In meditation practices, especially at the beginning, we focus on our thoughts and minds. We observe the waves of our stream of thought, and explore the space where our mind is more still. But where do emotions come into the equation? What is the relationship between mindfulness practices and emotions? In order to be able to answer these questions, it is necessary to look first at the relationship between your feelings and your thoughts or mind. Moreover, these are open-ended questions, and there is no clear definition of what we call ‘emotions’.
Although there is no scientific consensus, an emotion can be defined as the biological state we experience in response to our nervous and psychological state, or our thoughts and feelings. There are many theories as to the way emotions function. Some argue that emotions originate in our physiology. In other words, we first have a physical reaction, then the brain interprets this reaction as an emotion. For example, when we come face-to-face with a thief, our body starts to tremble and this generates an emotion; we think, “I’m shaking, therefore I’m scared”. Another theory suggests that these responses occur simultaneously. According to evolutionary theory, emotions exist to direct us to activities that will enhance us: we experience sadness, shame, or love in order to enhance our chances of survival by socializing, mating, and forming strong bonds. Although the working mechanism of emotions has not been fully explained, these theories provide us with a great deal of information about how we experience emotion. According to new findings, information from the environment first arrives at our emotional center and a message is transmitted from there to the higher and more developed region of the brain where thoughts are generated. Neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains this phenomenon in these words: “We are actually feeling creatures who think.” In other words, we are not “thinking creatures” in essence. In light of this information, we can speak of the existence of certain elements in the formation of our emotions: for example, our nervous system, thoughts and physiological reactions. But what does all this have to do with meditation?
Our primary intention in mindfulness practices is to be fully present in the moment. The mind constantly produces thoughts about the past or the future. In addition, it makes judgments and comments on situations. All this prevents us from seeing the present situation as it actually is, and creates a veil between us and reality. The negative and vigilant state that we experience when we are swept up in our chain of thoughts, judgments and interpretations that make up this veil is called “rumination”.
There are some striking conclusions regarding the relationship between emotions and rumination. According to research, when we experience an emotion, the time that passes between the release of the relevant chemicals in our body and the reuptake of those chemicals is about 90 seconds. However, as we generate thoughts and comments about our current situation, we trigger this chain over and over again. Thus, messages continue to be transmitted from our minds to bodies, bodies to minds, and we remain in that emotion for a very long period. So, do happiness, sadness, joy and grief go through similar cycles? As you may have guessed, the answer is no! You may have noticed that this cycle is more valid when you are experiencing emotions such as pain and mourning, rather than moments of happiness which you might wish would never end. The reasons behind this can be found in another study conducted with a group of university students. In it, the intensity and duration of 27 different emotions was investigated. While many emotions last for less than an hour or a few hours at most, sadness lasts the longest by far–up to five days. Although long-lasting emotions are likely to be associated with more important events, rumination is considered to be the greatest factor for this duration because our minds are tasked with warning us against dangers, and are therefore more focussed on negative states. Therefore, when a feeling surfaces as a sensation or a physical reaction, the mind can continue to nurture it and fan the flame.
Another option is to suppress or ignore the emotion as a defense mechanism. If you find yourself in a chain of thought that recurs in different situations, there is probably a suppressed emotion behind this. These emotions are associated with the more primitive region of our brains which is active in our earlier years of life. Our emotions that are waiting to be seen are like small children waiting to be approached with understanding and affection. If you hug them, see and share their emotions, they will relax and move on with their life. But if you keep ignoring the emotion, it will soon make a scene and never leave you in peace. We can think of these repetitive cycles of thought as our mind’s effort to insist on showing and telling us something.
In both cases, it is not possible to see the emotion as it actually is. We usually do not experience an emotion, but rather a distorted reality. As we progress in our journey of meditation, we begin to explore the nature of our mind and how it works, from within. The ability to step back from this rumination lies at the heart of mindfulness. As our practice of meditation deepens, we gain the ability to step back from our chain of thought and take an external look at our thoughts and interpretations of the present moment. This, in turn, begins to change the way we relate to our emotions. Fortunately, the structure of the mind can easily be reshaped by regular practice, and we have the ability to witness our emotions as they actually are without getting lost in our judgments!
Our knowledge of meditation dates back to ancient times, and tells us that in order to reach a state of pure consciousness it is necessary to peel off, layer by layer, everything that we call “me”. Everything that we define as ourselves and that builds our ego by isolating us as a person from the unity of the whole… First comes our name, our attributions, and status. Then come the thoughts that we carry like a part of us. Therefore, our first intention is to notice our mind and thoughts. As you begin to notice thoughts and judgments and let them go, one layer of thought slips away and falls apart. When we peel off this layer, we find the emotions of the “me” below it. Have you ever felt like you have come to this point in your meditation practice? This experience is different for all of us. Some of us may experience violent feelings such as anger, sadness, and mourning, depending on the issues that we are currently dealing with. Some of us may feel excited or full of love, and these may surface again and again during meditation. Sometimes, the space that meditation provides us can bring feelings such as peace and pleasure. Here, just as we do with thoughts, the main thing is to observe them passing and allow them to flow. Meditation is about allowing. Whichever type of meditation you practice, when you notice your emotions, your primary intention should be to stay in the present moment and observing them. What does this feeling look like? Does it have a color, shape, texture? Imagining these emotions, identifying where they correspond to in our body (if anywhere) and experiencing them as a physical sensation can take us to a deeper layer of awareness. Whatever the feeling, let it flow over you like a streaming river. Without getting caught up in the emotion, watch it as an observer: what is happening in you right now? Is it a physical reaction? Let it come out. When there is a desire to cry, smile, laugh, or shout, you can let all of that appear. If you shed tears, allow yourself to stay in the experience of crying. For example, laugh as much as you need to laugh, and then can continue your practice with the intention not to comment on it.
However, here is a fine line to consider. Sometimes emotions and the corresponding bodily reactions are so extreme that it can be challenging to let them go when we turn down our critical inner voice or are alone with ourselves. If we are practicing silent and motionless meditations when this happens, the effort to maintain this may be difficult and even unnecessary. Experiencing intense emotions means that your nervous system is alert and, in many cases, is caused by the loss of a sense of safety. Even when we experience what we commonly call ‘positive’ emotions, our body can release more adrenaline than normal. If these systems do not settle down and we cannot send a signal to our brains that we are safe, it can be difficult to experience these emotions. Instead, you may turn to activities that help you to healthily drain away the intensity of emotions, for a while. These can be sports or physical movement, or hobbies such as arts and crafts. You can also try other ways to calm your nervous system down, such as swinging, engaging in outdoor sports, or being in contact with water. Another alternative is to try meditations whose focus is solely to express emotions. Examples of these include dynamic meditation, kundalini meditation, or dancing with body awareness to the music you want.
Could it be that accepting and letting go is essential in the relationship between your emotions and meditation? Not resisting what is coming, letting yourself go with the flow, and seeing what awaits to be seen helps all your feelings float like a feather. When you allow yourself to go with this gentle flow, it is possible to experience emotions in their exact place and moment, as they actually are. I hope you can look at your emotions without judgment and let them flow over you in your next meditation practice! Have you had any experiences with the emotions you experienced during your meditation practice? How did it feel to experience these and what did you gain from it? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!
Written by: Hümeyra Cengiz
Translated by: Ebru Peközer