Meditating with Strong Emotion

When we get into position to meditate, we bring our lives with us.  The full turbulence of our thoughts and feelings accompany our efforts to settle down and focus.  It can help to see our emotional state as part of what naturally hinders mindfulness, but which can also be a valuable part of our practice.

Emotion doesn’t need to be something we fight against in order to meditate.  We can bring an accepting attention to it just as we would do with a physical sensation that dominates our awareness, like pain or pleasure.  The acceptance itself is something to be cultivated.  Whenever we allow ourselves to be fully present with our emotions, we grow in love and understanding.

There is a skill we need in order to do this, and gaining that skill just takes a bit of practice.  We need to keep our attention on the way the emotion feels – physically – and not keep stoking it by reviewing the “story” behind it.  The Buddha compared that way of feeding emotion to standing beside a wild fire and throwing logs onto it.  Both the mind and body need to process the reaction we’ve already had to whatever has happened.  That processing is most efficiently done by breathing through sensations in the body, staying with that experience like someone compassionately present with a friend in the hospital without trying to figure out or fix the situation.

Usually, the story behind our feelings will be evident enough without our focusing on it.  As we meditate, letting the sensations of our feelings wash through our awareness, the cause of any suffering involved will probably become evident.  Most likely, events have brought a gain of something we’ve desired, or a threat to something we didn’t want to lose.   If we can see that cause and effect relationship without further grasping or aversion, our minds and hearts can rest in equanimity as the emotion runs its course. 

By doing this, we practice with the core of Buddhist teachings.  We develop an ability to let go, to accept and be present with the truth of the moment, and to see that truth clearly with a tranquil mind.  This is what living mindfully is essentially about.

Then the bell will ring and we will return to the flow of events in our lives.  The equanimity we had during meditation will take a number of hits, and fade.  But each time we reach equanimity, our capacity for it grows, and we have learned the route to it.  Eventually we’ll blaze a pathway through the tangle of our emotions, and be able to feel deeply in our daily lives without losing our way.

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