So, you’re sitting. So far, so good. Body alert, senses open, mind settling on the breath, a butterfly alighting on a petal. But what do you do when a feeling arises, an emotion, a memory, some kind of shame, which rises through you like a burning wave? What do you do when every cell in your body screams to run away from whatever pain is arising? This is such a common experience for the meditator and it kind of makes sense; as you quieten the incessant background noise of the mind you make space for a deeper well. And that well can be a dark and bottomless pit. But make no mistake; that well is also the source of wisdom. The north star, the place you have been searching for in all your inquiries, in all your meanderings on the path to illusive peace. Seeing all that hidden away crap, allowing it to surface without fear and staring that wolf down is the work. That is meditation – the days of running away from yourself are over.
So, it builds, this unpleasant emotion. It is physical, like a burning under your skin, a desperate scratch, a cramp. In your soul. You squirm and fidget. Your thoughts become erratic. You will do anything to avoid experiencing this particular feeling. It grows and swells until it seems your body is incapable of containing it. It hurts; this vile, uncomfortable sensation. Surely you will burst, any moment, as this experience, too big to withhold, erupts out of you. But what really happens if you sit tight? If you fight every impulse to move away, if you really feel the sense of fullness, of pressure and let it be? Where can it go, this feeling? And what can it actually do to you? Have you ever hung around long enough to find out?
Try this – Take a step back from the emotion and explore it with curiosity. Allow it space. Give it permission to stay if it helps. Keep breathing and observing. Whatever it brings, feel it. Then feel it some more. Let the waves of sensation keep rolling in while remaining on the shore, watching. Learning.
One of my favourite meditation techniques is listening to sounds. Discovering this was a thing was a revelation to me; until then I had seen sound as a barrier to meditation, a nuisance, a distraction. And sound had been all those things, intruding on my practice, unbidden, until I came to see the sounds as part of my practice. That listening to ever deeper sounds, to layers of sounds, to the most distant sounds, enabling my senses to become alert and awake, tuned to hearing everything, could actually deepen my felt experience and root me more firmly in the mindful awareness of the present moment. And as my curiosity developed into the sounds around me, I began to experience them as a sensory dance. No sound is fixed and permanent. They come and go, some sudden, insistent and alarming, others weaving through in the background, softly. The sounds around you can became a wonderful anchor. For while it is obviously wonderful to sink into peaceful silence during meditation, this is not always possible, and it is therefore good practice to work with whatever presents itself in your surroundings, rather than feeling you must wait for the conditions to be perfect. For instance, unless live beside a clogged up, busy road where traffic is at a standstill, the wonderful thing about hearing vehicles pass is, just that. They pass. Their sound appears out of nowhere, swells and grows and then fades into the distance. Surely there could be no better metaphor for our thoughts and feelings. They arise within as if from nowhere, swell and grow, fighting for our attention in their insistent way, but then, left alone, they fade into the distance to be replaced by the next compelling thought or feeling. Witnessing them and watching them dance in and then out of your consciousness is a wonderful practice. Left alone they will drift away. What keeps them circling, fussing and bothering us, is our own inability to resist the bait, our own conditioning to believe everything our mind produces, our false belief that each and every thought requires attention.
So, next time a dark, fearful, uncomfortable or compelling emotion visits, acknowledge it, look sidelong at it, allow it space to float unbothered and then, like the car driving off up the road, let it recede into the distance, having travelled through you without creating a narrative or an inroad or an ever-growing tangle of feelings. Let it come. Just that one – passing through.