How to Meditate with Difficult Emotions

By Larry Payne, Georg Feuerstein, Sherri Baptiste, Doug Swenson, Stephan Bodian, LaReine Chabut, Therese Iknoian

Meditation can help you deal with negative emotions. Many people believe they have a Pandora’s box of ugly, disgusting emotions like rage, jealousy, hatred, and terror hidden inside them, and they’re afraid that if they open it up, these demonic energies will overwhelm them and those they love.

Unacknowledged negative feelings can impede the flow of more positive feelings like love and joy. As a result, you may end up feeling lonely and unhappy because you lack close emotional contact with others.

In addition, negative feelings that build up inside you tend to cause stress and depression, suppress the immune system, and contribute to stress‐related ailments like ulcers, cancer, and heart disease. They also hold valuable life energy that you may otherwise channel in constructive or creative ways.

Of course, some people go to another extreme and seem to be so completely awash in powerful emotional reactions that they can’t make simple decisions or carry on a rational conversation.

Meditation offers you an alternative way of relating with your emotions. Instead of suppressing, indulging, or exploding, you can directly experience your emotions as they are.

Anger

Many people, especially women, have a taboo against getting angry because they weren’t allowed to express their anger, even as children. So they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to skirt around the feeling. Other people seem as though they’re perpetually seething with current anger and old resentments, although they may not realize it themselves.

When you meditate with your anger, you may begin by noticing where and how you experience it in your body. Where do you find yourself tensing and contracting? What happens to your breathing? Where do you notice a buildup of energy? How does it affect softer emotions? As you continue to be aware of your anger, do you notice it shifting or changing in any way? How long does it last? Does it have a beginning and an end?

Next, you can turn your attention to your mind. What kinds of thoughts and images accompany the angry feelings? Do you find yourself blaming other people and defending yourself? If you investigate further and peel back the initial layer of anger, what do you find underneath?

Anger generally arises in response to one of two deeper emotions: hurt or fear. When you’re hurt, you may lash out in anger against the one you believe hurt you. And when you’re afraid, you may protect yourself with the sword and armor of anger rather than acknowledge your fear, even to yourself. Beneath the hurt and fear, anger generally masks an even deeper layer of attachment to having things be a certain way.

With anger, as with all emotions, set aside any judgment or resistance you may have and face the anger directly. You may find that it becomes more intense before it releases, but stay with it. Beneath the anger may lie deep wellsprings of power.

Fear and anxiety

Many people are reluctant to admit they’re afraid, even to themselves. Somehow, they believe that if they acknowledge their fear, they give it power to run their lives. Men, especially, often go to great lengths to hide their fears or anxieties behind a facade of confidence or anger or rationality. At the other extreme, of course, some people seem to be frightened of just about everything.

The truth is, if you’re human — and not bionic or extraterrestrial — you’re going to be afraid or anxious at least occasionally. In addition to the raw rush of adrenaline you feel when your physical survival seems to be at stake, you experience the fear that inevitably arises when you face the unknown or the uncertain in life.

As with anger, you can use your meditation to explore and ultimately make friends with your fear. When working with fear, it’s especially important to be kind and gentle with yourself.

Begin by asking the same questions you’d ask about anger: Where and how do you experience it in your body? Where do you find yourself tensing and contracting? What happens to your breathing? Or to your heart? Next, notice the thoughts and images that accompany the fear. Often fear arises from anticipating the future and imagining that you’ll somehow be unable to cope.

When you see these catastrophic expectations for what they are and return to the present moment — the sensations in your body, the coming and going of your breath — you may find that the fear shifts and begins to disperse. Then when it returns, you can simply call its name — “fear, fear, fear” — like an old, familiar friend.

Sadness, grief, and depression

Most people find sadness easier to feel and express than anger or fear. Unfortunately, they don’t give it the time and attention it deserves because they were told as children to stop crying before they were ready.

To make friends with your sadness, you need to hold it gently and lovingly and give it plenty of space to express itself. As with anger and fear, begin by exploring the sensations. Perhaps you notice a heaviness in your heart or a constriction in your diaphragm or a clogged sensation in your eyes and forehead, as though you’re about to cry but can’t. You may want to amplify these sensations and see what happens.

Then pay attention to the thoughts, images, and memories that fuel the sadness. Perhaps you keep reliving the loss of a loved one or the moment when a close friend said something unkind to you. If you’re depressed, you may keep recycling the same negative, self‐defeating beliefs and judgments.

As you open your awareness to include the full range of experiences associated with the sadness, you may shed some heartfelt tears. In the process, you may also feel yourself lightening up and your sadness lifting a little. Ultimately, as long as you’re open to your own suffering and the suffering of others, you will experience a certain amount of tender sadness in your heart.