The idea of cultivating emotions in meditation might strike some of us as being a bit odd: after all, don’t emotions “just happen”? It often seems like they well up inside of ourselves unbidden, and come and go like the weather.
A lot of the language we use to talk about emotions suggests a lack of control. For example, we “fall” in love, or we are “overcome” with anger, or we feel “depressed” (who’s doing the depressing), or we feel “overburdened” with stress, or people “make” us annoyed.
From a Buddhist point of view it is not the case that emotions “just happen”. Emotions are habits, and are actively created. It seems like they have a life of their own because we aren’t conscious of exactly how we create them. If we can bring more awareness into our emotional life then we can cultivate the emotions we want to experience (those that make us and others happy), and discourage the arising of those we don’t want (those that make us unhappy and generate conflict with others).
Buddhist meditation encourages us to take responsibility for our emotional states.
We cultivate emotions all the time. An example of how we unconsciously generate emotions is this: imagine you’re with a group of people, and you get to talking about all the things that are wrong with the world — hatred, war, intolerance, child-abuse, pollution etc. As the conversation goes on, and we get more and more involved, what happens? The chances are that we get angry, or depressed, or feel self-righteous. By focusing on things that anger or depress you (without creatively trying to see what you can actually do about these things), you cultivate these emotions.
Imagine if you did that with things that encouraged a sense of love and well-being? That’s what the Metta Bhavana practice is about. It’s a meditation practice in which we consciously set up the conditions for the arising of positive emotion.