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.