Day 17 Meditation
The more directly and intimately we connect with our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, the more powerfully proactive we become. We can make better, more informed choices, and not be as driven by unexamined habits. Mindfully accepting a negative feeling, such as rage or envy doesn’t mean that you’ve given yourself carte blanche to wallow in negative emotions or act irresponsibly. Quite the opposite. By acknowledging a thought or emotion as part of your human repertoire, you can begin to create a healthier relationship to it.
If at any point in observing your emotions you start to feel overwhelmed, you can always return to following the breath, your old friend. Do so at any time during the meditation if you need to steady or ground yourself.
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In 2010, British scientists found that longtime meditators seem to handle pain better than the rest of us because their brains are less focused on anticipating it. After using a laser to induce pain in study participants, the scientists then scanned their brains. Experienced meditators showed less activity in the areas of the brain normally turned on when we anticipate pain, and more activity in the region involved in regulating thinking and attention when we feel threatened. “The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain,” explained Dr. Christopher Brown, of the University of Manchester, the chief researcher. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events.”
Question & Answer
Q: Can meditation help with depression?
A: Depression has many causes. While it is important to investigate its possible biochemical basis and explore psycho-therapeutic help, meditation might also be beneficial. In a landmark Oxford University study led by John D. Teasdale, the co-founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), one group of people suffering from recurring depression went through eight weeks of mindfulness training, while another similar group received traditional cognitive therapy. Thirty-seven percent of the people in the group treated with MBCT, which teaches patients to look at their thoughts non-judgmentally as events in the mind, experienced a relapse, compared to 66 percent of those in the traditional-therapy control group.
Many meditators report that they benefited from exercises showing them that their depression is actually made up of many strands—anger, loss, and guilt among them. Even though painful feelings may arise as you separate out these various strands, once you see that depression consists of many changing states and not one unchanging and overwhelming state, it becomes more manageable. And the compassion you develop in meditation enables you to regard whatever you dis- cover within yourself, even if painful, with greater kindness. There is a more in-depth discussion of compassion toward the self and others in the fourth week of the challenge. If your depression is persistent or severe, I would strongly encourage you to work with a qualified meditation teacher, and to seek other professional help.
Welcome back. We can practice being with difficult emotions and thoughts, even intense ones, in an open, allowing, and accepting way. For many of us, this is the opposite of the more automatic model of pushing away uncomfortable feelings out of fear or annoyance, or doing everything we can to avoid painful experiences, at whatever cost. Very commonly, when something unpleasant happens, we project it into a seemingly unchanging future: this is going to last forever, this is never going to change, things will always be this way. Or we might have the habit of creating a whole self-image around it: I’m a bad person, I’m a bad mother, because this unwelcome thought is happening in my mind right now.
What we are doing in the meditation practice is looking at the difference between what is actually happening in the moment, even if it’s difficult, and what we add to it in terms of future projection, or unfairly blaming ourselves, or feeling we should be in control of what arises in our minds, or creating a solid self-image out of something that’s actually impermanent, all of which can add to the stress and challenge that we experience. In our practice, we look for these add-ons and see if we can let them go.
No one can absolutely control what arises in their minds. It’s like saying to yourself, “I’ve decided not to be afraid anymore, or not to suffer anymore,” which is like saying, “I’ve decided never to get the flu again.” We can’t stop a thought or emotion from arising, no one can, but we can be empowered by our ability to relate to thoughts and emotions in a whole new way, learning not to buy into them, while at the same time, not unfairly blaming ourselves for what no one at all can keep from arising. We can have a whole new sense of space, and also some kindness toward ourselves, when these difficult things arise. We practice relating more skillfully to unpleasant experiences by recognizing that they’re here and simply holding them in awareness, rather than adding so much more difficulty through the force of habit with all of these add-ons.
Please sit comfortably, with either your eyes closed or slightly open, however you feel most at ease. You can begin this practice by bringing to mind a difficult or troubling thought or situation, some situation that carries for you intense emotion, such as sadness, fear, shame, or anger. See where you feel it in your body. What does it feel like? Where do you feel sensations arising? How are these sensations changing? Can you experience them fully in the present moment, without getting hijacked by it, or without immediately or anxiously working to make it go away? As you see those kinds of reactions in your mind, settle back, come back into your body. Feel the different sensations being born of that emotion, in this moment.
If you find you’re adding judgment, condemnation, future projection, anything like that, practice letting go of these reactions as best you can, almost as though they were birds now flying out of your hands into the air, and return your attention to the sensations of the emotion. Bring your focus of awareness to the part of the body where those sensations are the strongest. Once your attention has moved to the bodily sensations, perhaps say to yourself, “It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay.” I can feel this without pushing it away or getting caught up in it. Staying with the awareness of the bodily sensations, and your relationship to them, accepting them, letting them be, softening and opening to them.
Often the emotion is not just one thing, it may be moments of sadness, moments of fear, moments of frustration, moments of helplessness. Just watch them arise and pass away. None of these states is permanent, unchanging. They’re moving, changing, shifting. No matter what story or add-on arises, come back to your direct experience in the moment. What am I feeling right now? What does it feel like? What’s happening? What’s its nature?
And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes. This is a good time to reflect. What was most interesting to you about this exercise? What was most challenging for you? And are there certain things that you learned that would be particularly useful to bring into your day, your work, your relationships, your life?