2,600 years ago, the Buddha taught that life will inevitably have some degree of sorrow, pain, and difficulty. It’s nothing personal. We aren’t being punished, nor are we failing at life. This is simply how it goes in this incarnation.
Yet, somehow we continue to believe that difficult emotions are not supposed to be here. We have, as author Ezra Bayda calls it, an entitlement that life ought to feel good all the time. All too often, meditation practice becomes hijacked by this entitlement. Rather than learning to relate in an open and honest way to what’s arising in the moment – pleasant or not – we instead use it as just another mode of escape; meditating in order to bypass the painful parts of our selves. When our difficult emotions are not included in our practice, we are missing out on the deep and profound transformation meditation can offer – mainly a new way to hold our pain, which essentially allows it to become fertilizer for wholesome qualities of mind such as wisdom, ease, and compassion.
This particular three-part meditation is a wonderful way to begin to transform the difficult emotions we come across in our lives. It begins by acknowledging the felt sense of the emotion and introduces a new way of relating to it. This first step teaches us how to open fully to the sensations of the difficult feeling. We let go of the storyline and experience the actual underlying bodily sensations as they arise. Basically, we are training our nervous system to learn to stay and relax when things are unpleasant, rather than tense up and immediately try to run away. This also sparks a curiosity and a courageous willingness to be right there in the middle of the fire, so to speak, strengthening trust in our selves and showing us that our hearts and minds are spacious enough to hold the “10,000 joys and sorrows” life will inevitably bestow on us.
The next step acknowledges and bows to our suffering with this difficult emotion. We are acknowledging the fact that this particular way of feeling causes us a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, and/or difficulty. It’s an honest reflection of the struggle you experience when you feel this emotion. Step one teaches us to respect the feeling itself, while step two teaches us to respect how difficult and messy that feeling is in our lives.
The final step is the most radical and transformational. It’s a reminder that we are not alone in our suffering. Whatever we are feeling right now, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of people feeling exactly the same way. This last step helps us shift from “I am suffering”, to the simple fact that, “There is suffering.” To practice this step, we send out a wish or a prayer of loving-kindness to all people feeling the same way we are. This allows us to use our suffering as a way to cultivate compassion and gives it meaning. With practice we become willing to experience this suffering fully in order to help others be free from that same feeling. If we can learn how to be with it, we will be able to be with others who feel the same way, ultimately bringing healing and ease to those who are suffering just like us. As we learn to find peace and freedom among our suffering we can eventually help others do the same.
With continued practice of this three-part meditation you realize that the way out of suffering is going right through it. As the Thai forest meditation master Ajahn Chah once said, “Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering.”
May you all be free from your suffering.
To begin, find a comfortable seated position.
Place your hands on your knees or simply rest them in your lap.
Sit up tall.
Close your eyes.
Before we start this method for difficult emotions, first let us arrive fully to this moment.
Allow yourself to drop into the embodied experience of this very moment.
Feel yourself sitting in the position you’re in.
Feel yourself breathing in and out.
Listen to the sounds around you.
Notice the current state of mind.
For now, just let everything be as it is.
Become like a mirror, allowing your awareness to give a clear reflection of your body and your life, exactly the way they are.
(Pause and allow the meditator to settle into their experience)
Now, take three deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and exhaling slowly out the mouth, as if you were blowing out of a straw.
Breathing in, deep into the belly, then exhaling out slowly.
Do two more breaths like this at your own pace.
(Pause to allow time for the remaining breaths)
Allow your breathing to settle back in to a natural rhythm, breathing in and out of the nose.
Now, let’s begin the meditation for this difficult emotion you are feeling.
Part one begins by bringing one hand to the center of your chest.
Choose one hand and place it right in the middle of your sternum.
Feel the warmth of your hand and allow your heart center to soften.
For now, simply allow the emotion to be there.
Come into the felt sense of it.
Where does it live in your body?
What does it ACTUALLY feel like?
As you begin to become aware of the sensations of this emotion, see if you can relax your body around it.
What happens to the feeling when you give up resisting it, when you fully allow it to be there?
See if you can soften the breathing while you experience it.
Although the emotion may be in contraction, the rest of your body doesn’t have to be.
For the second part of this meditation, silently tell yourself how difficult it is to feel this emotion.
Let this be an honest reflection on how much this particular emotion causes suffering in your life.
Don’t add any judgments.
We aren’t saying I hate this stupid emotion, but rather we are simply being honest.
You might say something like, “When this emotion arises, it is very difficult for me
Once you repeat your honest reflection, try holding yourself and your emotion with spacious, loving awareness.
Notice what it feels like to hold your pain with care, rather than resist or struggle with it.
From here we move into part three – cultivating compassion.
As you sit here with this difficult feeling, remind yourself that you are not alone.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of people right now, in this very moment feeling exactly as you are.
Allow yourself to shift from, “I am suffering,” to “There is suffering.”
This difficult feeling is part of being human, and you are not alone.
Let your heart open and send out a wish of loving-kindness and compassion.
May all beings, including myself, be free from this difficult emotion.
May we find peace and joy in our hearts and minds.
May we learn to let go.
Feel free to send out any wish you want.
Make it your own.
Send out what you think would nourish you, right now, in this moment.
Now, bring your hand back down to your lap and take one deep breath in the nose, and slowly out the mouth.
Gently begin to move your body.
Wiggle your fingers and toes.
Rock your body side to side.
And when you feel ready, open your eyes.
Mark Van Buren is a mental fitness trainer, yoga instructor, musician, and the author of A Fool’s Guide to Actual Happiness, and, Your Life IS Meditation (Wisdom Publications). He is the go-to guide for all meditation and mindfulness-based training. With well over a thirteen years of deep experience in the field, Mark provides individualized mental fitness training, instructs meditation workshops, lectures, professional development days, corporate wellness classes, and runs silent retreats in a practical, yet accessible way. He offers simple tools and practices that can reduce stress, help with anxiety and depression, manage pain, and transform the many difficult aspects of life.