Dealing With Emotions
Hi Roger, I have a question that I haven’t yet seen on your site. If other people might be interested, I’m wondering if you can kindly indulge me in the following.
During my meditation sessions (2x a day for 30 min), the main challenge I face is thinking and planning. No fiery emotions really arise. However, in my daily life, I find that I’m much more sensitive than ever. I’m more short tempered, testy, angry. Little things make chest pop, then burn.
I invite these feelings to arise during meditation so I can breathe through them but they don’t.
Is this a common problem? I thought meditation would help me be less reactive but I’m more reactive than ever. What am I doing wrong?
Good to hear from you, and a good question about a very subtle matter. It’s taken a while for me to formulate my response, but I hope it is worth the wait.
I too have noticed a similar occurrence, where I would experience uncomfortable emotion arising during the day which did not show itself as I was meditating – and I also have wondered why these emotions did not arise during meditation. Since then, I’ve decided that, for practical purposes, it’s best not to speculate on WHY, because ultimately, when and why emotions arise seems to be utterly unpredictable.
So I decided long ago that it’s best not to speculate – but to focus on dealing with them in the moment they become noticeable, and not expect them to behave in any orderly way. Because in the end, emotions are, essentially, disorderly phenomena.
It also must be remembered that meditation is not designed to be an emotional therapy – any therapeutic aspect is a secondary effect. Meditation is, first and foremost, a training ground for the mind to learn four habits that are useful in a life:
- To have a steadier, softer and more gently focused attention, resulting in a clearer, wider and more aware view in life – mindfulness.
- To learn that with the attention steadier and less twitchy, our ability to concentrate is enhanced.
- To learn to let go of streams of thinking that do not serve us well.
- To develop a mind that is more integrated with the body and what the body is telling you – resulting in a more relaxed body, better health and increased capacity for intuition.
I have noticed that with practice that a therapeutic aspect to meditation does eventually arise from these new habits. This is because the mind becomes more aware of various physical tensions being caused by repressed emotional reactions, and having become aware, the mind-body, being a naturally self adjusting mechanism, learns to let go of those tensions, sometimes temporarily re-experiencing the emotions in the process – tears arise, or the body jerks, or long sighs spontaneously occur. Each of these is a signal that the mind-body are processing the emotional energy efficiently.
But as I said, anything to do with emotions is unpredictable – they can happen anytime, whether we’re at work or meditating. And in this, the first part of any solution is to not bother questioning why an emotion is here.
It just IS.
This unpredictability of emotions is because most of our reactions and mental and process’s – about 80% – are unconscious. For sure we live our life through our conscious mind, but most of our reactive habits, which we’ve learnt over the course of our life, are unconscious to us – which is why they are so unpredictable, and essentially chaotic.
So questioning why an emotion is here is fruitless. In the end, ACCEPTANCE is essential.
So how to deal with these feelings … well, first and foremost, if you are in a public situation, it is important that you allow the emotion to express itself WITHOUT enacting it. This is a trick of mindfulness. I’ll give you an example.
I was at a dinner party a few years ago, and one of my friends, a lawyer, was sitting across from me and he’d drunk too much wine. Now it should be said here, that I don’t talk about my meditation experiences or activities with most of my friends, simply because, most of them being non-meditators, they aren’t interested. So I keep it my business to myself, and socialize largely on their terms. Unless of course they ask me, when I keep my answers short. But this particular night, this man, being quite drunk, decided to have a go at me … he began goading me about meditation, calling it ‘crap’ and being quite abusive about Buddhist monks, calling them ‘parasites’ and ‘lazy bastards sitting on their arses all day’.
At first I tried to defend myself, because having been trained by so many wonderful monks, I was offended that he could be so dismissive of what they do, and the value they bring to their communities – so I tried to defend the monastic tradition.
Then I realised the man was utterly ignorant and there was no way I could educate him so I tried to stop the discussion by saying this. But being a lawyer, and drunk, he wouldn’t let it go. For some reason he wanted a confrontation. So he kept going, and I could feel myself becoming angry (which is what I think he wanted).
Now, I knew it would be socially deadening if I was to express my anger – and the effects that would arise out of it would create even more trouble. But at the same time, I felt so aggrieved that I knew it would be very hard to swallow how I felt or deny it and push it away. So I HAD to accept it, if I was to find some way of dealing with it.You cannot deal with something if you don’t first accept it.
So the trick was, how to deal with my adrenalised and very pissed off state without anyone knowing, so it would not interfere with the social flow.
To this end, I used mindfulness. As I let the man talk, while nodding and acknowledging what he was saying without commenting, I turned my focus inwards, and in the theater of myself, I allow the anger I felt to express itself.
And as I felt the energy rise into that acceptance, and the adrenaline, I focused specifically on how my body was reacting. I noticed my shoulders had risen and my chest had gone tight, and my belly had gone rock hard, such that my breathing was extremely shallow. While continuing to nod along with this guy, I turned the anger into a purely physical exercise. I focused on FEELING the physical tensions in my body and the task of letting those tensions go, muscle by muscle.
It took a while – sometimes I’d let go of one part and move on, then come back to find that part had tensed up again. But eventually, I managed to let go of the physical tensions and my breathing naturally changed. And then I sighed, and it was a deep and long sigh, and I knew I was released.
By this time the man, because he was getting no resistance from me – just nodding and ‘yes, yes’, ran out of things to say. The confrontation naturally finished, and we turned to other things. No destructive action was taken and the event was forgotten.
But most importantly I was clean of the anger, WITHOUT bringing it into my life. I had resolved it by dealing with the truth of it – that it was a physical phenomenon, which only needed to be acknowledged, accepted and gently worked through on the same level it actually existed – the PHYSICAL level.
Because quite aside from the story we give our emotions when they arise, which is all bullshit anyway, emotions are primarily physical. That’s the ultimate truth of emotions. The story is the relative truth – endless, convoluted and usually wrong. But the physical presence of the emotion cannot be denied – it is either here or not and the body never lies. For whatever chaotic reason, it feels what it feels, whether that be anger, sadness, calm or happiness. So the only place we can deal with troublesome emotions effectively, is on the level they truly exist – the physical level.
This was a very important lesson to me, that emotion can be resolved without bothering with the story of why it’s here, or acting it out or trying to suppress it
Now, you mention you ‘breathe through’ emotions when they arise in meditation. I’m not sure what you do when anger arises at work, but I’ll deal with that later.
The thing is, what I’m getting from what this ‘breathing through’ is NOT acceptance – but an attempt to control. As such, it is ultimately fruitless.
Because remember I said? ACCEPTANCE is key to resolving our reactions. To deal with anything in our life, we must accept it on its terms first.
So ask yourself – why are you ‘breathing through’ the emotion – to make it go away?
This is how it seems, and though perhaps it might work sometimes – it is not a good strategy, either in meditation or life.
Wherever you are, if anger arises, or rage, leave the breath alone. The breath should NEVER be interfered with or consciously changed.
Rather it should be released.
So instead of making an attempt to control the breath by consciously breathing deeply, or ‘breathing through’ as you say -instead, try as best you can to ignore the story of the anger and pay attention to it as a strictly physical set of tensions in the body.
And as you do this, look into all the ways you’ve begun to RESTRICT the breath, and let them go. So you’re not consciously changing the breath, so much as consciously allowing it to express itself as it needs to. In this way you guide the body to resolve this physical situation in its own way.
For example, you might find muscular tensions have appeared in the chest, belly or shoulders – so, work on letting them go. Feel the tension. Accept the tension. Allow the tension to be what it is. Relax around the tension and you will usually find the tension itself will also let go. Then move on, treating the anger as a primarily physical problem, while allowing the breath to change as it wants to.
And if you’re doing this in a public situation, no need to close the eyes or take any posture – simply move your attention inwards and do what you need to do. And if someone asks you what’s wrong, just say you don’t feel well at the moment, but you’re dealing with it …and if they ask you why, just say it might have been something you ate … or whatever, and go back to what you were doing.
It’s simply a switching of the attention from outer life, to inner life. And nobody needs to know you’re doing it.
As with everything, it will get easier with practice. So if, the first few times you do it, it’s difficult, persist. Remember, you’re changing habits, and that takes time.
See how you go. I hope this helps.