February 18, 2013
It's meditation month! Throughout February we'll be offering tips and advice from your favorite Buddhist teachers on how to develop and maintain a meditation practice. Today we have a guest blog post from Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace and formerly a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. He's also Tricycle's old meditation doctor.
Tom, the resident head of science at Headspace HQ, can’t get enough of the research surrounding meditation and emotional wellbeing: “It’s really exciting to see the growing wealth of research looking at the effects of meditation—its power to increase our emotional awareness and how it affects our emotional health on a daily basis.”
Couldn’t agree more. But what if you're already aware of an emotion, but simply aren't sure what to do with it? Although simply sitting with awareness can be very useful in these situations, sometimes it feels easier to be more proactive with the emotion—to do something with it instead of just watching it. Here's a practical technique for investigating and increasing your understanding of how and why you feel the way you do...
1) Having focused on the breath and allowed the mind to settle, turn your attention to the feeling of anger, sadness, anxiety, or whatever emotion is bothering you.
2) First of all, where do you feel it physically? Is it in your arms, legs, chest, stomach, head, or somewhere else? You may feel it in several parts of the body, with it quickly alternating between one place and the other, giving the impression that it is "everywhere." If this is the case, allow your attention to settle on the part of the body where the feeling is most intense. Alternatively, it may feel as though it is "stuck" in one place. Either way, gradually refine your search, narrowing the area down until you feel you have found the core of the discomfort.
3) At first, moving closer to the feeling in this way may seem a counterintuitive. We have, after all, spent most of our life running away from feelings like this one. Because of this, it is common to feel uneasy or even scared about the idea of sinking down into the feeling. But notice what happens when you move closer to it rather than trying to get away. What happens when you observe it instead of trying to get rid of it? Does it have a shape, a color, or perhaps a particular sensation? Try and bring a genuine sense of curiosity to the process.
4) Once you have pinpointed the area, rest your attention on that point in a very light and gentle way, still aware of the movement of breath but in a much more general way than before. In the same way that you feel a sinking sensation when you sit on a very comfortable sofa or chair, imagine that you are sinking down into the middle of the feeling. There is no force required, as it is a natural sinking process. If you find that the mind doesn’t want to sink down into the feeling, which can happen sometimes, then simply let it rest wherever it is, even if it feels as though it is on the surface of the feeling. After a minute or so, imagine the mind sinks a little further into the feeling, and then again after another minute or so. Repeat this 4 or 5 times until you feel as though you are right at the heart of the feeling.
5) Now imagine that the body is breathing through that very same point. It is as if the body is naturally breathing in and out through the area of discomfort. Remember, you have nothing to do in this process. Your only task is to notice when the mind has become distracted and wandered off, and then very gently return the attention to that same point. Having returned, you can then once again watch how the body breathes in and out through that area. Having rested in this one area for several minutes, with no special effort, allow your awareness to become a little wider, returning to the more general feeling of the chest or the stomach rising and falling with the passing of the breath.
By doing this exercise on a regular basis you'll very quickly begin to understand emotions in a whole new way.
Andy Puddicombe is a mindfulness consultant and a former Buddhist monk. He is the author of Get Some Headspace and founder of Headspace, a project that aims to make meditation accessible and easy-to-learn. To check out Headspace and try our free 10 day trial, as well as get your Tricycle reader offer on our yearly subscription, you can click here.