Meditation: Working with Difficult Emotions

A student on retreat with me recently asked me a great question. She wanted to know what to do when anger arose during her meditation practice. Specifically, she was feeling anger toward another person. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to advise her so I’ve been thinking about it since she asked, flushing out my thoughts.

When anger, or another strong emotion, arises during meditation, the way I see it is you have two choices.

  1. Put the anger aside as you would any other thought and bring yourself back to your anchor. You might even say, “Hello anger, now is not your time but I will come back to you when I’m finished with my meditation practice.” And then continue to anchor your attention to your breath*. Note, “anger” in the same way you might note an itch or an ache but don’t engage or follow down the rabbit hole into the story behind the anger. Just note it without a sense that it’s good or bad.

  2. Your other choice is to go into the anger… but with an approach of self-compassion. When we approach strong difficult emotions with self- compassion, we open our hearts to ourselves as we might a good friend. We might even lovingly place a hand on our heart. We acknowledge the pain behind the emotion and the unmet need that is causing the pain. When we feel angry toward another person, we feel disconnection and that can be painful, especially if it is someone you care for.

Either approach, as I see it, will help me to gain perspective. If you take approach number 1, you may find that whatever was triggering the anger doesn’t have quite the same pull or that you have new perspective when you think of it after your meditation practice. If you take approach number 2, you will emerge softer and again, perhaps with new perspective on the situation. You may even be able to cultivate some compassion for the person who triggered the anger and be more able to see things from their perspective.

The one thing that I would caution against, is feeding the anger by allowing the “default mind state” to rule. When we are in the default mind state, we allow the mind to do whatever it wants. The default mind state reinforces the status quo and we will see no change in ourselves and the way we operate in the world. Remember that when we meditate, we are “practicing” - we are training our mind. When anger arises while in meditation and we work with it wisely, it will translate (we hope) to when anger arises in our daily life. We can choose how we respond rather than reacting from our default state.

Joanna Dunn