Week 5 Teacher Notes: Working with Thoughts & Emotions

This is a key week in the course. The meditations on thoughts and emotions present some of the most challenging and counter-intuitive material. At the same time, some students are likely to have their most important breakthroughs in this session. Furthermore, the approach we’re presenting here may contradict much of what people have previously heard and thought, and may even contradict the approaches taken in other meditation practices. In order to teach this material well it will help to be very familiar with, and to have explored in your own lives, the supplementary material provided throughout this weeks course notes.

7:00 Meditating on Thoughts and Emotions

Many of us are drawn to meditation in the hope of learning how to escape from the incessant chatter of our own minds.  We recognize that it’s often the overly critical or anxious voices in our own heads that keep us on edge or unable to sleep. I would suggest though, that these voices are only problematic because they are driven by — and in turn generate — emotions which we find difficult or uncomfortable.

The simplest and most common meditation techniques are basically invitations to direct our attention away from these sources of stress; so that we can find some respite from them, and a sense of being balanced or at ease.

This can be very helpful, but ultimately, I believe that we’ll need to actually look into the sources of our stress; so that we can learn more about how our minds function, and how we might be able to work with, rather than against, our thoughts and emotions.

With this in mind, we’ll do two new meditations this week; one focusing on thoughts, and one on emotions.

7:05pm — Mindfulness of Thinking

Surprisingly, many students who have spent years trying to stop their runaway minds, find that their minds stop of their own accord when they give themselves permission to think freely. That’s one of  the main premises, or strategies, for this week’s meditation on thought. You’ll find a lot more on the rationale behind this meditation in the article 12 good reasons to let yourself think in meditation, in the transcript of Eric Harrison’s ‘Thought Management‘ from his How to Meditate CD Set and also in the various additional articles on thinking I’ve posted on the MMC website.

The article on thinking orientations (from teachingmeditation.com.au, which requires the password medit8) may be of particular use as a framework for helping students understand alternative ways of becoming aware of their thoughts. In the debrief following this meditation I often illustrate how students have used some of these orientations, and that they often allow new perspectives and relationships to emerge.

Introduce this meditation as a meditation on thoughts. In other words, it’s a meditation in which you are free to think, as much as you like. You don’t have to make any effort to divert your attention away from thoughts. On the other hand, it’s not a meditation in which you must think. If you find your mind is naturally at rest, then that’s okay too. The intent here is to give you an opportunity — and a variety of novel ways — to explore your thoughts. We tend to relate to our thoughts in very habitual ways; and we’re usually fixated on the content of our thoughts, rather than on the thinking process, the purpose of our thinking, the nature of our thoughts and various other qualities worth investigating. You may find that your capacity to tolerate thoughts is enhanced through this approach.

7:30pm — Meditating with Sadness, Fear and Anger

I introduce the mediation on emotions with quite a lot of background information.

l start by asking if any of the class remember the subject Emotional Literacy, from school. Of course, no one will, and that’s the point. In our culture we don’t receive any formal education on what emotions are, what they are for and how best to relate to and express them. Essentially, we’re left to ‘wing’ it, and we pick up what we can from our parents and peers, teachers and role models, including the mostly dysfunctional ones displayed in film and TV.

Furthermore, emotions are a kind of cultural taboo. If someone say’s “You’re so emotional!” you can be fairly confident that you’re not receiving a compliment. We’re told that we should make our decisions based on logic and the intellect, rather than upon feelings.1

In this kind of environment we tend to suppress, avoid or censor our emotions. If we’re legitimately sad or angry, it may not feel wise, or appropriate to show that at work. And it’s not just the so-called negative emotions that get rough treatment. If you skip into work with a bounce in your step and a beaming smile on your face, that might also be considered inappropriate. We’re here to work afterall, and that’s serious business!

We may even feel ashamed for feeling sad, or guilty for feeling angry, and in this way emotions get compounded and confused. And if we feel that we must mask our emotions out in the world, then we’re likely to relate to our emotions in the same way even when we’re safely in our own homes, with only ourselves for company. In fact, many of us can’t stand being alone at all — and need to keep busy or distract ourselves in some way — less our suppressed emotions overwhelm us entirely.

Emotions of course, cannot be escaped. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains: emotions are action requiring neurological programs. That’s a bit of a mouthful as far as definitions go, but it explains very clearly what emotions are.

By neurological program he means a function of the nervous system. It’s the way we receive information — via our senses — about what’s going on in the world around us. For example, we find ourselves standing near a cliff. The nervous system communicates danger to us through the emotion of fear. And this emotion, like all others, requires an action: in this case, to take a few steps back.

So, in this meditation, we’re going to see if we can reclaim our emotional intelligence. We’re going to explore everyone’s favourite three emotions. Does anyone want to guess what they might be?

Happiness? Joy? Love?

Nah!

Anger. Yes!

Sadness. Yes!

Fear. Right!

Ughh!

See. There you are. Already suppressing these wonderful emotions!

Actually, we might finish up with a little happiness; but seriously who needs that? No one comes to [meditation] class because they have a problem with happiness!

Most of us don’t have particularly harmonious relationships with our sadness, fear and anger (nor most of our emotions) and it may seem rather strange to even talk about them in the context of meditation. Aren’t we meant to feel happy, peaceful and calm? Of course, most of the time we will tend to feel more peaceful and calm when we meditate, but there is no escaping our emotional lives. Emotions are an essential, undeniable part of being human, and we’ll tend to be calmer and happier to the degree that we’re able to welcome and work with all our emotions.

In the following meditation we actually welcome the big three (sadness, fear and anger) into our meditation, and explore what happens and how we can skillfully use these emotions in the service of becoming calmer and more balanced in their presence.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that sadness and fear are integral to a thriving meditation practice. You use both emotions every time you meditate — whether you know it or not. Let me explain. First fear. Every emotion can be experienced at various intensities. You might call fear — when it’s running high — panic, dread or terror. Conversely, when it’s under control, you might call it simply being alert, cautious, curious, or watchful. These are all states you will be familiar with from meditation. In fact, they are the recommended meditative states or emotions.

Let’s see how this works. At 10 on the fear scale you are panicked, looking around wildly, assuming that danger’s are looming in every direction. At 3 on the fear scale you sit like a cat or dog on the front porch, ears pricked up, listening out attentively. At 1 on the fear scale you are alert and awake, interested in what’s going on around and within. Note that when you an experience an emotion at 10, the tendency is to try and escape that feeling. You resist the experience. Conversely, at 1, the emotion is quite subtle. It’s tolerable so you tend to be more accepting. You let it flow freely, as all emotions must.

Sadness works in a similar fashion. When it’s overwhelming you might call it despair or depression. You’re inconsolable and you tend to resist these feelings with all your might. When sadness is less intense you might refer to it as feeling blue, weary, down, low, or heavy. Interestingly, these are all words people use to describe what it feels like to be relaxed! Isn’t it intriguing that we use the same words for relaxation and sadness?

Of course, sadness is the emotion we feel when we let go, when we experience some loss: a friendship, a favourite possession. Letting go, of course, is another common meditative expression. We invited, for example, to let go of tension. It’s the opposite of holding on. Letting ourselves sink down (into the depths and darkness) is the process which triggers relaxation. It’s a movement down and in. It contrasts with fear, which is a movement out and up.

So let’s dive into fear and sadness, along with anger, and maybe some contentment and joy to finish.

Keep in mind that I’m not asking you to dredge up the most demoralising or terrifying experiences in your memory here! I’m not asking you to try and feel sadness and fear, or anger, at 10 on the scale. In fact I’m not asking you to try and manufacture these feelings at all. I’ll just guide you through a regular meditation, much like all the previous meditations we’ve done — but this time, I’ll invite you to notice whether you can recognise some of the flavour or sadness as you relax, and some of the flavour of fear when you engage the curious outward-directed parts of your mind.

Are there any questions? These concepts may be quite new and unfamiliar to some of you. It’s okay if they don’t quite make sense. Hopefully you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about during the meditation itself. If not, that’s okay too. The intention here is just to convey the message that it’s okay to feel. It’s okay to have emotions; and every emotion serves a useful purpose. In meditation we don’t have to censor our emotions. Meditation is a ‘safe space’ in order to tune into them.

To teach this material effectively you’ll probably need a good understanding of the material prented in Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions. You can access an online version of the material covered in Karla’s book here. (You’ll need the password: letmein). Karla’s youtube channel is also a great source of additional information on emotions.

For more on working with emotions refer to the article Mindfulness of Emotions, and the Student Notes for Week 5.

Here’s a brief summary of the basic principles recommended for working with emotions (from Karla McLaren): Please remember that your task is not to manage your emotions, but to become a fluid and agile conduit through which emotional energies can flow freely. It doesn’t matter whether your emotions are pleasant, uncomfortable, mild, or intense — what matters is that you use your skills to welcome them, channel them, and honor their vital information. Remember the twin mantras for all intense emotions: “The only way out is through” and “This too shall pass.”

1. Recent neuroscience, however, suggests that no such duality exists. Every decision we make has an emotional component. Interesting studies have been done on people who have suffered damage to the emotional processing parts of the brain. Such people can still communicate. Their brains still work, but they are unable to function because they can’t make decisions. The can have all the ‘facts’ at their disposal, but because they don’t have any preference (emotion) for one fact over another, they are incapable of deciding which facts are relevant.

Week 5 Homework

Invite students to consider what they’ve learnt over the past five weeks, how they’ve implemented what they’ve learnt and what challenges they’ve faced or still have to face. Encourage them to think about what they’d like to address in the final week; what questions they might have or if there are types of meditation they’d like to cover or discuss. Suggest that we’ll customise the final week according to their particular needs and interests.
If there’s time, finish with a NEW spot meditation of your choice. I would suggest a simple ‘Three Point Check’ of body, mind and mood, perhaps based on Track 1 (Anxiety Alleviator) of my CD, A Taste of Meditation.

On to Week 6.