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Lovingkindness Meditation

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When meditation seems to stir up negative emotion

stonesI recently had a student write and say that after three years of practicing the mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana practices, with his practice being daily for the previous several months, he’d noticed that he was experiencing an upsurge in negative emotion. He was naturally concerned about this and he wondered whether this was going to be the shape of things to come.

I reassured him that these things happen in waves, and that things would almost certainly change. There’s nothing inherent about meditation that brings up negative emotion, and in fact people who meditate regularly generally experience more positive emotion than the average.

The writer was unfortunately a bit vague about exactly what kind of negative emotion he was experiencing. It could have been anxiety, irritability, or depression, for example, and I found myself having to stab in the dark (to use a rather un-Buddhist metaphor) hoping that something I said might be useful to him. An edited and expanded version of what I wrote is below, and I’ll update this if he writes back with more detail about what’s been going on with him. I offer this in the hope that something I’ve said might resonate with you.

I thought of a few things that might have been happening to bring about the increased negativity he talked about.

1. It may be that he’d been noticing his negativity more and also perhaps also responding in unhelpful ways to it — being negative about being negative, so to speak.

My suggestion here would be to simply notice the feelings of negativity without judgment, perhaps taking a friendly interest in them. It’s possible, for example, rather than saying “Oh, no. Here’s another negative emotion,” to say “Ah! A negative emotion! I wonder what that’s all about? Let’s spend a bit of time together and see what’s going on.”

2. He may have become more sensitive on an emotional level, and also been more vulnerable because he hasn’t yet found ways to experience hurt without reacting.

My suggestion here would be to learn to empathize with your own sense of hurt. It’s all too easy to see being hurt as a kind of failure and to get into negative states as a result. We can welcome the sense of hurt into our experience and again just sit with it, taking a friendly interest. It’s valuable to locate the sense of hurt in the body, to see exactly where the feelings are situated, and to send metta there, repeating “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering,” just as if this were a friend who was in pain.

3. He may have inadvertently been cultivating some kind of negative emotion in his meditation practice. I used to notice this in my own practice many years ago when I became very attached to having the right conditions for meditating. I was living in the city at the time and was fairly new to meditation. I really wanted quietness to meditate in, but there was always something going on outside my flat — taxis idling, people fighting, a guy shouting the titles of the newspapers he was selling. When I got disturbed I’d end up furious because of the frustrated desire for silence that I had, and sometimes I’d have quite violent emotions arising — highly ironic when you’re doing the development of lovingkindness practice!

I’m not suggesting that this was exactly what this student was doing, but it may be that he had his own version of this malady, in or out of meditation — some sense that things “ought” to be a certain way and a sense of frustration when, inevitably, they turn out not to suit his desires.

My suggestion here would be to try putting your expectation into words so that you can be more conscious about the clinging that’s going on. This allows you to take the expectation (perhaps something like “I expect it to be quiet when I meditate”) and analyze it to see if it makes sense, and to see what other assumptions might go along with that expectation or underlie it. For example you might dig around and find that there’s an unspoken assumption in your mind that runs like this: “I’m special, and my meditation practice is special, and I expect the world to recognize that.” Now this kind of assumption seems rather absurd when it’s spoken out loud or written down, which is the whole point of the exercise! Once you’ve realized the absurdity of the ego’s view of itself it’s a bit easier to find a lighter attitude and to let go of your expectations more easily.

So those are a few suggestions as to why one might feel an upsurge in difficult emotions through meditation, and of the kind of things we can do about them.

Comments

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Comment from Jani
Time: December 18, 2009, 9:28 am

In addition to the abovementioned issues, I have experienced sometimes quite strong negative emotions regarding disappointment. Out of the blue, a knowing voice inside tells me that everything I had struggled for (and paid for dearly in terms of wellness, happiness, relationships etc.) was in vain.

It’s feels easier not to see that kind of things. Of course they should, instead, to be embraced warmly. It’s a lesson worth learning, however hard it feels.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 21, 2009, 9:51 am

Wow! Yes, it’s a tough thing to realize that we’ve been pursuing goals that weren’t going to work out for us. It’s tempting when that happens to beat ourselves up about it, but of course that’s just another unhelpful pattern that isn’t going to help us. At those times what we need is to have compassion for ourselves, so that we can process our disappointment and move on.

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Comment from Fiona
Time: March 29, 2011, 4:17 am

After practicing meditation, I feel I have become silent and withdrawn. I am not the usual self as I was before. I think twice before I speak and rather keep quiet so that I do not offend the other. I feel peaceful but all that bubbly attitude of mine has somehow been lost. I do not try to become over friendly as I used to be but my family life is peaceful. Why do we get detached from friends and about the world around us?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 29, 2011, 12:37 pm

Hi Fiona.
There can be various things going on. You don’t say what kind of meditation you’re doing, but it’s helpful if mindfulness meditation is balanced with lovingkindness meditation, so that we stay in touch with our emotions and maintain our sensitivity to others. It can also be the case that there’s some inadvertent repression going on, where you’re forcing your attention onto one aspect of your experience (such as the breath) and ignoring your emotional side. And sometimes people’s relations with others can be tinged with things like a fear-based desire to impress or to be liked, and if that vanished we have to recalibrate our personal relationships. Certainly, I don’t think it’s at all inherent in meditation that we cut off from other people or the world around us. Long-term meditators have been shown to be more empathetic and more compassionate, so I’d suggest that what you’re experiencing is just a temporary phase. My main recommendation would be just to keep going, to pay more attention to your feelings and emotions during meditation, and to make sure you alternate mindfulness practice with lovingkindness meditation.

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Comment from PM76
Time: August 23, 2012, 12:10 pm

Item #3 mentioned above has been happening to me quite a bit. I feel that if only there was silence around me, I could make some progress…

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 23, 2012, 12:56 pm

It’s great that you’ve identified what’s going on, because that will help you to work with the situation. You can now think of progress in terms of learning to be at peace with the noise around you, and you can work on developing peace by using any sounds that are present as an object of mindfulness. Mindfulness is mindfulness, whatever it’s mindfulness of. Mindfulness of sounds is mindfulness, just as much as mindfulness of the breathing. So see if you can just allow the sounds to be there, letting go of any reactive thinking that arises. And let the sounds be part of your awareness, just as much as the breathing or other sensations from the body.

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Comment from Carlo
Time: September 3, 2012, 10:35 am

I have being meditating for a month now for about 40 minutes twice a day. I have being feeling good most of the time. however, sometimes i felt like some negative emotions were raising to surface like anxiety or sadness. I try to see those emotions without identifing with them and being aware that it is part of the meditative process. especially for people that approach the meditation for the first time. The motto for me is to continue meditating untill i feel better! Blockages of negative emotions needs to be cleaned up! Practice may be the keyword.

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Comment from Rebecca
Time: January 25, 2013, 5:57 am

I am fairly new to meditation. When I try loving kindness and direct it to myself I find a lot of sad feelings arise, particularly as I picture myself as a young child. It can make me tearful and ache in my heart. Do you have any advice on what this means and how to deal with it?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 25, 2013, 10:08 am

Hi, Rebecca.

I don’t think there’s any need to explore what it means. There’s sadness there, and that’s simply a fact to be dealt with. I’d suggest just allowing the sadness to be there, and meeting it with kindness. Imagine when you’re meeting your sadness that you’ve actually meeting a dear friend who is sad. The main things are to be a loving presence for your friend, to be accepting (“it’s OK to feel sad” rather than “Snap out of it”), and to show kindness in your attitude and even in words. So you can, as you pay mindful attention to your sadness, say to the sadness, “May you be well; may you be happy” as we do in lovingkindness practice.

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Comment from Raj
Time: February 14, 2013, 7:39 am

How to work with repetition of thoughts ,overseansitivity to happenings of the day, mind chattering during meditation. also at time pain and hurt is felt anatomically around left side of brain at times seems to be prints of old sanskara, or overreaction to hurt pain has left some prints or chemical changes in brain.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 14, 2013, 10:45 am

Hi, Raj.

Start with the mind-chattering during meditation. It’s just a normal part of experience. Notice the thoughts. Let go of them and return to the breathing If you’re judging yourself for “not meditating well” then let go of those thoughts and return to the breathing. Do that a thousand times, a million times. You’ll start to feel calmer and more patient, even if there is still thinking going on. This patience will spill over into your daily life.

If there’s pain, just notice the sensations of the pain in the same way. It’s just a sensation. Notice it. Let go of any thoughts about it. If you’re familiar with lovingkindness practice, then send your pain thoughts of lovingkindness: may you be well, may you be happy.

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Comment from Jo-Ann
Time: March 5, 2014, 3:38 pm

Hi… I was abused in the past and I live in constant emotional turmoil. It honestly feels like a typhoon of mixed emotions in my chest. One of my friends suggested meditation and as soon as i tried I began to feel this turmoil and I’d just start to cry and then repress it more and more… reject it more and more… till I loose all concentration. I tried again today and this time by guided meditation. At first I was relaxed but as soon as the teacher said be aware of being open something inside me just kicked the idea away and said I’m not open and the session went south. What you advised seems easy but is it? To separate those emotions from the reasoning? Because when I start meditating I see the arguments without sound and feel the pain… I just need some guidance… Thanks

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 12, 2014, 2:45 pm

Hi, Jo-Ann.

First, I’m sorry to hear about the abuse you experienced. I’m not surprised that it makes handling certain emotions difficult.

I don’t know if you’re in therapy, but a skilled therapist could help you learn to be with your emotions without rejecting them. But this is something we can come to learn in meditation as well.

It sounds like you’re doing quite well, actually. It would be unreasonable to expect that you’d suddenly be able to embrace emotions that you’ve found difficult to accept before now. So you can expect that you’ll experience turmoil and then try to shut it out for some time. But with practice you’ll get better at just allowing your experience to be.

Sometimes when I’ve had emotions I’ve found difficult, it’s been useful to say to myself things like, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” Sometimes I’ve put a hand on my heart and said, “I know this is hard, but I’m here for you, I love you, and I want you to be happy.”

I’d also suggest that you pay a lot of attention to your posture, and make sure that you’re sitting in a very upright and open way, with your chest open, your shoulders back, and your head held high. This will help you to have more confidence to face your experience.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 12, 2014, 2:45 pm

Oh, and tears are fine! Just let them come.

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Comment from Theodora
Time: April 2, 2014, 6:10 am

I am practicing the isha kriya meditation twice the day for three weeks now. At first, I became short of addicted to this practice, in a sense that I longed for practicing it because it helped me calm down and feeling more easy going. It’ been a week now that I after meditation I feel very angry, depressed, and in a certain mood of helpnesness. Moreover, I got sick with a very bad flu and this adds up to these moody sensations. I keep doing the meditation though, hoping that this negativity phase will pass. But I cannot help thinking that it may not be beneficial for me continuing it. What whould you suggest?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 2, 2014, 11:40 am

Hi, Theodora.

I don’t know anything about isha kriya meditation, and so it would probably be best to talk to whoever taught you that practice. Otherwise it’s like taking a Windows computer to an Apple store, or vice versa. Generally, though, grasping after results in meditation is very unhelpful, and could lead to the kinds of feelings you’ve been experiencing. I’d suggest that you relax your effort, and allow yourself to just be with whatever is arising.

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Comment from Sue
Time: May 20, 2014, 11:51 am

I’ve been meditating for about 8 weeks as part of an MBCT course. After week two I developed definite painful uncomfortable feelings of anxiety during my practice. It has now reached a point where whenever I sit on my cushion I am looking on it as a sort of painful experience rather than what I thought would be a calm and peaceful one. Funnily it doesn’t happen when I meditate with my group or attend the local Buddist centre. Only when I am on my own. I want to carry on but I don’t know if I can? Any suggestions please?

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Comment from Belle
Time: May 20, 2014, 12:33 pm

Before I started practicing meditation, I’m a very sociable person who talks a lot to different friends that I meet everyday. I can mingle well with different personality of friends which I enjoy to bring joy to others.
However, since I have started to meditate, I don’t feel like talking much as previous and prefer to remain silent now . There’s once my friend asked what happened to me cause I usually is not that quiet, will this affect my network or friendship with others?
Im afraid some will misunderstand that I become arrogant or I’ve changed to a hard approachable person….

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 20, 2014, 7:25 pm

Are you happy? It could be that you’re just a bit calmer, and perhaps in some way less anxious. There are all kinds of people, including quieter and more introverted people. Not everyone likes the talkative type…

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 20, 2014, 7:40 pm

Hi, Sue.

I don’t want to tread on your MBCT therapist’s toes, so I’d suggest you talk to him or her about what might be going on and how best to handle it.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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