Working With Challenging Emotions On and Off The Cushion
Written by Christopher Luard, Author of Such Sweet Thunder
Are you a long time meditator who still struggles with runaway emotions? Have you never meditated and are curious how to work with powerful feelings? If so, read on!
To feel emotions is to be human. Emotions need to be felt. In fact, in most cases, if we choose not to feel a certain emotion now, we can be sure that same emotion will be waiting for us later. Typically if we choose to repress emotions, either it makes us physically ill, or when other experiences trigger a similar emotion, it resonates with the repressed emotion. (Usually both of these are happening simultaneously, more or less.) This resonation makes it impossible to respond to the present stimulus appropriately and we either fall into a reactive pattern or at best, overreact with emotions.
How do we pursue this third course of action? How do we choose to feel this emotion in presence? There are two ways. The first is to bring the emotion to the cushion and work on it during a formal meditation session. The second is to bring presence to the body sensations during an actual interaction in which a strong emotion is triggered. In a formal meditation session it is done in the following way:
Do the meditation practice, starting from the beginning. Feel the breath from the nose to the abdomen. Allow your thoughts to settle. Then go through the practice of scanning the body. Feel the body from the top of the head to the bottoms of the feet, allowing the body to rest. Rest right there in the experience of the breath and the body. The body scanning is very important here, as an emotion is nothing more than the body in response to a thought. We often forget this as the bodies response to our thoughts occurs so fast. We feel as though the thoughts and emotions arise together. As our capacity for feeling the body grows, we learn to separate our thoughts from the bodies response to our thoughts.
For now, just rest in the experience of the breathing and the body. Allow your mind to grow quiet and thoughts to settle. Feel the breath and body as deeply as possible. You may wish to put feeling-attention on the top of your head and the bottoms of your feet at the same time, thus grounding awareness in the body and using the breath as an anchor. Now while feeling the breath and body in this way, allow the emotion to arise within your awareness. You may use a visualization for this if you wish. Remember an incident which made you angry within the last month and visualize the incident happening again. Allow the anger to arise within your body. Do not try to talk your way through it. If thoughts arise about the emotion, you are separating from the feeling. You are thinking about the emotion rather than experiencing it. If this happens use the word “thinking” to clear your awareness of the thoughts, and allow your awareness to be clear, vast, and open. Feel evenly the breath from the nose to the abdomen, the sensations of the body from the top of the head to the bottoms of the feet, and the emotion at the same time. If you find your awareness moves into anger, and you lose the feeling of the breath and the body, you have gone too far to one side. Return to the breath and start again. If you find your awareness moves into the comfort of the breath and the body, and the anger fades away, return to the breath and start again. You may ask questions to direct your awareness, such as: “What does this anger feel like in my body?” “What happens in my body when I feel anger?” You will know that you have felt the emotion completely and it has been discharged if you can visualize the incident which had been charged with anger now holds no charge. You visualize the incident, and you remain calm, still, and silent.
When we practice in such a way, we can learn what emotions feel like in the body. In doing this, we can become comfortable with our anger, loneliness, jealousy, or any other challenging emotion. Our emotions no longer threaten us, and so we no longer need to numb out from them, repress them or express them inappropriately. We are free to respond more fully to the present moment. Expression of emotions may indeed be an appropriate response to the present situation, but you will be acting in present moment action, rather than action that is fueled and charged by emotions which were encountered in the past which you did not have the capacity to feel fully.
When doing this type of meditation, while meditating on an experience in which I felt lonely, for example, often when feeling the loneliness in my body, other memories would float up carrying that same feeling. Memories which had long been forgotten, but the emotional charge was still stored in the body. This is a common occurrence. I recommend picking an emotion that might be particularly challenging for you in life. Spend a month just on that one emotion, and see what happens. After a month, pick another emotion. How do we practice feeling emotions in during an interaction? Your boss yells at you at work for no apparent reason, your spouse forgot your anniversary, or your co-worker forgot to put your name in for the long weekend as he said he would. Anger, frustration, loneliness, are just three examples of the very powerful emotions we tend to encounter as our life unfolds. These and other emotions become easier to process in the present moment by doing the meditation practice described above. But also by experiencing the body from the primary practice meditation in the first chapter, we become more sensitive to the body. Your boss yells at you, and you feel the anger in your body. Before doing anything else, feel your breath. Take just a few conscious breaths. Then allow your awareness to expand to include your whole body, from the top of the head to the bottoms of the feet. Include the physical sensations of the anger. Often times memories of being yelled at for no reason will arise at this point. The habit of reaction is strong. Just feel the anger and the body and breath as one experience. Rest there. Remind yourself that you are human, and anger is a human emotion. Many people fight against emotions, thinking that it is wrong to feel a certain way. This typically compounds the emotion further. It isn’t wrong to feel anger. It is wrong to punch someone out because you are uncomfortable with how anger feels in your body. It is equally unhealthy to repress the anger. Just feel the anger in the body. Do not try to change the sensations in a any way. Using the breath as an anchor, allow awareness to include the sensations of the anger, all the other body sensations, and the sensations of the breath. Eventually, the interaction which caused the emotional reaction will lose its charge and the anger will subside. You will feel a sense of peace at this point, and you will be able to visualize the incident later and remain in a calm, peaceful state.
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