Imagine this: your room is quiet. No one else is awake. The candle flame scatters silent shadows through your room. The sun is starting to rise touching the sky with her rose-tipped fingers. You sit stone-still like a Buddha on your cushion, legs crossed, hands turned up in surrender. Everything is perfect for your meditation.
Then out of nowhere, a single thought ignites in the still and empty space of your mind. It’s a memory. A bad memory. You ignore it. It comes back, buzzing like a mosquito strafing your ear when you’re trying to sleep.
You start to get a little annoyed. You recite your meditation instructions back to yourself a few times and settle down. But that memory comes back. You didn’t really notice when it happened. But now that memory has turned into an inner I-max movie of the original event.
You’re replaying the memory again and again. You give it a new ending. You review it to see how and if it could have been different.
Before you know it, the full spectrum of your anger, hurt, and resentment is roiling away in your belly as all the details rush in. It only took a minute or two, but that’s all it ever takes to kick your nervous system into overdrive. Have you ever had an experience like this?
Struggling With Strong Emotions
You start meditating and next thing you know, you space out, lose focus, and tumble into the briar patch of your mind. Worse, you end up in an emotional quagmire, dwelling on the past. And you know what? As a meditator, you need to be ready for this.
Why? Because it happens all the time. I’ve been meditating over 20 years and the scenario I just shared is far from imaginary. It’s my first-hand experience. And I know it’s a universal experience from talking with hundreds of other meditators.
So what’s a meditator to do when she finds herself meditating in the midst of an emotional upheaval that could range from mild irritation to boiling rage? Because let’s be honest: call it what you will, but we all have anger, resentment, and even rage inside us.
Meditation Means Practicing Acceptance
What gets us into trouble is not that we have these strong emotions. On the contrary, they are totally human. What gets us stuck in unhealthy patterns of thought and feeling is our denial and repression of these powerful emotions.
"Healing comes from letting there be room for all of "this" to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."~Pema Chodron
I always find it helpful to remember that not so long ago in our evolutionary history, we were driven by primitive and crocodile-like survival instincts. Relatively speaking, that was just a blink ago in the history of life. Those deep animal drives are still alive and kicking.
But this is exactly what meditation is all about. If anything, meditation is a form of radical acceptance. It offers you the opportunity to make peace with vexing and often unresolved thoughts and feelings.
Welcoming Unpleasant Thoughts and Feelings
I recently interviewed psychologist and meditation teacher Dr. Richard Miller, who uses meditation to help soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to heal through their trauma. Early in the process, he coaches them to invite all of their emotions--good, bad, and extreme--into a safe and welcoming space.
What an amazing idea (and pretty foreign for most of us in the West)! In the process of welcoming unwanted, repressed, or denied emotions, the soldiers slowly begin to make peace with their own experience. Slowly but surely, they begin to heal.
It’s the same for you and me. We have all suffered in different ways and to different degrees. We have an emotional body that is damaged or wounded or traumatized. That’s life and something we can’t avoid. But it’s important to acknowledge this reality and engage with it if we want to keep growing and thriving.
Meditation is an effective tool to help you accept the overwhelming aspects of your emotional nature and experience. You and I are emotional beings. That can be overwhelming.
"Powerful emotions surface in meditation like a great whale emerging from the opaque depths of the ocean"~Morgan Dix
Next time that happens, instead of denying it or repressing it, try to welcome those emotions. Try not to dwell on them, but try not to push them away either. Take a moment to quietly invite them to join you at the table. Metaphorically speaking, there’s going to be some awkward silence. But remember, they also represent a part of you and your unique story.
Healing And Integrating Your Emotional Body
In the end, you want your emotional body to be as healthy as your physical body. I mean, what would happen if I suddenly pretended my arms or legs weren’t there? Things would start to get pretty strange. Like, maybe I’d try to open doors with my mouth?
Ok that’s weird, I know, but you get my point. We’re striving to be whole, and it takes work to integrate some of the more painful, implicating, and overwhelming parts of our human experience. But if 100 years of psychological study has taught us anything, it’s that we ignore and suppress these parts of us at a cost to our relationships and ourselves.
Meditation is certainly not a cure-all, but it’s one of the best tools I know to help us heal and grow in this evolving journey to wholeness.
Note: I am not a trained psychologist. This material is created to support you, but it does not replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition.