Practice as a Balm in Stressful Times
Question from a student:
Recently, I have begun a very emotionally stressful period in my life. I have been called to my meditation practice more often to try and quiet my mind. I have often in the past turned to my practice in times of stress for clarity, guidance and divine connection. During a couple of my sittings intense emotions have bubbled up mostly in the form of sadness and crying. I think my breathing when starting those sittings was a bit shallow and as the breathing deepened the emotion trickled up as well. In my previous practice I would allow emotions like that to move through me as I move breathe through my body, staying present and allowing things to rise and subside.
I have found that with the samatha practice I am less inclined to ‘allow’ those feelings to be expressed. I continue to bring myself back to the anapana region but am feeling like there is a lot of struggle or something I am suppressing. When confronted by a strong emotion in practice do we recognize it as a hindrance and attempt to turn our focus away from it? Or does that then become an avoidance? Do we step away from our sitting until the emotion subsides and then resume? Is there any advice you can give for using this practice in times of great stress? I feel like there is another solution than my current impulse to ‘push’ the emotion away or try and rationalize it away.
Thank you for your guidance, light and insight.
Yes, many people are working with stress at the moment. Our spiritual practice can be a great balm for us during difficult periods of life, you are wise to turn to your practice as you are. The breath can become shallow when we are fearful or stressed, so meditation can help open up our breathing and bring some expansiveness to our consciousness, to see what’s really there. Sometimes that means emotions will arise. On the other hand, it is also useful for us to not loop compulsively with the difficulties, to be able to turn away and have a bigger picture understanding of the human experience.
This is where the practices of samatha and vipassana work beautifully together. Vipassana teaches us to be with what is, without attachment or aversion. So when it feels right to allow the feelings to arise and to be with them with tenderness, that is the vipassana side of the equation. And, at other times, we need to learn how to turn away from our conditioned responses, and rest in the larger peacefulness that underlies the turbulence of life. That is the samatha side of the equation. We aren’t pushing anything away, what we’re doing is not getting sucked into looping thought patterns that don’t actually help.
The first noble truth of Buddhism teaches us that the human experience will always be unsatisfactory in some way. And that the solution to that is to become free from the need for things to be a certain way, in order to be happy and peaceful. If we wait for the external world to be perfect in order to be happy, that will never happen. But we can find a peace within ourselves, and a trust in the larger unfoldment of Being that we can’t see from our limited, individual view.
So both practices are helpful in supporting you in having as much freedom from suffering as possible. In some Buddhist lineages, samatha and vipassana are seen as being like “two feet walking us up the mountain,” with the samatha helping us to be free from the conditioning that makes us suffer and to find with the underlying peace, and the vipassana allowing us to be present with what is–including difficult emotions.
Much metta to you and everyone who is facing a difficult period,
Tina & Stephen
(We are currently teaching a 4-week series at Spirit Rock, which also has an online version. A participant posted the question below to the online group board. We shared our response with our year-long mentoring group last night, and they suggested we send post it. )