Day 3 – Mindfulness Meditation for Modern Life, Working with Emotions
We are half way through the series and on day three we dove into the nature of emotional experience. We began class by emphasizing that the point of practice is not to empty the mind or to eradicate the feelings, but rather to awaken to the richness of our entire experience. There is no right or wrong, good or bad way to meditate. Everything that arises is grist for the mill. It is an opportunity to practice with kindness and patience and to remember how to return to our breath. Meditation is not the perfection of the mind or self. Meditation is the perfection of our capacity for love and kindness regardless of circumstance. This is not meant to say that we resign ourselves to life or give up hope for positive change. Instead, we take time to dive deeper and allow experience to move through us fully. When we do take action, hopefully it will feel less reactionary and more skillful.
With this reminder, we step into the domain of emotions with an open and courageous heart. Emotions can be strong and captivating, so the stability of shamatha is essential in this practice. In day to day life, we rarely pause to scrutinize the real nature and texture of emotion. Instead we are quickly captivated by the object or story of behind them. If I feel angry, rather than pausing to dive deep into the nature of anger, I more often catch myself focused on the person or circumstance that I believe is triggering my anger. My anger only continues to be fueled by this focus. Similar to fire, when we fuel the anger, the anger persists.
Instead, what happens when I shift the direction of my attention to the anger itself? I find the freedom to dive deeper. Perhaps I notice that anger feels fiery and volatile. I may notice where anger resides in the body as I feel my jaw tighten and my chest constrict. My breathing might feel edgier and faster. However, as I continue to direct my attention to anger in this way, maybe the face begins to soften, the chest begins to open. All of a sudden, the breathing feels more relaxed. To one’s surprise, there is a moment of lightness in the feeling of anger. I may even notice more tender and vulnerable emotions that reside beneath anger, like fear, sadness or shame. Without being locked on the object of my anger, the experience of anger begins to change and break open. It may even subside for moments before it reappears. The texture of anger becomes more vivid than the initial, surface level experience of it. This observation continues to awaken insight into the nature of change and identity. Does my ability to witness emotion outside of my story or judgement change the way in which I relate to it? Does is affect how long emotions persist? Is the nature of emotion constantly changing or does my identification with emotion make it appear to feel solid? Is there something inherently of myself in the emotion or is this simply a passing moment in the field of emotional experience?
One important lesson I have learned through this practice over and over again is that in the awareness of anger, there is less anger and instead there is more awareness. Plug in any emotion here and you may experience the same. We begin to allow ourselves to consciously experience the richness of human life without constantly being carried away. We begin to experience a kindness in allowing both the joys and the sorrows of life to move through us rather than define us. We allow ourselves to take things a little less personally. In doing so, we begin to experience a lightness in life even as we open to experiences that feel messy and difficult. Lightness does not mean that life feels less passionate or always blissful; if anything life feels more full and more authentic.
As you discover the world of emotions this week, I suggest preceding your practice with a few minutes of shamatha to strengthen both your ability to stay with experience and your capacity for ease. If the experience of emotions feels too unwieldy, you can always continue with shamatha as your main practice. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem by Rumi.
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi