Ever since I started meditating regularly last year, one question I continued to ask myself was: “Am I happier?”
For the first three months, my answer was “no.” Contrary to my expectations, I often felt more emotional turmoil than I had before. It seemed as though any event, no matter how trivial, would set off a wave of depression, or sometimes an unstable rush of euphoria, the comedown from which was never fun. I’ve always considered myself to be emotionally sensitive, but this was ridiculous.
The reason for this intensification of emotions was not apparent to me until just recently. Much of it had to do with the meditation techniques that I practiced, techniques which were supposed to raise my awareness of every physical and emotional sensation, thus grounding my attention in my body and in the present moment. As a side-effect, it also made emotions feel stronger, and thus much harder to ignore.
Most every day, sometimes for one hour, oftentimes for two, I would sit on a cushion with my eyes closed and attend to any sensation, be it painful or pleasant, that manifested in my body, and would endeavor to remain detached from them. If a certain area in my lower back ached, for example, I focused all my attention on the ache, and tried to experience the pain without labeling it as either “good” or “bad.” In the clearest moments, thoughts and judgments about the pain became hushed and subdued to the point that I could regard the pain as nothing more than what it was: sensation. Although it wasn’t the goal, the pain itself would often subside not long thereafter.
Because I worked to improve my awareness of sensation, it was only natural that the physical sensations that characterize emotions like anxiety, sadness, or melancholy would be felt much more strongly than they had been before. Sometimes some small misfortune would trigger an unpleasant emotion and because I was more sensitive to this emotion, I felt as though meditation, rather than improving my overall sense of well-being, worsened it.
In reality, the emotions didn’t change. What changed was how I experienced them. The more I practiced, and the more I read about the practice, I realized that meditation was not meant to purge our minds of negative emotions or thought patterns, but rather meant to help us experience them without judgment. We were to let go of our resistance to pain at the deepest level and understand that we suffer not because pain is bad, but because our mind labels it as bad.
Neurological research on meditation seems to support this idea. The big “aha” moment for me came when I watched a talk by Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, at the Buddhist Geeks Conference, who shared her insights on the latest research on mindfulness meditation and the effect that it has on the brain.
The research helped me understand the subtle shift in my experience in day to day life as I continued to practice. Essentially, the shift can be explained by changes in two systems in the brain: the “evaluation system” and the “experiential system.”
The evaluation system is essentially the brain’s “default” setting. It’s the endless stream of mental chatter by which we judge our current situation by comparing them to (often better) memories of past situations and imagined (often worse) future situations.
The experiential system, on the other hand, is more about the sensations themselves, removed from any thoughts or judgments about them. The physical sensations that come with each emotion and how we feel them in our bodies is part of this experiential system.
When we feel an emotion like stress, we’ll feel the stress hormones cause a rise in nervous energy. Our muscles tense, our jaws clench, and our breath becomes shallow. This is our experiential system at work. Our evaluation system kicks in when we decide that these sensations are bad and to be avoided.
In my experience, what meditation does is strengthen the experiential system. If, for example, I feel anxiety, I am much more aware of the physical manifestations of this emotion, so much so that it becomes hard to ignore or suppress it in the way that I had often done in the past with distractions like television, video games, work, alcohol, facebook, etc. The problem is, just because the experiential system is strengthened doesn’t mean that the evaluation system has become weaker. Instead, I’ve had the tendency to feel emotions more strongly and judge these emotions as pleasant or unpleasant as much as I had done before.
What meditation has done for me, however, is make the emotions feel so strong that I’ve found the only thing that helps is to face them directly, to dive into the unpleasant emotions and immerse myself in the physical sensations, to watch them with an unflinching eye. When I do this, I find that while the feeling of sadness, anxiety, or depression becomes stronger, the unpleasantness of the sensations become much less pronounced. My guess is because I commit myself to devoting 100% of my mental resources to the experiential system, the evaluation system quiets down. In time, I expect it to become much less dominant from lack of use.
As I see it now, the key to freeing ourselves from suffering lies not in avoiding emotions but in experiencing them more fully. This is not something that we can do overnight but a habit that we must cultivate. As I near my one year anniversary of practicing meditation, I realize that I should not ask myself how happy I am but rather how attached am I to happiness. How much do I judge my self-worth based on how happy or sad I feel? How much of my identity is invested in my thoughts and emotions? How much do I experience and how much do I judge? These are the questions that I use to gauge my progress now.
For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching the talk by Kelly McGonigal Mentioned above. For Your convenience I’ve embedded it below. It’s 20 minutes so be sure to bookmark it and watch when you have some spare time: