Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Feeling your feelings

Patterns often persist until the underlying feelings are thoroughly felt. That’s right, I said felt — not merely acknowledged or named! Many people keep their feelings at arm’s length or confuse them with thoughts or ideas. I could talk in the abstract about grief or fear, but it took years of meditation (and some skillful therapy) before I knew how they actually felt in my body. Other people get completely entangled in their feelings. As you expand your awareness, ask yourself, “What feelings haven’t I felt yet?”
Feeling your feelings doesn’t make them bigger or worse — at least not in the long run. It actually allows them to move through and release!

Expanding your awareness

The part of the pattern that reveals itself to you in your meditation may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Perhaps you keep feeling tense in your lower belly and you don’t know why. If you expand your awareness, you may discover that beneath the surface lies fear about the future, and under the fear lies a layer of hurt. When you include thoughts and ideas as well, you may find that, deep down, you believe you’re inadequate. So you’re afraid you can’t cope, and you feel hurt when people criticize you because it just corroborates your own negative self-image. By welcoming the full range of thoughts, images, and feelings, you create an inner spaciousness in which the pattern can gradually unfold and release. (Trust me — this approach actually works, though you won’t get results instantaneously!)

Naming your “tunes”

As a rather humorous way to start, advises Kornfield, you can name and number your “top ten tunes.” (You can stop at five, if you prefer.) Then when a particular tune recurs, you can simply notice and name it without getting embroiled once again in the same painful pattern. Merely another version of naming your experience (described earlier), this approach can be helpful but only takes you so far.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

How to Unravel Habitual Patterns?

As you explore your emotions, you may gradually discover that they’re not as overpowering or as endless as you feared. With mindful awareness and naming, most emotions will flow through your body and gradually release. For example, as you gently investigate your anger or fear, it may intensify at first, then break and disperse like a wave on the beach.
But certain persistent emotions and physical contractions, along with the thoughts and images that accompany and fuel them, seem to keep returning, no matter how many times you notice and name them. These are the stories and habitual patterns that run deep in the body-mind like the roots from which recurring thoughts and feelings spring. In your meditations, you may keep replaying a story from your past (including all the accompanying emotions and mind-states) in which you suffer some abuse or injustice. Perhaps you see yourself as a failure and fantasize obsessively about an imaginary future in which you’re somehow happier and more successful. Or you may worry repeatedly about your job or relationship because you believe you can’t trust people or the world’s not a safe place.
In his book A Path with Heart, Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls these habitual patterns insistent visitors and suggests that they keep returning in your meditation (and your life!) because they’re stuck or unfinished in some way. When you give them the loving attention and deeper investigation they require, you may at first discover that they’re more complex and deeply rooted than you had imagined. But with persistent exploration, they gradually unravel and reveal the hidden energy and wisdom they contain. In fact, the more you undo your patterns, the more you release the physical and energetic contractions that lie at their heart, and the freer, more spacious, more expansive — and, yes, healthier! — you become. Here’s a brief synopsis of the primary techniques for unraveling habitual patterns. Experiment with them on your own, and if you find them helpful, feel free to incorporate them into your meditation. If you get stuck or would like to delve deeper but don’t know how, you may want to find yourself a meditation teacher or psychotherapist familiar with this approach.

Meditating with sadness, grief, and depression

Most people find sadness easier to feel and express than anger or fear. Unfortunately, they don’t give it the time and attention it deserves because they were told as children to stop crying before they were ready. Life inevitably presents us with a series of disappointments and losses; unexpressed sadness and grief can build up inside and ultimately lead to depression.
To make friends with your sadness, you need to hold it gently and lovingly and give it plenty of space to express itself. As with anger and fear, begin by exploring the sensations. Perhaps you notice a heaviness in your heart or a constriction in your diaphragm or a clogged sensation in your eyes and forehead, as though you’re about to cry but can’t. You may want to amplify these sensations and see what happens.
Then pay attention to the thoughts, images, and memories that fuel the sadness. Perhaps you keep reliving the loss of a loved one or the moment when a close friend said something unkind to you. If you’re depressed, you may keep recycling the same negative, self-defeating beliefs and judgments, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have what it takes to succeed.” As you open your awareness to include the full range of experiences associated with the sadness, you may shed some heartfelt tears — and in the process feel yourself lightening up and your sadness lifting a little., as long as you’re open to your own suffering and the suffering of others, you will experience a certain amount of tender sadness in your heart.

Meditating with fear and anxiety

Many people are reluctant to admit they’re afraid, even to themselves. Somehow, they believe that if they acknowledge their fear, they give it power to run their lives. In other words, deep down, they’re afraid of their fear! Men especially will often go to great lengths to hide their fears or anxieties behind a facade of confidence or anger or rationality. At the other extreme, of course, some people seem to be afraid of just about everything. The truth is, if you’re human — and not bionic or extraterrestrial — you’re going to be afraid or anxious, at least occasionally. In addition to the raw rush of adrenaline you feel when your physical survival seems to be at stake, you experience the fear that inevitably arises when you face the unknown or the uncertain in life — which can be quite often these days. Ultimately, you’re afraid because you believe that you’re a separate, isolated entity surrounded by forces beyond your control. The more the walls that separate you from others crumble through the practice of meditation, the more your fear and anxiety naturally diminish. As with anger, you can use your meditation to explore and ultimately make friends with your fear. After all, it’s just an emotion like other emotions, composed of physical sensations, thoughts, and beliefs. When working with fear, it’s especially important to be kind and gentle with yourself. Begin by asking the same questions you asked about anger: Where and how do you experience it in your body? Where do you find yourself tensing and contracting? What happens to your breathing? Or to your heart? Next, notice the thoughts and images that accompany the fear. Often fear arises from anticipating the future and imagining that you’ll somehow be unable to cope. When you see these catastrophic expectations for what they are and return to the present moment — the sensations in your body, the coming and going of your breath — you may find that the fear shifts and begins to disperse. Then when it returns, you can simply call its name — “fear, fear, fear” — like an old, familiar friend.
You may also want to amplify the sensations a little and allow yourself to shake or tremble, if you feel so inclined. You can even imagine the fear overwhelming you and doing its worst (knowing, of course, that you will survive) — an especially helpful approach if you’re afraid of your fear, as so many people are. Facing your fear directly without trying to get rid of it or escape from it requires tremendous courage; yet these practices also have the capacity to bring you into the present moment and open your heart to your own vulnerability.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Meditating with anger

After practicing meditation regularly for several years in my twenties, I prided myself on being consistently calm and even-tempered and never getting angry. Then one day, my girlfriend at the time confessed that she’d had an affair with another man! Without hesitating, I picked up a cup from the table and threw it against the wall. I remember being startled by the sudden intensity of my emotions. One moment I seemed perfectly peaceful, and the next moment I was flying into a rage. My anger may have been appropriate to the circumstances, but I certainly hadn’t expressed it skillfully. Humbled, I headed back to the meditation cushion for some deeper investigation — after breaking up with my girlfriend, of course.
Many people, especially women, have a taboo against getting angry because they weren’t allowed to express their anger, even as children. So they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to skirt around the feeling. Other people seem as though they’re perpetually seething with current anger and old resentments, although they may not realize it themselves. When you meditate with your anger, you might begin by noticing where and how you experience it in your body. Where do you find yourself tensing and contracting? What happens to your breathing? Where do you notice a buildup of energy? How does it affect softer emotions? As you continue to be aware of your anger, do you notice it shifting or changing in any way? How long does it last? Does it have a beginning and an end?
Next, you can turn your attention to your mind. What kinds of thoughts and images accompany the angry feelings? Do you find yourself blaming other people and defending yourself? If you investigate further and peel back the initial layer of anger, what do you find underneath? In my experience, anger generally arises in response to one of two deeper emotions: hurt or fear. When you’re hurt, as I was by my girlfriend’s betrayal, you may lash out in anger against the one you believe hurt you. And when you’re afraid, you may protect yourself with the sword and armor of anger rather than acknowledge your fear, even to yourself. Beneath the hurt and fear, anger generally masks an even deeper layer of attachment to having things be a certain way. When circumstances change or don’t go according to plan, you feel hurt or afraid and then angry in response.
With anger, as with all emotions, set aside any judgment or resistance you might have and face the anger directly. You may find that it becomes more intense before it releases, but stay with it. Beneath the anger may lie deep wellsprings of power, which you may eventually discover how to evoke without getting angry.

How to Meditate with Challenging Emotions

As a psychotherapist, meditator, and meditation teacher, I’ve discovered a thing or two over the years about how people relate to the mysterious and sometimes formidable world of human emotions. For one thing, many people believe they have a Pandora’s box of ugly, disgusting emotions like rage, jealousy, hatred, and terror hidden inside them, and they’re afraid that if they open it up, these demonic energies will overwhelm them and those they love. For another thing, they tend to think that these “negative” feelings are bottomless and irresolvable, and they’re better off avoiding them, no matter how painful it may be to hold them in.
Unfortunately, you pay a steep price indeed if you spend your life resisting and denying your feelings. Unacknowledged negative feelings can impede the flow of more positive feelings like love and joy. As a result, you may end up feeling lonely because you lack close emotional contact with others, and you may be unable to give and receive love when you have an opportunity to do so. In addition, negative feelings that build up inside you tend to cause stress, suppress the immune system, and contribute to stress-related ailments like ulcers, cancer, and heart disease. They also hold valuable life energy that you might otherwise channel in constructive or creative ways. Besides, emotions that are persistently suppressed and denied have an annoying habit of bursting forth inappropriately, when you least expect them, prompting you to do and say things you may later regret.
Of course, some people go to another extreme and seem to be so completely awash in powerful emotional reactions that they can’t make simple decisions or carry on a rational conversation. But these people aren’t really experiencing their emotions, they’re indulging them and allowing them to run their lives. Meditation offers you an alternative way of relating with your emotions. Instead of suppressing, indulging, or exploding, you can directly experience your emotions as they are — as an interplay of thoughts, images, and sensations. When you’ve become skillful at following your breath and expanding your awareness to include the flow of thoughts and feelings — which may take months or even years — you can focus your attention on particular emotions that you find challenging or problematic and develop penetrating insight into the nature of the experience.
Instead of being bottomless or endless, as some people fear, you may find that even the most powerful emotions come in waves that have a limited duration when you experience them fully. As one of my teachers used to say, “What you resist persists” — and what you welcome has a tendency to let go and release. (See the sidebar “Facing your demons” later in this chapter.) Here are some guidelines for exploring a few of the most common emotions. Although feelings come in many shapes and sizes, I’ve found that they’re all more or less variants or combinations of a few basic ones: anger, fear, sadness, joy, excitement, and desire. (In my view, love is deeper than emotion; it’s a fundamental expression of being itself.) Just as an artist’s rich palette of colors can ultimately be broken down into cyan, magenta, and yellow, the difficult or challenging emotions like jealousy, guilt, boredom, and depression are combinations (or reactions) to four basic feelings: anger, fear, sadness, and desire.

Welcoming whatever arises

When you become accustomed to including sensations, thoughts, and feelings in your meditation, you can open your awareness gates wide and welcome whatever arises, without judgment or resistance. Imagine that your mind is like the sky, and inner and outer experiences come and go like clouds. At first, you may find your attention drawn here and there, exploring one object and then another. You don’t have to control your attention in any way; just allow it to wander where it will, from thoughts to sensations to feelings and back again.
Eventually, you may have periods in your meditation when your mind feels spacious and expanded and doesn’t seem to be disturbed by thoughts, feelings, or outside distractions. Whatever you experience, just keep opening your awareness and welcoming whatever comes. A note of caution, however: This practice, though supremely simple, is actually quite advanced and requires well-developed powers of concentration to sustain. It’s also difficult to teach — rather like riding a bicycle. First, you have to discover what it feels like to hold your balance; then you just keep returning to the balance point whenever you start to fall off.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Naming your experience

As you expand your meditation to include thoughts and feelings, you may find it helpful to practice naming, or noting, your experience. Begin with mindful awareness of your breath and then start silently naming the in-breath and out-breath. When you get really quiet and focused, you may even want to include subtleties such as “long breath,” “short breath,” “deep breath,” “shallow breath,” and so on.
Keep the naming simple and subdued, like a gentle, nonjudgmental voice in the back of your mind. As Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says in his book A Path with Heart, give “ninety-five percent of your energy to sensing each experience, and five percent to a soft name in the background.” When you become adept at naming your breath, you can extend the practice to any strong sensations, thoughts, or feelings that draw your attention away from your breath. For example, as you follow and name your breath, you may find your focus interrupted by a prominent emotion. Name this experience softly and repeatedly for as long as it persists — “sadness, sadness, sadness” or “anger, anger, anger” — then gently return your attention to your breath. Take the same approach with thoughts, images, and mind-states: “planning, planning,” “worrying, worrying,” or “seeing, seeing.” Use the simplest words you can find, and focus on one thing at a time. This practice helps you gain a little perspective or distance from your constantly changing inner experience, instead of becoming lost in the torrent. By naming particular thoughts and emotions, you’re also acknowledging that they exist. As I mentioned earlier, we often attempt to suppress or deny experiences we deem undesirable or unacceptable, such as anger, fear, judgment, or hurt. But the more you try to hide from your experience, the more it can end up governing your behavior, as Freud so wisely pointed out more than a century ago.
Naming allows you to shine the penetrating light of awareness into the recesses of your heart and mind and invite your thoughts and feelings to emerge from their hiding place, into the light of day. You may not like what you encounter at first — but then you can name your self-judgments and selfcriticisms as well. Ultimately, you may notice that you’re not surprised anymore by what you discover about yourself — and the more you make friends with your own apparent shortcomings and frailties, the more you can open your heart to the imperfections of others as well.

Embracing your thoughts and feelings

When you’re familiar with following your breath and expanding your awareness to include sensations, you can expand your awareness even further to include thoughts, images, memories, and feelings. As with sensations, begin by following your breath and then allow yourself to explore a thought or feeling when it becomes so strong that it draws your attention to it. When it no longer predominates in your field of awareness, gently return to your breath.
Of course, if you’ve been meditating for a while, you may have noticed that you’re constantly being carried away by the torrent of thoughts and feelings that flood through your mind. One moment you’re counting or following your breaths or practicing your mantra, the next moment you’re mulling over a conversation you had yesterday or planning tomorrow’s dinner. It’s as though you had inadvertently boarded a boat and suddenly found yourself several miles downstream. When this happens, you simply need to notice that you’ve wandered and immediately return to where you began. Now, however, instead of viewing this dimension of your experience as a distraction, you’re going to include it in your meditation with mindful awareness. When you find your attention wandering off into a thought or feeling, be aware of what you’re experiencing until it loses its intensity; then gently return to your primary focus.