Updated: Oct 31
Scientists are only beginning to understand the complexity that is human emotion. How does the trill of a songbird evoke delight in one, the smell of cologne stir nostalgia and sadness in another, or the image of a hated politician provoke anger in a third? How does a hug trigger anxiety and discomfort in one but provide a feeling of comfort and warmth to another?
How the brain alchemizes waves to sound, rivers of light to sight, molecules to smell or taste, and tactile sensations to touch is somewhat understood. These experiences are encoded in neurons across the brain. Low level details like shape, color, shadow, tone, or pitch are compressed in subcortical regions of the brain. But how the brain colors sound waves (the trill of a Carolina wren), molecules of scent (dad's Old Spice), photons of light (the image of a dictator), or touch (a hug) with hues of emotion is less well understood.
Pyramidal neurons pass low levels details (e.g. line, color, shape, contrast, etc.) along to larger neurons which are passed along to larger neurons. The brain layers the data (auditory, visual, tactile, etc) with more abstract and compressed packets of information (e.g. a valence: good or bad; perceived threat level; reward probabilities, etc). As information is passed along from lower to higher centers of the brain, there is more convergence- a process neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett likens to "summaries of summaries of summaries." These briefs are sent to the executive office of the brain for evaluation, interpretation and response. E- MOTIONS are "recipes for action," she asserts.
Interestingly, the data seem to suggest conclusions have usually been rendered before arriving at the executive's desk. The body may pre-empt conscious choice. Visceral and physiological changes (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, breath) precede rational thought and influence it. The brain is predictive and filters these packets with memory. "Last time we experienced this (sensation), this is what happened next."
Signals may be processed this way or that (e.g. the voice of your ex may trigger sadness or disgust in you, but bring joy to his or her new lover). Each neural pattern triggers different physiological states which express as emotion. Many emotions have biochemical substrates and unique functional brain connectivity patterns. Different brain regions are involved in processing different emotions (Fang, Liu, 2022).
Instead of being the plaything of emotions, we can, with skill and practice, learn to regulate our emotions top-down. Some of the strategies that follow may help.
Many emotions have biochemical substrates. Our nervous systems, for example, rely on neurotransmitters and neuromodulators like dopamine ('The reward molecule") and serotonin ("The calming molecule") to send signals to various receptors. This signaling is highly regulated. The right molecule needs to be released at the right time and sent to the right site. It needs to degrade in a certain amount of time, so that there is no excess.
The body seeks homeostasis, balance. Some researchers prefer the term allostasis, which refers to how the body responds to stressors to restore homeostasis. Allostatic load refers to the cumulative effects of stress on mental and physical health. Chronic, unremitting stress, leads to allostatic overload and dysregulation. We feel physically and emotionally spent.
If we address root causes, we can relieve many symptoms associated with debilitating emotional states. Many psychological and physical diseases can be addressed by correcting our diets, attending to sleep, exercising regularly, and nurturing our social connections. Neither pharmaceuticals, nor therapy, nor meditation will avail us much if we compromise on these fundamentals. When sleep is disrupted, for example, our hormonal schedules become dysregulated, our mood suffers. We increase the risk of anxiety-disorders and depression. Anxiety, depression and lack of sleep are strongly correlated. No drug is as beneficial as sleep is for health.
Or take diet- research has shown that the gut microbiota modulate gut and brain functions. There are gut cells that engage neural synapses (Kaelberer, 2018) (Sanmarco et al, 2021). Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes which affect learning, memory, mood, and by extension behavior.
When the body recognizes something as foreign, whether an allergen, pathogen, or chemical, the inflammatory response is triggered. Inflammation is the body’s response to a problem. And much of what we eat is the problem. Christopher Palmer, M.D., takes this one step further and asserts: "Mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain."
Morganella, Klebsiella, and other gram-negative bacteria in the gut have been implicated in depression and other diseases. Their presence triggers the activation of the inflammation response system. Once these molecules cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain, microglia are activated. Microglia, the resident immune cells of the central nervous system, respond to neuronal damage and remove the damaged cells by phagocytosis. Chronic microglial activation is a hallmark of brain pathology. The brain gets flooded in an inflammatory bath. Over time, inflammation causes neuronal damage through the release of toxic molecules such as proinflammatory cytokines, reactive oxygen intermediates, proteinases and complement proteins (Dheen, 2007).
Can talk therapy, pharmaceuticals, or meditation reverse this if we continue eating ultra processed foods and neglecting our diets? I don’t think so. You can treat the symptoms for a time, but they will persist until we address root causes.
Or take exercise- exercise improves mood and can be more effective than some drugs for treating depression and anxiety. In a recent 2023 meta review of over 1000 trials involving over 128,000 participants, researchers found that it doesn't take much. According to senior researchers: “Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts. We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”
When you experience anxiety, your body is in fight-or-flight mode. Your heart is pumping quickly so that oxygen can be delivered to the muscles allowing you use those muscles to escape danger. Your muscles are so ready for action they may jitter.
In some instances, moving may be better than sitting still and trying to quiet a hyper-vigilant mind in an anxious state. In fact, meditation may be contraindicated for those who suffer severe anxiety or depression. In some cases, meditation can make conditions worse if a person goes it alone without proper guidance.
So, before we dive into mindfulness based techniques, I strongly encourage you to pay attention to your sleep hygiene, your diet, your exercise regimen, and your social connections. We call this mindful living and it is holistic. But it is also biochemistry. Billions of metabolic reactions unfold every second within a single cell. You are made up of 30 trillion cells. That's 100 billion trillion metabolic reactions occurring every second. The sum aggregate of these processes influence how we act and think and feel. We can't talk our way out of metabolic dysregulation.
Assuming you have a handle on the fundamentals (sleep, diet, and exercise), you may find the following mindfulness based techniques helpful when intense emotions disturb the balance of mind.
There are several mindfulness-based techniques we can apply when intense emotions disturb the balance of mind. Using metaphor, the 6 most common approaches have been likened to: 1. triage, 2. accepting and welcoming them as honored guests, 3. waves dissolving into the ocean, 4. valuable instruction from a respected teacher, 5. the uprooting of weeds, 6. or as alchemy, transforming base metal into gold. These are only metaphors, attempts to describe and categorize feelings that are not so easily contained in intellectual constructs.
Note: many distresses have a biological cause that, addressed at the root, will ameliorate the psychological symptoms associated with them. Other psychological ailments can be addressed by correcting our diets, attending to sleep, exercising regularly, or nurturing our social connections.
It is also important to note that in rare situations where a quick response means the difference between life and death or safety and injury, I default to instinct. However, even in instances where the danger was not misperceived and I was, indeed, facing an imminent threat, I have found these skills invaluable for responding quickly and decisively, remaining calm, and for quickly recovering equanimity once the threat has passed.
The first technique is applied when emotions are intense and overwhelming. Triage is a medical term first-responders use to determine the degree of urgency and the severity of a patient's wounds or illness, especially in emergency situations (e.g. wars, accidents, or disasters). A degree of self-awareness, training, and presence is necessary here. Am I sad or anguished and ready to self-harm, am I disgusted or full of loathing and close to firing off a text I may regret, am I nervous or terrified, annoyed or furious and ready to harm another? We quickly assess and, if necessary, remove ourselves from the situation, pause before speaking or acting, wait or request an extension before responding, redirect, or take any other measure that might be appropriate. When emotions are strong, the limbic system may bypass the rational seat of the brain. We call this an amygdala hijack. The brain signals the body to fight, flee or freeze. Heart rate and breathing increase. The breath becomes shallow and rapid.
“It’s very plausible that emotions are states of consciousness that are connected with very specific actions aimed at maintaining certain bodily functions,” asserts Klaas Enno Stephan, a professor at the University of Zurich. “For example, fear and anxiety make us aware on a conscious level of the urgent need to respond to a threat.”
With training and practice, we can counter these threat signals with deep breathing. We breathe diaphragmatically. Inhalations are slow and controlled. Exhalations are twice as long with a pause before taking the next breath. This helps dial down and modulate the stress response. It is exceedingly important to stress the necessity of daily practice! Don't wait for a panic attack to practice. You don't wait until you fall into the deep end of the pool to learn to swim. With practice, you can quickly modulate your physiological response! The next step is to go into the body. The sensations will likely be strong and unpleasant- tightness, throbbing, sweating, rapid heart beat, etc. Attend to them. Observe. This, too, is a skill we practice daily in meditation. With practice, you also develop the emotional granularity to recognize the valence or intensity of emotions, so that you can assess and respond to the stressor more thoughtfully. Again, this speaks to the importance of training. We are developing skill sets. We drill so that, when stressed, we default to our training. In developing these skill sets, we are taking back our power and acknowledging our responsibility for our emotions. We are not victims of our emotional states, but their authors- as Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in How Emotions are Made.
2. HONORED GUESTS
This approach works best when strong but familiar upsets disturb the balance of the mind. We welcome them as honored guests. When sadness, anger, or anxiety arise, we welcome them. We allow them in. We sit with them. They may be there to teach us something. Imagine, for example, a Nazi bureaucrat raised on racist propaganda feeling pangs of shame, sadness, or despair after learning of the atrocities committed by his government. Do these so-called negative emotions not serve a purpose? These unpleasant emotions are important messengers pointing him to truth. Allowing them to express freely will lead him to clarity. Would it be madness if he remained indifferent or unaffected by the suffering of others? Would not happiness be misplaced?
With mindfulness, we recognize our afflictions as they come with a curious, gentle, and welcoming spirit. We might recognize a propensity to worry, and become upset that we worry. With mindfulness, we can respond to both our worry and our rejection of worry with non-judgmental awareness. We can embrace them, welcoming all parts of ourselves.
When we resist emotions, we often strengthen them. Telling ourselves to be happy when we're sad often makes us sadder. Telling ourselves to calm down when we're angry only intensifies the anger. To get angry with ourselves for being angry is like striking at a hornets nest with a stick to frighten them away. Much of the alienation, loneliness and distraction people feel is a result of rejecting or pathologizing normal feeling states.
With a mindful approach, we attend to our honored guests. We attend to the unpleasant sensations we are experiencing as anger, despair, fear. We go directly into the center of the emotion without judgment, without fear, without defending, rationalizing, spiritualizing, or denying- just being there, sitting with our honored guests. In this way, we integrate all parts of ourselves: the hurt parts, the scared parts, the anxious parts, the courageous parts, the judgmental parts, the loving parts, the angry parts, etc.
To embrace all emotions- whether despair or confidence, sadness or joy, fear or love-, to embrace the pathos of being human is a radical act of self-compassion. There can be no wholeness or integration or real sense of well-being without accepting the fullness and range of human emotion. A deeper self-compassion and self-respect arises when we can accept ourselves in times of emotional hurt, confusion, distress, anger, or fear that will inevitably arise.
3. WAVES DISSOLVING
By experiencing our emotions fully, we soon find that they dissipate on their own. They are ephemeral, transient, ever changing; emotions are ever in motion. No positive feeling last, neither does distress. Emotions are like weather. At any given time, the mind-sky may be cloudy or clear, windy, stormy, or sunny. Emotions may be cold or warm or hot. Patterns may change throughout the day.
With mindful training, we practice letting go of our story-lines and just staying with the sensations, e.g. experiencing annoyance as a simmering of energy, an agitation of mind, a restlessness- whatever is there and however it expresses.
This approach likens emotions to waves on an ocean. The mind is like the sea. The emotions are like waves that rise on the surface of the mind. All thoughts and emotions dissolve back into this vast ocean of being from which they emerge. Like this, we let them be. This approach works with more intense emotions. If, with training, I can maintain some degree of presence, I can watch the wave rise, peak, and fall- without getting caught up in the froth. "You can't stop the waves," to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn, "but you can learn to surf."
Learning to Surf
One technique is to sit with the sensations. Just sit with them. Let them be. Feel the throbbing, the tingling, the pulsing, the tension. Do nothing. Resist nothing. Expect nothing. A variation calls for surrender. Relax into the experience. In The Untethered Soul and The Surrender Experiment, Michael Singer calls this technique R&R (Relax and Release). We relax and allow the experience to unfold. In this way, we allow the energy to flow and we release whatever psychic blockage was there.
Open awareness is a second technique. It is like sitting on the bank of a river, watching the stream of thought and emotion flowing by, or like sitting in a concrete bunker peering outside a window, safe and protected from the elements, watching weather patterns unfold and change and change.
4. PRECIOUS TEACHERS
Suppose you wake up feeling sad and instead of letting it touch you and alert you to something that may need attention in your life, you focus instead on how it threatens your ego identity: "If I wake up feeling sad, there must be something wrong with me."
In his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, John Wellwood writes:
“When a feeling of sadness threatens your self image, you will want to push it away. So you judge your sadness negatively and reject it. You get caught up in dark, depressive story lines: ‘What's the matter with me? Why do I always feel this way?’ The more you ruminate, the sadder you become. Cutting through this tendency to get lost in emotionally driven thoughts and stories requires a certain discipline.”
This meditative approach is not oriented toward the content of feelings, their meaning, or the history behind them. It involves opening to feelings directly, objectively, with curiosity. What if we wake up feeling sad and relate to the feeling as a phenomena of mind, transient, ephemeral, as an expression of our basic aliveness. What if we allow it to dissolve back into mind from which it arose. We recognize our judgments as judgments, our interpretations as interpretations, our perceptions colored by mood, and distorted by our limited experience as just what they are. We touch these arising thoughts lightly with awareness, but to not blend with them. Holding on to our limited beliefs may be the problem, NOT the emotion. The emotion may be trying to point us to our own liberation and humanity, if we would only heed them.
What if we find beneath the vulnerable feelings and hurt, core human needs: connection, respect, safety, purpose, peace, play, autonomy, etc. Then we go even deeper and get in touch with our basic goodness. We allow our reference points, stories, judgments, evaluations to slip away and dissolve back into the vastness of mind. This is the practice.
With this approach, we cease to view harmful circumstances as negative and make every effort to train ourselves to view them as valuable. What if I see in that sadness, a longing for connection, a call for love. Is this not a basic human need?
No one wants to suffer. We often regard our fears, anger, or sadness as parts to be discarded, shunned, avoided. Without them, we imagine we would be happy. But, without them, we might never change. Disgust, regret and disappointment may be negative emotions. But these strong, unpleasant feelings may motivate us to change. Is this not desirable? To quote Rumi: "The cure for the pain is the pain." By habitually denying the expression of so-called negative, unpleasant, unwanted, or "bad" emotions, I may be alienating myself from my Self. There is no integration, no wholeness.
Emotions are often problematic when we regard them as a threat, imagining that if we really let ourselves feel, we would be overwhelmed by them. So we resist them. This is overwhelming. Our resistance prevents us from engaging them more skillfully. Life's challenges are painful & difficult to the degree we are uncomfortable with the feelings they stir up within us. With practice, we can learn to listen to them, to respect them, to let them teach us. We can create beautiful landscapes with our emotions. The soul expresses itself through a colorful emotional palette. Trusted, our emotions can lead us to peace.
My own awakening came courtesy of sadness.
In the summer of 1989, a deep sadness washed over me and lingered over the mindscape like a sheet of gray clouds. I sat in bed with an anthology of Walt Whitman’s poems and an anthology of poetry called The Mystic in Love.
The poets were of different religions, cultures, and times, but they all described the same longing I felt so deeply.
The desperation I read in St. Teresa of Avila’s poems resonated with me.
What a tedious journey is our exile here!
Dreary is the sojourn,
Hard indeed to bear!
Dark is this existence; Bitter is its thrall:
Life that is lived without Thee
Is not Life at all.
The grim poems of St. John of the Cross read like suicide notes. I sensed, however, that he was not contemplating death, but longing to die to something else, so as to live more fully. Like the man contemplating suicide, he, too, wished to die to suffering. His desperate longing was as intense, but the intensity of his desire for God's grace drove him to kenosis, self-emptying, renunciation, the annihilation of ego- not death of the body, which comes to all soon enough without the need for hastening it.
What serves this life (I cannot tell)
Since waiting here for life I lie-
And die because I do not die.
To this dread life with which I’m crossed
What fell death can compare since I
The more I live, the more must die.
Rescue me from such a death
My God, and give me life, not fear;
Nor keep me bound and struggling here
Within the bonds of living breath.
Look how I long to see you near,
And how in such a plight I lie
Dying because I do not die!
These poems resonated with my Soul. How meaningless the world seemed to me. It offered nothing that I wanted. "Come back, my soul! How much longer will you linger in the garden of deceit?" wrote Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet. I had received admission to a top university, but even the promise of a good education did not offer me hope of liberation from this weariness.
There was a God-sized hole in my heart that could not be filled with a woman, wealth, or the fame and approbation of others.
Like St. John, I longed for annihilation- not of the body and not of mind- but the end to suffering. It comforted me to know I was not alone in this seeing. The poets gave words to the longing.
Mira Bai, a 16th century princess who renounced her title in search of meaning wrote:
My heart is athirst
I live in Death
Within me throbs the ache
Of longing and love for Thee
The 15th century Indian scholar Sankara Devi wrote:
My soul is on the point of perishing through the poison
Of the venomous serpent of worldly things.
On this earth all is transitory and uncertain: wealth,
Kinsmen, life, youth, and even the world itself.
Children, family, all are uncertain. On what
Shall I place reliance?
Like Sankara Devi, Mira Bai, St John of the Cross, St Teresa and others, my soul ached. I sat with it- the ache, the longing, the heart pain, the grief.
I had finished reading some verses when an indescribable peace washed over me. It was as if the little self had disintegrated, as if a veil had fallen from my eyes, as if I had been given a peek into eternity, as if I were enveloped in love, in something eternal and sublime. I was experiencing what the mystics had been writing about for millennia. The default mode of thinking was quieted. This transformative experience oriented my heart’s compass.
This was IT! This was what my soul longed for! This was the peace I sought, the fulfillment that I knew could not be had in the accumulation of things or titles or power. My thirst was quenched! Like the poet Kabir, “I have drunk of the Cup of the Ineffable… from the cup of the inbreathings and outbreathings of love; I have found the Key of the Mystery; I have reached the Root of Union. Travelling by no track, I have come to the Sorrowless Land; the mercy of the Lord has come upon me. My heart’s bee drinks its nectar.”
I learned to respect the yearning, the sadness. It was a needle pointing me to the way. In “The Guest House,” Rumi wrote:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Sadness pointed my feet Godward. I am grateful that I did not ignore it or pretend it away or lose myself in distraction or entertainment or dissipation. I did not numb away the longing with drugs or alcohol. I did not pathologize it. I did not think there was something wrong with me; I consulted no therapist to help me feel "better" or talk to a trusted friend to work through it. I would have been offered well-meaning but useless platitudes: "Maybe you should pray." "Have you talked to someone?" Blah, blah, blah. To describe the Void to others who had never known true liberation would not only have been futile, but would have led me astray- away from the Valley of Grief I had to pass through, to ignore or pretend the longing away in some vapid "happy" place.
I understood, from this experience, the import of Rumi's words:
"I wish that Grief and Sorrow would shatter your heart, disloyal lover, and deprive you of everything you value in the world as no one remembers me but Sorrow. I bless it a thousand times a day."
Few understand this.
There was no formal path to peace and bliss except through suffering. Kabir says this: "When the Guest is being searched for, it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work."
From this experience, I developed deep empathy for those with suicidal ideations. Many suffered rightly; it was their strategy that sucked. I respected their suffering and their rejection of worldly conceits and illusions. I could identify with their longing and their thirst.
May they die to the attachments of ego and find true peace, true love, and true happiness in this precious lifetime. Everything else is counterfeit and shallow.
5. UPROOTING WEEDS
Cultivating inner peace is sometimes likened to cultivating a garden. Meditation is a tool to help us garden the plots we were given. With care and effort, we grow compassion, equanimity, patience, discipline, confidence, concentration, and other qualities that sustain the soul, bringing health to body and mind.
The laws at work in Nature are applicable to the field of mind within. As with gardening, we will quickly discover weeds growing on the patch where we planted seedlings of hope and peace.
Stepping into the muck of mind is not a retrogression. This is an important stage that is of great value to the meditator. As the mind settles, what are called "impurities" begin to surface. In some contemplative traditions, they are called samskaras. These are the "weeds." In the West, we recognize the weeds as insecurities, an unresolved trauma, a phobia, an attachment to an idea, a misperception, a grievance we refuse to forget, etc.
Weeds are wild plants that grow where they are not wanted in competition with cultivated plants. They are neither good nor bad. We can pluck out the dandelions and make a dandelion tea; we can uproot the purslane, a rich source of omega 3s, and add them to a salad. Nothing is wasted.
In the same way do we handle the weeds or so-called impurities that disturb our peace of mind, our balance, our emotional well-being.
These mental states are likened to illusions, to shadows, to dark clouds, to veils that obscure the light that is in us. The light is a kind of clarity, an awareness, a stillness that abides whether we recognize it or not, "neither hastening its delivery nor delaying it," to quote Walt Whitman. That awareness is present in this moment. It is the space within which everything is unfolding now (including our neuroses).
We stress nowness because what we call "past" are encoded memories that express in the present. The illusions of the past, colored and distorted by memories that are neither accurate nor fixed, inform this moment and filter perceptions in this moment, augmenting what we perceive as reality. Much of what triggers fear, anger, or sadness are called from memory. What we call memory is not fixed, however, but dynamic. Our memories aren't reliable facsimiles of past perceptions, but imperfect records of the past. The process of laying down and retrieving memories is malleable. Neural circuits undergo extensive sculpting and re-wiring in response to a variety of experiences which are time-stamped and stored at the cellular level. Memories are made in the present by changes in collections of neurons and the strength of the connections or synapses between them. In the human brain, each neuron forms connections or synapses with about 1,000 other neurons. A memory may be laid down in one group of neural circuits, but recalled in another. Memories are stored as changes in the strength and number of synapses. Each time we recall a memory it may change depending on the neural circuits that are engaged at that particular moment. A neuron can modify synaptic strength, create new receptors, remove old ones, and produce new proteins. In other words, we won't remember a memory in the exact same way each time. Details may change; it's emotional charge or significance or relevance may also change.
The amygdala and hippocampus play key roles in processing emotions and in learning and memory. When these structures are activated, a chemical process unfolds. The body reacts and sends data back to the brain which creates a narrative. This unfolds in milliseconds. We experience these as thoughts and feel the subtle chemical changes as emotions (from How Memories are Made, UCLA School of Medicine). The ancients did not have fMRIs, PET scans, or EEGs to see how the brain constructs the illusion we call reality in real-time, but they were able to see this experientially. With training (extensive and intensive training), we abide squarely in the now and slow down the unfolding to such a degree that we can see, as if frame-by-frame, how the simulation is constructed and how we pull stored memories from our perceptual database to create narratives to make sense of both our inner and outer worlds. Like a very elaborate movie set, we see how we write, direct, and star in our own productions. Emotions add drama to our storylines. There is somatic experience in the body- we feel.
We see, too, that we can author new scripts and rewrite old memories. There is power in this. We can extinguish our fears and reframe events, transforming traumas into triumphs, insecurities into insights.
Jumping from one metaphor back to another- pulling weeds. The goal is to recognize the mental states that cloud awareness, that clarity, that light. Pull them out from the root where you see them. Like gardening, this is a daily chore; like gardening, it can be dirty work. "Your task," as the poet Rumi put it, "is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have created against it."
One set of weeds, sometimes called hindrances, include:
One way to uproot these weeds is by acknowledging, identifying, objectifying and labeling them. In How to Meditate: A Beginner's Guide to Peace, Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu writes:
When we feel pain, we say to ourselves, "pain". In this case, we can actually repeat it again and again to ourselves, as "pain ... pain ... pain", so that, instead of allowing anger or aversion to arise, we see it merely as a sensation. We learn to see that the pain and our ordinary disliking of it are two different things; that there is really nothing intrinsically “bad” about the pain itself, nor is it intrinsically “ours” since we can't change or control it.
Note: there is the primary pain that is experienced as a sensation- throbbing, stinging, etc.- and the secondary psychological pain experienced as thoughts- "Why me?" "I don't want this!" "This is terrible." Research suggests that the secondary pain can actually exacerbate the primary pain.
Another set of weeds go by many names. They are categorized as afflictions, disturbances, conditioning factors, defilements, negative emotions, dissonant mental states, etc. These are: anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, lust, greed, hate, delusion, conceit, restlessness, irritation, et. al. These cause suffering- which you've experienced for yourself if you've sat for a time observing the machinations of mind.
By being conscious and awake to what is alive within you now, by shining the light of awareness on the darkest, most unexplored recesses of the mind, we can begin to transform ourselves breath by breath, moment by moment.
Note: we are not warring with the "negative" aspects of ourselves. Rather, we are seeking to develop greater insight into our conditioned, habitual ways of reacting, of relating, of engaging with ourselves and the world. We are cultivating curiosity, self-compassion, acceptance, love. In this way, we cultivate positive states of being. Self-criticism, judgment, doubt, laziness, et al. are like thistles. If we plant these seeds, we will reap what we've sown- more self-criticism, more laziness, more judgment.
Rumi expressed it this way:
Look at the man beating the rug with a stick.
He is not angry with it.
His aim is to get rid of the dust.
Your inward is full of dust from the veil of ‘I’-ness,
and that dust will not leave all at once.
With each blow,
it departs little by little from the heart’s face.
With mindfulness, we can reappraise, recast, and challenge thoughts that are causing us distress. Again, we are rewiring the brain and rewriting inner narratives. Rather than engaging thoughts, believing them, and getting swept by them like a man being carried downstream by the strong pull of a river, you may find it helpful to question your judgments, perceptions, evaluations, or interpretations. Journaling may help.
We are responsible for our mental constructs and can change our mental models. If my light were shining at its brightest, what would that look like or feel like? Does it help me to hold on to this? How would I feel without this thought? Here, I'm not interested in whether the thoughts are "true" or "false," "right" or "wrong."
Attachment, or identification with experience, is another kind of weed. In some traditions, attachment is a kind of poison or unwholesome root. Decoupling ego from identity is the hardest root to pull. Sit with yourself long enough and you may notice how the mind clings even to unhelpful or destructive thoughts and emotions, identifying and ruthlessly defending self-hatred, depression, or self-criticism, for example, as "who I am." From this perspective, the egoic self is an illusion that spins illusions that do not exist outside of your mind. The world we imagine- whether safe or dangerous, peaceful or violent, meaningful or without purpose- is of our choosing. We create our own virtual world, a simulation of sorts, a model of "just how the world is." Few investigate their models, their assumptions, their perceptions. They simply assume them to be true. Sensations arise within the body. The mind creates an interpretation. Emotions and thoughts blend with these movements of mind in an instant. We believe what the mind conjures. This construction we take for reality.
To wage a war of extermination with the ego is futile. Like weeds, ego possesses a vigor and singleness of purpose- to grow. Deny it light, it cannot survive long in the present moment. Do not water deceptive brain messages with attention. Let them wither. Uproot what you can, make use of what you can, deprive it of attention to the degree you can.
Tend your garden. Make your mind a serene place of refuge. Cultivate those qualities which will sustain you. Continue to till, to work the soil. Try to reach the light that is in you. You won't find much peace in the illusions which obscure that light.
When we are suffering, we remain open. We try not to force our feelings onto some set of rigid expectations. We let them transform of themselves. This is alchemy.
There are many variations.
In one, I approach my experience objectively, like a scientist. I see the mind/body complex as an integrated system. When I am upset, I recognize the body's chemistry has changed. I may be bathing in a low grade cortisol bath. My biochemistry has shifted, my moment to moment experience, especially if emotionally charged, is leaving physiological imprints that affect perceptions. I am rewriting implicit memory.
Step 1 is to recognize and acknowledge the inner experience. (e.g. "I am dysregulated"; "I am experiencing anger," etc). The mind/body complex is reacting to a perceived threat which may not be accurate.
Step 2 is to relax into it. I can dial down the sympathetic (stress) response and override it. I have the power to respond mindfully to the event. It is not the event in and of itself, moreover, that is causing the stress response, but my own perceptions, reactions, habitual patterns, etc. which affect how I interpret the external event. I can interrupt the conditioned fear response, change my biochemistry, and integrate body and mind. By intentionally relaxing and slowing the breath, we can elicit a more calming response.
By simply attending to sensations as sensations with curiosity and without entertaining the storylines that demand attention, we rewire the brain. The insula calibrates the intensity of external stimuli to internal responses. The insula is associated with determining whether sensations and reactions are reasonable given a set of conditions. A mild electric shock, for example, would elicit a mild reaction; a strong electric shock would elicit a stronger reaction. The insula matches the intensity of the stimulus to the response. When inhibited, the insula misreads the intensity of external stimuli. We make mountains of mole hills. With interoceptive training, we can recalibrate the insula back to default settings, responding appropriately to circumstances rather than going CODE RED when minor discomforts disturb the balance of mind.
Step 3. Rewrite or replace the narrative. With intention, we can elicit a heartfelt emotion like gratitude, focus, stillness, compassion, strength, resilience, courage, fearlessness, curiosity, persistence, humor, creativity, authenticity, generosity, forgiveness, etc. assuming we are truthful about what we are calling. The mind and body react to the truth of the heart felt experience, not to what one is trying to convince the self to be so. Example: someone directs a comment at me which I interpret as a personal attack. I perceive a threat (to my employment, identity, livelihood, relationship, safety, etc). My habitual reaction may be to fight, withdraw, attack/defend, or accept the perceived insult, slight, criticism, etc). With practice, we can reframe these events as opportunities to grow, to experiment, to respond more intentionally, more thoughtfully. The stress may be a misperception, but it is there. It feels true. I can recognize the fear without feeding it, the way a parent may recognize a child's fear of monsters. If my heartfelt intention is to grow in courage, in resilience, in compassion, in strength, in power, in love, etc. and if that intention is also sincere, I can approach it with authenticity, from an embodied experience. This will feel true as well. It is important that your intention be sincere and heart-felt. You have to be real; it has to feel authentic and true. We don't want to replace it with wishful thinking or some spiritual ideal we think we should attain. The felt-sense of your intention must be as intense as the distress in order to alchemize it.
If my daily meditation practice consists of visualization, kindness, compassion, or those generative techniques which encourage the growth of desirable qualities like resilience, courage, or forgiveness, I may be able to remain grounded and approach the person from a more centered and calm place. If I've been doing the inner work that needs doing, the little self will not be as triggered. We can approach more skillfully. Like a boxer who has trained and is in optimal condition, I may be able to relax into it. I don't take the attacks personally. I can take their best punch. There is no ego to be offended. With skill, I may be able to hear the needs behind the perceived criticism. This is only an example of the many choices we can make in a seeming tense encounter. We are reframing, rewriting, replacing what seems to be with a more open and curious mind. Conflict can be a game, not a stressor. I give myself what Alane Daugherty calls the gift of shift in her excellent book Unstressed. I choose a more powerful response that affirms my creativity to deal with challenges, my courage to be vulnerable or authentic, my self-efficacy and power, my generosity of spirit and good will, my forgiveness and compassion. In other words, I alchemize something base (i.e. a perceived insult, attack, criticism, setback, etc.) into something valuable (inner strength, courage, growth, self-confidence, etc). With intention and skill, we can cultivate a more peaceful inner state, change our perceptions and physiological imprints, rewrite implicit memory, change our biochemistry, and improve our neuropatterning- allowing us to live these states more often and building the resilience we need to confront future challenges.
In another variation of this practice, we can bring bliss and peace to the mind from the vicissitudes themselves. To do this:
1. Recognize how ego insists on imposing concepts upon experiences that are truly open.
2. Recognize how ego identifies in a clinging way with negative experience.
3. Recognize your true nature, your innate goodness.
4. Recognize the pain as a positive and inspiring opportunity to practice letting go of self.
5. Recognize that your innately peaceful nature is obscured.
6. Recognize that even difficult problems can become a source of joy, that negative or positive, our perceptions are created by our minds.
7. Recognize the past for what it is. Forgive and let go. In truth, there is nothing to let go as the past no longer exists... there is only this moment.
When our wounded or hurt parts are triggered, we may say or do something we regret. What we don't transmute, to paraphrase Richard Rohr, we transmit. We'll make mistakes. Our conditioning may get the best of us. However strong the emotion, we can apply the balm of forgiveness and dress the wound with self-compassion.
Get your butterflies flying in formation
We can train ourselves to reframe sensations and assign different meanings to sensations. Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, tells a story about two performers he coached.
Carly Simon told Tony Robbins about how she felt before going onstage: sweaty hands, upset stomach, heart racing, etc. She experienced this as bad stage fright.
Bruce Springsteen told Tony Robbins about how he felt before going onstage: sweaty hands, nervous stomach, heart racing, etc. He said when he felt that excited and pumped up, he KNEW that he was ready to perform onstage and play!
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett recounts a time when her then 12 year old daughter was testing for her black belt; she was pitted against much taller and stronger boys. Her sensei didn't tell her to quash her fear, instead said: "Get your butterflies in formation!"
There are many techniques that fall somewhere within one of these categories. Therapeutic techniques like Cognitive Based Therapy, Internal Family Systems, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing), and Prolonged Exposure Therapy may be useful.
The Sedona Method, developed by Hale Dwoskin, is a technique that falls within multiple categories. The process is called releasing. There are many ways to release:
1. Choose to let go of the unwanted feeling
2. Welcome the feeling. Allow the emotion just to be.
2. Dive into the very core of the emotion.
4. Seeing through the feeling to the effortless Awareness that is right behind it.
Focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin, can be found here: https://focusing.org/sixsteps
You may find Byron Katie's Work useful. She poses 4 questions when disturbing thoughts and strong emotions upset the balance of mind:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without that thought?
Meditating with Strong Emotions: Quieting the Anxious Mind
A beginner sits to meditate for the first time. After some minutes, the mind becomes restless. Their guide instructed the group to empty the mind, but one notices the mind is disquieted and busy. "This cant be right." Tension arises. The sitter feels something is wrong and reasons from emotion: "If I feel bad, I must be doing something wrong. I feel bad. Therefore, I must be doing something wrong." The anxiety grows. The breathing pattern changes. The breath becomes shallow. The heart rate increases. Fear comes. They resist. Their guide reminds them to reorient attention back to the breath. The sitter notices that s/he is hyperventilating. The body becomes even more tense. The pull of the thought torrent is fierce. Meditation was recommended for anxiety. It was supposed to help, but the sitter is more anxious. The session ends. The sitter debates whether to ever meditate again.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. The story underscores the importance of both proper form and guidance. When a beginner comes to a class or workshop, I welcome both the individual and all of the parts that brought them to the center: the broken part seeking wholeness, the anxiety, the apprehension, the courageous part that feels apprehensive but goes anyway, the curiosity eager to explore, the one who suffers and the one who desires to be free of that suffering.
I usually begin with caveats. Meditation is not for everyone and is not recommended for people with a history of psychosis or for those who suffer from schizophrenia, seizures, multiple personality disorders, or bipolar disorder. Those with moderate to severe depression or anxiety and those with a history of trauma should exercise care. Many psychological afflictions have complex biological causes.
With the caveats out of the way, I share the neuroscience of attentional regulation. The talks are dispassionate, clinical. By understanding how the brain works, we can approach our practice with the curiosity and objectivity of a scientist. We observe non-judgmentally. With openness, we can experiment. We can isolate variables and may be able to replicate findings. But we do not bias the the mind with expectations or seek this or that outcome. Our expectations will invalidate the process. The science helps us approach meditation with a right attitude. If the mind is restless or anxious, we make a mental note of the fact. We don't take it personally. This distance is very useful for the beginning meditator.
During a focused meditation session, it is common to cycle through 5 intervals:
1. Sustained attention
Attention is single-pointedly focused on an object (the object of focus could be the breath, a word, a sound, a sensation, etc.). The executive network is active. This network includes the right parietal cortex, right frontal cortex, and thalamus. When we are focused on the touch sensation of the breath, the parietal lobes are active. The right frontal lobe is responsible for impulse control- among other functions. The thalamus regulates alertness. Acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and peptide-secreting neurons are molecular players that alter how alert we feel. Certain behaviors, like breathwork, exercise, or extreme cold help improve focus. Sleep and phasing practice when we are most alert can also heighten concentration.
2. Mind wandering (Default Mode Network)
At some point, the mind may wander. The posterior cingulate cortex, posterior lateral parietal/temporal cortices, cingulate cortex, and parahippocampal gyrus are active. This network, called the default mode network (DMN), is associated with mind wandering, disruption of attention, autobiographical memories, judgment, self-referential thoughts, guilt, and emotional processing. This may explain why meditation is so difficult for beginners. When the mind wanders and they realize the mind has wandered, rather than cut and reorient attention, they criticize their performance (judgment), make self-referential evaluations ("This isn't for me; I'm just not good at this"), and simply reinforce the DMN. Tibetan Buddhists called the DMN nyon-yi, the nuisance mind or neurotic mind. In Sanskrit, this phase is called vijnana, or the divided mind.
3. Awareness of mind wandering (Salience Network)
This interval is the aha moment. This is the moment a practitioner realizes attention has wandered. The skilled meditator celebrates and reorients attention; the unskilled meditator returns to the default state: "This is frustrating!" "I can't do this!" etc. Active nodes include the cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. The cingulate cortex is involved in emotion formation, processing, learning and memory. The salience network and its functional architecture is involved in cognitive control, perceptual decision, and error processing, How we process the error- whether skillfully or unskillfully- will affect perceptions, learning outcomes and performance.
4. Letting go (Executive function) This is a critical choice point. The experienced practitioner chooses to let go of the distraction; the inexperienced meditator allows the choice to be made for him or her. Active nodes: basal ganglia, lateral ventral cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These nodes are involved in control, habit maintenance, and decision making. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), interestingly, lies in a unique position in the brain, with connections to both the “emotional” limbic system and the “cognitive” prefrontal cortex. The ACC likely plays an important role in affect regulation serving as a mediator between emotions and reason.
5. Re-orienting (Executive function)
The practitioner redirects attention to the object of focus. Active nodes: superior colliculus and frontal eye fields, temporal parietal junction and the superior parietal cortex.
During meditation, it is not uncommon to cycle through these intervals. We sit. We're focused. The mind wanders. At the point we realize the mind has wandered, we activate the salience network (which is associated with error processing and correction). Next, we choose to let go of the distraction, whatever it is, regardless of its content, its emotional charge, or intensity- or we may choose to indulge in the distraction and get lost in it. When we disengage and reorient our attention back to the breath, we activate the executive network. In attentional training, we trust the mind to find its equilibrium, without interference or resistance. The mind may be busy clearing out stuff. We let it work its cycle. Its cycle may include mental noise, thoughts, emotions, or images. We allow these processes to occur without interference.
Focused attention is one meditation technique. Another technique is called choice-less awareness or open-monitoring. This requires presence and awareness (which comes more easily after hours of focused attention practice). As counter-intuitive as it may seem, we sit and do nothing- analyzing nothing, resisting nothing, censuring nothing, judging nothing, expecting nothing, encouraging nothing. The mind may be restless; we are aware that the mind is restless. We remain relaxed, open, curious, and disengaged.
If the mind picks up a thought, we watch the mind playing with the thought like a father watching a child. The father is interested in his child, not the toy.
Here, it is important to understand the difference between having thoughts -which is the mind's activity- and being engaged with thoughts- which is the activity of the doer. When you find you have been engaged in thinking whether for a few seconds or for some time (salience), simply and effortlessly let go (executive), and reorient your attention back to your chosen object of focus (executive), letting go of the doer.
Mind wandering can be a hindrance if not properly understood as a spontaneous and natural epiphenomena of mind. The reactive, conditioned mind can remain resistant to change of any kind. Properly understood, however, a wandering mind offers the resistance you need to train in the same way gravity offers resistance for a weight lifter. As a weight lifter may groan and grunt and strain against the heavy load, you, too, may find yourself groaning and grunting and straining against the resistance offered by your own mind. Keep relaxing, allowing, and letting go. By making exercise a habit, the weight lifter conditions his or her body and grows in strength. The weightlifter does not curse gravity. By training your mind, you strengthen the neural networks underpinning attention. Training is more intense when the mind kicks like a wild bull.
Gradually, the structure of the brain changes- as does the body with exercise- and you will find it easier to sustain attention, to disengage from emotionally charged thoughts, to bring the mind and body to a state of ease.
We watch all mental phenomena arise and pass away. We notice the unfolding, the habitual patterns, the chains of cause and effect, the automatic patterns coming and going, sensations arising and passing away. We do not control- this is a default mode function. Rather than resist, we zoom attention in to experience. We sit with whatever arises- including discomfort. Indeed, we learn to reframe discomfort as a good. This attitude of friendliness and openness makes it possible to sit with tension and fear. We observe whatever arises as it arises: if tension, tension. We sit with that, the tightness, the throbbing, the heat, the pulsing. If we can maintain the attitude of a dispassionate and objective scientist, we can bring attention and curiosity to it. Explore the sensations. Where does it start? Where does it end? How deep does it go? How far out does it radiate? What is its quality? How intense is it?
There is more freedom here. This is empowering. We realize we can choose our response. We are no longer as embedded with thoughts as we once were. We can choose to allow; we can choose to observe. Over time, the discomforts no longer have as much power over us. In time, conditioned responses may even be extinguished. Eventually, we begin to feel less reactive, more equanimous, less anxious.
Practice takes effort, initially, until practice becomes effortless. We learn to let go fully; we stop efforting- which is a default mode function. One may even reach a point of non-doing. Structural change takes time, however. Rewiring the mind takes time. Approach with patience and let the seed of practice germinate. In time, something beautiful will flower in the garden of the mind. And when it matures, it will self-propagate and spread with little effort on your part. You will have tilled and worked the plot you were given, attending to the conditions your seed of mindfulness needs to grow. That tiny seed will do the rest.
First published 5/18/20. Edited & republished 10/17/23.