Emotions and Your Meditation Practice

Have you considered that emotions are experienced physically in the body? We tend to think of our emotional responses as deeply connected to our mental activity, and they are. But, if you check in with your body when you’re having a strong emotion, whether joy, sadness, anger, or any other feeling, you may notice body sensations you can identify as being emotional in nature. Give this a try, to heighten your mindfulness skills.

When you’re able to detect emotions in your body, you increase your sensory clarity, which is one of the three core skills of mindfulness. As you become more aware of the emotional sensations in your body, you may be able to distinguish between the different types of emotions, as they happen.

You can think of this as a kind of emotional literacy. You’re learning how to “read” your emotional body experience, at any given time. When you do that well, feelings are less likely to get tangled together. When feelings get tangled together, we get overwhelmed. So, it can be very useful to detect emotions in the body and be able to make distinctions between the various types of emotional experience.

We can also recognize an emotional response as it happens, which puts us in a better position to practice equanimity (another core mindfulness skill) with the emotions we detect and manage our reactions more effectively. It’s difficult to manage a reaction when you’re not aware of the emotion triggering it.

Why Use Meditation to Work with Emotions?

Emotions are responses to our interpretation of inner and outer experiences. They are reactions to and in relationship with whatever arises in our environment, in our bodies (both pain and pleasure), and in our minds in the form of memory, planning, fantasy, person, place or thing.

Typically, we don’t get to choose what emotions we’re going to have!

However, our emotional life shifts over time, as we get clearer about the root causes of our reactions and responses. Because emotions are involuntary, they provide us with instantaneous feedback about how our interpretation of a scenario or individual is influencing our experience. But despite the useful information they provide, we often avoid our emotions. Many of us grew up in situations where, for whatever reason, it was not safe to feel how we felt. So to cope, we suppressed or repressed our feelings. When you do that over and over again it becomes a habit. Your mind and body are conditioned to do it.

Often, the emotions we experience in a given moment are associated not just with the current circumstance but also with our personal history. Past emotions that have not been resolved affect our emotional responses to conditions in the present.

A common strategy for managing emotions we don’t like is to reject them or act as if they are not there. We may imagine that in doing so, we can make them disappear.

I hate to break it to you!

Resisting our emotions dulls our vitality, stifles our appreciation of the joys of life, and prevents us from processing our emotions in a healthy way. It is essential, then, to welcome our emotional life into our meditation practice, if we are to maintain and deepen our sense of emotional well-being. The key is in learning how to manage the experience skillfully.

Unusual Physical Experience During Meditation

Speaking of involuntary reactions, sometimes when we practice meditation, we experience involuntary physical, as well as emotional, reactions.

Not everyone experiences physical reactions when they meditate, but when they do happen, people tend to be confused about what exactly is occurring.

An example of a relatively common physical reaction during meditation is what’s known as a “kriya.” A kriya is a jerk or spasm of the body that while not painful can be powerful. You may also experience light-headedness, a tickling sensation, muscle contractions, and other unconscious body movements. You may have many physical reactions or none at all.

These sensations that may seem odd or unusual are generally considered to be triggered by the release of tension and stress. You can think of them as part of the healing process that happens during meditation. As you deepen your practice, you develop a heightened awareness, and it is natural for things that were buried to start to surface.

As we meditate, we’re likely to grow more conscious of physical sensations. As we focus on our experience rather than using our minds as we normally would, sensations that typically go unnoticed can be magnified or brought to light.

Feel free to focus on physical sensations that come up, applying your skills directly to them. Or, let sensations be in the background as you focus your attention in other ways. In any case, don’t be concerned when unusual sensations come up. Just do your best to apply skillful attention.

Meditation is a lot like getting a massage. The therapist engages your muscles and releases stored tension. You might feel a little achy afterward and need to drink extra water, but you know it’s a positive, physical release. Your mindfulness skills can also bring about a positive physical release. So, again, there’s no cause for concern.

With the aid of mindfulness, we learn to notice how we are reacting to life, just by applying the skills of Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity. No matter what comes up, physically or emotionally, our meditation practice is the perfect response! Each and every moment is healing when you apply your skills and you always have choice around what to focus on. Be patient with your practice as it takes time to develop. Your life will start to shift in wonderful and therapeutic ways as you devote time to your practice, every day.