Meditation and Difficult Emotions


Emotions are a fundamental part of the human experience. Love, joy, euphoria, peace: these emotions give purpose to human existence. On the other side of the spectrum, however, fall emotions that we deem unpleasant: anger, anxiety, sadness, fear.


When we experience the “good” emotions, we feel a sense of contentment and satisfaction with life. We soak them in like a sponge and cling to them, lost in the pleasantness they provide. But as we encounter the “bad” emotions, our first instinct is to distract ourselves and try our best to repress or overcome the emotion.


To do this, we might listen to music, exercise, be with friends, or turn on the TV. And although distraction is a useful strategy at times, it is not the only way to move forward when encountering difficult emotions. Other strategies for dealing with overbearing emotions, such as seeing a therapist or meditating through the emotions, offer their own unique benefits.


Taking this into consideration, we recognize that there is not one single strategy to deal with overbearing emotions. Instead, we must use our wisdom to recognize what is needed at different times. For example, if we recognize that our emotions are causing significant damage to our lives and we have tried multiple times to deal with them to no avail, then perhaps it is time to seek professional help.


Here, however, we will discuss an important third strategy or method for dealing with difficult emotions: mindfulness meditation.


What is mindfulness meditation?


To understand what mindfulness meditation is, we must first understand what meditation and mindfulness are.


Meditation is “the process of quieting the mind in order to spend time in thought for relaxation or religious/spiritual purposes.” And just as the word “sport” encompasses a wide variety of sports (soccer, basketball, wrestling, etc.), so the word “meditation” encompasses a wide variety of meditation styles (mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, Zen meditation, etc.).


Whereas meditation is the practice, mindfulness is a way of being and a state of mind.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment.”


During my classes, I explain mindfulness as being made up of two components: awareness and nonjudgement. Through awareness, we remain in the present moment. Through nonjudgement, we accept whatever may be occurring at this moment.


Meditation and difficult emotions


As we engage in mindfulness meditation while experiencing a difficult emotion, what occurs?


– We might recognize that it is very difficult to focus and concentrate – we might feel restlessness, physical pain, and frustration. These factors make it more difficult to sit. Our bodies force us to get up, move, distract. As we move forward, other things might occur.


– We recognize that thoughts accompany the emotion. For example, if we are experiencing anxiety, thoughts might include “Everyone is judging and looking at me.” As these thoughts arise, we notice them and gently let them go without attachment or judgment.


– In addition to the thoughts, we recognize the emotion itself. In the case of heartbreak, there might be guilt, disappointment, sadness, and frustration. And with these emotions arrive bodily sensations: We might recognize a tightening in our belly and chest, a tightening of the forehead or shoulders, and a clenched jaw.


– Through meditation, we have begun to recognize that emotions don’t exist in and of themselves. Instead, emotions, thoughts, and sensations are inseparable and interdependent.


Is the purpose of meditation than to wallow in our suffering?


Not necessarily, although by meditating through emotions, we experience them in a more raw and unfiltered format. Instead, the “purpose” is to learn to detach from our thoughts, emotions, and sensations. These components – emotions, thoughts, reactions – are what we call the ego. The practice of detachment is the practice of nonattachment, a fundamental aspect of meditation practice.


Furthermore, by meditating through difficult emotions, we might recognize the impermanence of all things. Our difficult emotion – as everything in life – will ebb and flow (even if at times it feels pretty darn constant).


During one of my classes, a student asked me about difficult emotions and how to overcome them using meditation. I replied to her that in meditation, we don’t “overcome” but “accept” and “allow”. If difficult emotions are a river, then our purpose isn’t to resist the river or to get swept up with its current: Instead, we strive to remain outside of the river (or perhaps with our feet gently in), while remaining aware of its passing.




Photo credits: Ryan Franco –

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