One of my online students wrote:
I find that when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling comes up during meditation, my habitual reaction is to very quickly label it “thinking” and then return to my breath, which feels very much like I am suppressing my emotions and feelings.
And my reply was: This is a great thing to have learned about yourself. It seems that you innately know, with your inner wisdom, that this kind of suppression isn’t the way you want to live your life, and in fact with mindfulness we should be prepared to give our darker feelings room to breathe — or at least some of them.
That brings up the question of when we should simply let go of thoughts and the feelings/emotions that accompany them, and when we should give them space and take the time to sit with them. Sometimes one approach is appropriate, and sometimes it isn’t. How to decide? I’m not sure I can offer any clear-cut guidance on that. I think we need to use our inner wisdom to figure out what the most appropriate approach is. But I’ll have a go.
So I’d weigh up things like:
- Is this thought just chatter? Like planning dinner, or thinking about our next Facebook status update? Can it simply wait? If so, let it go.
- Is this thought destructive or unhelpful in some way? (For example, am I engaged in an angry rant, or busy telling myself how bad I am at something, or worrying?) In these cases I’d let go of the content of the thoughts (the storyline) but acknowledge any underlying feelings of hurt, fear, anxiety, etc., and give those my kindly attention.
- Is there strong emotional baggage with this thought? Does it keep coming around again and again? If so, then again I’d let go of the thought but be attentive to the underlying feelings.
- Is this a dark feeling, but not necessarily a destructive one? For example I consider grief and sadness to be aspects of love, rather than being “negative.” They’re what we experience when we love and have lost the object of our love. These are uncomfortable states, but not to be dismissed. We might find that here we don’t want to be too quick to dismiss even the stories. It’s not that we would engage is storytelling, but we may notice that the feeling arises from a story we’ve created (I should have been there at the end, I never said I loved him, etc.) It may be a great learning experience to understand how we’ve creating our feelings.
- Is this a bright, positive, constructive emotional state, of say love, or joy? Are the thoughts we’re having contributing to that state? We might want to let those thoughts happen. After all, that’s what we do in lovingkindness practice; we deliberately engage with thinking that gives rise to love, kindness, appreciation, and compassion. We often think of thoughts as being “distractions” but they’re only distractions when they distract us! Sometimes they are guides leading us toward a deeper and more meaningful way of being.
If this seems like a lot of factors to consider, then you’re probably right. It can take us time to build up a model of how to act in various circumstances, and to keep tweaking that model as it encounters limitations. That’s the “wisdom” I mentioned earlier. Eventually these kinds of evaluations become second nature.
It’s good to be aware that there is a range of choices available to us. We should feel we have a toolkit of choices available to us, and develop a sense — through practice — of which seems most appropriate at any given time. And we should have the freedom to switch approaches if the one we’ve initially chosen is clearly not working. It’s fine to decide to just sit with an uncomfortable emotion. It’s fine to decide to do something about it. But if we aren’t in a position where we can take one of the other approach, we don’t have freedom.