Day 19 Meditation
For today’s practice we will take a deeper look at some of the common emotional states that tend to arise in meditation. When we look closer at an emotion, such as anger, and in doing so, see that it is actually made up of many different component parts: there are moments of sadness, moments of frustration, or moments of helplessness. So we pay attention to these states not to vanquish them, but to pay attention in a deeper way, a more full way – and by bringing our attention to the emotion we can see the whole range of what’s arising and passing away.
Mindfulness meditation doesn’t eliminate difficult feelings or prolong pleasant ones, but it helps us accept them as passing and impermanent.
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Meditation is sometimes described this way: Imagine you’re trying to split a huge piece of wood with a small axe. You hit that piece of wood ninety-nine times and nothing happens. Then you hit it the hundredth time, and it splits open. You might wonder, after that hundredth whack, What did I do differently that time? Did I hold the axe differently; did I stand differently? Why did it work the hundredth time and not the other ninety-nine? But, of course, we needed all those earlier attempts to weaken the fiber of the wood. It doesn’t feel very good when we’re only on hit number thirty-four or thirty-five; it seems as if we aren’t making any progress at all. But we are, and not only because of the mechanical act of banging on the wood and weakening its fiber. What’s really transformative is our willingness to keep going, our openness to possibility, our patience, our effort, our humor, our growing self-knowledge, and the strength that we gain as we keep going. These intangible factors are the most vital to our success. In meditation practice, these elements are growing and deepening even when we’re sleepy, restless, bored, or anxious. They’re the qualities that move us toward transformation over time. They are what split open the wood, and the world.
Question & Answer
Q: During meditation, old feelings of fear and self-doubt came up. Even though I opened to them and confronted them, the effects lingered; I continued to feel very down and doubtful. What’s the best way to deal with that?
A: You may not think so at the time, but the very fact that fear and self-doubt are arising is a good thing. You get a chance to learn to relate to them differently, to practice not identifying with them but instead observing them with compassionate curiosity. Opening to these feelings is not just biding time, or making do until somehow you can figure out some other way to make them leave. The less you cling to the feelings or identify with them—Oh, this is really me. The fifty generous impulses I had today don’t count; I’m really a doubting, fearful person—the more likely they are to be dispelled. But everything rests on your relationship to the experience: How are you going to be with these feelings?
My colleague Joseph Goldstein has a suggestion for this sort of thing: When you’re having a really difficult time, imagine that the thoughts coming up in your mind are coming up in the mind of the person sitting next to you. It’s quite interesting. When the thoughts arise in our own minds, we have a very complex set of reactions: We can’t believe this is happening to us; we thought we’d gotten rid of those feelings long ago; we can’t figure out what to do about them. But when we imagine the thoughts arising in the person sitting next to us, we think, “oh, you poor guy, he must really be in pain… may you be happy“.
So the question is: how are you going to relinquish your attachment to, your identification with, this emotion? It will likely come back—these things tend to be very deeply rooted. But it doesn’t matter how many times it comes back, because you have the means to work with it skillfully.
Welcome back. Today, we’re going to focus on working with challenges that tend to arise in meditation. Please sit comfortably with either your eyes closed or slightly open, however you feel most at ease. In this session, we’re going to practice taking an interest in challenging emotions. We deconstruct them. Anger for example is usually not simply anger. It’s moments of fear, moments of sadness, moments of frustration, moments of helplessness.
We pay attention to the whole range of what’s arising and passing away. The state like anger arises, see if you can notice its component parts. Begin with paying attention to how it’s affecting your body. What sensations are signaling the appearance of anger? Is their tightness in your chest, is your heart pounding? Notice the different layers of emotion that taken together we call anger.
Just sit quietly, come close to the anger. Let it reveal to you the different strands of feeling that are within it. If we’re not so busy trying to hide the anger or getting lost in it, we have the opportunity to observe it. It’s like we’re looking at a painting or work of art, what are those brush strokes? What are those component layers? And we do the same with sleepiness. Usually the sleepiness will arise and we’ll either do battle with it, or we’ll hate it, or we’ll be overcome by it. But here we try to take an interest in it. What are the physical sensations of sleepiness? What’s it doing to our mood? Is their boredom in there? Disinterest? anxiety? We take a look.
If you feel that sleepiness is just too strong, you can open your eyes. Continue on with the meditation with your eyes open. Or you can stand up. Settle your attention once again on the feeling of the breath. Point your attention right to the beginning of the in breath and the end of it. The beginning of the out breath and the end of it. With all of these difficult experiences we seek to understand them which means we have to look. In our normal reactive state, we don’t have the time to look. We don’t have the space to look because we’re lost, we’re pushing away.
Here our goal is not to vanquish the state but to pay attention to it in a deeper way, a more full way. You make the mental note to be able to recognize just what’s happening now. There’s anger, there’s sleepiness, whatever it might be. It’s not my anger, it’s anger. There’s sleepiness, there’s restlessness. Rather than blaming yourself for what you’re feeling, condemning or feeling ashamed of it, we use interest and investigation to bring us closer to the experience and yet remain free. In that state of freedom, we have the option of bringing things more to balance such as standing up if you’re feeling very sleepy. But not from anger about being sleepy or blaming ourselves.
Usually when something challenging arises, mental or physical, we have one of two extreme reactions. We get completely lost in it, overcome by it, it defines our world, it defines ourselves or we push it away, we reject it. We don’t like it. We don’t like ourselves because it’s arisen. Now we’re talking about not falling into either of these two extremes. But knowing that place in the middle which is mindfulness. It’s clear, connected, spacious, interested. What is this experience? You can use a mental note just to bring your awareness to what’s actually going on. Not what we imagine may be going on tomorrow, just right now. This is pain, this is anger.
Sometimes what arises in the meditation is really delightful, it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s very challenging. Maybe physically challenging, maybe emotionally challenging. Anger, sleepiness, restlessness, doubt, grasping, clinging. We try to recognize this is what’s happening right now. Rather than falling into it or pushing it away, we pay attention to it. What is this feeling? And we watch it change.
Throughout all of this our breath is like our anchor, we can always return. In meditation we say, look for the add-ons. What are we adding on to this experience? In this case, what are we adding on to this challenging experience? I’m such a bad person, I should have been able to stop this. This is going to last forever. Whatever it may be, notice these habitual thoughts, let them go. Return to the direct experience of just what’s happening right now. Perhaps you sit with the thought that you shouldn’t have any thoughts when you meditate and yet they continually come in a rush. It’s okay.
Our goal is really to bring awareness to what’s going on, whatever it is. You can notice that there floods of thinking. Recognize that, let go and return your attention to the feeling of the breath. Meditation will reveal the entire range of our experiences, our feelings, our emotions, our memories. Sometimes it’s very, very pleasant, it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s quite unpleasant and challenging, sometimes it’s just neutral, it’s ordinary. But taken together, these make up our lives. The times that are invigorating and exhilarating and wonderful, the times that are very difficult and everything in between which we tend to take for granted. We can learn to bring our quality of presence and open heartedness, real mindfulness, toil of the pleasant experiences of that clinging, without holding on, toil of the unpleasant experiences without closing down, being filled with resentment. And with all of the neutral experiences we can come alive, we can wake up, we can be truly there. Each presents its own challenge and its own opportunity.
And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes. Reflect back for a moment on your habitual relationship to pleasant experience, to unpleasant experience, and to neutral experience. See how this might prove useful to you in your everyday life.