How can I work with strong emotions in meditation?

Susan Moon offers advice on working with the intense emotions that can arise in meditation, one of the most frequently asked questions about challenges on the spiritual path..

Susan Moon
1 November 2018
Photo by Craig Whitehead.

Question: I’m afraid of the intense emotions that come up when I am meditating. Sometimes I feel deep sadness and other times I’m taken over by anger. Should I stop meditating when emotions begin to overwhelm me, or are there ways to work with them in meditation?

Susan Moon: The quiet space of meditation can be an open house for troubled thoughts and feelings, who enter uninvited and take advantage of the captive audience of my mind. When this happens to me, I find that it’s what I then say to myself—the judgments, the self-blame—that does the damage. I try to remember my bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Years ago, I went through such a rocky time that sitting in meditation only made matters worse.

One thing you can do is turn from thoughts to the body that is always with you. What are the sensations of anger? Is your scalp burning? Feel the simple heat. When sadness overwhelms you, put your hand on your heart. Spread your fingers and feel the warmth of your chest. Keep your hand there as long as you want.

One day, torturing myself with habitual regret, I tuned into my body and saw myself bent under the weight of the heavy chains I was dragging behind me. “Drop the chains of regret!” I roused myself. The weight fell away. When I stood up from meditation, I was taller and straighter.

Buddhist teaching urges us not to turn away from what’s difficult, but there are different ways to meditate. There could be times when it’s better to leave the cushion. Years ago, I went through such a rocky time that sitting in meditation only made matters worse. I had to move. Those days, I walked hard and fast in the hills behind Berkeley, calling to the trees for help, and they helped me.

I came back to the cushion, knowing that there’s no wrong way to meditate.

Susan Moon

Susan Moon

Susan Moon is a writer and teacher and for many years was the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of socially engaged Buddhism. She is the author of This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Dignity and Humor and The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, a humorous book about an imaginary Zen master. She edited Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism.