focus the mind and reduce stress for us.
What do you think of the typical resolutions to eat healthier and get to the gym more?
The standard self-improvement regimes are all fine and good and have their place. But, in my experience, very few people looking back on their lives say, “Oh, I wish I ate better.” Instead they might regret not having tried this or that. They might wish that they had been more authentic in the way they spoke with other people.
Sometimes larger circumstances can prevent you from living the most authentic life you would like to. You have to have a job, for example. That takes up a lot of time. You can’t always make the most authentic, meaningful choice.
Yes, there are a lot of forces that stand in the way of pursuing authentic interests or living lives where we experience spontaneous, real states of tranquility and peace and purpose. For example, capitalism creates an environment where there are very few safety nets. We have vast income disparity, and a bombardment of advertisements show us that we should be aiming for material wealth and material abundance.
Those outside pressures, I think, can point us in the wrong direction. I learned to skateboard when I was in my 40s, and nobody was encouraging me to do that. I’d be wobbling on my skateboard and there’d be a 10-year-old whizzing by me and laughing. An authentic interest is often greeted with ridicule.
What it requires is a steadfastness of effort. So long as you know that it’s not harmful—and I truly believed that learning to skateboard was not harmful to anyone, except for myself when I fell—it’s a valid endeavor. Yes, people can have economic pressures, but very often it’s an unregulated fear. We fear long-term financial pressure that might happen decades down the line. Or we fear losing our jobs if we don’t work 10 hours instead of nine hours. We feel that we might look bad in front of our coworkers if we leave at a reasonable time so that we can pursue other goals.
You don’t have to quit your job, but it’s a matter of reprioritizing how important work is.
What has your professional path been?
I worked as an art director in advertising, which seemed kind of fun. It was creative. I was definitely paid well for it. But after being with both my parents when they died, I took a closer look at it. Even though I found advertising to be something that I could do, and it wasn’t completely draining, it felt empty of deeper meaning or value. It didn’t make me feel like my work life was meeting any real need in the world around me. And so I left.
I now support myself entirely as a Buddhist teacher, which means living off a fraction of the income I had in advertising. Essentially, I live hand to mouth by donations from teaching and mentoring. But you can’t even compare how fulfilled and happy I am now with the way I felt when I worked in advertising.
It required a lot of changes to pursue this authentic intention. I had to change the way I spent money. I had to completely let go of a lot of the long-term financial concerns that motivated me to stay in advertising. I had to get comfortable with telling people that I was a Buddhist teacher.
Is it difficult to tell people that? It seems pretty noble to me.
Well, fortunately those conversations happened in my 40s. If I were 32 and dating someone and they were introducing me to their parents and I said, “I’m a Buddhist teacher. I live hand to mouth.” That would hardly be the thing that would win their support.
But there’s a wonderful shift that happens in life when we move from being anxious about what other people think to having a certain sense of self-confidence. “I’m a Buddhist teacher. Take that and shove it.”
Let’s get back to what we were talking about with authentic resolutions and meaningful goals. How do you follow through on them?
To use a personal example, I set an intention to give up alcoholic behaviors and using drugs. I achieved sobriety through connecting with other people who were experiencing the same maladaptive behaviors and were trying to change, at places like 12-step groups and Buddhist sanghas that revolve around recovery. There are a lot of meetings where there are Buddhists who get sober.
That’s a powerful way to fulfill an intention, by connecting with other people who are doing the same thing. The mind responds really well to community. As the Buddha said, we do the things that other people do. We become like the people we surround ourselves with.
Find a community of people who are doing what you want to do, talk about your intentions with other people so that you feel a sense of responsibility to follow through. Don’t keep it secret. But at the same time, don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to integrate the new behavior into your life. There’s nothing worse, when it comes to integrating a new behavior or developing a new skill, than any form of self-criticism. Self-criticism doesn’t make us do something more; it makes us do it less, because it associates the behavior with stress.
What does motivate us to do things positively is self-care, compassion, and a sense of deserving to be happy. So I only use the carrot when I motivate myself. I never use the stick.
Moving from a busy mind to a relaxed mind
While it may make sense to focus on “getting things done” and “putting out fires” during significant portions of the day, it’s not how one should spend the entire day. We need to learn how to transition out of the fixing and solving state of mind into an awareness that can simply be with life as it is.
To make this transition we need a ritual that informs the mind, “Relax. There’s nothing else to accomplish today. You can settle now and let go of striving.”
Find a park, a body of water, or a new vista—any landscape that’s spacious and open—allowing the mind to detach from the narratives of the day. Sit somewhere comfortable—where you don’t need to worry about other people—and simply breathe and take in the available sights, sounds, and contact sensations with whatever we’re sitting on. Gradually let go of the visual stimuli, and bring attention inward to the breath.
Locate and focus on the body sensations that occur with each breath. Don’t visualize how you look, just feel the inner sensations. Follow these sensations as they spread through the body; up with in breaths, down with out breaths.
Ask yourself what type of breathing would feel really good right now—if you feel tired, long inhalations will help invigorate and if stressed, long exhalations will help.
Have a “resting place” in the body where the mind will return during the pauses between breaths. The belly often works well. Staying present during these pauses requires the greatest effort.
Allow the mind to expand down into the body, as if you’re lowering yourself into a warm bath. You’re not so much observing the movements in the body from above, from the narrow confines of your head, but your awareness is becoming larger and flowing down into the body.
Continue to expand your awareness of the body using the breath sensations. How far down can you follow the sensations of an out breath?
Remember: Don’t become frustrated when the mind wanders. That’s natural. Feel good about catching the mind when it drifts. The intention is to develop peace of mind so self-punishing judgments or criticisms are for another time.