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How to Mindfully Work with Difficult Emotions

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

angerWhen many people hear the word mindfulness they might picture someone sitting serenely on a meditation cushion on a pristine tan wooden floor awash with peace. While there may be a sense of inner peace at times, mindfulness is also about learning how to work with difficult emotions. The question that is often asked goes something like, “Sometimes I feel angry, anxious, sad, confused, or afraid when I meditate. How do I accept or let go of my emotions?” In A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook we answer this question.

”First of all, you don’t have to accept them. Acceptance implies being okay or at peace. Perhaps you can begin by acknowledging the feelings you’re directly experiencing. Mindfulness encourages you to acknowledge your emotions rather than trying to accept them, no matter what they are, without any censorship. Begin by observing that the very resistance to emotional pain often causes more pain, and that learning to “go with it” rather than fighting it causes the very relationship with pain to change and often diminish. The notion of “going with the pain” means that you acknowledge whatever is felt within the mind and body. It’s the act of just letting the waves of sensations and emotions go wherever they need to go and letting them be.

As far as letting go of emotions, we suggest putting your energy into learning to let them be. This is different from letting go. If you could figure out how to truly let go, life might be easier, but this is often difficult to do. By learning to let be, you begin to acknowledge the pain and provide a space for it to resonate in whatever direction it needs to go. When you learn to go with what’s happening rather than fighting it, suffering and resistance often lessen. When meditating, try allowing the energy of fear or any emotion you feel in the body or mind to just be, without striving to change it or push it away. Knowing how these feelings manifest in your mind and body is valuable information. Outside of practice, you can use these sensations as cues that you’re becoming fearful, anxious, or agitated. And as you sit with whatever emotion is there and the associated physical sensations, you’ll come to understand that whatever arises, even difficult emotions and the associated physical sensations, does indeed pass away.”

More than anything, approach this all as an experiment without expectations. It’s the expectations about how things “should” be that crash down on your present moment experience not allowing for a fresh experience. Be kind to yourself through this process, being human can be a struggle at times and an understanding of this can bring compassion, which enables resilience.