In mindfulness meditation practice, we are instructed to rest our attention on our breathing as a way to focus and stabilize our mind. This is an ancient and time-honored approach that clearly has relevance for those of us living in the modern world — often racing around, feeling stressed out, and having a hard time catching up with ourselves!
For those of us practicing in this way, several questions seem to come up over and over again — one of them is usually expressed something like this:
“I see the point of trying to develop more steadiness and ease in my state of mind. I am now able from time to time to notice myself thinking and bring my attention back to my breath, but when strong emotions come up in meditation, I do not seem to be able to let go of those so easily. They are captivating and disturbing, and are compelling me to look more deeply at their history and meaning. Should we really be using our meditation practice to shut down and stifle our emotions?”
This is a great question, and there are several issues involved that are well worth discussing.
First of all, it is not recommended to use meditation as a way of repressing our emotions (or thoughts for that matter) by forcibly silencing them in order to achieve a superficially imposed sense of peace and quiet. Many meditators have found that they are never really able to completely pacify their mind and that holding that as the goal only produces frustration and disappointment.
The approach of “just sit there and quiet your mind,” although commonly presented, is perhaps an over-simplification of the traditional method in which we:
1. Place our awareness on our breath.
2. Recognize what arises in our minds — without trying to manipulate, judge or suppress anything.
3. Simply see what arises in our mind as it comes up. Just notice it.
4. Then let go of the thoughts and return our awareness to the breath thereby coming back to the present moment.
This sequence is what we initiate repeatedly in our meditation session — as opposed to trying to stifle our thoughts and somehow magically hold on to that peaceful state. This more detailed method gives us some ground to work with — that being our mind as it is rather than as we wish it could be. We might find this practice more realistic, more workable, and more compassionate to ourselves. Of course it is up to each one of us to determine how we will proceed.
When it comes to experiencing strong emotions in our practice, it can be helpful to notice that what we call emotions really has two major components. One is the “story line”, which we do identify in our meditation practice as “thinking” and when we recognize it as such we are encouraged to let it go and return our awareness to our breathing and therefore to the present moment. The other component is actually energy that has a life beyond the “story line” — the energy and physical sensation of anger, passion, envy, pride, etc.
In meditation practice, we are encouraged to simply experience this energy and physical sensations as they are and not get involved with manipulating the “story line” or “content.” Just let the energy and sensations be there, be aware of them, without elaborating further. This way of experiencing our emotions is very powerful and may not map at all to our notion of peace and quiet.
These feelings, rather than being seen as problematic, can be seen to be completely natural and connected to what it means to be a human being. In more advanced meditation training the emotions can be “liberated” from ego-centric, repetitive “story lines” and experienced as a direct link to communication, appreciation of the inherent richness of our own being, and the penetrating quality of insight and wisdom.
So, we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Our emotions, rather than feeding stale and repetitive mental habits, can manifest as the very expressions of being alive and living fully in an authentic way. From that point of view we do not utilize our meditation practice to suppress our feelings and emotions but to liberate them, by becoming more familiar with how they arise, what they actually feel like beyond acting out or repressing them, and therefore working with them in a more constructive way.