The Emotions Didn't Change

Brigham and Women’s Hospital Neurosciences Research Center, Boston, March 2012

Excerpt from "Looking Back: My First Year as a Meditation Practitioner," by Kenji, Unready and Willing, June 2012: 

Ever since I started meditating regularly last year, one question I continued to ask myself was: “Am I happier?”

For the first three months, my answer was “no.” Contrary to my expectations, I often felt more emotional turmoil than I had before. It seemed as though any event, no matter how trivial, would set off a wave of depression, or sometimes an unstable rush of euphoria, the comedown from which was never fun. I’ve always considered myself to be emotionally sensitive, but this was ridiculous.

The reason for this intensification of emotions was not apparent to me until just recently. Much of it had to do with the meditation techniques that I practiced, techniques which were supposed to raise my awareness of every physical and emotional sensation, thus grounding my attention in my body and in the present moment. As a side-effect, it also made emotions feel stronger, and thus much harder to ignore.

Most every day, sometimes for one hour, oftentimes for two, I would sit on a cushion with my eyes closed and attend to any sensation, be it painful or pleasant, that manifested in my body, and would endeavor to remain detached from them. If a certain area in my lower back ached, for example, I focused all my attention on the ache, and tried to experience the pain without labeling it as either “good” or “bad.” In the clearest moments, thoughts and judgments about the pain became hushed and subdued to the point that I could regard the pain as nothing more than what it was: sensation. Although it wasn’t the goal, the pain itself would often subside not long thereafter.

Because I worked to improve my awareness of sensation, it was only natural that the physical sensations that characterize emotions like anxiety, sadness, or melancholy would be felt much more strongly than they had been before. Sometimes some small misfortune would trigger an unpleasant emotion and because I was more sensitive to this emotion, I felt as though meditation, rather than improving my overall sense of well-being, worsened it.

In reality, the emotions didn’t change. What changed was how I experienced them. The more I practiced, and the more I read about the practice, I realized that meditation was not meant to purge our minds of negative emotions or thought patterns, but rather meant to help us experience them without judgment. We were to let go of our resistance to pain at the deepest level and understand that we suffer not because pain is bad, but because our mind labels it as bad.

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