Monday, February 28, 2011

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.

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