“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
–Thích Nhất Hạnh
Many people don’t notice emotions when they practice mindfulness, but, for others, strong emotions may surface. When that happens, there is no need to be concerned that you’re meditating incorrectly. These strong emotions are totally natural!
They can, however, be a bit tricky to navigate. If you notice a strong emotion early enough and can bring your skills to bear on it, then it will often dissolve and you will experience the pleasantness and relief that comes with the dissolving. But if an emotion has built up or has triggered thoughts or other emotions, it’s likely going to get more intense before it dissolves. In these cases, as you turn your attention to it, the strength of that emotion is going to be magnified.
Do your best to bring equanimity, or acceptance, to bear on the rising wave of the emotion. Do your best not to fight with it and not to identify with it.
Often, when our minds are calm during meditation, we become aware of underlying emotions that we fail to recognize while we are preoccupied with thoughts. Emotions get unveiled during meditation because we’re no longer erecting a barrier to experiencing them.
If we’re not comfortable with a certain emotion, then we are likely to suppress or hold it back. If we’re getting caught in thoughts, chances are that emotions are driving the thinking, whether we realize it or not.
Whenever you detect emotions and discover that you have some resistance to them, do your best to drop the resistance. Allow yourself to fully experience the emotion, so that its energy may flow and serve to deepen your practice.
The moment you become aware of the emotion, mark it with a mental note.
For instance, if you find that you feel afraid, label the emotion “fear.” If you find you are sad, label the emotion “sad” or “grief.” If angry, label it “anger,” if joyful, “joy” or “happiness,” and so on. After noting the emotion for a brief period, perhaps a few seconds, continue to focus your awareness on where you notice emotions most strongly in your body. Take a few deep breaths to help calm your nervous system.
If the emotion comes up again, note it again. If you notice several emotions at once, simply use the label “mix,” and if you’re having trouble defining an emotion, just make your best guess. In this way, emotions become your object of focus.
Your meditation practice is the act of bringing Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity to your emotional life. This can be a fascinating and powerful way to practice. When you spot an emotion as it emerges, you can take interest in it, discovering it as it unfolds, moment by moment, without getting attached to it. At some point, you’ll notice that the feeling has weakened and then disappeared. In this way, you can re-engineer your relationship to it. You experience deeper tranquility, more energy, and a greater sense of well-being just by the way you skillfully focus on your emotions.
Whenever we experience challenging or unpleasant emotions, we tend to view them as obstacles in our meditation practice. But to achieve complete authenticity as a human being, we need to be able meet both pleasant and unpleasant emotions with equanimity. Mindfulness meditation provides techniques for experiencing strong emotions or feelings that we find difficult to manage and release.
Our practice of Unified Mindfulness helps by guiding us in how to approach, rather than avoid, any emotion that arises. Emotions, like thoughts, don’t last. With continuous meditation practice, you’ll discover that when you stay with the experience, after a moment, any emotion, pleasant or unpleasant, is surely going to diminish or pass away. An emotion can last only a short while before it dissolves. Yes, it may return, but it will just as surely disappear again. When you’re capable of allowing your awareness to track the comings and goings of any emotion, even the most challenging or unpleasant emotions will lose their grip on you.