Updated: May 17
There are several 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.
Note: In rare situations where a quick response means the difference between life and death, safety and injury, or capture and escape, I default to instinct. However, even in instances where the danger was not misperceived and I was 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 wound/s 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. We counter 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.
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 officer feeling pangs of shame, sadness, or despair after learning of the atrocities committed by his government. Would these so-called negative emotions not serve a noble purpose? These unpleasant emotions may be important messengers pointing us to peace. Allowing them to express freely often will lead us to clarity.
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.
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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. Holding on to these 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? By habitually denying the expression of so-called negative, unpleasant, unwanted, or "bad" emotions, I may be alienating myself from my Self.
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, the annihilation of ego- not death of the body, which comes to all soon enough without the need for hastening its arrival.
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. I had received admission to a top university, but education did not offer me hope of liberation from this weariness. Like St. John, I, too, 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.
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.
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,” the 12th Century Sufi poet 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.
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." The weed can be an insecurity, 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).
The goal is to recognize the mental states that cloud that 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 as we practiced in session 5. 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.
With mindfulness, we can reappraise, recast, and challenge thoughts that are causing us distress. 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. 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.
Step 2 is to relax into it. I can dial down the sympathetic (stress) response and cultivate parasympathetic dominance. 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.
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, etc. is also sincere, I can approach with authenticity, from an embodied experience.
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. 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 precious. 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.