How Can Meditation Help You Cultivate Emotional Balance?
Can meditation help you cultivate emotional balance? That depends. Through developing alertness while in a settled state of mind, you might begin to notice things that are "trending" in your consciousness. If you pay attention to your emotional landscape, you can respond appropriately. But, if you are simply relaxing the mind, or spacing out and calling it meditation practice, the answer is not so sure. Some people experience extreme states of emotional and mental disruption that may be hereditary. If you suffer from extreme mental states, you may not alway have the option to stay present. I lost a friend recently who was one of our Crestone community members in a tragic event--a horrible suicide. Though he was an experienced meditator--and a meditation teacher-- he had struggled with psychotic episodes for many years. So meditation is not a panacea--let's be clear about this. ***
Can meditation help the rest of us?
If you have ever tried to follow the breath in meditation, you know that the mind wanders easily away from the present moment—it has a tendency to get distracted. When your distracted mind is left unchecked for prolonged periods, you may end up ignoring entire aspects of your life.
But, when you are able to focus the mind for a while, you start to recognize your habitual patterns. Not all habitual patterns are bad—washing your hands after changing the kitty litter is probably a good one to keep. Maxing out your credit card on a retail therapy binge whenever you have a bad day at work might become problematic. Once you are able to see the patterns, then you can start to ask yourself: do I really want to keep doing this?
Luckily, you may have a choice. You recognize this choice by practicing mindfulness. You start simply by sitting down to watch your mind in meditation. If you do this on a regular basis, and maintain a certain degree of focus and discipline, you will--sooner or later--start to experience moments of clarity and presence.
Settling The Mind + Emotional Balance
But, while mindfulness may provide temporary relief of ignorance —the tendency to avoid the truth of what is right in front of us-- it won’t alleviate emotional suffering over the long term. For this, you need insight.
In order to witness your destructive patterns, you have to take a step back and develop a wider perspective. For that you need awareness, which arises through expanding your view. The key to making mindfulness applicable to emotional wellness is to develop awareness, which leads to insight.
If mindfulness is continuously coming back to the present moment, awareness is recognizing the context in which mindfulness takes place. Awareness is observing the process of being mindful.
Observing your present experience can be surprisingly challenging. You may be so accustomed to a certain outcome, that you may miss things that do not fit with your expectations. But the more you practice, the more subtle detail you might observe—in your thoughts, emotions, and environment.
What's The Difference Between Mindfulness And Awareness?
Mindfulness is bringing your focus back to the task at hand, whether you are observing the breath in meditation, or chopping carrots. Awareness is remembering to be mindful of what you are doing. So when you get distracted during meditation, or when you have to suddenly attend to the boiling soup on the stove, you come back and remember your focus. Return to the breath, or to the carrots, and resume your mindfulness—tending to whatever you have chosen as your object of attention.
What Is Emotional Wellness?
Wellness means more than just the absence of disease--it is a practice of creating the circumstances for health to flourish and thrive. This approach to wellness also applies to emotional health.
Emotional wellness is more than just the absence of stress--it’s about encouraging a stable mental state. Through various practices, it is possible to strengthen your capacity to tolerate the emotional storms that arise.
Essentially emotional wellness is accessing our basic goodness--that inherent ground of sanity and well-being we are all born with. Our natural state of mind, when unencumbered by the chaotic thoughts and feelings we often superimpose, is one of simplicity, ease and spaciousness. We were born this way. Just look at a new born baby and you’ll see what I mean.
From a Buddhist perspective we are all basically good at the core. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we always act good or do good things, but it means that the ground of our being is essentially workable. If we just get out of our own way, our original nature knows how to heal itself and thrive.
How Can Meditation Help Cultivate Emotional Balance?
The way to interrupt bad habits that cause suffering is to first become aware of them. In practicing mindfulness and awareness, we learn to identify habitual patterns. Once we are able to see how bad habits cause suffering, we can apply antidotes and make corrections. A regular sitting meditation practice can create the foundation for this awareness.
Awareness is the great medicine that allows us to heal our emotional wounds. Without our imbalances—our heart-breaks, struggles, disappointments and obstacles-- there would be no journey to take—no need to seek medicine. So we should also bow to our weaknesses, in gratitude.
Awareness also leads to recognition of the interconnected nature of every aspect of our experience. We start to see how relaxing the body and deepening the breath affects our state of mind. Eventually we start to see how every thought, word and action sends out waves that affect the subtle details of our environment, relationships and emotional balance.
Tips To Improve Emotional Balance
Observe the Breath
Make a habit of checking in with your breath. The easiest way to start is to notice the breath while meditating, but don't stop there. Notice your breath when you are on the computer, or talking to a friend, or driving to an appointment. Get to know how the breath changes with your state of mind. From a yogic perspective, when the “winds” are disturbed, the mind will be agitated. When you settle the breath into a rhythmic flow, the mind also settles. Whenever you notice you are distracted, return again to the experience of breath entering and leaving the body. This is a first step toward settling the mind.
Settle the Mind
Think of a jar filled with water and sand. When it is shaken, the sand swirls around clouding the water. This is what a chaotic mind is like—no clarity. A settled state of mind is characterized by the clarity of recognizing the gaps between thoughts. Notice the background from which thoughts arise. When you ally with the spaciousness of the mind instead of the contents of the mind (thoughts and emotions) you automatically shift your perspective and allow emotional wellness to take root.
Become Curious About Your Experience
Tune in to your body to see what you are feeling. You might continue to engage in destructive patterns because you’re simply not aware of them. You can’t see the development of the process and go into “reaction mode.” There is a stimulus - like someone saying something hurtful—that sparks a feeling that you don’t like. You don’t want to feel it, and so you hurry to find an escape from that feeling. There are all sorts of responses--you might lash out in anger, run away, pick up a cigarette, quit the job, ditch the partner—anything to distract you from the physical sensations of a disturbing emotion. When you slow the whole process down with awareness, you give yourself a pause to check in and choose an alternative response.
This is how daily meditation practice enables you to access emotional wellness on a regular basis--by allowing you to access the gap between stimulus and response. Then, rather than reacting from habit, you can choose how to respond appropriately.