feeling the feelings

When one begins a meditation practice, one of the “warnings” that is usually presented is that as you move deeper into your practice, you might find that some very strong emotions can begin to rise to the surface. Many mediators relate tales of suddenly finding themselves overcome with weeping or laughter as they sat in contemplation. The beginning meditator is usually warned that this can be a scary thing – the intensity of the emotions and the apparent suddenness of their appearance can be very startling. The meditator doesn’t always know where these emotions come from, and might only discover their source after much more contemplative sitting.

But one thing above all else that the student is told is to accept the emotions for what they are, not to label or attempt to block whatever feeling might arise. We try to avoid value judgments, calling the emotion good or bad. They are just what they are. One of the goals of meditation, if it can be said to have goals at all, is to understand that things like emotions and thoughts are not us. The image of leaves floating past in a stream is used – in meditation, we focus on the stream, not the leaves floating by. We acknowledge the leaves, or thoughts and emotions, but do not follow them or allow them to dominate.

This is a hard concept for a lot of western minds to accept, the idea of allowing things – especially things that we deem unpleasant – to simply be, without trying to make them go away. Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Feeling sad? Have some Paxil. Trouble sleeping? A few Ambien, and/or a glass of wine (not a recommended combination) will fix you right up. I’m not a whole lot different. One of the reasons I like my primary care physician is he so readily dispenses medications like these. We invest a lot of energy in ridding our lives of lumps and rough spots.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from depression is that it can be a very creative experience – or can lead to very creative periods. Some of my most inspired bouts of writing, or photography or music have come out of bouts of depression. But only if I allow the depression to be, only if I allow myself to be with it, to sit with it and really feel it.  Certainly there are places depression can take me that are not healthy and can be dangerous and I have to be aware of my tendency to slip into those places, and know how to avoid them. I’ve experienced what William Styron called “the staircase that leads only down,” and I never want to go down there again.

But if I can just calmly sit with depression when it rises to the surface, if I can allow it to rest in me without panic or trying to make it be something it’s not, or without trying to make it go away, I always come out the other side feeling that I’ve learned something. Understanding and being intimate with my Shadow is the only way to truly know who I am. Depression is not an aberration to rid myself of, it is not something broken that needs to be fixed. It is as much a part of me as my joy, and my love.

Meditation is all about noticing what is all around us, and allowing what we find to simply be what it is, without judgment. It is like sitting on a steady rock in the middle of a raging river. The waters roil and tumble all around us, but we can just sit and observe them, just let them be what they are without trying to make them be something different. So with depression. If I can just sit with it, and allow it to rise and fall, come and go, I learn more about who I am, and I find access to deeper parts of myself that I don’t think I’d find by any other means.


Author: stephen

stephen harris is a writer, painter and a photographer who lives with his family in maine.

2 thoughts on “feeling the feelings”

  1. Absolutely wonderful post. You have such a great attitude of accepting yourself, depression and all. I think it is much akin to riding a wave. If we stand and try to fight the wave…we get knocked down. But if we just accept it and let it wash over us…our energies can be better spent.

  2. I am a yogi and a meditation practioner. I am also depressed. Each day I meditate in the car or in bed and repeat the mantra, “I will be ok.” Nevertheless, I keep letting myself cry too. I hope the tears will eventually wash away what troubles me but until then, I too am trying to “just be.”

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