Working with Difficult Emotions

In recent months I’ve been fortunate to add the title of “new mother” to the list of many selves with which I identify. I also identify as an American citizen and a woman of color, and continue to be on an emotionally turbulent ride after our recent election season here in the US.

Lack of sleep, the darkness of the season here in Vermont, and the charged political climate have created the right conditions to produce feelings of exhaustion, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, and anger. Self-critical thoughts are an added “bonus” in the struggle to deal with this overwhelmed state.

I am humbled by these challenges. I also know I’m not alone in experiencing them. In conversations with other new mothers, psychotherapy clients, fellow meditators, relatives, and friends, I hear others also trying to cope with intense emotions and discover how to act from a place of wisdom.

How can meditation practice help with this endeavor? Another question that’s perhaps less obvious: how can difficult emotions help with meditation practice?

A common misunderstanding is that mindfulness meditation is all about quieting the mind and feeling blissful and relaxed. Though these are sometimes byproducts of meditation practice, it’s important to remember that insight meditation has been and always will be about waking up. It’s about waking up to the true nature of this life, not so that we can be happy, but so that we can be free.

It’s helpful to recognize that challenges like strong emotions are actually necessary material – grist for the mill of our practice. Without them there’s nothing to fuel our quest to awaken; there’s nothing to push against. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings is described in the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, it has a cause, it has an end, and there is a path for attaining that end. Notice that suffering comes first in this list. Without suffering there is no path to embark upon.

Emotions have the power to motivate one toward wise action when facing a challenge. They can also cause intense suffering, drive and distort our behavior, and lead to regret. Being able to work with emotions, both intense and subtle, is a skill that can be developed through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness helps us to bring concentration, clarity, and equanimity to every kind of experience in this life. It creates space to make choices from a place of balance instead of from a place of reactivity.

What we need to awaken is here in our lives. It’s in the unpredictable and sleepless “night parenting”, the reactions to dark and dreary November weather, and in the fear and anxiety about a powerful country’s unknown future. This earth, perhaps now more than ever, needs citizens willing to turn toward their internal challenges in order to act externally with wisdom and compassion. How will you use the challenges life has presented to you today?