When I teach the topic of emotions and meditation I discuss the fact that meditation is very helpful when it comes to engaging with negative emotions. These emotions are a natural part of our human experience: waves of sadness, pain, jealousy, and anger are there to remind us that we are alive, and that we still have unresolved questions to address. At that point, meditation becomes a valuable tool to engage with these emotions. In a psychological study conducted by Sauer and Baer in 2012 two groups went through a process of anger induction which was followed differently: group 1 followed it with rumination (thinking about the anger and about what is it that made them angry) while group 2 followed with mindfulness meditation. Levels of anger were then measured for both groups and you probably won’t be surprised to read that group 2 was showing much lower levels of anger. Meditation offers us a healthy way to engage with our negative emotions by allowing us to “be with the emotion” or “sit with it”. What exactly does it mean to be or sit with the negative emotion?
Imagine a storm is coming and it carries some meaningful truth for you. It might be the storm of anger/pain/frustration/vulnerability/sadness. You stand at the door of your house, in the middle of the desert, and you have three potential ways to approach the experience:
1. Remaining outside, letting the storm sweep you away with its powerful wind.
2. Hiding inside your house, shutting all doors and windows, ensuring that the storm won’t have any access.
3. Standing in your own house while opening the door - connecting with the storm while being in a safe space – letting your fingers touch the rain, skin feel the wind, nose smell the wet earth that is carried with the storm – and knowing, throughout the experience, that you are safe in your own home and you could partially close the door (or shut it completely) if the storm becomes too wild at some point.
Option 1 refers to getting lost in the negative emotion (sadness, for example). As part of that choice you lose the understanding that the sadness is a visitor, and instead you become the sadness, losing all capacity to observe and learn. Option 2 refers to repressing sadness, pushing it away and avoiding it. Disowning a negative emotion means that you can’t observe it, release it, and learn from it. Option 3 is the experience of Meditation, which allows us to strike a healthy balance between two unhealthy extremes. As part of the meditative experience you find your internal home, the space where you feel connected to yourself, balanced, and from that place you have the psychological resilience to engage with your sadness. An engagement where you could observe it, feel it, learn from it, accept it, and let it gradually dissipate.
Open the doors of your awareness and let the storm be felt from the safety of your internal meditative home. This isn’t always easy or fun – and yet it is an incredible gift of growth and transformation.
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist, a senior lecturer, and the program leader of MAPP (Masters in Applied Positive Psychology) at the University of East London (UEL). His work is focusing on Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Spirituality. You can find his workshops, books, and scientific work on his website: http://www.awarenessisfreedom.com/