Working with Emotions in Meditation
When we meditate, we need to understand how to work with thoughts and emotions. Emotions are part of life, but what are they? According to one definition of emotions, they are contents of the mind, like thoughts. They are not two separate things; both are produced by mental activity.
You could think of thoughts as being the concepts and ideas that are used to label things and make them somehow more manageable. For example, if you look outside and see a tree, your mind thinks “tree.” In your mind, it could be a tree in general, or it could be more specifically, say, “a beautiful oak tree.” But that thought is not the tree itself; it’s just a label, a name.
The thing you’re looking at has just become reduced to a word, a concept, a “tree.” If you open your eyes and really look at it, what you perceive is much more than a label. Look at the tree beyond the filter of your concepts and it becomes indescribable, even magical–beautiful and unique. Concepts and labels are how we turn the ineffable magic of the world into something our minds can conveniently grasp, name and refer to.
We do this with people too. “Look, there’s Fred!” Just that one word—Fred—and the entire reality of Fred has become very limited. Consciously or not, we think, “I know Fred, that’s the way Fred is.” The thinking process has taken the vast, open space of our experience of a human being and presented it as small and graspable so we can relate to it. We apply the same process to ideas, like “democracy” and “communism,” for example. Certain concepts (like these two) are liable to trigger emotions.
You might think of an emotion as being like a color, tone or energy that is added to a concept; an elaboration that adds energy to the thought. If Fred wants something from you that you don’t want to give, there’s a reaction of pushing away. That’s the emotion.
Emotionally, we are either pushing away, pulling towards, or ignoring. Basic emotions are always about us: we either want something, or we want to avoid it, or we don’t bother enough to care about it at all. Understanding how emotions function is the key to working with them in meditation. There are five combinations of pushing-pulling-ignoring that can be called the five negative emotions. By recognizing the patterns, you learn how to work with your mind.
5 Types of Negative Emotions
- The first one is desire, or grasping. When you want something, you try to pull it towards yourself and hold onto it. You can see this in your mind when you want something you don’t have and you keep thinking about it. The energy of desire continues and colors your experience.
- The second is aggression. You don’t like something and push it away, or maybe we push someone else away from the object of our desire. Aggression, when fully developed, becomes anger; it feels very negative. You want to extinguish something from your consciousness because it bothers you, so you try to push it away. It’s all about me, about protecting me. That’s aggression.
- The third is ignorance, ignoring. We couldn’t care less. Or maybe something bothers us and we’d just as soon ignore it, like when we see a homeless person on the street. We’d rather go about our day pretending everything is okay than have to be reminded of someone else’s pain. We can also ignore our states of mind. There are all kinds of ignoring we can do.
- Number four, jealousy, is a kind of competitiveness, or even just comparison. For example, suppose we see that someone else got an award, or was acknowledged or praised. Why don’t we always feel good about this? Why react with, “I should be acknowledged too”? When we compare ourselves with others, we don’t always think of the underlying emotion as jealousy, but that’s where it belongs.
- Finally, number five is pride. We feel puffed up, better than others. Pride and jealousy are really very destructive, mainly because we tend not to acknowledge them in ourselves. Grasping and aggression are obvious and hard to ignore, but jealousy and pride are very deceptive. And ignorance is the hardest emotion of all to see, since its very nature is to remain hidden.
The list of negative emotions can be further broken down into more subtle flavors of emotion such as spitefulness, stinginess, hypocrisy, etc. These five emotions aren’t entirely separate; they run together. Grasping becomes aggression, which becomes jealousy. And on and on it goes.
Thoughts and emotions arise all the time. Thoughts create a compelling story outline and emotions add the color. For example, you’re out driving. You think about work, then about your irritating colleagues, then about something they said that really bothered you. The ongoing discursive dialogue quickly became punctuated by highlights of emotion telling us, “See! I told you so!” You believed in your thoughts, you became absorbed by them. And most of the time we’re not aware that we live in this world of thoughts and emotions. We don’t really pause, step back, and look at what’s going on; we unconsciously let them rule our lives.
How do you work with that? How do you control negative emotions? How do you sort it all out? Meditation is the method that brings clarity to the mind. As you practice, as you sit and notice the breath, you’re able to see thoughts and patterns in real time as they arise in the mind. For example, you start thinking about your family, or stuff you have to do. Thinking? Come back to the breath. Emotions? Exactly the same, you come back to the breath without making a big deal about them. This process of mindfulness of emotions creates a kind of spaciousness because instead of having thoughts and emotions at the forefront, awareness gradually takes the leading role.
In meditation practice, labeling thoughts is an important tool. When a thought arises, we can simply acknowledge the thought and mentally label it “thinking.” It doesn’t matter whether it is a concept or an emotion, a heinous thought or a pious one. Labeling cuts the attachment and fascination with our thinking process; it weakens our identification with it. We are not our thoughts.
This perspective creates an open psychological space and is the basis for working with the things that come into our mind. We experience our minds more clearly and directly; we gain perspective. When we climb a mountain and look at an incredible vista or we look out into an endless starry sky, we are awestruck by the view, the space. When we are back down in the valley, when we come inside, our appreciation of the spaciousness continues. This is how meditation practice works: we gradually learn to maintain a big view, even when thoughts and emotions arise.
Thoughts and emotions are always there. With awareness, even negative emotions become workable. If we understand how to work with our mind, even a very negative emotion–like aggression–can be useful. We can learn to control aggression and negative emotions. Stripped of self-reference, the fundamental energy of aggression becomes directness. For example, if a small child is about to run into the street and you shout “NO!” the child will stop, she will be safe. You’re not reacting out of self-centeredness; you’re using the basic emotion’s directness to communicate effectively.
Meditation practice can be considered an antidote to extract the quality of energy and communication from a negative emotion. Meditation makes it possible for us to recognize what is arising in the mind. When we clearly see thoughts and emotions, we realize we don’t have to react to them.
If we go beyond the reactivity, our grasping becomes the desire to benefit others. Our aggression becomes the will to protect others from harm. Our ignoring can transform into accommodation: we can accommodate what is happening–we don’t always have to react. Instead of being self-referential, the energy of competitiveness, of always comparing ourselves with others, becomes an energy of activity and accomplishment. With pride, instead of puffing ourselves up, we add to others’ experience of the world; we make the environment very warm and rich so people feel very welcome.
Thanks to meditation practice, we can experience and use the positive energy of each emotion. Emotional well-being is an accessible goal, and a great way to benefit both ourselves and others.
For further in depth meditation training, check out Mindworks meditation program for Working with Emotions, taught by some of the world’s most experienced meditation teachers.