We learn in meditation that fear is the gateway to fearlessness. In order to experience fearlessness, we have to know it the same way we might know a friend.
But how do we do that?
One big misunderstanding is that challenging emotions are an obstacle to fearlessness. They’re not. The problem is that we either act them out — creating even more suffering — or we suppress and block them because we think we can’t handle them. This is where meditation can help.
It seems counterintuitive, but feeling emotions without judging them — or ourselves for having them — is the key to discovering our inherent capacity for contentment. Instead of searching for relief or distraction, we can appreciate things as they are. Learning to work with feelings this way familiarizes us with our minds and heals our hearts.
Drop the Storyline
There are a number of meditation methods to work with strong emotions. One is called dropping the storyline. When a strong emotion like anger, fear, or jealousy arises, find where in the body the emotion is located. It may feel like tightness, heat, or a rock in your stomach. Breathe into that space. When your mind turns to the storyline (a conceptual narrative about events that brings up the emotion), bring your attention back to that place in your body and breathe. When practiced over time, we begin to befriend even our most challenging emotions and discover the strength of the emotion will lessen.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It requires practice and bravery to really feel strong emotions. Longer meditation retreats — like the month of meditation we’re teaching together Sept. 29 - Oct. 29 at Karme Choling Meditation Retreat Center in Vermont — is specifically designed to be a supportive atmosphere to explore this technique. You can take one, two or all four weeks of the retreat.
Sitting on the cushion we learn to genuinely make friends with ourselves, and find contentment regardless of the circumstance of the moment. Then, when we leave retreat, we are more familiar with a kinder more effective way of meeting life’s challenges.
William McKeever and Calryn Aston are both senior teachers in Shambhala, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation tradition.