Practice: Meditation on Calling Up Difficult Emotions
Sit comfortably or lie down, with your eyes closed or open. Center your attention on the feeling of the breath, wherever it’s easiest for you—just normal, natural breath. If it helps, use the mental note in, out or rising, falling.
After a few moments of following your breath, consciously bring to mind a difficult or troubling feeling or situation from the recent or distant past, a scenario that holds intense emotion for you—sadness, fear, shame, or anger. Take a moment to fully recall the situation. Doing that isn’t likely to feel comfortable, but stick with it. At any point, you can return to following your breath for respite.
What bodily sensations accompany the emotions this scenario calls up? See if you can tell where in your body you feel these emotions. When you observe the emotion that has arisen, does your mouth go dry? Are you breathing shallowly? Are you clenching your teeth? Is there a lump in your throat? Whatever is happening in your body, note it. If you can feel the emotion in the body (and we can’t always do that), it gives you a concrete way to disengage from the story and observe the emotion’s changing nature.
Bring your focus to the part of the body where those sensations are the strongest. You don’t have to do anything about them except be aware of them. Once your attention has moved to the bodily sensations, perhaps say to yourself, it’s okay; whatever it is, it’s okay; I can feel this without pushing it away or getting caught up in it. Stay with the awareness of the feelings in your body and your relationship to them, accepting them, letting them be, softening and opening to them. As you sit with them awhile, do the sensations change? How?
Remember that often what we are feeling is not just one emotion; grief may include moments of sorrow, moments of fear, of powerlessness, maybe even of relief, anticipation, or curiosity. See if you can break down the emotion into its component parts. Notice all the different things you feel. Are there any positive mind states mixed in with the mostly negative? Any negative mind states flavoring the positive? Staying with the feeling and untangling the various strands may lead you to realize that what you thought was a thick wall of misery is a constantly shifting combination of emotions. The perception alone makes the feelings more manageable.
You may notice yourself resisting these difficult emotions and the bodily sensations that accompany them—pushing them away and feeling ashamed of them. Or perhaps you find yourself getting pulled into them—replaying an argument, or reliving feelings of rage, helplessness, or humiliation.
Perhaps the emotions that the thought or situation call up are so upsetting that you start to cry. If you do, that’s okay; it’s part of your experience. You can become aware of how you’re relating to the tears—how your body reacts, what blend of emotions accompanies the crying, what stories you tell yourself about crying.
If you feel overwhelmed by emotions, use awareness of your breath to anchor your attention in your body. This helps you return to the present moment. If you find yourself thinking I will always feel this way, or If I were stronger/more patient/smarter/kinder I wouldn’t feel this way, return to the simple truth of the moment—sitting and being aware of your breath. See if you can recognize that the emotion is a temporary state, not your total self.
And when you are ready, open your eyes. Take a deep breath and relax.
During the day, if a difficult emotion arises, see if you can apply these skills of awareness to it.