How to meditate on difficult emotions

About two years ago in February I traveled some distance to hear a favorite Buddhist monk talk. During a long break outside I struck up a conversation with a Korean Buddhist nun who was in the audience like I was. I told her I had a problem with the often repeated advice to just watch your feelings when you feel under duress. I told her that it often made the emotions worse for me, making me feel overwhelmed.

She recommended this book to me. I originally didn’t think much of the book when I started reading it two years ago and I did not think it was relevant to my problem with meditating on unpleasant emotions.

I picked it up again a few days ago where I left off and my impression of the book completely inverted. I now know why she recommended it to me. It has a technique for meditating on unpleasant emotions that is much more sophisticated than the often repeated just “watch your emotions come and go”.

“Don’t Look Down Your Defilements Are Laughing At You”
Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Pain/Unpleasant Sensations/Emotions
Pages 45 – 58

When you experience pains, aches and other bodily discomforts, it means you have a mental resistance to them and therefore you are not ready yet to observe these unpleasant physical sensations directly. Nobody likes pain and if you observe it while still feeling any resistance towards it, it will become worse. It is like when you are angry with someone; if you look at that person again and again you will become even angrier. So never force yourself to observe pain; this is not a fight, this is a learning opportunity. You are not observing pain to lessen it or to make it go away. You are observing it – especially your mental reactions to it – in order to understand the connection between your mental reactions and your perception of the physical sensations.

Check your attitude first. Wishing for the pain to decrease or go away is the wrong attitude. It does not matter whether the pain goes away or not. Pain is not the problem; your negative mental reaction to it is the problem. If the pain is caused by some kind of injury you should of course be careful not to make things worse, but if you are well and healthy, pain is simply an important opportunity to practice watching the mind at work. When there is pain, the mental feelings and reactions are strong and therefore easy to observe. Learn to watch anger or resistance, tension or discomfort in your mind. If necessary, alternate between checking your feelings and the attitude behind your resistance. Keep reminding yourself to relax the mind and the body, and observe how it affects your mental resistance.

There is a direct link between your state of mind and pain. The more relaxed and calm the observing mind, the less intense you will perceive the pain to be. Of course, if your mind reacts strongly to the pain (i.e. if you experience pain as unbearable) you should change your posture and make yourself comfortable.

So if you want to learn how to deal with pain skilfully, try this: From the moment you start feeling pain, no matter how weak it is, check your mind and body for tension, and relax. Part of your mind will remain aware of the pain. So check for tension again and again, and relax. Also check your attitude and keep reminding yourself that you have the choice to change your posture if you experience too much pain, as this will make the mind more willing to work with it. Keep repeating this until you no longer feel you want to watch the tension, the fear, the desire to get up, or the unwillingness to stay with the pain. Now you should change your posture.

When you are able to bear with pain, it does not mean that you are equanimous. Most of us start off by trying hard to sit for a fixed period of time, forcing ourselves not to move. If we succeed to sit for that full hour we feel great, otherwise we feel we have failed. We usually try to bear the pain longer and longer, i.e. we work on increasing our threshold of pain.

However, in this process we neglect watching the mind and we are not really aware of our mental reactions to the pain. We fail to realize that developing a high threshold of pain does not mean that the mind is not reacting to the pain.

If you stop forcing yourself to sit for a fixed period of time and instead start watching the mental reactions in the ways described above, your resistance to the pain will gradually decrease and your mind will become more equanimous. Understanding the difference between equanimity and being able to bear with pain is really important. Mindfulness meditation is not about forcing but about understanding. Real equanimity is the result of true understanding of the nature of liking and disliking through observation and investigation. It is best to look at pain directly only if you cannot feel a resistance to it. Keep in mind that there may be a reaction at a subtle level. As soon as you recognize mental discomfort, turn your attention to that feeling. If you can see subtle mental discomfort, watch it change; does it increase or decrease? As the mind becomes more equanimous and sensitive it will recognize subtle reactions more easily. When you look at mental discomfort at a more subtle level you may get to the point when your mind feels completely equanimous. If you look at pain directly and if there is true equanimity, mental discomfort will not arise anymore.

Remember that you are not looking at the reactions of the mind to make them go away. Always take reactions as an opportunity to investigate their nature. Ask yourself questions! How do they make you feel? What thoughts are in your mind? How does what you think affect the way you feel? How does what you feel affect the way you think? What is the attitude behind the thoughts? How does any of this change the way you perceive pain?

Try to apply the relevant points mentioned above to deal with any other physical discomforts such as itching, and feeling hot or cold. Moreover, whatever skills we learn in dealing with our reactions to physical discomforts can also be applied in dealing with defilements such as emotions of anger, frustration, jealousy, disappointment, or rejection as well as happiness, pleasure, lust or attachment. They and all their relatives – even their distant ones – should be dealt with in similar ways as pain. You need to learn to recognize and let go of both attachment and aversion.

When you investigate such emotions, it is important that you remind yourself that they are natural phenomena. They are not ‘your’ emotions; everybody experiences them. You always need to keep this in mind when you examine the thoughts and mental images that accompany emotions. All thoughts you identify with actually ‘fuel’ the emotions. However, when the emotion you experience is very strong, you might not be able to look at the accompanying thoughts without getting even more emotional. In such a case, it is usually best to first become very clearly aware of and look at the pleasant or unpleasant feelings and sensations that accompany the emotion. But if you find even looking at these feelings and sensations too overwhelming, you could turn your attention to a neutral or pleasant object, for example your breath or a sound. Doing this will skilfully distract the mind and stop it from thinking – or will at least reduce thinking. ‘You’ will no longer be so involved in the ‘story’ and therefore the emotion will subside. But do not completely ignore those feelings and sensations; take a look at them every now and then!

When a strong emotion has subsided, or when you are looking at a weak emotion, you will be able to look at the feelings, the thoughts plus the bodily sensations. The better you understand how they all interrelate, the more skilfully and effectively you will be able to handle any kind of emotion. Don’t forget to check your attitude: Check to see whether you really accept the emotion or whether you have a resistance towards it. Any unnoticed resistance to and any unnoticed identification with the emotion will ‘feed’ it, will make it grow bigger (snowball effect). Remember that the emotions do not need to go away at all. The objective is to know what the emotions feel like, to know what you are thinking when there are emotions, and to understand their ‘nature’ and the mind’s behavior.


**When you experience pain and bodily discomfort**

        A. It means you have a mental resistance to the pain and discomfort
                1. and are not ready to observe these sensations directly

**If you observe unpleasant sensations while having mental resistance to them**

        A. the unpleasant sensations will become worse

**You don't observe pain to make it go away**

        A. you observe it to understand the relationship between your mental
           reactions and your perception of the physical sensations.

**Check your attitude: don't wish the pain way**

        A. the pain isn't your problem, it is your mental reactions 
        B. it is an opportunity to watch mind at work.
                1. when there is pain, mental reactions and feelings are strong
                  and easy to observe.

**If necessary alternate your awareness between**

        A. your feelings
        B. the attitude behind your resistance.

**Remind yourself to relax your body and mind**

        A. observe how it effects the mental resistance
                1. there is a direct link between the state of your mind
                   and the pain
**To begin learning how to deal with pain skillfully**

        1.check your body and mind for tension, then relax
                A. repeat this, as part of your mind will be aware of the pain

**If you watch your mental reactions to the pain**

        A. your resistance to the pain will gradually decrease
        B. your mind will become more equanimous

**Equanimity is the result of understanding**

        A. the nature of liking and disliking
                1.  through observation and investigation

**Look at pain directly only when you don't feel mental resistance to it**

        A. or ONLY subtle resistance

**If you start to feel mental discomfort, watch that mental discomfort**

        A. does it increase or decrease?

**Check your attitude: you are not looking at the mental reactions to make them go away**

        A. but as an opportunity to observe/learn about your mental reactions
                1. how do they make you feel?
                2. what thoughts are in your mind?
                3. how does what you think effect how you feel?
                4. what thoughts are in your mind?
                5. how does what you feel effect how you think?
                6. what is the attitude behind the thoughts?
                7. how does this change the way you perceive pain?

**Try to apply these techniques to other discomforts and your emotions**

        A. both negative and positive emotions
        B. attachments and feelings of aversions

**When you investigate emotions** 

        A. remind yourself they are natural phenomenon
        B. remind yourself that are your not "your" emotions
               1. everyone experiences these emotions so they can't be "yours"
        C. remind yourself all thoughts you identify 
            with will fuel your emotions

**VERY STRONG emotions**

        A. might cause you to get more emotional when you look 
            at the thoughts associated with them

**When looking at thoughts associated with an emotion makes you more emotional**

        1. Look at the unpleasant and pleasant sensations of that emotion
                A. if that proves to be overwhelming    
                        1. turn your attention to a neutral object
                                A. your breath
                                B. a sound

**Putting your attention on a neutral object**

        1. will reduce or stop your mind from thinking, distracting it, 
           calming it.
                A. you will no longer be involved in the "story" and the
                   emotion will subside.

**Do not completely ignore those emotions and sensations, look at them
     every now and then.**

**When the strong emotions have subsided, or when looking at a weak emotion**

        A. you will be able to look at the feelings, thoughts, and bodily
                1. the more you understand how those 3 things interrelate,
                    the more skillfully you will be able to handle your 

**Check you attitude:  do you accept the emotion or do you have resistance to

**Any unnoticed resistance or unnoticed identification with an emotion**

        1. will feed that emotion

**Remind yourself that the emotions do not need to go away**

        A. the objective is to observe
                1. to know what the emotions feel like
                2. to know what you are thinking when you feel these emotions
                3. and understand their nature and the mind's behavior

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