When meditation seems to stir up negative emotion
I 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.