Thursday, June 11, 2009

Meditation and Emotions

I recently took a look at Charles Tart's blog It looks very good. I left a comment on a recent post titled Meditation to Repress Emotions?.

The subject of emotions arising during meditation is something that ought to be considered by a beginner when he is just getting started. Meditation will unleash emotions. A beginner might start out thinking meditation will make him feel calm and serene. But it is also possible that this calmness of mind will lower defense mechanisms and eventually open an emotional Pandora's box. Beginners need to understand the potential for emotional turmoil. Working through emotions can be immensely healing in the long run but is can be difficult to go through. Not everyone wants to take that path. Some people may already be going through turmoil in their lives and they might not need any more. Dealing with emotions should be something that is chosen not something stumbled upon.

Vipassana or insight meditation is a good meditation for helping to get in touch with emotions. But concentration mediation will not let you hide from emotions either. The experience of Gopi Krishna who wrote "Living with Kundalini" is a good example demonstrating that concentration meditation will not let you hide from emotions. Gopi Krishna had a severe Kunalini experience while doing a type of concentration meditation. From my experiences with Kundalini "energy", I understand it to be caused by the release or expression of strong emotions. If muscle tension coincides with repression, then the release of emotions can have effects that are also experienced in the muscles and this I believe the cause of the symptoms and sensations that comprise the experience of Kundalini energy.

If a student begins asking about emotions arising during meditation, a teacher should make sure to explain the potential for an emotional upheaval exists in addition to the potential for serenity.

As I describe on the meditation page on my web site (linked above), an important part of meditation is finding the right balance between letting out and letting go of emotions. Each person has to find the right balance for themselves. If you focus too much attention on emotions (letting out) you may reinforce negative attitudes, but if you ignore emotions (letting go) they may lurk in your unconscious and cause difficulties in life.

It is also important to understand that there are different causes of emotions and the way to deal with an emotion depends on it's source. Some emotions come from how we think about things. Meditation is very good at helping with these emotions. When we sit and meditate we can't escape our thoughts. Even if we try hard to concentrate, thoughts will arise anyway. During meditation, we get a good look at these thoughts and emotions and we begin recognize how pointless they can be. We learn that they are not reality, they are just in our mind, and then their grip on us weakens.

However some emotions have a firm biochemical basis independent of our thoughts. This often occurs with depression or anxiety. Some people might have low levels of neurotransmitters or high levels of stress hormones. Meditating can strip away a person's defense mechanisms and bring these underlying emotions into their conscious awareness. Once these issues are out in the open it might not be easy to put them back. Beginners at meditation should be aware of this. Meditation can help cope with these issues but will not solve the problem. Sometimes changes in diet, lifestyle, or getting more exercise can be of greater help with these emotions than meditation.

Anyone who is interested in meditation as a means to calm the mind should also understand that substances like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, sugar and refined carbohydrates, can create mental turmoil. Anything that effects the brain will interfere with equanimity. These substances work in subtle ways, the effects may accumulate gradually and be difficult to notice. They can also cause withdrawal symptoms so the situation can get worse if you try to give them up. However, a healthy lifestyle can do as much for calmness of mind as a meditation practice. The two together are worth the effort.

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