Friday, October 19, 2012

Guest Post: On Emotional Overwhelm

Susan Piver, whom I've cited on this site before, is the author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart and How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, books that offer insight and compassion and the wisdom of her own experience.

She also created and operates The Open Heart Project, dedicated to meditation...but so much more than simply that. I use her video meditation guide daily (well, almost daily) and have found it transformative.

With Susan's permission, I'm posting something she wrote on her Open Heart Project site. It's relevant to what so many of us are dealing with. Let me know what you think...

On Emotional Overwhelm

The lion's roar, according to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is the fearless proclamation that whatever comes up in our state of mind, including powerful emotions, is workable.
Today, I want to continue our discussion about meeting strong emotions in meditation practice. As you may recall, our last newsletter reflected on what it means to simply feel what we feel as opposed to telling ourselves stories about what we feel. I hope the exercise of listening to music together was enjoyable for you.
I created that exercise in preparation for answering this question, received from an excellent OHP member:
Dear Susan,
You have just sent a post dealing with questions new beginners have with meditation.
I have one to add. I have had depression and I would say that I have kept a tight hold on my emotions since my last bout.
I have started to meditate about 10 minutes every other day, and I can literally feel some sadness releasing. I am worried about being overwhelmed with emotions. Should I increase my practise, or just keep steadily going at 10 minutes most days? Perhaps there are no definite answers to such a question but thought I would try anyway.
Many thanks for your help and your really great newsletter,
Best Wishes,
This is a wonderful question and perhaps others of you have noticed both an increase in emotionality and some kind of fear about what you might discover when you sit down to practice.
Before I try to say something helpful, I'd first I'd like to say that if you are working with trauma or mental illness, these suggestions do not apply. Those are different categories and they require special treatment.
One of the key things to remember is that, while it is good to face ourselves, it is not good to push ourselves or force ourselves. Being lackadaisical about your inner state is not helpful, but nor is it helpful to be aggressive in any way.
My suggestion for meeting strong emotion in practice is this, and I'm stealing it from Pema Chodron. It's radical, so you might want to sit down.
The way to meet even your strongest emotions is to feel them--but drop the story around them. In other words, if you're angry, feel what it feels like to be angry. Where does it live in your body? Is it hot? Icy? Does it make you feel pinned to the ground or shot into space? In other words, feel the textures of this particular bout of anger. But there is no need to create a narrative out if it: "I'm angry because she called me x and I do not deserve that." "I'm angry and to expel this, I have to confront him." "If only he would do x, I wouldn't feel y." And so forth.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't analyze or try to understand what you feel. However, when you try to do from within the midst of the feeling, it is likely your judgment will be impaired. Further, and more importantly, this--crafting narratives out of emotion--is actually what creates the pain that hurts the most. Feeling the feelings, even though it can be quite unpleasant, is actually a more expeditious path, one that opens your heart at some point. The story is almost always an effort to close our hearts and it is quite draining. But when we open to our experience, we gain strength.
I would also like to say that you possess great intelligence, and whatever you feel also possesses intelligence. I don't mean that your feelings are messages from beyond or signs from the universe. I simply mean that what you feel is alive, sparky, and, while perhaps unpleasant, is an indication of your humanity and ability to feel. That ability is synonymous with intelligence.
The final thing I'd like to say is that it is always good to look under our most potent emotions: fear, anger, frustration, and so on, which seem wild and crazy." When you peak beneath these feelings, what you most often find is sadness, which is soft and workable. So please find your sadness and be kind to yourself about whatever gave rise to it.
So if you're fearful of strong emotion and feel that if you let a little bit of it in, you will be flooded beyond your capacity, the truth is, there are no guarantees. There is no neat way to work with chaos and intensity. However, there is also nothing to be ashamed of. The path of emotion is also the path of wisdom, humanity, and gentleness.

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