Strong emotions during meditation: what to do?

Usually, when it comes to most feelings that arise during practice, we are able to basically let them go and return attention to the breath. We can get enough space around our feelings to see them, release them, and come back.

But what about those times when you are unable to do this? Are you just supposed to redouble the effort to label all emotions, “thinking” and let go?

Sometimes this is just impossible. Sometimes, a tide of emotion may arise that seems impossible to separate yourself from. Anger or grief or frustration are so strong that you can’t find any space around them from which to observe them. They take over and seem absolutely impenetrable.

This is no problem, my friends. I’m not saying it feels good, but it is truly workable. Here are a few suggestions.

Should emotion arise to the point where you are simply unable to attend to the breath and find yourself pushing the emotion away over and over(rather than releasing it, here is my suggestion.

Let go of the breath as the object of your awareness and replace it with the emotion itself.

In other words, rather than placing attention on breath and, when it strays, drawing it back, please attention on your emotion. Here is what I mean by this:

Place your attention on the feeling itself, not the story behind the feeling.

I put that in italics because that is how important it is. We don’t use italics lightly around here at the Open Heart Project. ;-)

What this means is to find the emotion in your body. Does it make your shoulders hunch? Your stomach queasy? Does the emotion feel heated or icy? Is your heart pounding or your brain numb? This is what is meant by feeling. Place your attention on it as you would on your breath and, when it strays, bring it back. Place your attention on the emotion over and over, not to drive it away or analyze it or change it, but simply to be with it.

This, it turns out, is a gesture of friendship. And when we feel terrible, such friendship means everything.

What is not advised is to place attention on the story behind the feeling: “If only I hadn’t done this or that,” “I deserve this because I am an ass,” “This is all her fault,” “I will never find love,” “I am doomed to failure,” “If I can just get rid of this person/job/skin condition/haircut, everything will be okay,” and so on. Not that. This is considered thinking and thus a distraction from feeling.

Interestingly, rather than meditation making you immune to feeling to turn you into someone who is perpetually unperturbed, undisturbed, dispassionate, “unattached,” and so on, it actually does something way cooler. Rather than becoming immune, meditation helps you open to what you feel with gentleness and courage. Although it can be frightening, this openness is actually the gateway to authenticity, which is everything.

Look, we’re just human beings here. The intention of our practice is not to help us transcend the human condition but rather to dive into it in order to live our lives fully, deeply, fiercely. When we embrace our aliveness, we can explore our creativity, be delighted and confounded by it, have our hearts broken by love and the loss of love and the return of love, fulfill our singular mission, and discover the truth of who we really are.

So rather than thinking of emotion as a distraction or some kind of sign that our practice is failing, we could see emotion as a path in and of itself.

Thoughts? I always love to hear what you think.

Please practice!

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26 Comments

  1. Eli { 09.24.12 at 9:13 pm }

    “Look, we’re just human beings here.” I love it when you say stuff like that.

    • susan { 09.24.12 at 9:15 pm }

      smiley face!

    • Terrie { 09.25.12 at 12:11 pm }

      Me too! I am beginning to hear your voice, Susan, in my head when something happens and I would normally yell at myself. I love its soothing compassion. Thank you.

      • Colleen Hannegan { 12.17.12 at 6:14 pm }

        ME as well, Terrie~ I hear Susan in my head. I like the way she says “Let’s do our Practice!”

  2. Philippe { 09.25.12 at 3:32 am }

    I love the feeling of practicing together, no matter I am in France … and you in an other time and place. And I love too the authenticity of your being there …
    Thank you so much
    (and thank you to Jonathan Fields through whom I came to discover you )

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:14 pm }

      This is so great, Phillipe! It is so good to practice together and it’s great to know we do so across time zones and continents.

  3. Kongsaeng Chris Everson { 09.25.12 at 3:38 am }

    I have been working on something similar to what you say and you might find this interesting. Why don’t we put our attention on the stories?
    Make friends with our stories? I call it thinking practice, otherwise known as comtemplation meditation. I have found it to be of great benefit to me, and I do it along with breath awareness, and feeling awarenesss. What do you think?

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:16 pm }

      Thinking practice and contemplation are excellent, fantastic. But they are not shamatha. While all these practices are wonderful, it is best not to mix them. My suggestion is to do them sequentially and keep them distinct. But it is totally up to you.

  4. Orly { 09.25.12 at 6:57 am }

    I am sooo much on the same page as Chris. I believe that what comes in- must come out, in order to crete inner freedom.our body is so amazing that with the breath plus the scanner..we allow our inner bandaids to be eliminated at our own pace. When you touch it, feel it and sometimes, cry it out- we allow ourselves proper healing and a path to a balanced life. Many times, we have to re visit that place again and again…….. Because our emotions are not puzzle pieces :)))

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:18 pm }

      All of this is wonderful, Orly! But please don’t forget to label what arises during practice as “thinking” and return to the breath. Before or after practice, it is great to think it all through!! Beyond great, even–it’s essential. xo S

  5. nan { 09.25.12 at 3:59 pm }

    An especial thank you for this timely message on emotions. Just what I needed.

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:18 pm }

      Glad to hear it, Nan.

  6. roxy { 09.26.12 at 12:13 am }

    Susan,

    My experience with bad emotions have been difficult. I get very anxious when I feel a bad emotion for example anger and frustration. I have difficulty facing someone difficult and with attitude. How should I respond to somebody that complains all the time about everything.

    Also, I would like to buy your meditation on Itunes. Would you please let me know how to search your meditation so I can put them in my Ipod.

    Thanks so much!
    Roxy

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:20 pm }

      Hi Roxy. I wish I could give you advice on dealing with anxiety and difficult people, but all I can suggest is a regular meditation practice. Somehow, this is very helpful.

      My meditations aren’t for sale in iTunes. You should be able to “right-click” them and save them to your desktop. If this doesn’t make sene of is confusing, please as someone who understands these things for help!!

      xo S

  7. Tracey { 09.26.12 at 8:47 am }

    I’m so glad you addressed this. Sometimes I think I am failing because I am unable to “transcend the human condition.” Now, I can work to accept that I am human and “see emotion as a path in and of itself.” You express deep things so clearly. Thank you.

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:20 pm }

      This is so ideal, Tracey. Thank YOU.

  8. Joanna { 09.26.12 at 10:26 am }

    Thank you for offering this practice, I am very grateful, it is very timely for me, isn’t it funny how that so often happens? I was googling something else, and found your website. Thank you. I have a question though – what is the purpose of keeping the eyes open? I have a hard time with it, find that I have many more distracting thoughts while my eyes are open, and find it much easier to pull my mind into a quiet place with my eyes closed. Is it ok if I keep them closed during your practices, or do you recommend I keep trying with them open? I find myself fighting to keep them open, they just want to close so I can go inward!

    • susan { 09.27.12 at 3:21 pm }

      Both eyes-open and eyes-closed practices are good. The practice I teach is an eyes-open one. Please check this video to see why and let me know what you think!

      https://vimeo.com/45061437

  9. David Brostrom { 09.29.12 at 3:10 am }

    I love and agree with the concept that attending directly to the Emotion that wells up (and wants to stay) with a deep & focused intent of Friendship can bring the most profound results.

    • susan { 09.29.12 at 7:30 am }

      wonderful…

  10. Mary { 01.30.13 at 12:03 pm }

    Hi Susan
    I was breathing very shallowly and felt quite anxious. When I placed my attention on my clenched stomach it began to soften and my breathing relaxed! Thank you, Susan for this way of meditating with strong feelings. It helped a lot!

    • susan { 01.30.13 at 12:05 pm }

      So glad it was helpful!

  11. Jo-Ann { 03.05.14 at 3:28 pm }

    Hi… That was so helpful. I was abused in the past and I live in constant emotional turmoil. It honestly feels like a typhoon of mixed emotions in my chest. One of my friends suggested meditation and as soon as i tried I began to feel this turmoil and I’d just start to cry and then repress it more and more… reject it more and more… till I loose all concentration. I tried again today and this time by guided meditation. At first I was relaxed but as soon as the teacher said be aware of being open something inside me just kicked the idea away and said I’m not open and the session went south. What you advised seems easy but is it? To separate those emotions from the reasoning? Because when I start meditating I see the arguments without sound and feel the pain… I just need some guidance… Thanks

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