Much of the stress we experience is amplified by our painful emotions – by the feelings we’d rather not experience. These unpleasant emotions can be difficult to face, so it’s not surprising that we try to avoid them. Many of our compulsions and habits are driven by our attempts not to feel. We keep ourselves busy, work harder, or distract ourselves with food, entertainment, or the lives of others.

When we do this we tend to get caught up in small details and we miss the simple, calming pleasures of life. We block out the messages from our bodies and fail to listen to our healthier impulses.

It might seem logical to try and avoid the pain and discomfort inherent in life, but by failing to accept and experience these emotions we trap ourselves in an endless stress cycle. We try to think things through, not realising that our thoughts can amplify our distress.Consider the differing qualities of thoughts and feelings. The brain registers thoughts and ideas via electrical impulses. It’s like a computer, processing many things simultaneously and very rapidly. Notice how you can jump from thought to thought almost instantaneously. Think of a pink elephant, your name, what kind of weather we’re having. See how easy it is to move from thought to thought. So easy that we often don’t even notice that we’re doing it.

Now, feel miserable, feel terrified, feel excited, fall madly in love. That probably seems like an impossible request. Unlike thoughts, emotions can’t be conjured up out of thin air. We can think about them quickly, without feeling them – but emotions themselves require the production and distribution of hormonal cocktails within the body. We experience them as we might a shot of alcohol or coffee – a wave of sensation that washes over us – and the effects linger within the body.

True, our emotions can seem to rise up out of nowhere and engulf us. We can be calm one moment and angry the next, and an emotional outburst may only last a moment. The associated feelings and tensions don’t fade away quite so rapidly though. They can persist for minutes, hours, days or longer. To adequately deal with emotions takes time. First, just to be with those feelings – to consciously experience them. And then to integrate them into our lives. Meditation is an opportunity to do just that.

Since emotional processing takes time, whereas mental processing is effectively instantaneous it may seem more efficient to depend on our brains to resolve our difficulties. Unfortunately this doesn’t work. If we have no outlet, no time to experience and process our emotions, then our feelings are pushed aside, repressed. This is a little like never taking the rubbish out. If you take the rubbish out regularly you don’t have a problem. If you leave it too long you end up with a stinking, festering mess.

During meditation your wish may be to remain relaxed. However, it’s inevitable that as you let go of little tensions in the body, you’ll remember what made you tense in the first place. Whatever thoughts, sensations and emotions you have been holding at bay by staying tense are free to flood your awareness and be dealt with.

Meditation is actually a continuous cycle between tension and relaxation. The healthiest forms of meditation acknowledge this rhythm. The idea is not to block out all the discomforts and distractions, but to move with the natural flow of thoughts and emotions. You allow your body and mind to find an equilibrium – the point of balance between rest and excitement, indifference and alarm.

When emotions arise during meditation invite them into your awareness. Give them permission to wash in and out of the body. Sometimes they’ll come in like big breakers crashing on the beach during a storm, at others they’ll lap gently at the shore. Learn to appreciate both.