When we sit down to meditate, all sorts of emotions will arise. Emotions and feelings that we might have not allowed ourselves to feel fully and acknowledge will present themselves: pain from past traumas, early childhood and family pain, grief from dashed expectations and hopes, present fears.
Jack Kornfield says: “if you have not cried during meditation, then you have not meditated enough.”
“Our task during meditation is to acknowledge all our feelings, recognize them, let them move through us, and allow them to sing their song” (Jack Kornfield)
In this article, we will explore how mindfulness teaches us to bring a kind attention to our emotions, so we can name them, make space for them, and allow them to move through us. Taking the time to practice mindfulness of your emotions will help you to become clearer and more free to choose your actions in each moment, without letting your emotions control you…
How we relate to our emotions
Growing up, we receive all types of messages around our emotions, depending on our family of origin, culture, society, race etc…We learn that some feelings are okay and some are not. For example, men should not cry, or women should not get angry…
Accordingly, we may feel wrong for feeling a certain way, and certain emotions can be difficult to feel. I shouldn’t feel like this. I shouldn’t be angry. I shouldn’t feel fear…
You might like to take a moment to reflect on which emotions were allowed in your family and which ones were not. Become curious about the messages that you have received, for example when there was a stressful event happening.
And now, reflect on the emotions you experience in your present life that may be out of your comfort zone. How do you handle these emotions? And notice if there is a link with the messages you received growing up.
Becoming aware of our emotions
A useful practice to acknowledge our feelings is to name them as they arise. This practice of naming helps to give us a certain perspective over our feelings without getting caught in them. It starts to create some space around the feeling, and stops us from identifying with the feeling.
It can be helpful to play with that a bit depending on how you relate to your emotions:
If you tend to feel things intensely, or get caught up in your emotion, you might try depersonalising it to get more perspective like “this is calm”, “this is anger”, “this is fear”.
On the other hand, if you tend to avoid your emotions, you might try stating them in a more personal way, to help you connect with the experience, feel it a little more. “I am calm”, “I am feeling anxious”, “I feel frustrated”.
As you learn to make more space for your emotions, you might start to notice your emotional playlist: you might ask yourself, what are the top three emotions that keep cycling through my playlist?
It is also helpful to explore the felt sense of the emotion in the body. We might ask ourselves: where do I feel it in the body? how does it feel?
You will notice that each emotion has a particular signature or energy in the body, for example anger brings constriction, heat, rush of energy and burning; joy brings lightness, openness, expansion; sadness brings collapsing, sinking, coolness, tightness. You might notice what shape the body takes with the emotion. When we observe the emotion in this way, it does not control us.
Sometimes, when we start meditating regularly and paying attention to our emotional life, it seems that things are getting worse, we notice a lot of anger, or sadness, or frustration or fear. It does not mean that we are getting angrier, or more sad, it means that we are better able to feel and notice emotions that were already happening in the background. Our mindfulness and self-awareness grow with practice.
So we name the feelings softly as they arise, for example fear, grief, anger, rage…. as though bowing to them, letting them know we have recognized them. Not trying to ignore them, bury them or change them.
We make space for them, we allow ourselves to feel them fully in our body and our heart, by bringing a kind attention to the sensations in the body associated with those emotions. We surround each feeling with our loving acceptance, saying yes to it, it’s ok to feel this, this belongs.
As we go through this process of listening deeply to the song of each feeling, what we find is that they don’t stay forever: as Jack Kornfield writes “rage turns into sorrow, sorrow turns into tears, tears may fall for a long time, but then the sun comes out.”
So we simply observe what happens as we bring a loving presence to each emotion: Does it get more or less intense? Does it vanish or disappear or change into a different emotion? Sometimes just asking that question can be enough to dissolve our reaction to the emotion.
Facing difficult emotions: staying within our window of tolerance
If an emotion is too strong and overwhelming, it is not helpful to remain aware of it, because we keep reacting to it. During practice, we need to be able to recognise where our limit is, and to pull back as needed.
When the weather is really stormy, we take shelter somewhere , and we wait the storm out. That’s the same thing with our emotions. Our practice involves recognising when it is too much and skilfully placing our attention somewhere else to find balance and build resilience and balance, away from the emotion.
It is useful to practice these tools when things are relatively calm for us so they are easily available to us when we really need them..
During meditation practice, if we find ourselves getting overwhelmed by a strong emotion, our options to find balance are:
- To bring our attention to the sensations in our hands or in our feet, letting go of our awareness of the breath and of the rest of the body. We simply feel our hands or feet from the inside out, noticing the changing the sensations there. It can be really grounding to have a place like that to rest our attention in the face of something really difficult or challenging. It helps to take us out of the spin of the story into something concrete, tangible and neutral.
- Sometimes, an emotion is so intense that even being at the periphery of the body is too close, it’s like there’s a magnetic pull to the emotion and we keep getting sucked in. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to widen the field of our attention even more. Noticing the sounds around us, inside and outside. Just connecting our attention with the experience of hearing.
Or else, opening the eyes slowly during the meditation and connecting with the experience of seeing. Keeping the gaze soft and unfocussed at first, making sure that you can still feel yourself sitting as you open the eyes. Becoming curious about the experience of seeing. Then slowly moving your gaze around the room and noticing what’s there, noticing the objects, the colours, the shapes…if your eyes want to linger on something in particular, let them rest there and take in all the visual details.
When we connect with our environment through our senses, it helps to ground our nervous system, and take us out of the spin of a strong emotion, painful story or difficult inner experience.
- Taking a few slow full breaths to calm down the nervous system
- Finding external sources of support, for example asking for help, calling a friend, engaging in regular healthy activities that nourish us such as exercise, reading, hobbies…
Self-compassion is another essential quality that can help us get through difficult emotions and experiences. Self-compassion is being a good friend towards ourselves, being able to bring some care and tenderness towards ourselves, by recognising that we are going through a hard time, and that it is not personal but part of our human experience. Many of us are pretty hard on ourselves, we judge ourselves, criticize ourselves, blame ourselves. Most of us treat our friends a lot better than we treat ourselves. And at first it can feel a bit artificial and awkward to offer this care to ourselves. We each have to find our own ways of doing it that feel genuine and natural. You can ask yourself, how would a good friend relate to this? It’s about showing up for ourselves in times of difficulty.
It can help to whisper some phrases of comfort and care towards ourselves, such as “it’s hard for me right now”, “I will get through this”, “I am here and I care”, “it will be okay”, “I’m doing the best I can”… or any other words that work for you.
Sometimes a gesture of comfort towards oneself like placing the hand on one’s heart or cheek can help. It is okay to experiment with this and see what works for you, during meditation practice.
When we take the time to stop and quiet ourselves, we begin to tune in to these very rich feelings that we all carry, and as we open to them, it allows us to live with a greater understanding, a fullness of being and a greater wisdom. The point is not to stop feelings, nor to react to each one, but it’s to know the feelings that arise with loving awareness, and to decide how to respond to those feelings.
Jack Kornfield – A Path with Heart
Oren Jay Sofer – Emotions in Ten Percent Happier