24 May 2018

Working with Difficult Emotions

Working with difficult or painful emotional states is an understandably frequent topic of discussion on mindfulness training courses. Feelings will out – perhaps all the more so in meditation which is, after all, a purification of the heart.

Skilful mindfulness practice lifts the lid on the mind’s suppressive tendencies and allows emotional turbulences to express and expend their energy. The process can hurt but, in so doing, as the poet Rumi famously put it, the meditator is cleared out for some new delight. For this reason painful emotions can be welcomed (as should everything else in meditation).

The first step is to recognise what is showing up. Feel and note what is arising. Finding a name for the emotion can help to clarify and appease the thinking mind – ‘sadness’, ‘fear’, ‘pain’ etc. Often emotions come in clusters or cocktail forms, with varying shades of affect. If one noting word does not come to mind, you can always use ‘feeling’.

Opening Up

Mental noting helps to anchor the attention in the moment, but the key is to feel the feeling. And allow the feeling – to open up to it and be with it. This is the second step: acceptance. Acceptance is not resignation; it is a courageous, patient willingness to bear and befriend. No small feat! Mindfulness is a radical path.

Implicit here is a key distinction between recognition of what is happening in the moment and mindfulness of what is happening in the moment. The latter is only fully present when there is also the awareness of the mental or attitudinal filters through which we are recognising the emotion. Mindfulness of sadness, therefore, is a clear acknowledgment of the feeling and the mental reactions to it (liking or not liking the sad feeling, wanting to get rid of it or to indulge it etc).


Acknowledging the relationship to the emotion enables a deeper knowing of the experience, particularly the interplay between mental and physical phenomena. You can even use the noting word itself to facilitate this awareness – if you are using a word such as ‘pain’ or ‘unpleasant’, see if you can also be aware of the felt-sense of the word itself. Alternatively, you can stay with a broad sense of how the emotion is affecting the body or ‘zero in’ on one particularly intense sensation.

Emotions are energy forms. The suffering we experience in reaction to unwanted emotions comes about through identifying with them as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ and the underlying aversion to the feeling. Is it possible to know all aspects of the experience – the feeling, the relationship to it, the process of cause and effect – in order to unbind from the pain-creating struggle? This is the third step: investigating.

Awareness itself is untarnished; its function is simply to know. Through the cultivation of mindful awareness, we begin to see how emotions arise in association with thoughts, memories and fantasies, and urges to avoid, control and suppress. We discover that it is possible to let go of mental stories, melt our resistance to unpleasant states, and allow the energy of the emotion to flow, express itself and move however it wants. In so doing, we find a way of stepping off the mental battlefield and abiding in peace.

A very helpful formulation for how to work with difficult emotions is the acronym R.A.I.N., which is outlined by psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach here.

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