Strong Emotions & Meditation Practice

July 2, 2012   |   23 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

One of the very big misconceptions about meditation practice is that it will help you not to feel things too strongly—except for maybe peace, goodwill, and bliss (whatever that means). Eventually perhaps this will become true, but for most us, when strong feelings—especially strong negative feelings—are encountered, we view this as a failure of our practice. Like, if I was better at meditation, I could avoid becoming enraged when called an asshole by another driver (who was the asshole in this case, let’s face it) or the fact that my neighbor’s dog poops on my lawn every single day. I could avoid sorrow when my love is unrequited or I find that a dear friend is ill. I could avoid anxiety when I have to find a new job or have a scary appointment with the doctor.

In the sort of spiritually materialistic world we live in, we could find many suggestions for how to achieve such a state of implacability. Some of them are about avoiding dangerous situations (physical, emotional, spiritual) altogether by just staying home. Some direct you to assert yourself in the face of difficulty by taking strong action, fighting back. Some revolve around restructuring the way your mind works so that you only think the thoughts that make you happy and are thus able to “attract” good things—or, when bad things happen, you replace your sad and weary thoughts with perkier, brighter ones.

There is nothing wrong with making efforts along these lines. It is vitally important that we take precautions against danger by safeguarding ourselves on all levels. We should react boldly when it is called for. And of course we should examine our thoughts for self-sabotage and try to craft an inner environment of joy and positivity.

However. If we do so with the intention of creating a life where anger, sorrow, and fear have no place, then I’m afraid we will be quite disappointed.

My dear friends. Please know that I wish for you only peace, joy, and love. But it is impossible to avoid the sorrows of being human and actually, if it were, we would cease to be human. At the core of anger is great vitality. At the heart of sorrow is love. Underneath fear is sadness, which is soft and workable. When you turn toward anger, sorrow, and fear, in some way you are gaining access to vitality, love, and great tenderness. You can’t separate them.

It would be a very small being indeed who could tolerate only the so-called positive feelings. You are capable of a vast range of emotion and connecting with this storehouse also connects you to poetry, passion, and your own brand of utter brilliance. We have a choice: feel it all or go home.

So it behooves us greatly to learn to meet our difficult emotions and our meditation practice can help in two ways:

First, by teaching you how to sit (literally) with yourself as you think, feel, and experience whatever arises, always returning to breath, you learn to ride the waves of grasping, aggression, and avoidance with equanimity—not by ignoring them, but by allowing them to be exactly as they are. You are bigger than any particular feeling state and their is nothing you cannot contain.

Second, your meditation practice gives you a tool for encountering the strong emotions that you simply cannot let go of, no way, no how. Sometimes it happens during practice that deep, deep emotions arise and it is not possible (or advisable) to “just let them go.” In this case, your can slightly alter the meditation technique for as long as you need to. Rather than making your breath the object of awareness (as it is in classical shamatha practice), you could make your emotion the object of awareness. Not the story of the emotion (I feel this way because…. I wouldn’t feel this way if… I could stop feeling this if only…) but the feeling of the feeling: the heat or chill or constriction or weight of it. Make that the object of awareness and, when it strays, which it will, just as in normal shamatha practice, bring it back. Place your attention on your feeling over and over until it begins to dissolve—and then come back to breath.

In this way, as meditators, we are learning to create a world for ourselves where we are unafraid of anger. Unafraid of sadness. Unafraid of fear. It’s not that we don’t feel such things, but they do not knock us down. This is a far more expansive, joyful, and humane way to live. And, as Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa writes in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. “The key to warriorship is not being afraid of who you are. Ultimately, that is the definition of bravery.”

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  • Posted by:  Kylie

    What you’ve just explained is something it took me a good long time to understand about meditation. But, of course, I can always stand to hear it again, and in different ways, so thank you for sharing this so clearly.
    Through this understanding, meditation has become probably my most potent tool in the face of my biggest emotional distress. When I feel truly hopeless or overwhelmed, those are the moments in which, if I’m lucky, I remember to return to meditation. I’m always grateful for reminders to do that. Thanks, Susan. ♥

    • Posted by:  susan

      So glad this was useful, Kylie.

  • Posted by:  Tammy

    You hit the nail on the head. Again. I have been mired in anger these past few days and feeling like a failure as a meditator. I have not known how to reconcile the two — anger and meditation — but you have set out the solution quite clearly. Not only that, it’s a solution I can actually do. I love you. I love Shambhala Buddhism. I have finally found a path that makes sense and a guide to lead me down it.
    Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.
    ♡ Tammy

    • Posted by:  susan

      Tammy, it is so great how fully and naturally you respond to the teachings. It is so fortunate to find a way that makes sense! i am very glad for you. Love, S

      • Posted by:  Tammy

        Follow up:

        So, after three days of avoiding meditation because of this overwhelming anger, I spent the night of dreaming about one of the situations causing the anger. I woke up thinking, “What a waste of time and energy trying to manage (control) that situation in order to avoid the pain of it, which I can’t do anyway.”

        I hit the cushion with the intention of giving up the story and being with the emotion. I let go of the story, ready for that oh-so-familiar tangled knot of anger, and guess what?

        Nothing was there.


        No anger. No story. Just breath and random thoughts about the weather and if I really need a wireless keyboard.

        What a beautiful day!

        (Decided yes on the keyboard, in case you were wondering.)

  • Posted by:  Elizabeth McLean

    Clearly, eloquently, and movingly put. My heart opened toward all who feel deeply and seek a path through the overwhelm. In my experience, the path you describe is the most direct and beneficial way. Thanks, as always, for generously sharing your insights.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Hi Elizabeth! So glad this touched you. Hope you’re well! xo Susan

  • Posted by:  Christine

    Thank you, thank you! This truly spoke to my heart! I have found that so many Buddhists believe that “the path” is about finding “happiness” – or “cultivating joy” as if individual happiness is the “goal” of the “spiritual path.” My *very recent* experience is that we are truly happy and joyful when we are not afraid of *passionately* being who we are – passionately feeling what we feel, which means accepting the totality of who we are – which you so eloquently just said! 🙂 Now I’m off to watch the video! With Gratitude!

    • Posted by:  Tammy

      I love your summary: “*passionately* being who we are – passionately feeling what we feel, which means accepting the totality of who we are…”
      Thanks for that!

  • Posted by:  tara

    This resonated for me deeply.
    Thank you for the clear and beautiful articulation of these concepts.
    in gratitude- Tara

    • Posted by:  susan

      So glad to hear it, Tara.

  • Posted by:  DK

    This was exactly why I couldn’t keep going to the Zen center. I felt I was surrounded by spiritual bypassers who wanted to erase themselves and replace themselves with the perfect idealized Buddha. I was looking for people who wanted to be present, and instead I found people who really fundamentally wanted the opposite.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Here’s to being human.

  • Posted by:  blue girl

    Hi Susan,

    Just wanted to say Thank You. I have been meditating with you for a little over a month now, and it’s been wonderful in so many ways. Found you through the indispensable Patti Digh. And for that, I Thank Her, too.

    Thank you again. Peace to you!

    • Posted by:  susan

      And to you! Any friend of Patti’s is a pal of mine. xo S

  • Posted by:  Hilary

    Thank you, Susan! For expressing the principle of the thing, but especially the practical element of how to handle emotions in meditation.

    The idea that meditation should make us free of negative emotions sounds a bit like the idea that divination should enable us to avoid negative experiences – when surely both are more a way of opting in more completely, rather than opting out?

    • Posted by:  susan

      Beautifully said.

  • Posted by:  Jerome Stone

    Dear Susan –

    Thank you for addressing the emotional component of an aware mind and an open heart.

    Indeed, it can be more tempting to run into the arms of some promise of a life free from the emotional ups and downs of daily life. And it can feel great, even “blissful,” to sit on a meditation cushion, away from the hardships of a fully-engaged life.

    I know that for me, the anesthetic of an emotionally-free and contrived meditation is alluring…daily! A dumbed-down, numbed-out sort of fog can seem preferable to a life full the rich fertilizer (shit?) that is the emotional life of the heart and mind.

    You wrote, “But it is impossible to avoid the sorrows of being human and actually, if it were, we would cease to be human. At the core of anger is great vitality. At the heart of sorrow is love. Underneath fear is sadness, which is soft and workable. When you turn toward anger, sorrow, and fear, in some way you are gaining access to vitality, love, and great tenderness. You can’t separate them.” That’s alchemy! That’s the magic of a mind that can rest within the equanimity of non-grasping, while the winds of strong emotions blow about us. Like sitting inside by a cozy fire while the thunder and lightning boom outside.

    Thanks for your ongoing and wonderful content, guidance and wisdom, based on the presence of mind and the openness of heart.

    Just a note here, I find it delightfully synchronous that I’d just posted similar article titled, How To Meditate: Don’t Focus on the Emotion, ( on the blog: Minding the Bedside. I’m going to link your most wonderful post to my site that my readers may benefit from what you have to offer.

    May all that you do bring immeasurable benefit to countless beings.

    Warm regards,

    Jerome Stone

    • Posted by:  susan

      Thanks, Jerome!

  • Posted by:  Mary Ellen Bratu

    Dear Susan.

    Found you through Seth Goden. I am a practicing psychologist and practicing meditator and appreciate how clearly you describe the relationship we might come to have with powerful negative emotions.

    So much of my earlier training in my doctoral program focused on assisting the client in coming to understand the sources of these emotions and also on best strategies for *managing* them. While I see the merits in those vantage points, I’m increasingly convinced that meditation offers the client (and myself!) a place to occupy that isn’t about understanding or about *fixing* but more about being with and knowing that, whatever it is, it can be survived.

    Particularly when it comes to early life trauma, there’s a notion in my field that suggests that whatever we fear we cannot survive we already have. That the client is here, now, discussing and feeling all of this is proof positive that it was indeed survived. Meditation can offer a vital place to be with all that which allows for a comfortable distance, a space from which to watch it all, and continue on, surviving.

    Many blessing to you for your offerings here. Glad to know about you and your work. Will look forward to reading your blog.

    Be well,
    Mary Ellen

    • Posted by:  susan

      Mary Ellen, it is lovely to meet you and I appreciate your view of what can truly help in the healing process. Stay in touch! S.

  • Posted by:  Clara Boza

    Susan, this is a post that I will share with people who ask about meditation and Buddhism. It took me a while to learn what you’ve articulated so clearly here. When I did, I felt relieved that it was “ok” to feel the range of feelings that as humans we’re bound to experience, and that the gift was the space to help me respond rather than react to the first rush of feeling. This was great news: that I didn’t need to be afraid of my feelings and that I didn’t need to be overwhelmed by them.

    Thanks for this.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Clara, I’m so glad this was useful. And it is wonderful that your practice is connecting you to your own humanity and informing the way you respond. That IS great news.

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