Stage 4 – Cultivating kindness towards a “difficult person”

What’s called “lovingkindness meditation” is really just “kindness meditation.” It’s where we train, through reflection, to be kinder to ourselves and others.

To be kind is to empathetically recognize that another person desires to be happy and to avoid suffering, and then to act accordingly. When we’re kind we act in ways that support another person’s happiness and well-being, and we take care not to unnecessarily hurt them. That is what metta, or “lovingkindness,” is.

Metta is kindness.

Lovingkindness practice, in the traditional form I was taught, is in five stages.

  1. Cultivating kindness for oneself.
  2. Cultivating kindness for a friend.
  3. Cultivating kindness for a relative stranger.
  4. Cultivating kindness for someone we’re in conflict with.
  5. Cultivating an attitude of kindness toward anyone we might encounter.

You’re about to read about the fourth stage of the meditation, in which we cultivate kindness for someone with whom we are in a state of conflict. This person may be someone we love, but tend to get irritated with, or there may be a more deep-rooted conflict.

Being kind toward someone does not mean approving of, allowing, or tolerating what we find morally objectionable in their beliefs, words, and actions. You can be kind toward someone — that is, have their long-term happiness and well-being at heart — and yet vigorously oppose what they believe, say, and do.

Having someone’s long-term happiness and wellbeing at heart does not mean giving them what they want. Someone intent on causing harm harms not just others, but themselves too. We do them (as well as their potential victims) a favor by dissuading or preventing them from harming other people.

So if we’re cultivating kindness toward someone that causes harm, we’re really wishing that they cease causing harm.

This is a particularly interesting part of the practice, because it’s a real test of our ability to overcome resentments and to tune into our inherent capacity for kindness. It’s also interesting in that it can make a huge difference to our lives to let go of anger and ill will, and instead to be kind.

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In this part of the practice we are meeting our ill-will head on. Kindness is the emotional opposite of ill will. With ill will we want to hurt someone. We want to hurt their feelings. We might even have fantasies about bad things happening to them, or even want to harm them ourselves. Kindness on the other hand recognizes empathetically that another person’s feelings are as real to them as ours are to us, and so we want to benefit them rather than harm them.

In this stage of the practice we’re consciously evoking the memory or image of someone we usually respond to with feelings of aversion. We do that so that we can train ourselves to be more empathetic, and train ourselves to overcome our ill will. We don’t have to like this person. To like someone is to approve of them or their actions, and to have pleasurable feelings in response to them. We don’t in fact have to like someone in order to be kind to them. And being kind is our aim here.

By letting go of ill will and resentment we’re being kind to ourselves as well. Since ill will and resentment hurt us, letting go of them is in the interest of our long-term happiness and well-being. Therefore we are being kind to ourselves in letting go of ill will toward another person.

Guided Meditation

You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the first four stages of the practice by clicking on the player below.

What We Do In This Stage of Lovingkindness Practice

I’m going to give a complete recap of the practice so far. Click here if you’d like to skip ahead to the description of the fourth stage.

Stage Zero: Sitting With Kindness

Stage Zero is the initial stage of meditation, before the stages proper, in which we set up conditions that help the meditation practice to go well. It’s not an optional extra. It’s where we start cultivating kindness by sitting with kindness, and by allowing ourselves to look with love.

In stage zero first settle into your meditation posture. If you’re not sure about meditation posture then check out our posture workshop. Sit in a way that is kind — that supports your long-term happiness and well-being. So, as best you can, let go of any unnecessary tensions in the body. Don’t sit rigidly, but let your muscles relax and soften with the out-breath. But also sit with dignity: upright, and open. This will help you feel confident and remain gently alert.

With kind eyes, meet everything that arises with kindness and tenderness, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Stage 1: Developing Kindness for Ourselves

Next become aware of your heart. Notice whatever feelings happen to be present. Whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, or whether you don’t know what you’re feeling, meet everything with kind eyes.

Remind yourself that you are a feeling being; your feelings are important to you. Remember that your deepest desire is to escape or avoid suffering, and to find peace and joy. Remember also that you are doing a difficult thing in being human. It’s not easy to go through life, encountering less happiness and more suffering than we’d ideally want.

And because you are doing a difficult thing in being human, you need support. So offer support to yourself, by saying, over and over again, words such as these:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Continue to drop those words into the heart for a few minutes, doing so gently, giving yourself time between the phrases to absorb any effects.

Stage 2: Strengthening Our Kindness for a Friend

In the second stage of the practice, think of a good friend, and wish them well. Decide in advance who you’re going to pick, otherwise you might waste time in indecision during the practice.

Remind yourself that they too are a feeling being, that they too desire happiness and freedom from suffering, and that they too need support. And so, offer them support in the same way as you did for yourself, by saying:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Now you’re ready to move on to the third stage.

Stage 3: Training Ourselves to be Kinder to Strangers

Next, call to mind someone you have little or no emotional connection with. Perhaps this is someone you see working in a store, or that you pass on the street.

It doesn’t matter if there is some feeling — the main thing is that you neither really like nor really dislike this person.

Once you’ve called this person to mind, remind yourself that they are just like you, and just like your friend.

They are a feeling being. Their feelings are as real to them as yours are to you. Their pain is just as vivid and just as painful. Their joys are just as enjoyable.

And just as for you, life for them is challenging. They want to be happy, but happiness is often elusive. They don’t want to suffer, and yet suffering often comes to them. So as they, just like you, are doing this difficult thing of being human, you can wish them well, just as you did for yourself and your friend, by saying:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Stage 4: Training Ourselves to be Kinder in Conflicts

Now we cultivate Metta for someone we don’t get on with. It may be someone that we have long-standing difficulties with, or it may be someone that is normally a friend, but we have difficulties with them just now.

Call the difficult person to mind, and be honest about what you feel. There may well be feelings of discomfort that manifest as sensations in the body — perhaps around the heart, or around the diaphragm or in the gut. Allow those feelings to be there. There’s nothing wrong with them. This is just your body alerting you to a potential threat. As best you can, receive these uncomfortable feelings with kindness.

If any reactive, blaming, angry, or resentful thoughts arise, let go of them, again as best you can, and simply be with your sensory experience of the body and its sensations and feelings.

Recollect that this person you’re having conflict with is, just like you, just like anyone, a feeling being. Their pain and joy are as real to them as yours are to you. They want to be happy, but happiness is elusive. They don’t want to suffer, but they often do. They, just like you, just like anyone, are doing a difficult thing in being human. Just as you find them difficult, so do they find you difficult. They, just like you, would like to be free from conflict.

So in solidarity with this struggling being, wish them well by saying:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Continue to do this for a few minutes.

On Creating Enemies

This stage of the meditation is traditionally referred to as the stage where we cultivate lovingkindness for an “enemy.” Many of us feel uncomfortable using that language, because it tends to create a polarization in the mind, leading to us associating this person will all the baggage that the word “enemy” tends to carry.

The way the human mind works is very interesting. For example, psychological research suggests that people choose a political party early in life, often on the basis of one major policy that they happen to agree with and that is important to them. There may at this point be many things in their chosen party’s platform that they disagree with, and many aspects of rival parties’ policies that they feel in harmony with.

But what then happens is that the potential voter strives to maintain cognitive consistency. Although they may have started by agreeing only with one policy that they happened to feel strongly about (say, education policy) they start to take on board many, if not all, the other policies that their chosen party puts forward.

Conversely, they start to automatically and systematically disagree with the policies of opposing parties, even if they started by agreeing with those policies. The opposition has become the enemy, and while the chose party can often do no wrong, the “enemy” can do nothing right.

Experiments in the US showed voters with Democratic or Republican affiliations footage of the two main presidential candidates contradicting themselves. Democrats judged the Republican candidate harshly for his inconsistency while finding reasons to absolve their own man from blame. Republicans did exactly the same thing for their candidate.

What I’m getting at is that once we’ve decided that someone is the enemy, we’ll go to extraordinary lengths to maintain cognitive consistency. We’ll ignore the “enemy’s” good qualities, exaggerate his or her faults, and we’ll interpret his or her actions in ways that confirm to us that he or she is worthy of being disliked.

Back to meditation, that’s why I don’t like using the traditional term, “enemy”.

I’ve tended to use the term “difficult person” instead, and you’ll find that term liberally sprinkled around this site. But more recently I’ve realized that using the term “difficult person” suggests that the difficulty lies within that person, which of course is rarely absolutely true. Usually the difficulties that occur in a relationship are the result of factors within both parties, and often when we have difficulty with another person the cause is almost entirely our own actions towards them, including the very tendency to judge an “enemy” unfairly.

These days I tend to talk about “the person you have difficulty with.” It’s a bit more clumsy than “difficult person” and less snappy than “enemy” (which is a great sound-bite word) but I think it’s more accurate and helpful. I know some teachers go a step further and think that calling someone a “difficult person” is unkind because it suggest that the person is inherently difficult rather than allowing for the possibility that the problem lies with our responses to them, and because it’s a form of labeling. And I think that’s true. However referring over and over to “the person with whom you have difficulties” can be rather wearing!

But coming back even more to the meditation practice, one of the things that’s happening when we’re cultivating lovingkindness towards our enemy — sorry I mean “the person we’re having difficulty with” — is that we’re overcoming that very tendency to demonize opponents.

I’m sure the research into the psychology of meditators with regard to political affiliation would be most interesting.

Overcoming Ill Will Toward an “Enemy”

Lovingkindness practice helps us to overcome ill-will, anger and resentment. People that we habitually have those feelings for are traditionally known as an “enemy.”

The most basic way to cultivate kindness toward an “enemy” in the lovingkindness meditation practice is simply to call the difficult person to mind, and to repeat something along the lines of, “May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be kind to yourself and others.” It helps if you also imagine the difficult person actually being well, and at peace, and showing kindness. This can help to build up more positive associations with that person, and can help you let go of anger and resentment toward them.

But I’ve found reflecting in the following way to be particularly helpful:

  • Remind yourself that the person you’re in conflict with is just the same as you. They, just like you, are a feeling being.They too feel joy and pain.
  • Their joys and pains are as real and vivid to them as yours are to you.
  • They, just like you, prefer happiness to suffering.
  • And they too, just like you, are doing a difficult thing in being human.

Take a minute or two and try doing this, feeling the thoughts in your heart as well as thinking them in your head.

This is an exercise in empathy, and it very naturally leads to a sense of wanting to support the other person. Or at least it does with me.

You might find that you get stuck, not wanting the person you’re in conflict with to be happy. You might even think they deserve punishment, and so you think they should suffer. I’d suggest that when this happens, you have pain arising that you’re not taking care of. Anger usually results from pain such as hurt or fear. So when you find you’re stuck in anger and resentment, try being aware of the physical sensations that are arising in the body, especially around the heart, the diaphragm, and the gut. Notice if there’s any pain, tension, or other unpleasant sensation there.

Now, recognize that this is a part of you that is asking for support and protection. Your anger is trying to protect your pain, but it doesn’t do so effectively. What works much better is compassion. So regard your pain as a small, ancient, animal-like part of you that needs your care and support. Talk to it as you would a beloved child or a frightened animal: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I care about you and I want you to be happy. I’m here to protect you.” In this way you’re offering the suffering part of you your love and compassion. Once you’ve done that, and the painful feeling has started to subside, you can then turn back toward the person you’re in conflict with.

Sometimes you’ll find you can offer yourself compassion, and in just a few breaths you’ll feel better and be able to return to the person you have difficulties with. Sometimes the hurt or fear goes deep, and you’ll spend all of your time soothing yourself and not get around to wishing the other person well. That’s OK. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to work on healing that relationship.

Other Approaches In the Fourth Stage

There are many other approaches I’ve taken over the years:

  • You can imagine that it’s years from now, and that the two of you have resolved your difficulties and have now become good friends (it doesn’t just happen in romantic novels). In doing this you can “trick” yourself into feeling a sense of friendship for that person. It’s surprising sometimes how easily the mind can be tricked into suspending the judgments about others that we habitually make.
  • You can reflect on any good qualities the difficult person might have. Often we selectively “filter out” any good qualities from our perceptions, a bit like the kind of journalist who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Dwell on the positive qualities of the difficult person. Remember that other people no doubt see admirable qualities in this person — qualities, perhaps, that you do not allow yourself to register.
  • You can remind yourself that you both have a limited amount of time on this earth. One day you’re going to die. One day they’re going to die. Recognizing this, isn’t it a waste of our precious time to hold onto hate? Do you want to be on your death-bed still harboring resentments?
  • Similar to the previous approach, imagine the person you have a conflict with. Now imagine that to the left of them is them as a baby, and to the right of them is them as an extremely old person, with not much time left on this earth. Now, calling to mind the thing they do or have done that upsets you, how do you feel? Most people either feel sad or compassionate. Either response is fine. If you experience sadness, just allow yourself to sit with that experience, which is a perfectly healthy feeling to have.
  • Another approach is to consider that if you had the history of the person you dislike, if your experiences were their experiences, if your conditioning was the same as theirs, then your actions would be the same as theirs. Or as the French saying goes, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” or “To know all is to forgive all.”
  • You can be grateful for this conflict. Shantideva, the 7th century Buddhist teacher, reminds us that without enemies we have fewer opportunities to practice patience. And since patience is a virtue we should therefore be grateful to our enemies for giving us this precious opportunity: “Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure,” he wrote.

Often we experience resistance to cultivating lovingkindness for a person we have difficulty with. We think that that person being happy would be a kind of “reward” that we’d be giving them.

But you can consider that actually we’re doing this for ourselves, too. Anger and ill will are painful states, and if we can let go of them by wishing another person well then we become happier. As a famous Buddhist teaching reminds us, it is anger and hatred that is our real enemy, not the person we’re angry with or have hatred for.

Who to Choose and Not to Choose

They say you should choose your enemies carefully, and that’s true in the fourth stage of the lovingkindness meditation.

Ultimately, we want to develop an attitude of kindness toward anyone we meet or who comes to mind. But there are a few categories of people you should avoid putting in the fourth stage altogether, and some that you should probably avoid putting in this stage when you’re first learning the meditation practice.

Avoid altogether

Don’t use people you don’t know personally. It can be tempting to use “bogeymen” (or “bogeywomen,” I suppose) like Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden, or some political figure we dislike (depending on our personal inclinations). It’s much more useful to stick to people that you actually have contact with.

You can put “bogeymen” in the last stage of the practice when we wish all sentient beings well.

Leave until later

If there is someone who you can’t bring to mind without getting very upset (sad, or angry), perhaps because they’ve done us a great deal of harm, then it’s probably a good idea to put them to one side for a while.

Doing the Metta Bhavana practice will help you to develop the confidence to deal with your responses to this person eventually. Let’s keep the meditation practice relatively straightforward for now, though, and come back to this person later.

A surprisingly good choice

Who are the people you get most annoyed with? Often it’s the people you’re closest to: siblings, parents, children, and (perhaps especially) partners. If we fall into the trap of thinking of the fourth stage of the practice as being about an “enemy” it would seem to be very inappropriate to include any of the people I’ve just mentioned.

When we do think of including those people in the lovingkindness meditation, we probably think of them as people we love, and include them in the second stage or leave them until the fifth (bearing in mind the traditional advice not to include them in the second stage).

But this stage, really, is about working with conflicted relationships. And so I think it’s entirely appropriate to include people we’re close to, because we usually clash with them quite often. Those clashes, because they involve high-stakes relationships, can have a very negative effect on our sense of well-being. Sometimes those clashes are about major issues, but they often come down to small things, like how that person loads the dishwasher, or the way they leave the bathroom sink after using it. I think it’s a very good use of the fourth stage to call those people to mind — and to call to mind the specific things they do that annoy us — and to cultivate kindness for them. This is an opportunity, once again, to treat the meditation practice as a rehearsal (see below).

What to Do When Thinking of an Enemy In Meditation Causes Anger

It’s a shame when we have a meditation practice that’s designed to help us become kinder, and yet we spend it becoming angry instead. And yet this can happen when we’re calling to mind someone we have a habit of being angry with. Our mindfulness slips, and we start thinking critical thoughts about that person and wishing that bad things happen to them. It’s natural that this happens, of course. None of us is perfectly mindful.

But in order to prevent this from happening, it’s helpful to get a better handle on how what happens psychologically in order to produce ill will.

The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pointed out that human freedom relies on the fact that there is a gap between stimulus and response. If we’re mindful we can make choices in that gap. We can choose how we will respond in any given situation. Buddhist psychology draws a similar distinction, and located the gap between feeling and volition (you might think of that as emotion). So let me explain what these two things are, what the difference is between them, and how the ability to choose arises in between them.

Feeling

In common usage we tend to use the words feeling and emotion pretty much interchangeably, but in Buddhist psychology feeling (vedana) refers to our basic, gut-level likes and dislikes. Feelings are sensations created in the body by ancient parts of the brain. They’re basically of three kinds — pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And their purpose is to flag up potential benefits (pleasant feelings being the signal that those are present) or potential threats (which is when unpleasant feelings arise. When there are no potential threats or benefits present, or if we’re not sure what we’re feeling, then we call the feeling tone that arises “neutral.”

These feeling responses are automatic — we have no control over them. And they often arise in response to people. Imagine, for example, you walk into a room full of people you don’t know. As you look around the room there will be some people you want to gravitate toward, because your brain creates pleasant feelings in response to seeing them. This is your brain telling you there’s a potential benefit in being associated with them.

There will be some people you want to avoid, because your brain creates unpleasant feelings when you look at them. This is your brain highlighting a potential threat — perhaps those people show signs of emotion or behaviors you’re not comfortable with.

Lastly, there will be people you essentially ignore. Your brain hasn’t detected any potential threats or benefits associated with them, and so it doesn’t generate any feeling response. That’s a neutral feeling response. You ignore these people because there’s no feeling to direct you toward or away from them.

Paying attention to these feelings is very useful. Sometimes we override the gut feelings we have about situations and regret it later, because these feeling are often very accurate. I can remember times I just haven’t trusted someone, even though I didn’t know why. And it turned out that in fact they were untrustworthy. Presumably, parts of my brain outside of conscious awareness had picked up on signs that this person wasn’t honest — perhaps their emotional displays hadn’t been entirely consistent with what they had been saying, for example.

Of course those gut feelings are not always accurate — evolution favors a certain degree of caution. If the woods look dark and scary then it may well be favorable to your survival to avoid going in there.

Volition (or “emotion”)

While feeling responses are automatic and we have no control over them, volitions, although often habitual, can be changed through conscious choice.

A volition is a desire, a wish, an emotion. Anger, for example, usually involves the desire to energetically and forcefully create change. Often when we’re angry with someone we believe that they are not responding to, or won’t respond to, messages delivered in a more reasonably tone. So the first time you ask your children for your attention, you may do so in a quiet and pleasant tone of voice. The third and fourth time, you’re talking more loudly and forcefully. Your volition is to break through resistance.

The volition of hatred is different. When we hate we want to hurt and punish another person. So we’ll say hurtful things and think unkind thoughts about them — blaming them, wishing them harm, etc.

Volitions, or emotions, are active responses that arise on the basis of feelings. When we have an unpleasant feeling in relation to someone, usually we will habitually respond to them with the volition of ill will. This especially happens when we’re not mindful. However, when we do have mindful awareness, we have more choice over how we respond.

We’re able to have an unpleasant feeling response to someone and choose to respond kindly to them, or to cultivate kindness for them, choosing at the same time not to feed our tendency to react with ill will.

This is the gap: being able to experience the feeling responses that arise in us without reacting to them. We can learn to be comfortable with discomfort.

Letting go of ill will

Anyway, to get back to you and that difficult person and your meditation practice… Being aware of this distinction between feeling and emotion allows us to become comfortable with the discomfort of unpleasant feeling without giving rise to ill will.

When you find yourself, in your meditation practice, getting angry with the person you’ve decided to put in the fourth stage, you can choose to let go of the angry, critical, or hateful thoughts that are going through your mind, and instead let your attention drop down into the body in order to notice the unpleasant feelings that are present. And there always are unpleasant feelings in the body in this situation.

You can practice sitting with those feelings of discomfort. You can see them as a normal part of every human’s experience, and not as a moral failing. You can see them as simply a communication from an ancient part of the brain warning you that it, at least, thinks the person you’re thinking of is a potential threat. You can see them as just sensations, like any other sensation.

As you’re doing this, you’ll probably find that your angry, critical thoughts are already beginning to subside, even just a little. That’s a great start.

If you also recognize the unpleasant feeling you’re experiencing as a communication from a part of you that needs support, then now you’re open to offering it your kindness, as I described above. For example you can say, “I know this is uncomfortable, but you’re OK. I’m here for you, and I care about you. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

Now you’re responding to discomfort with kindness.

And now that that’s happening, you can turn your kindness toward the person you’re in conflict with. You can be comfortable with the discomfort you feel as you call them to mind, and you can, at the same time, wish them well, regarding them with kind eyes, and saying:

  • “May you be well.”
  • “May you be at peace.”
  • “May you be kind to yourself and others.”

Why Develop Kindness for a Bad Person?

There are some very bad people in the world. Sometimes evil seems to be not too strong a word for some of the actions that are perpetrated. So you may well wonder why should you develop kindness towards those who commit evil actions.

Partly it’s for ourselves. Hatred makes us unhappy. To hate is to suffer. To be sure, there can be a certain amount of pleasure found in hating. When we hate someone we feel superior to them, and that sense of superiority can be pleasurable. But pleasure is not happiness. Hatred is a state of mind in which we are not at peace, and are not truly happy. When we let go of hatred, we feel happier.

In contrast to hatred, kindness and compassion are indeed sources of happiness. When people experience these emotions, the parts of the brain connected with feelings of well-being become active. When we connect empathetically, we become happier.

We should ask ourselves as well, what kind of world do we want to live in? People who commit evil may be callous and hateful. What sense does it make if we become more like them by having hatred for them? If we want to make the world a better place, doesn’t it make sense for us to become kinder and more compassionate?

It makes sense then that if you want the world to be a better place you would want all beings to experience metta — even the very bad ones. In fact especially the bad ones, since if evil people were to experience Metta, there would be no evil done. I’m not suggesting that we can “wish” bad people into becoming good people, simply that it’s rational to wish that those who commit evil were free from the unwholesome mental states that lead to their actions. This implies that we should have compassion even for those who commit evil actions.

Understanding Causes and Conditions

A meditation student of mine who is a psychotherapist pointed out to me that most of the actions that we would label as evil are committed by people who suffer from what is known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, and that scientific research studies have shown that up to 75% of all those in the US criminal justice system fit the diagnostic criteria for this personality disorder.

This disorder is almost certain to have a genetic component, so that many bad people are born that way and not made that way, although certain environments can probably make these genetically based traits worse. Many people, in committing evil, are therefore passing on the results of a sickness that they suffer from — a sickness that prevents them from feeling empathy, remorse, and anxiety.

Additionally, they may feel compelled to lie, even when it’s not necessary, have difficulty learning from past experience, and have trouble controlling their impulses in the way that most people can.

Evil as an illness

There’s no reason why we should feel any less sympathetic towards a criminal who, because of a genetic defect, has a lower than normal ability to control his or her impulses, than towards a person with any other genetically based physical or mental condition.

If we can feel sympathy for a person who suffers from, say, Downs’ Syndrome, then why not cultivate sympathy in meditation towards someone who has a genetic disorder like Antisocial Personality Disorder that ruins the lives not only of its direct sufferers but also those who are unfortunate enough to be exploited or harmed by them?

As an aside, I hope (although I have no personal experience on which to build this hope) that those suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder can learn to control their impulses. Some mental health professionals have shown that individual and group therapy can help those suffering from this devastating condition to learn to experience and to deal with their emotions, and to learn to have more moral concern for others.

I don’t want to appear to be saying that those who act destructively should be absolved from all responsibility for their mental states and actions, simply that not everyone is starting from the same place in learning to take such responsibility, and that it is helpful to them and to us if we have sympathy for those in such an unfortunate position.

You might well ask though: how is you cultivating kindness towards a bad person going to have any effect on them? Isn’t it just a game that you’re playing inside your own head?

It’s true that your meditation practice is not likely to have much effect on another person (although you never know – some interesting research has been done that shows that this does happen), but at the very least it will have an effect on you. It will help you to be more truly compassionate. It will reduce the amount of intolerance and hatred in the world by reducing the amount of intolerance and hatred in your own heart (which is the only place where you can guarantee to make a difference).

Conversely, having hatred for another person is, in the vast majority of cases, going to have no effect on them whatsoever. But it will hurt you, so why not let go of it?

The Fourth Stage as Rehearsal

You can see this stage (like the neutral person stage) as being a rehearsal for life outside meditation.

You might want to think about something as simple as how you will greet the person you have difficulty with when you next meet. If you can be more friendly than usual then it will have a definite effect on your relationship. I’ve heard from many people who have worked on cultivating kindness to someone they’ve had longstanding problems with, and who have found that when they’ve met this person after a long gap, the relationship has changed. I assume that this is to do with the meditator’s attitude, body language, tone of voice, choice of words, and so on having changed in a way that communicates to the formerly difficult person that they’re now no longer seen as an enemy.

If you’re aware of any unhelpful patterns that the two of you have established, then you might like to think of a friendly and respectful way that you can change those patterns — perhaps by giving them genuine praise, or by apologizing for something you have done wrong.

Of course if there’s a bad history between the two of you then your well-meaning actions might well be misinterpreted as a manipulative trick. But if you’re being genuinely kind, eventually that will be recognized.

It’s also worth watching out for the reaction we commonly have when we hold out an olive branch only to have it knocked out of our hand with an angry blow. Often we have a naive assumption that if we do something “nice” then the other person “should” appreciate this and that if they don’t — well, that just shows we were right about them all along! Genuine kindness is based on an empathetic appreciation of the other person as a feeling being. It’s not a superficial attempt to “be nice.” If you are rebuffed, this is just another opportunity to practice empathy, and to understand that it takes time for people’s attitudes to change.

The Disadvantages of Anger, Hatred, and Resentment

Anger and resentment are like dust that we throw into the wind. It blows back on us. They’re like excrement we pick up to throw at another person: they might end up smelling, but we’re going to be pretty stinky ourselves.

Most Thursday afternoons for several years I drove an hour west, to Concord, the New Hampshire state capital. I left my car in the visitors’ parking lot of the prison there, and after handing over my drivers license and signed in I made my way through a series of heavy doors made of buff-painted steel bars that slam shut behind me.

I went up a staircase that gives me a brief view of the prison yard, usually at the time that the inmates, in their green jackets and pants, with gray sweatshirts if the weather is colder, are moving from one building to another.

At the top of the stairs I was buzzed through another door, signed in once again, and passed inmates sitting on a bench waiting to see various psychological professionals in the mental health wing. I stepped into the chapel, where the constantly rattling air conditioning was always turned up way too high and where a group of inmates would be patiently waiting.

And there, in the chapel, we meditated in the closest thing to silence a medium security prison will allow, with the fans rattling and distant doors slamming so loudly that you could feel the vibrations running up your legs and through your whole body. After the meditation we checked in to see how everybody’s doing, and then discussed the intricacies of practicing Buddhism in this inhospitable environment.

Visiting a prison is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the disadvantages of anger, and the many other states of mind that impel one human being to hurt another. Contemplating the disadvantages of anger is said to be an important way to cultivate metta, and that’s certainly true from my own experience. The disadvantages are perhaps nowhere clearer than in a prison.

The prison rules say that I’m not allowed to ask what crimes these men have committed, but as they’ve grown to trust me they’ve begun to tell me their stories. One molested his daughters. Another, driving under the influence of drink and drugs, killed a man. Another, in the course of burgling a house in order to feed his crack cocaine habit, murdered the house owner in a blind panic when the man caught him in his home.

Hearing this you’ll no doubt be surprised to hear that these men are amongst the most interesting, kind, and likable people I’ve ever met. Had I met these men at a continuing education class I was teaching at a local college I’d have been wondering what I’d done to have such an intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective body of students.

Murderers, rapists, and child-molesters may have committed monstrous acts, but from the outside they tend to look like anyone else. They don’t have horns and tails, let alone the cold, staring eyes of tabloid infamy. People who do terrible things can also have many fine and admirable qualities. They can show kindness and compassion, and are friendly, considerate, and respectful.

One of the things I’ve learned through working in prisons is that you can’t judge a person purely on his or her personality. A seemingly pleasant person can do awful things. But you also can’t judge a person purely on the worst thing he or she has done. You can’t ignore that either, but the worst thing a person has done does not define them.

What makes the people I work with different is the things they’ve done. Each of these men, under the influence of powerful emotions of craving or hatred, or of indifference to suffering, has done things to cause immense harm to others.

Emotions have a habit of carrying us away. Anger is a particularly corrosive force that eats away at our sense of ethical restraint until it breaks through entirely and we do something we will later regret. Anger hurts us while it’s present in the mind, it hurts others, and the consequences of our acting or speaking out of anger can haunt us for a very long time.

For this reason, the Buddhist meditation tradition encourages us to reflect on the consequences of acting out of anger in order that we begin to weaken its hold over us.

Consciously directed thought can be a powerful tool for developing greater emotional wisdom, and the metta bhavana practice is a direct antidote to anger.

 

Reflections on the Consequences of Anger

Here are some questions and reflections to get you thinking about the disadvantages of anger.

Notice during the day when anger arises in your mind. What happens? Do you imagine yourself speaking hurtful words to another person? Do you imagine yourself acting violently? Do you find yourself actually speaking or acting in a hurtful way?

How does your anger feel inside? What’s the feeling tone? Do you feel a sense of enjoyment as you experience the energy of arousal? Do you perhaps find it painful to be harboring ill will?

What effect do your angry words and actions have on the other person? How do you think they feel inside when you express anger? Imagine that you’re on the receiving end of your own angry words. How would that feel?

What’s it like when you’re around a person who is habitually angry? Do you experience fear? Do you want to avoid that person? Now, what is it like for others to be around us when we’re angry? Anger isolates.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever imagined yourself doing when you’ve been under the sway of intense anger? Have you ever imagined humiliating someone? Hurting someone? Killing someone? Such thoughts are remarkably common, but just think how your life would have been different if your inhibitions had been lowered — perhaps by stress or alcohol — to the point where you had done something terrible.

The next time that you feel angry, pause, and bring your awareness to the heart. Just notice what’s there. If the mind wanders just keep on coming back to the heart. Does your anger change in any way as you do this? Do you notice any other feelings or emotions, like hurt, or sadness? What happens if you stay with those feelings? Often I find that as I stay with my heart the feelings of anger dissipate and may even change into compassion.

When Meditation Stirs Up Ill Will

I 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 anger and irritability. He was naturally concerned about this and he wondered whether this was going to be the shape of things to come.

This is something that I’ve heard from a number of people, and in fact it’s something that I’ve experienced myself.

In writing back to my student I could think of a few things that might have brought about the surges of anger he talked about.

1. The most likely thing, I think, is that he was becoming more aware of his feelings.

Meditating puts us more in touch with ourselves. We’re practicing being aware of the body and of the sensations that arise within in. What happens when we practice any skill is that the parts of the brain responsible for that skill become larger. This gives us a greater ability to do the task related to that area of the brain, which in this case is to detect feeling. In more experiential terms, we feel our feelings more strongly. We become, in a way, more emotional.

Now this means that we experience pleasant feelings more strongly — things like the warm glow we get when we’re being kind. But it also means that we feel our unpleasant feelings more strongly too — such as the inner sense of tension and pressure that indicates frustration.

It’s great when those pleasant feelings happen. But when stronger-than-usual unpleasant feelings arise, we’re not used to them. We don’t know how to handle them. And so we over-react, and find ourselves blowing up.

So what do we do about this?

Well, the parts of the brain the detect feelings have become larger and more active. So we also need to grow the parts of the brain that are responsible for responding to those feelings with kindness and compassion. We need to practice bathing ourselves in kindness. My main advice would be to keep coming back to the experience of “loving eyes” over and over again during the day. Not just during meditation, but every time you remember to.

I’d also suggest the practice of self-compassion. If you’re feeling your feelings more strongly, then you’re feeling painful feelings more strongly. If you’re experiencing painful feelings more strongly, you’re suffering more. And so you need to practice offering yourself emotional support and kindness, especially at times you’re hurting.

We can welcome any painful or uncomfortable feelings into our experience and just sit with them, 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 kindness 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.

2. Sometimes we enjoy the pleasant feelings that come with kindness, and react with aversion when those feelings are disrupted.

Cultivating kindness feels good. It gives rise to warm, glowing, open feelings. Sometimes can find ourselves in a good mood. That of course is enjoyable.

But what happens when someone does something to disturb our good mood? Sometimes we don’t like this, and we get angry.

One thing to do here is first to distinguish being kind (which is an empathetic intention to cherish the well-being of ourselves and others) from pleasant feelings. Put more emphasis on the former, and less on the latter, and it won’t matter so much if those feelings aren’t there.

Another thing to do is to recognize that feelings come and go. Happiness doesn’t depend on the presence of pleasant feelings. It arises from being at peace (and being kind) whatever we happen to be feeling.

3. There may be some other forms of clinging and attachment going on.

I remember noticing this in my own practice many years ago. 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 getting annoyed 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 had become very attached to having what I thought of as the “right” conditions for meditating.

I found it helpful to put my expectations words so I could become more conscious about the clinging that was 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. And you can counter that with a more realistic perspective, perhaps along the lines of, “I live in a place where there’s noise. I can’t expect it to be quiet when I meditate. I can’t control the noise. But I can practice accepting the noise.”

Sometimes these forms of clinging go quite deep. I used to find I had an assumption that that ran 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! Put it into words, and you realize how unrealistic it is. Once you’ve realized the absurdity of the ego’s view of itself it’s a bit easier to find a lighter attitude, laugh at yourself, let go of your expectations more easily, and maybe once again state a more realistic perspective: “I’m not the center of the world. Other people are just doing what they need to do. They don’t know I’m meditating, and even if they did, why should they care? It’s up to mean to learn to be at peace with whatever arises.

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.

A Guided Meditation Recording for Self-Hatred

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

There were times years ago when it was simply painful to sit with myself in meditation because I disliked myself so strongly. And that self-hatred would also spill out into my relations with others in the form of intolerance, ill-will, and a preoccupation with judging. Someone who had been practicing quite a lot longer than I had been (I was a relative beginner at the time) suggested that I do a lot more lovingkindness meditation.

So for quite a long time I did the metta bhavana meditation on a daily basis. But somehow even that wasn’t enough, and so I came up with a way of doing the practice that helped me with my self hatred (or low self-esteem, as people call it nowadays).

What I did was to take the first four stages of the practice and apply them to myself. That may seem at first glance like a selfish act, but it wasn’t really. In order to become a more compassionate being I had to learn to live with myself first, and so the question of selfishness doesn’t really arise — in helping myself I was helping everyone around me.

The first stage I did in the normal way — I just wished myself well.

In the second stage of the meditation practice, where we normally cultivate lovingkindness for a friend, I called to mind all the qualities I liked in myself. These were the parts of myself that I was friendly towards. And I’d name these qualities and wish them well.

For example, I respected my own intelligence and so I’d repeat: “May my intelligence be well. May my intelligence be happy. May my intelligence be free from suffering.” I’d do that for the whole of the second stage of the practice, sometimes spending the whole stage on one quality that I appreciated in myself, but more often calling to mind a few different qualities. That seemed to be the most useful way to do the practice — calling to mind as many positive qualities as came to mind. But if I could only think of one thing then I’d wish that part of myself well for the whole 10 minutes or so.

In the third stage, which is generally where we wish a neutral person well, I’d think about qualities that I hadn’t yet developed, and I’d wish those parts of myself well. Those qualities were neutral in the same way as people I haven’t yet met are neutral — they were parts of myself that I hadn’t yet developed a relationship with, just as neutral people are simply people that you haven’t yet established a relationship with. So I might repeat something like, “May my confidence be well. May my confidence be happy. May my confidence be free from suffering.” This stage was pretty easy — there were plenty of qualities that I wanted to develop but didn’t think I had in any great degree. It didn’t matter if I already had the quality to <em>some</em> degree — as long as I felt I needed to develop that part of myself much more than it was developed already then it was suitable for inclusion in this stage.

Sometimes I’d include in the “neutral person” stage qualities of mine that other people had expressed appreciation of but which I didn’t really appreciate much myself. I can’t remember what those were in any great detail, but sometimes someone would tell me that I was friendly, for example, while that wasn’t the way I thought of myself.

In the fourth stage — the stage where we usually cultivate lovingkindness for someone we have difficulty with — I’d call to mind those parts of myself that I didn’t like. I’d say things like “May my ill-will be well. May my ill-will be happy. May my ill-will be free from suffering.” Those qualities were my inner “difficult people.” There was no shortage of these! I found it very beneficial indeed to wish these troublesome parts of myself well. In this stage of the practice some genuine compassion for myself would often emerge.

Lastly, I’d conclude the meditation in the usual way by spreading my well-wishing into the world in wider and wider circles.

So in the middle three stages I was relating to different parts of myself as if they were other people — people I liked, people that were strangers to me, and people I was in conflict with. This seemed to offer a deeper way of working with the practice than the normal first stage, which involved a more general sense of cultivating lovingkindness towards “myself.” It takes that idea of “myself” and deals with it in more detail and deals with it in, I found, a more useful way.

I’ve sometimes suggested when others are afflicted with self-hatred that they take the same approach I did, and so I’m offering up this modified approach to the metta bhavana meditation in the hope that some will find it useful.

129 Comments. Leave new

  • Dentorhedge of the Victorious Mu
    February 22, 2013 11:18 am

    Also knowing that even if someone has qualities that are detrimental, that your souls are made of the same stuff and that you’re equal might help. They are putting themselves in pain for doing those things they do wrong so love them and try to teach them as if they are your child, because your child’s soul is made of the same stuff as theirs.

    Reply
  • Many thanks for offering up this technique. I’ve been saddened and appalled to discover how hard it is to feel lovingkindness for myself during my practice of metta. So I did what you do in this day and age of marvels: I googled my question. And one of the first hits was this very page. I read it, then sat for 30 minutes and practiced. A breakthrough!

    Reply
  • Thank you for offering this approach. I think it’s brilliant. Although I can imagine myself feeling awkward with it at times, I can also imagine its benefit to myself and others, which feels energizing. It’s another tool for me during the 100 Day MB Challenge. Thank you again.

    Reply
  • Hi there :)

    I just posted on my young sangha wall a suggestion that I have been given to put myself in every stage of loving kindness meditation if you are some who suffers with alot of self hatred/very low self esteem.. I had thought of this before for myself , but maybe thought I was wrong or selfish to do it ….

    I spoke with valarie mason john who has had similar background to myself and she siad same thing to me … put myself in every stage every day for 1 month … I add…. with support of course..
    Your interpretation is helpful thank you – I started with , first stage as normal… and or mayb my hear be well..

    Then 2nd stage – the parts of myself I can connect with as loving , the friend in myself.. 3rd stage the parts of myself I ignore, abandon etc….. 4th stage the angry very fearful self distructive mentally /emotionally disabled unwell part of myself …

    I did this again on retreat and was powerful and I am so glad to have reassurance from you that its not selfish… I kinda knew that …. but I lack Alot of confidence in my self so Thank you .

    Maybe you can come to Brighton Buddhist centre one day and help us more with this :) ;)

    Much appreciation

    Danielle ( Brighton Mitra )

    Reply
    • Hi, Danielle.

      I’m glad to hear that this is helping you. Remember that the Buddha said:

      “Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
      Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

      (Attānaṃ rakkhanto paraṃ rakkhati.
      Paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati.)

      I’d love to come to the Brighton center some day. I haven’t been to Brighton for many years.

      Metta,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • I’ve been experiencing challenging states frequently lately.. a lot of anxiety, depression, and sheer misery. My feelings became so acute this morning that instead of trying to numb out by web surfing I typed in “meditation self-hatred” and came across this post. Reading it has been helpful.. now if only I can get myself to do it! Even though you posted it awhile back, I wanted you to know it’s still relevant, and I’m very, very grateful you wrote about it. I also appreciate your honesty about your own internal experience. Reading your post and the comments on it make me realize I’m not alone in experiencing self-hatred, and this helps alleviate some of the pain. Many, many thanks.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome.

      It’s always a relief to know we’re not alone. One of the aspects of self-hatred is that we assume we’re worse than others — surely no one could hate themselves as much as we do :)

      Knowing that others share our problems takes away that sense that we’re uniquely cursed.

      Reply
  • I’ve been searching all night for ways to help reduce self-loathing… and this is the first bit of instruction I’ve seen that isn’t like “Stop being hard on yourself.”, and other things that are so much easier said than done. Thank you. I am going to try this out.

    Reply
  • Hello Bodhipaksa.

    Your comment of July 25, 2013 was spot on for me. I’m an older adult, on the threshold of retirement, and I have become aware that I am increasingly anxious, fearful and self-loathing. My monkey mind chatters almost constantly about all the mistakes and bad decisions I’ve made throughout my life. Seldom do I hear encouragement or praise. I have spent a lifetime listening to and believing the voice of my inner critic.

    As a new student, I understand that most of my pain and suffering is self-inflicted by my thought process – another reason to beat myself up – and that only I have control over my thoughts (just the idea of challenging the monkey mind makes me feel tired and overwhelmed).

    “My mind is a garden. My thoughts are the seeds. My harvest will be either flower or weeds.” Well, I’ve spent a lifetime mastering the art of growing big, nasty weeds of self-doubt, self-loathing, unworthiness, hopelessness, and feelings of having little to offer others. It time to stop attacking myself. I want to like me. I want to feel worthy of success and abundance in all aspects of my life. I want to stop shutting people out – after all, you wouldn’t like me if you really knew me – and, instead, feel safe at letting others in. I wish to love and be loved.

    Your articles and practices on maitrī towards ourselves and others has been a helpful reminder to me that I can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. Although being part of the solution requires time and effort, learning to relate to myself on an entirely different level, and to detached from the outcomes, it has to be healthier, more peaceful way to live.

    Thank you for all the love and kindness you extend.

    Namaste’

    Reply
    • I’m glad you find this helpful, Alice. If you’d like to help Wildmind expand, so that I can do more, please consider making a contribution to our Free Bodhi project, which aims to provide more office support so that I can spend less time on admin and more on teaching. You can read about the project and give a donation here.

      Reply
  • 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

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  • 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  • 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?

    Reply
    • 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

      Reply
  • 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….

    Reply
    • 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…

      Reply
  • This is beautiful, and so helpful. I thought I knew the Dhamma so well, and I now see I’ve overlooked the most essential foundation.

    Peace be with you.

    Reply
  • I keep coming back to this article in hopes that I can figure things out… I experience considerable irritability on the days I meditate, and have mostly stopped meditating for that reason. I’ll try to make the story short… I’ve been meditating on and off for little over six years. About a year and a half ago, I began to notice I was very irritable and I would get these bouts of anger over small things. At first I didn’t know why it was happening, but then I began to notice that the irritability would happen on the days I meditated. I tried cultivating metta for myself, and being as gentle with my self as I could, but it was still happening. As a last resort, I stopped meditating for a few months. The irritability decreased considerably and the bouts of anger were almost non-existant (as opposed to several times a day when I was meditating). I started meditating again on two ocassions, with the same results: I meditate, I get very irritable. I don’t get the relaxation I used to when I started years ago.

    My hypothesis is that, when I meditate, I am forcing myself to repress all negative feelings (even though I’ve obviously tried not to), and then I get mad about having to pretend to feel something that seems false (being calm and relaxed), and I become irritable. This is a recurring theme in my life, because I wasn’t allowed to express my feelings freely as a kid, and as an adult I’ve struggled a lot trying to find how to do it in a balanced way. When I’m calm, I feel as if I’m being submissive and accommodating. I understand that being calm is not the same as those things, but I feel that that is the way people perceive me, and I definitely think they take more liberties with me when I’m like that. I find it so, so hard to get people to not treat me like a pushover while also being calm and nice. I almost prefer them to think I’m “cold” and “intimidating” (the latter is an actual comment I’ve gotten -so sad to be described that way) than to be taken advantage of.

    Anyway, I don’t want to turn this into a therapy session, but if you have any input, I’ll appreciate it a lot. I’m at a point where I want to meditate, but I’m so wary of it now that I don’t. Thank you for reading.

    Reply
    • Hi, Andrea.

      One of the things that’s struck me more and more over the years is that our primary feeling responses are physical, and so developing more awareness of the body can intensify feelings of alarm, anxiety, irritability, etc. This can result in us being emotionally sensitive, with us losing our temper more often, for example, until we’ve learned to provide self-reassurance (through self-metta and self-compassion) that dials back the intensity of those feelings. So it may be that something of that sort is going on.

      But, yes, it may well be that you’re being “nice” and that there’s an emotional backlash as a result. It might be that you’re disappointed in yourself and then offloading that onto others. You’re in a better position than I am to know if something like that’s going on. This is where some psychological insight can be beneficial — learning what ways of behaving are going to help us be happier in the long term. “Being nice” and being compliant and submissive certainly don’t bring happiness in the long term. Being metta-ful requires taking our needs into account rather than just avoiding conflict. So a question you might ask yourself, when you’re responding to others, is “Is this way of acting conducive to my long-term happiness and wellbeing, as well as the long-term happiness and well-being of others?”

      I guess this is a reminder that meditation isn’t meant to be practiced in isolation, but as part of a path that embraces ethics (how we act) and insight (how clearly we see things). Of course maybe you’re very familiar with that — I don’t know how well versed you are in Buddhist teachings.

      Reply
  • Each person’s situation is different, but I feel that for some people, it might be related to related to deep rooted emotions from the long ago past, maybe painful memories from the ages of one to five that are still in the unconscious mind. So maybe in some cases, one may require professional guidance and assistance to help overcome these deep rooted problems. Sometimes meditation can make you feel very calm and peaceful on the service, but below the surface there might still be agitation. It is like a peaceful tranquil lake. If you dive to the bottom of the lake you might encounter some aggressive fish or reptiles. So the lake was therefore not as peaceful as it appeared to be.

    Reply
  • Hi I would like some advice on how to deal with painful emotions that come up in meditation and daily life and how to process these safely when at work or with other people without getting hurt again? I find when I can feel sadness or pain in me other people seem to hook onto this and start being angry at me or judging me and it makes me feel worse. Sometimes I feel reaaly good but I find others misinterpreting what I am saying thinking I am judging them or they react negatively to me when I am asking an innocent question and so I find I am getting resentful and moving away from people I would otherwise really like to engage with because they seem to get negative around me. I realise they may be reacting to subconscious energy in me and I want to take responsibility for this and not blame the outside but in.order to cope and get by I think I am good at repressing my sadness and resentment because when I do speak up I find people overreact and I end up getting blamed or they put their negativity onto me and after 3 years or so of this I’m starting to tire of people and a lot of old friendships are breaking off because of this. I feel I am becoming fake just to maintain good work relations.how do I deal with these painful emotions but also protect myself from others projecting their stuff onto me and losing relationships in the process? Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi, nvibes.

      I’d strongly suggest the practice of self-compassion. I’ve listed a few articles I’ve written on the topic here.

      Reply
  • I am meditating for a long time, for several years. And I do have good meditation sessions at times… when only I-ness remains, with no intrusion of thoughts or emotions …And I do feel relaxed and ‘distant’ (form the emotional stimulations, personal worries – to certain extent) – at least for some minutes or hours until world again takes me up with some events… I have never been meditative enough to remain untouched by some personal comment, negative judgment or abusive word towards me. But yes, I do become hyper-sensitive – much more spontaneous – to interact with people (which normally too I am – i.e spontaneous), to laugh, to weep and cry and to boom – getting angry – my anger just shots up with a small irritant (esp. an irritating person) exposed to me… and I get sort of ASOCIAL – being quite explicit about my comments or reactions while moving in society, which are genuine but might be also ‘offensive’ – the intention though was never to hurt but to express whatever I felt genuinely… This is typically dangerous against influential people like your boss…!!!

    My central concern is with anger. Why do I feel almost terrible anger in those days when I am ‘in-meditation’? But I also want to express that in these days, in the absence of an irritant, I am relaxed, happy, serene, somewhat detached as well… and my concentration power is also excellent at such times (I am a student/tutor of philosophy which requires intense concentration…!)

    Reply
  • I’m suprised you don’t let people know about the inevitable dark night following the arising and passing event in the stages of insight. Are you aware of the 16 stages of insight that Daniel M Ingram talks about quite frequently, having recently experienced the 4th stage the arising and passing I can confirm the stages of insight are a good general guide of what is going to happen next in your meditation as you push forward through the first path.

    A few weeks after the arising and passing I am now experiencing negative signs (symtpoms of the dark night) I am more irritable and more edgy as well as many other things which I think would be better for people to research themselves if they find themselves in a rough place. I have found you can counter this dark night with awareness of what is happening to you so you don’t lash out at others while you progress through your lessons. The dark night is also known as the insights or knowledges of suffering, so look for your insights into the suffering you experience to help progress faster

    Metta Adrian

    Reply
    • Hi Adrian.

      It wouldn’t occur to me to include a discussion of post-insight experiences in the context of a beginners’ guide to lovingkindness meditation.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • Fair point, I didn’t realize this was the loving kindness section (doh!).

    Reply
  • I have a mother who has dementia & is difficult to handle. It is a stressful situation. I wish I could find a cure for her & restore all her dignity & happiness to her. Right now she is causing a lot of difficulties for everyone

    Reply
    • It sounds like you’re blaming your mother, Redhen. It would be good to realize that she too is suffering, and that she’s not deliberately trying to make life hard for anyone. Dementia could happen to any of us. Try imagining that your mother is you, and treat her as you would like to be treated if you were in her situation.

      Reply
  • Hi,
    I was just wondering. Everything I’ve read so far about cultivating metta for a ‘difficult person’ talks about people we have conflicts with because they make us angry or we usually quarrel with them. I wonder, what about people who we are afraid of? People who cause us anxiety and sadness, who’s words and actions constantly undermine our self-steem? I don’t know if I should choose this person ad the ‘difficult person’. I think I should because I know that if I learn to cultivate good will towards this person I will be able to cultivate good will toward any human being, but it’s actually difficult for me since it’s a person who has insulted me and beated me for a long time, and they still do it (does not beat me anymore, but keeps insulting me, shouting at me and blaming it all on me when anything in their life go wrong; and has wrath control issues). I really want to develop good will towards this person, but I find it really difficult to not feel frustrated, depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by their actions toward me. I would be happy to receive any tip
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi, Milton.

      That’s a very good question. I’d say yes, but there are different reasons for fearing someone, and those situations may require more than just metta.

      So the most basic situation is when someone’s not being abusive in any way, but we’re afraid of them. That involves a lack of metta, because we’re usually assuming that the other person harbors critical thoughts about us. People describe this as a lack of self-metta, but to an even larger extent it’s a lack of trust in others.

      The situation you describe is more complex, because there is abuse going on, even if it’s emotional and verbal rather than physical. (And I’m very sorry to hear about the past physical abuse.) So there too, yes, it’s useful to develop lovingkindness toward anyone, including someone who’s abusive to you. But that’s not enough. It might help you feel a bit better at times, but it might be a way of assuming that you’re responsible for the situation, and it might keep you in a situation that you’d be better off leaving.

      I think that actually you need to work on being kind and compassionate to yourself, and that would inevitably include asking whether you should extract yourself from the relationship. Typically there’s a lot of fear about leaving abusive situations, partly because there’s the worry about the other person reacting angrily or even violently, and also fear arising from a lack of self-worth. But, believe, me, you’re worthy of being treated with respect and kindness. Everyone is.

      Have you talked to a therapist or counsellor?

      Reply
  • Hi, I stumbled onto your site with a google search… I’m looking forward to trying the loving kindness meditation :) I’ve been meditating on and off for a couple of years now. But have been making it a daily practice for the past month, 30 minutes each day. No specific practice at the moment, just focusing on breath, listening to singing bowls. I have always suffered from anxiety and have been struggling with depression over the past year. The anxiety is due to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which manifests itself as awful thoughts, images, fears etc. Only sharing this to give a bit of a background. I have been to therapy to work through my issues. I’ve had many wonderful experiences with meditation, the pockets of peace I am able to find are just invaluable to me. When emotions come up, I acknowledge, and try to let them pass through, like unwanted thoughts however occasionally, truly awful, upsetting thoughts come up for me and I’m not sure how to deal with them. Awful to the point of almost too much to bear. Today, it happened when I was setting my intentions at the end of my meditation. Almost as if my worst fears plant themselves in place of my intentions…. I know it sounds strange but any advice or insight would be helpful. Thank you in advance. Much love.

    Reply
    • Hi Susan.

      Generally I find that when someone describes the “awful, upsetting thoughts,” they’re having, they reveal only that they’re having the same kinds of thoughts that everyone else has, at least sometimes. The difference is that they think that they are alone in having such thoughts, and that there is something uniquely “bad” about them as a person. And that tends to make the unpleasant thoughts return more frequently and insistently.

      You might want to talk to close friends, and ask them, “Have you ever had times then you’ve had such-and-such a thought?” You’ll probably find that they have, and even if they haven’t, if they’re a truly close friend you’ll get some compassionate support.

      Also, these upsetting thoughts are only upsetting if you take your thoughts seriously. If you’re going “Yeah, right! Like that’s gonna happen!” in response to them then they’re less likely to affect you. You’d have to maintain that skeptical attitude, because the “inner troll” that produces these troubling thoughts is very smart, and will probably keep arguing its case. Don’t enter into discussion with it. Just keep being skeptical, or make a commitment to a more positive thought, and stick with it despite the heckling.

      Reply
  • Loving the site. Just found it . Thank you Bodhipaksa. Most helpful comment Adrian re dark night arising etc. I’ve read Daniel Ingram and found him a great source . This may indeed be a beginners discussion on metta practice but I popped in via a link in another discussion . I think this comment was the most helpful re a very common phenomenon and it is hugely crucial at whatever stage you are at to my mind – beginner or long time meditator – to be aware that these are all natural stages to be got through. Every spiritual tradition talks of the dark night/s . When I first came across it , I felt a relief that it was just a part of the process and it wasn’t just me. Compassion for oneself and doing metta are the way through but knowing about the phenomenon is extremely helpful – maybe especially at the beginning stages .

    Reply
  • Hi. I stumbled on this article during a Google search. I’m feeling unsettled after doing my daily meditation. I’m used to strong emotions arising during my meditation. I just started regularly meditating about a month ago, and I believe it’s my body’s way of detoxifying my mind and soul. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.it took me about 15 minutes to come out of it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to embrace those feelings if they come back. I’m prone to major depression and anxiety. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt that bad about myself before.

    Reply
    • Hi, Jocelynne.

      What you’ve described is what we call the hindrance of Doubt. There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease with ourselves. They are craving, ill will, anxiety, lethargy, and doubt, which is the sneakiest of them all.

      If this occurs again, recognize the pattern and remind yourself that this is just Doubt. When you do that, you’re less inclined to believe the stories you’ve been telling yourself. Having a thought like “I am unworthy of love” isn’t actually much of a problem if you don’t believe it, and if you recognize that this is just some frightened part of yourself trying to “protect” you from positive change.

      It can be hard to recognize doubt, though, because the stories we’re telling ourselves kind of “hit below the belt” and leave us feeling vulnerable, but often when we’ve recognized doubt and chosen not to believe it, there’s an immediate upwelling of confidence and energy.

      Don’t be afraid of this doubt. It’s just a story. You don’t have to take it seriously.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • I have been doing vipasana meditation and pranayama for almost 3 years, Also reading books for His holiness dalai lama and other lamas. Trying to follow Buddha’s eight fold noble path. Almost transformed myself to a good loving humble personality in normal routine life. However I agree with above questions and comments from other mediators that I felt very sensitive to negative thoughts which 3 years before easily can ignore or deal with them. therefore overreact on negative repetitive thoughts. Need expert advise ? thank you so much, May peace be with you all.

    Reply
    • There are many things that might be helpful, Andy. You’re probably becoming more attuned to sensations generated in the body by the activity of primitive parts of the brain, which have the function of scanning for potential threats (including comments that people make). Because you’re experiencing those sensations more strongly but haven’t yet learned to handle them, the mind is reacting more powerfully by giving rise to negative thoughts.

      One thing you can do which is very quick and powerful to do is to recognize that you don’t need to believe your thoughts. Your mind lies to you all the time! That’s true for all of us. When you stand back and question the truthfulness of your thoughts, you’re less engaged in them. Think of observing your thoughts rather than participating in them.

      A second thing is to recognize that the bodily feelings of discomfort that arise when you’re upset are a form of suffering. Pay attention to where those feelings are located, and send them your love. Give them reassurance and kindness.

      Thirdly, try practicing gratitude in daily life. In the morning before you start work, or last thing at night, write a list of five things you’ve been grateful for. Even small things will do. You can even practice gratitude for difficult experiences, because they give you an opportunity to grow. Practicing gratitude helps to create a more robust, resilient, and positive climate in the mind, so that you can absorb difficult experiences more easily.

      Reply
  • just found your site and loving it. I have two queries. I would be grateful if you throw some light upon them:
    (a)recently i am getting much agitated and restless after my meditation sessions.
    (b)during deep sleep at night , sometimes i woke up with vibrations in my whole body and feel something travelling through my spine towards my skull and i see bright golden firework like patterns with both eyes closed and open…though it lasts for a few seconds….but i feel immnese happiness when this happens..but i fall into deep sleep once again.

    Reply
    • Hi, Madhusmita.

      Apologies for the very late reply. I had a busy summer and the comments became too much to manage. Regarding your two queries:

      a) It’s possible that you’re meditating in an imbalanced way, with too much emphasis on energy and alertness, and not enough on peace and calmness. You don’t say what you’re actually doing in meditation, but see if you can find the quality of calmness in your experience, and allow it to grow. Perhaps you need to be more aware of the abdomen while you’re breathing, or to pay more attention to the outbreath, or simply to the body as a whole. It’s hard to say without knowing what you’re doing.

      b) It sounds like you’re having meditative experiences in a light sleep state. Meditating while we’re half asleep can be very entertaining! We can have deeper experiences arising that would only rarely occur in waking meditation sessions. You’re experiencing what’s called pīti in Pāli (or prīti in Sanksrit) — that’s the vibration or tingling and the feeling of energy moving up your spine. And you’re also experiencing a nimitta — that’s the perception of light accompanying the energy. These kinds of things are not uncommon in meditation, although it sounds like you’re only experiencing them when you’re half asleep. There’s nothing particularly special about these things, although in the context of meditation they’re a sign that we’re becoming more absorbed. I’d imagine that if you’re experiencing these things in light sleep, they’ll start to appear in your normal meditations as well.

      Reply
  • Bridget Webber
    July 27, 2015 7:44 am

    I am an experienced meditator and meditation/hypnotherapy scriptwriter, and find that repressed emotions, held in the body, can be released via meditation. It’s like peeling away layers. Unresolved issues can come out. As they do, you feel uncomfortable, and negative emotions can be the result. Acknowledgement of feelings, acceptance, self-love, and forgiveness of self and others goes a long way to completing the healing process. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and ask where the feelings come from, and a memory might arise.

    Reply
  • […] prayer is not your practice, try metta bhavana. You might just find that some part of you feels inexplicably better afterwards. […]

    Reply
  • Me meditation feels like crap 99% of the time. Ben meditating daily doing insight practice for about 6 years and make of the time I just feel uncomfortable, too hot or to cold depending on time of year, pain in back, knees or somewhere else, mind constantly drifting off. I often wonder why I keep going. I rarely ever feel these so called moments of joy, bliss, etc. I have had some amazing Samahdi moments on retreats but mostly my practice feels like a bit of a chore. I find myself craving to feel relaxed or for my mind to shut the f**k up. It’s very difficult. I guess I keep going because I do notice that I’m a bit less reactive and more mindful but the benefits gained don’t seem to match the effort I put in.

    Reply
    • Hi, Ben.

      Sorry for the long delay. I got way behind on responding to comments and some ended up being neglected for far too long.

      Meditation can be challenging, sometimes, but that’s just an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and to develop new intra-personal relationship skills.

      So you seem to have either a lot of resistance to discomfort or craving for things to be better, and for you growth is going to come by learning acceptance. Rather than trying to change your experience, you’d benefit from simply noticing and accepting your experience — even when it’s painful.

      I can guarantee you that at least 95% of your suffering is coming from reacting to the other <5%.

      You'd probably benefit from starting your meditation with the "eye-max” approach I teach. It’ll help you to observe uncomfortable experiences without reacting to them.

      Reply
  • Hi… thanks for this info.
    I’m facing strong negative emotions. Seems like waves of strong negative pulses moving inside skull near my temple. My head is more heavy since last 10-15 days. I have mood swing issues from birth and I’m an HSP. I started meditating around 2 years back but left it around 1.5 months ago due to fear of my inability to handle amplified awareness. In my meditation I used to simply watch thoughts and emotions.In initial phase it helped me greatly to melt neurosis that was buried in my head for many years and helped me to gain cycles of peace and kinda purification but as I progressed it became problematic:

    1) I started hearing continous buzzing sound in my head.
    2) My rich positive emotions disappeared and I feel like emotionless.
    3) Became sensitive to even subtle sensations in my head.
    4) Overthinking causing extra suffering than before.

    Because of these reasons I dropped.

    i’m very afraid about these symptoms as they aren’t leaving me now .I tried to melt these emotions by watching them but it’s leaving temporarily not permanently.Please help, it’s drastically affecting my productivity and daily life. I lost my job due to my degraded performance. Psychotherapist gave me serotonin tablets but it didn’t work out. Unable to sleep and concentrate.

    Reply
    • Hi, Raju.

      Sorry for the delay. I typed a reply but then we had to roll back the site and it got lost.

      A small percentage of people have very adverse reactions to meditating, along the lines of yours. I don’t think anyone knows for sure why at this point. However, I’d point out that meditating is meant to be just one aspect of the spiritual path. And insight meditation of the kind you’ve been doing is just one form of meditation, and not a very traditional one, either. There’s a whole emotional side to emotional development which comes out when we practice spiritual friendship (the Buddha described this as “the whole of the spiritual life”) and devotion. These practices really open the heart.

      And meditations for developing metta (kindness) and compassion are indispensable. They should be practiced at least as much, in my opinion, as mindfulness-based meditations.

      There’s a case also for body-based practices such as yoga and tai chi, since our lives tend to be very sedentary and our lives so focused on processing information.

      I’d certainly suggest that you hold off from meditating, and that you do things that are likely to engage you emotionally, like listening to classical music, being in nature, being with people who are emotionally expressive, and so on.

      It might be an idea to do a little walking metta bhavana or karuna bhavana, so that you’re working on relating to others more from the heart. Also some self-compassion practice would be valuable.

      Reply
  • I experienced the same in both my second and intensely in my third time recently. The negative emotions drove me to a point were I was setting in the bathroom cutting myself. Feeling empty and angry that I’m too weak to end it all… it feels like all my emotions were swept away and this one emotion of self hatred remained; stood out. After every session I feel like I’m messing part of my soul and becoming lighter in the heart. I’m not even gonna think about meditation anymore till I find what did I do wrong or until I really wanna die (btw I’m using this app called headspace which helps in meditation sessions)

    Reply
    • Hi, Khaled. I want to hug you! Yes, please DO stop meditating. It sounds like it’s putting you in touch with a layer of self-hatred that might best be dealt with in therapy. I’d strongly encourage you to find a therapist to talk to about your pain.

      Please don’t think that you did anything wrong. Meditation helps us discover ourselves. You’ve developed, probably, self-knowledge of something that’s very hard to handle on your own, which is why I think you should find help.

      Reply
  • hi ,
    Im new to meditation (and its hard)
    I feel like was making progress , i was happier more relaxed and all of sudden in the past few days i just feel like the serenity that was with me is gone
    Im more agitated and depressed
    I’ve been fighting with my boss all of a sudden and i’ve been making my wife uncomfortable
    i honestly feel lost all of a sudden
    any tips or ideas ?
    Maybe im just not cut out to do this ? (is it possible some people just can’t ?)

    Reply
    • Hi, Pele.

      You didn’t say how or where you’re learning meditation, but it helps to have good guidance. I also don’t know what kind(s) of meditation practice you’re doing. I’d recommend doing 50% mindfulness of breathing and 50% lovingkindness practice.

      And ups and downs in practice are just how it is! If we get upset about things not going the way we want them to then this makes us feel even worse. The thing is just to accept when the mind is more turbulent or when we’re not as happy. That way we smooth out the roller coaster ride.

      It’s certainly not that you’re “not cut out” for meditation. It’s just a question of learning to be more accepting of whatever is arising.

      Reply
  • I have started meditating recently. It’s a non Buddhist one (Paul Wilson) that starts with the breath, which then invokes a mantra that is repeated.

    Because of noise around my flat I am an intermittent meditator. But I do find that when I am meditating consistently, I feel the positive benefits. It really works.

    Besides this, I have suffered from chronic anxiety and one of my fears is a fear of being attacked by a man. There is always something in the media or the news about women being attacked. It may sound silly, but this danger does exist in the real world. It’s so persistent that this narrative has somehow entered into my psyche and stayed there.

    So what I’m finding recently, is that when my mantra ‘plays’ in my mind, (it’s sometimes, but not always) immediately followed by negative thoughts about being attacked etc. This makes me worried that I may inadvertently be tainting my mantra in some way, so that it changes and becomes a negative force instead of a positive one.

    On a plus side. These experiences hold a mirror to myself. It’s a bit like a realization, or a feeling of clarity about how the world is affecting me. How our thoughts and beliefs can shape our minds.

    In a nut shell, I just wondered how easy it is to create negative associations with meditation and what do I need to do to prevent this from happening? Also, have you been asked this question before?

    Thank you for reading.

    Reply
    • Hi, Rosa.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing a kind of emotional rebound from your mantra. I don’t know if you’re using some kind of affirmation, but I know of research showing that affirmations cause depression or anxiety when we know on some level that they’re not true. But maybe that’s not what you mean when you’re talking about a mantra.

      It’s not surprising that anxiety about violence has taken root in your mind. We’re very exposed to messages about violence, and a lot of that violence is directed at women. And although most of us have the actually lived experience of being safe and secure on a day-to-day level, there are parts of our brain that can be hyper-alert to potential danger. I find it best not to ignore those warnings. If you ignore or dismiss the warning part of your brain it’ll just keep repeating itself, like a child trying to get its mother’s attention. So it’s better to thank it first of all for what it’s trying to do in protecting you. And then maybe you could offer reassurance: “In this moment I am safe. In this moment I am well. In this moment I am secure.” Just keep dropping those messages into the mind. They are presumably true and can be believed. Saying “I feel safe” would be a lie, and might cause a reaction.

      And don’t fear the fear. Accept the anxiety that this part of the mind has created to warn you of potential danger. It’s OK to have anxiety. It can’t harm you. You can just let the physical sensations of the anxiety exist, and take an interest in them, and perhaps even send them your love.

      And to answer your more general question, it’s very common for people to develop habits of bringing unhelpful emotional responses into their meditation practice. It’s just something we have to learn to recognize and work our way through.

      Reply
  • I’ve recently started meditating in hopes of it helping my depression and anxiety, and I was wondering if this was normal: so whenever I start (focus on my breathing and silence my mind), I feel overwhelming sadness that comes bubbling up and if I remain still it passes away and I feel a little happy. This cycle continues over and over, and while I do feel better afterwards, I kinda wish it wouldn’t happen because it’s sometimes really hard when the sadness comes up. Is this cycling normal? do others experience this? and will it eventually stop?

    Reply
    • Hi, Ali.

      Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the phrase “negative emotion,” since the word emotion is very ambiguous. Sadness is something that I think of as a feeling rather than an emotion, and from a Buddhist point of view feelings can never be bad or good, wholesome or unwholesome, skillful or unskillful. They’re merely pleasant or unpleasant.

      Sadness is an unpleasant feeling, and usually is experienced when we experience the loss, or the thought of the loss, of something dear to us. There’s nothing wrong with it, even though it’s uncomfortable.

      Wanting the sadness not to appear is actually unhelpful. There’s some part of your brain experiencing loss, and communicating its distress to the rest of you by creating this unpleasant feeling (“sadness”) in the body. Whenever you have aversion to the feeling of sadness, it’s as if you’re saying to the hurting part of you, “I don’t care about you.”

      A more helpful approach is to treat this hurting part of you as if it was a dear friend who is in pain. Offer it kindness and well-wishing. Look at it kindly and talk to it. Let it know that you care about it. Tell it that you don’t want it to be in pain, and that you’ll support it. Let it know that you’ll be by its side for as long as it needs support.

      The point of doing this is not to make the sadness go away, but simply to be a supportive friend to it for as long as it needs support.

      You might also give some thought to what you might be mourning. Sometimes it’s something you once had (not necessarily a thing, but perhaps a relationship or away of being). Sometimes it’s something you only wished you might have in the future: you desire something, realize you don’t have it, and feel sad. Knowing what’s prompting the sadness can help you to be more empathetic toward yourself.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • Hi,

    Great article. It is interesting to note the shelflife of this article: 13 years after you wrote it, the content is still vibrant and you are responding to questions so many years later. Fantastic.

    I have recently gotten back into daily meditation, specifically, meditating in my sauna. I have been doing this daily for 20 days so far, and I have noted a few things.
    1. I am doing Zen meditation, and I was taught to breathe in and count 1, and breathe out and count 2, and continue until you reach 10 and start over. That is the basic layout and I find this to be my favourite form of meditation.
    2. I am noticing tensions in my body that I have not noticed before and I am noticing some negative emotions, some anger, some things I thought I dealt with that are coming back up (seemingly because they are not dealt with)
    3. Some aches and pain, mild headaches. Some of my old injuries are feeling sore and upset and my body seems to be in a state of awareness and repair.

    Overall, I seem to be going through some form of physical and mental detoxification and healing. As if all the compounded “stuff” and emotion, buried deep in my body and mind are having a chance to “get out”

    Some of the above could be elicited by the Sauna, and some by the virtue of meditation – it is hard to know which could be doing what. I know that I really enjoy meditating in my sauna, it is my favourite place to do it; I just enjoying saunaing. I am doing a 15-minute daily session.

    I wanted to get your take on these effects, and what I should do about them? Do I stay the course and keep “working it out” or do I try something different? Is this a phase that will pass? Are these emotions and physical sensations that I need to feel and deal with form them to heal?

    Please let me know your thoughts.

    Chris

    Reply
  • I see that this article was written a while ago but I just wanted to say thank you- this version of metta is a wonderful idea!! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    Reply

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