Learn to listen to your emotions
Meditate on your feelings to get calm, grounded, and healthy.
This article was featured in Yoga Journal, November 2016 as part of a meditation series by Richard Miller. This is his sixth in a series of 10 columns designed to help you create a lasting and impactful meditation practice.
By Richard Miller, PhD
Our emotions can hold us hostage when their stormy winds of intensity and disharmony blow through the body. For example, when you’re angry, your belly can tighten, your heart might pound, and agitating thoughts can plague you for minutes, hours, or even days. This is because emotions, be they angry, peaceful, anxious, sad, or happy, activate your nervous system to release chemicals into your bloodstream that can pull your focus and energy away from other matters. When emotions are that strong, we may be tempted to label them the “enemy.” But refusing to accept how you feel only postpones the inevitable; every emotion you deny will always return, trying to convey important information.
Research on emotional resiliency shows that in order to successfully navigate life, you need to be able to both name the emotion you’re experiencing and describe the feelings that make up your experience. This is where meditation can help, by teaching us to observe, identify, and respond instead of just react. For instance, anger can arrive to help you recognize an expectation you’re holding that’s no longer viable. When correctly understood, this information helps you respond to your circumstances in ways that keep you in harmony with yourself and the world around you.
I’ll give you a more specific example, from my own life. Recently, I was running late for a flight. When the door to my gate closed just as I arrived, I of course felt angry. But when I stepped back to observe my anger, I quickly realized I had had an expectation that the flight attendant would not close the door on me. This acknowledgement allowed me to refrain from yelling at her and instead ask if another flight was available. She said, “Yes. Two gates down.” I made that flight, while another passenger continued reactively throwing a tantrum at my prior gate, unable to hear the flight attendant tell him that another flight was available. My second plane took off without him, with empty seats to spare. If he’d stopped to listen to his anger as a messenger, he could have been sitting next to me!
Meditation can create the mindfulness you need to welcome and experience your emotions, helping you recognize that they are not the enemy, but rather quite the opposite! They, like you, want to be seen, heard, felt, and connected with. They want your attention so they can help you stop and access the information you need to not just survive, but to thrive. For instance, when you see a bear, fear arrives as a messenger to help you stop, back away, and remain safe. When a friend or co-worker is being overly demanding of your time, anxiety or anger can arrive to help you set the appropriate boundaries that enable you to stay on track.
I will walk you through meditations that focus on welcoming the emotions you are feeling. Then, we’ll start to introduce focusing on the opposite of those emotions like welcoming a feeling of peace when you’re angry. This is a surprising way to connect to your emotions and help you shift from being stuck in negative or destructive reactions to recognizing more positive and constructive responses. When you’re open to welcoming and experiencing each and every emotion, as well as its opposite, anxiety and fear no longer control your life. Self-judgments lose their grip. And self-love, kindness, and compassion blossom. Simultaneously welcoming opposing emotions deactivates your brain’s default network and limbic system, which are responsible for holding you hostage in negative emotions. It also activates your brain’s defocusing network and hippocampus, which enable you to gain insight and perspective and break out of conditioned patterns of reactive behavior, such as throwing a tantrum when you’re thwarted.
Engage your emotions
Take time to do the following practices, which will develop your ability to welcome emotions and respond to them with empowering actions.
PRACTICE 1: PROACTIVELY WELCOME YOUR EMOTIONS
With your eyes open or closed, welcome the environment and sounds around you: the air on your skin, sensations where your body touches the surface that’s supporting it, the feeling of an emotion that’s present in your body. Now note where and how you feel this emotion, and describe the sensations that best represent this emotion. Now, imagine this emotion walking in through a door. Go with the first image that arises. What do es your emotion look like? What is its shape, form, size? If it’s a human being, how old is he or she? How is he or she dressed? Take a few moments and welcome the shape and form your emotion takes. Next, imagine this emotion standing or sitting a comfortable distance in front of you.
Ask it, “What do you want?” Listen to what it has to say. Ask it, “What do you need?” Listen to what it has to say. Ask it, “What action are you asking me to take in my life?” Listen to what it has to say. Take a few moments to reflect on what you’re experiencing in your body and mind. When you’re ready, open your eyes and return to a state of wakefulness, thanking yourself for setting aside time to meditate. Take time to write down actions that came to mind that will help you process this emotion, and make a commitment to follow through with them in your daily life.
PRACTICE 2: WELCOME OPPOSITE EMOTIONS
Every emotion comes paired with an opposite. Anxiety can’t exist without peace. Fear can’t exist without courage. Sadness can’t exist without happiness. And helplessness can’t exist without its opposite, empowerment. When you experience only one-half of a pair of opposites (sadness but not happiness; anxiety but not peace), you remain stuck in your one-sided experience. Yet when you stop trying to rid yourself of your experience and instead open to the full range of emotions, you can break free. Of course, suffering from something like severe anxiety is not so easy, but this exercise can often provide the relief you need to realize actions that can help you feel empowered to make change.
With your eyes open or closed, welcome the environment and sounds around you, such as the air on your skin and sensations where your body touches the surface that’s supporting it. Now, welcome an emotion that’s currently present in your body, or recall an emotion that you’re working with in your life, experiencing where and how you feel it in your body. Welcome your experience just as it is, without judging or trying to change it. Next, think of an opposite of this emotion, noting where and how you experience this opposite in your body. If helpful, recall a memory that invites this opposite more fully into your body, like that time you were on a vacation and felt nothing but serenity. When it feels right, move back and forth between these opposites, sensing how each emotion impacts your body and mind. When you’re ready, sense both emotions at the same time, while experiencing how this feels in your body and mind. Now, move between experiencing a feeling of general well-being and the two opposing emotions: First, experience well-being then each opposite in turn, and then experience both opposites plus well-being at the same time. Note how your body and mind feel as you do this. When you’re ready, open and close your eyes several times while sensing deep relaxation, ease, well-being, and peace throughout your body. Affirm that as you go about your daily life, sensations of deep relaxation and well-being will accompany you in every moment. When you’re ready, open your eyes and return to a state of wakefulness, thanking yourself for taking this time to meditate. Write down your reflections and any intentions that you agree to follow through with in your daily life.
Emotions are messengers, here to deliver information about empowering actions you need to take in your life and relationships. Just as it takes time to strengthen muscles, it also takes time to strengthen your ability to welcome and respond to your emotions, rather than avoid them. Lean on them to find creative solutions and successfully navigate life.
Richard Miller, PhD, is the founding president of the iRest Institute (irest.us) and co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.