My dad, who is a long time meditator, told me recently that meditation is great for helping us deal with the difficulties of life, but that meditation doesn’t seem to work when we feel highly emotional. My experience tends to agree. When emotions threaten to drown me, I don’t think to go sit on a cushion. The waves are too powerful to swim through. But I think it is the fruition of the meditation practice that we should be able to ride the waves when they come by observing the emotions and not judging them too much. Later, when the storm has subsided, a clearer sky starts to emerge and the calm abiding of meditation leads to greater wisdom clarity.
Many teachers convey some variation of the statement, "every moment has its energy; either it will ride us or we can ride it." When our surfboard snaps inhalf and we are trying not to drown in the disturbances of our mind, the lesson is not to create more karma by acting crazy, but to hold the crazy feeling in a cradle of loving-kindness, as if it were an upset child. I love that teaching.
Meditation helps us build the habit of non-judgment, especially when it comes to our thoughts. As we practice non-judgement and familiarize ourselves with the mind’s contents, we begin to care deeply about the well-being of our minds. Like children in our lives, we begin to care about them, even the grumpy ones. Eventually that care extends to the well-being of others, and that ultimately causes our hearts to grow even bigger and more resilient.
Thic Nhat Hanh describes the nature of caring for your mind as like “…[a] mother when [a] baby is crying, she picks up the baby and holds the baby tenderly in her arms. Your pain, your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it. You have to go back to yourself, recognize the suffering in you, embrace the suffering and you get a relief. And if you continue your practice of mindfulness and concentration, you understand the roots, the nature of that ill-being, and you know the way to transform it.” See him describe it at 11:00 during this interview with Oprah:
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says almost the same thing in The Shambhala Principle: “There are many techniques to cultivate mindfulness, but when we care what happens to our mind, we are naturally mindful, just as if we were protecting our own child.”
During times of emotional turmoil many of us want meditation to be an antidote to the pain. Especially when we are experiencing grief or fear, we must remember that meditation is not the antidote to pain. It is a practice that allows us to sit through the pain without causing more pain. Pema Chodron says, “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” By calmly abiding through the fear of annihilation, a door opens for enormous spiritual growth. When your pain awakens you to the feeling of your heart pulsating in your chest, and if you truly care about the well-being of your mind, you can take the opportunity to get up on that surfboard and ride the stormy waves of life with bravery.