Thoughts and emotions in meditation

From the Tricycle magazine 

Tricycle magazine

Did the Buddha teach us to get rid of our emotions?

We may think—or even hope—that Buddhist practice will help us switch off unpleasant emotions so that we don’t have to experience them. Sorry, but emotions are part of being human! However, they don’t have to cause so much suffering.

Nearly always, pleasant and unpleasant emotions are a reaction to something. Vipassana meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says that emotion is how our awareness relates to an object, tangible or intangible. Sometimes we want to cling to emotions and indulge them; at other times we want to suppress them and pretend they aren’t there. Both indulging and suppressing emotions are forms of craving that actually feed the emotion. The Buddha taught that people who have not awakened go through life being pulled this way and that by desire and aversion, and our emotions are the strings.

But even though we cannot switch off our emotions, we can work to loosen their grip and be free of their control. Through practice, we can reduce our reactivity and learn to accept our emotions. Buddhism teaches that one of the most basic ways to do this is through the practice of mindfulness. When an emotion arises, acknowledge it without judgment. You might even attach a label to it―Fear. Anger. Regret. Desire. Gradually you will start to notice how your emotions are tied to habitual reactions. Accepting emotions, rather than indulging or suppressing them, allows them to arise and pass away. With practice, we can break away from our old patterns and respond to circumstances more freely.

Sometimes emotions are described as impediments to enlightenment. But other teachings, particularly those from the Mahayana tradition, point out that working with them mindfully can be a skillful means (upaya, methods to attain awakening) to enlightenment, so we may need to pay attention to what they are telling us. For example, a Buddhist teacher might advise not to try to suppress a flush of anger because of the thought “It’s bad to be angry,” and not to cling to it or justify it, either. Instead, try asking where that anger is coming from. If you are angry because someone has jostled your ego, then the problem is ego, not the anger or the person who is the object of the anger. That’s an important lesson to learn.

A difficult emotion, such as deep grief, can stay with you for a long time, and our first reaction is often to try to distract or numb ourselves. Yet if we have the courage to accept a difficult emotion—or to ask others for help—healing can begin.

Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön explains how to to meditate with our emotions, and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche writes about the deeper wisdom hidden within our feeling states. The author Daisy Hernández breaks down common misconceptions about equanimity, writing it’s not passivity or the absence of emotion, but emotional balance. 




Is the purpose of meditation to stop thinking?

If you have begun meditation practice and find yourself frustrated because you just can’t stop thinking while meditating, relax. Buddhist meditation is not about stopping thoughts or emotions.

Humans can’t deliberately stop thinking any more than they can will themselves to stop digesting. But this doesn’t have to be a problem. Thinking is simply what minds do; the only problem is when we get caught up in the thoughts and react to them automatically, without consideration. Accepting that is easier said than done, of course. Usually one of the first things we notice when we begin to meditate is how busy our heads are. We discover the “monkey mind” and how hard it is to maintain focus even for a few seconds, as thoughts swing about uncontrollably in our heads like wild monkeys. Even though we can’t stop thoughts, however, we can strengthen our focus and stabilize the mind so we don’t indulge every thought that arises.

In all contemplative schools of Buddhism, beginners are advised to watch thoughts as they arise and pass away. In the early scriptures, the Buddha advised his disciples to be especially vigilant about thoughts that gave rise to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. Recognize such thoughts as unskillful and don’t dwell on them, he said. In time, such thoughts lose their grip and fade away. Conversely, the Buddha advised disciples to cultivate skillful thoughts that give rise to generosity, compassion, wisdom, and the like when they arise.

Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers have compared the mind to a mirror. Just as reflections leave no trace on a mirror, our thoughts and emotions are reflections leaving no permanent trace on the mind. Another metaphor compares the mind to the vast, open sky, and thoughts and emotions to the clouds that pass by. What’s important is to let thoughts and emotions arise and fade without identifying them as “self.” In time, we experience thoughts as passing sensations, just as we might feel the warmth of the sun or a cool breeze.

Is it possible to reflect without thinking? Ajahn Brahm explains how treating your mind as a friend rather than an adversary might help calm your thoughts. Still, your thoughts will probably never completely stop, says author and teacher Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

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