This article will introduce the connection between meditation and emotional health and give some suggestions for techniques to try. [Please note that what is described here is not a substitute for medical or psychiatric treatment in cases of mental disorders].
By now we’ve all come across the list of benefits associated with a regular meditation practice. Meditation decrease blood pressure, lowers levels of anxiety, reduces insomnia, helps bring greater mental focus, increases our sense of well-being, helps us to relax, and increases our energy.
When I embarked on my meditation journey I started to experience that meditation is also one of the many ways that we can rewire our brain and condition our mind!
How it Works
Meditation disrupts our habitual mental and emotional patterns by concentrating our attention in a different way. Neuroplasticity allows us to change our neural pathways when we make changes to our behavior, environment, thinking, and emotions. In other words our brains are not fixed organs but capable of change given the right conditions.
Meditation also creates the opportunity for us to access the resources within us that we don’t normally connect to in our regular state of consciousness. These resources can then become the tools or strategies that we reach for when dealing with life’s challenges and difficulties.
Meditation has been described as a ‘stylized mental technique’, ‘an altered state of consciousness’, and a ‘self-regulation practice’ that teaches you to control where your attention goes.
Most of our thoughts and emotions are generated in our subconscious mind and only a tiny fraction of these come into our conscious awareness. Since we cannot control the generation of our thoughts and emotions, our power lies in the ways in which we interact with, process, and condition them.
We can learn to develop the internal awareness to be able to direct where we consistently focus our attention. This is one of the most powerful ways to begin to gain emotional mastery and freedom.
With regular meditation practice our negativities reduce. We also become aware enough to be able to condition which thoughts and emotions we allow into our mental and physical space on a consistent basis by learning to focus our mind.
In this respect, meditation is an essential skill to learn in order to increase the quality of your life. There are many techniques to choose from and practicing them can be done in either concentrated chunks of time or throughout the day. You certainly don’t have to become a monk and go sit in a cave.
I believe that meditation is ideally suited for the modern world. We are so bombarded with images and information that this alone creates higher levels of stress for most people. This is compounded by the ways in which we deal with our stress and busy lives.
Many people are consistently stuck in certain mental patterns and emotional habits that they may or may not be aware of. These can feel like they happen automatically and over time people begin to define who they are by what they consistently think and feel.
A person who leads with anger in most situations, may not even be aware that this is a habit within them that they have trained into their nervous system over many years. Likewise someone who is consistently sad or depressed has also trained his or her nervous system into this feeling.
Emotional habits are trained into us through repetition and tend to occur unconsciously. We may have learned them by watching others when we were younger, or else they formed as a way for us to get our needs met in the best way that was possible at the time.
Emotional habits are the states that we experience that may feel like they are out of our control or that we don’t necessarily enjoy. They are the times when we are out of harmony and balance within ourselves. There is a wide spectrum of possibility ranging from general discontent to serious upset.
Our lives are affected by states of irritation, worry, anxiety, blame, depression, doubt, fear, sadness, guilt, resentment, self-pity, shame, criticism, jealousy, addictions or cravings, physical pain, or an overall negativity toward life.
Addictions can be the obvious ones like drugs, alcohol, food, or work. But for some people this can be addiction to drama, problems, and even physical pain because these are an unconscious way to fulfill a need for connection with others.
I’ve listed a range of feelings and states but language is key here. If you don’t recognize the word that identifies your particular experience, imagine the times or moments in your life when you have felt some sort of negativity or powerlessness.
We all have the capacity to feel any of the above emotions at times. All states of emotion have a purpose. They are part of our internal navigation system, helping us to get to know ourselves and our preferences in life. Emotions also help us to determine what actions to take.
However it is when we unconsciously and consistently withdraw into certain emotions and patterns of behaviour that it becomes a quality of life issue. Most of us are usually stuck in the emotion because we focus on the external stimulus of that emotion (the story of what happened), rather than knowing how to deal with the emotion itself. Most people don’t like to feel bad but they may not know how to change it.
A common response to this realization is the feeling of helplessness. Because emotional habits can be so strong and automatic people can often feel overwhelmed, believing that they are impossible to shift. But keep in mind that the feeling of helplessness and overwhelm is a mental habit too!
Think of these types of habits as nothing more than a well-worn pathway that happens to be in your brain. You’ve taken this route so many times that it has become the path of least resistance for you. It’s the one that’s so familiar that it feels like it’s who you are, even though it is just an action that you’ve done so many times that you’ve mastered it.
Create New Emotional Habits
The good news is you don’t have to eliminate anything within yourself! All you have to do is start practicing something else that will scramble this mental and behavioural programming and redirect your attention in the moments when it matters.
In essence meditation is one way for you to retrain your mind into new emotional habits. If you stick with it and are persistent, over time these new habits will begin to replace your previous emotional conditioning.
Tips to Keep in Mind
I list some of the meditation techniques that I’ve tried over the years that have powerfully affected my life. I encourage you to explore these styles and go on to find ones that are even better suited for you. As you read through the list take note of which ones really resonate with you. Let your gut be your guide!
In some cases I introduce techniques that really require that you take a course and work with certified teachers. In those instances I provide a link where you can get more information and sign up for a course if you’re interested. Additionally you can use these practices as starting points to seek out further life strategies and emotional tools.
Be patient with yourself. Even if the changes are minuscule at first, those initial few seconds of awareness that you will feel in stressful times are golden! It is during those moments that you will suspend your usual behaviour and be in a space of non-reactivity. A very empowering feeling!
Those moments will eventually turn into minutes, and then longer stretches of time. And if you do react in your usual way, you will be able to catch yourself faster. You won’t swim in those emotions as long thus allowing you to move forward and take action if necessary in a more balanced way.
As you begin keep it simple with these final 4 tips:
The key to your success is consistency.
I always say that the meditation technique for you is the one that you will actually do! Meditation is only as good as it is practiced. Like working out at the gym, consistency is what will bring you the most results.
It’s not about perfection; if you miss a day pick up where you left off. The more dedicated you are to your practice the better your results will be. I give myself 15 minutes first thing when I wake up and 15+ right before I go to bed. I also do some of these as I’m going about my day.
Make the practice your own.
Some of these techniques are active ones to be done whenever you are walking. Some people like a sedentary style, while others find sitting still very difficult to maintain, so a walking practice is better suited for them.
Alternatively you can turn any period of time into an awareness space. Waiting in line at the grocery store or at the dentist can be a wonderful way to incorporate some of these practices. It doesn’t have to be a focused block of time at all if your lifestyle does not permit it.
You can use these practices together.
Sometimes you are so wound up that a walking style is your best tool to reach for in the moment. You can choose the practice according to how you feel.
Practice with your body in an upright position.
Sitting or walking is good, lying down is not recommended. You will most likely fall asleep and your practice will not be as concentrated.
If you can sit without leaning your back on something do that, but if you have back issues you can sit in a chair. Close your eyes and remove your glasses if you wear them.
10 Meditation Techniques
I will not attempt to teach the actual Vipassana technique because I am not qualified to do so. What follows is a description of what you will actually be learning to do and how it will improve your life.
If you’d like to learn this technique then please visit the Vipassana website to register for a free course. There are Vipassana Centers all over the world that run 10 day courses for new students. They are run by donation so everyone can sit for free which includes food and accommodation. It gives you a great opportunity to learn the technique with no external distractions.
Please note that online you will find a lot of different websites for Vipassana. I would highly recommend that you go to the source to learn this technique in its pure, unaltered form.
Vipassana is one of the world’s oldest forms of meditation. It was the path that Gotama Buddha took to reach his enlightenment 2500 years ago. Although people think of Buddhism when they hear Buddha, Gotama Buddha never taught a sectarian religion. Vipassana is a universal technique that people of all faiths can practice. This was the first meditation technique that I learned when I started practicing in 2005.
What I love about this style is that it focuses on the body and does not include chanting. You will notice that I do not list chanting or mantra styles because I feel that these keep me stuck in my head rather than feeling deeper into my body, which is so vital for changing the mind.
The goal of Vipassana is to decrease and/or gradually eliminate our mental & emotional programming so we are free of our negativities. In this practice, we are not observing our thoughts or emotions since we usually get caught up in the stories of the incidents that cause our negativities. It is hard to observe emotion in and of itself because it is abstract. How do you observe anger or depression for example?
So what Vipassana teaches instead is to observe the physical sensations in the body. This is a much easier way to access our mental patterns. Our thoughts, emotions and physical body are wired together. All thought and emotion generate a physical response. Our breath changes rhythm and a biochemical reaction produces a physical sensation somewhere in the body.
In Vipassana the framework of the body is the tool through which we train our mind. We are taught to observe our physical sensations and to remain ‘equanimous’, non-reactive to what we observe and/or feel.
By doing so we learn the key principle of impermanence. Everything in life arises and passes away so therefore reacting becomes disharmonious with the law of nature and does not serve us.
Vipassana trains your mind to not react to what you label as ‘negative’ and to equally not get overly invested in what you feel is ‘positive’ because the golden rule is that of impermanence.
Furthermore, the practice teaches you to not create a story for what you feel but to deal with the reality of the feeling itself by observing it as nothing more than a transient experience.
If you persist in your practice, your emotions will no longer have the ability to overpower you. You will have the opportunity to perceive the world in ways that are outside of your conditioning thus developing more emotional freedom.
As practicing Vipassana creates a more balanced mind, a compliment to this teaching & practice is to also consider changing the meanings of the events in your life. If you can consistently choose more empowering meanings for the things that have or will affect you, then you can consciously help to redirect the wiring between your mind and body.
Anapana is a technique that you will learn if you take a Vipassana course. This meditation is a powerful way to get you started on the path. I learned it as a sitting style, but after you have learned it you can adapt it to walking or whenever you are in a public space such as the subway or a lineup. Learn it by sitting with your eyes closed.
Focus all of your attention on the area at the entrance of your nostrils. The practice is to breath as you normally do but be mindful and aware of the sensation of the breath moving into and out of the entrance of the nose.
If the nostrils are too small of an area for you to initially focus on, expand your focus to the patch of skin below your nostrils and above your upper lip. For the first few breaths you can exaggerate your breathing to feel the sensation of the breath moving against the skin. Once you feel this return to your normal way of breathing.
If you still have trouble with the practice, expand your awareness to a larger focal point by paying attention to the entire breath cycle. Observe and feel your breath going into your nose and down into your lungs. Observe the exhalation cycle as well. Again, just observe what is happening in your body like you would watch a movie. Pay attention and do nothing else.
Notice any sensations that you feel in this area but if you initially don’t feel anything, you can take note of the quality of your breath. Maybe you feel that one nostril has a stronger flow of breath than the other one. Do nothing to change or alter your breathing.
As your mind becomes sharper you will begin to feel other sensations in this area such as tingling, cold, heat, itching, pulsing, or throbbing. If you notice itchiness do not scratch it. Just pay attention to the moment-by-moment sensations as they occur in this part of the body. Keep observing the changes.
You are training your mind to have sharper awareness and also training it to not react to what it notices. In this way you will disrupt your usual mental tendencies.
As your mind gets sharper you can then focus this practice on just observing the in-coming and out-going breath right at the entrance of the nostrils.
Sitting in Stillness
This practice will connect you to silence and stillness. Sit upright in a quiet room undisturbed. Remove your glasses and close your eyes.
Take a few deeper breaths to settle your body. Then breathe normally and focus your attention on the still space of your body. If it helps you, focus on a body area such as the area behind your navel, or deep in your pelvis, or even your feet. Your awareness will expand to that still, peaceful space inside of you that is always available. See how it unfolds for you.
Bring in Beauty
Sit as in the practice above for stillness. Close your eyes and remember an encounter that you had with something beautiful. It can be a flower, a sunset, a pet that you love, the laughter of a moment with family or friends, the color of the sky, the sound of a bird singing. Anything in your life that has given you a sense of beauty or joy.
Focus on this with the fullness of your attention and feel into the space of this beauty. If it’s a sunset that you have chosen to bring into your awareness feel that sunset. What were the colors, feel the heat on your body, the glow of the sky, the formation of the clouds, etc. Bask in the image that is in your mind.
Breathe into this feeling and enjoy the expansion of your connection to this beauty. Do this for as long as you like.
Alternatively you can do this anytime, anywhere to redirect your focus for a stretch of time. If you are caught up in a spiral of emotion or upset about something you can try this practice. It will redirect your attention and you can then return to deal with the issue in a better state of mind.
This technique is taken from the book “Let Every Breath” by Vladimir Vasiliev
Go for a walk wearing flat comfortable shoes. As you walk start to align your steps with your breath cycles. I suggest starting with a 4-step cycle and then playing with other patterns. Distribute one single continuous inhale over 4 steps, then distribute one single continuous exhale over 4 steps. Count your steps as you do this exercise to stay mentally engaged with the patterns.
After a few breath cycles of this pattern you can move on to 5, 6, 7+ steps and down to 3, 2, and 1-step inhale/1-step exhale. You can also play around with it a bit. For example distribute a continuous inhale over 3 steps and exhale for 5, or do a 5 step inhale with an 8 step exhale, etc.
You can also mix in breath holds. For example, distribute a continuous inhale for 4 steps, hold for 6 steps, exhale for 4 steps. Mix these patterns up as well and do about the same number of breath cycles for each pattern.
The key for this technique is to stay focused, relaxed, and calm. Aim to maintain the rhythm of this practice throughout your entire walk. When you’re first starting out it may take you at least 10min to get into the rhythm of this exercise. For this reason I’d suggest doing this walk for at least 20 min or practice it anytime that you’re walking to get better at it.
There are many benefits to doing this, but for our purposes it trains your mind to focus regardless of your emotional state. Additionally, because it involves physical movement & breathing, it connects you to your body quickly and gets you back to a calm and balanced state of mind.
As you walk feel your feet in contact with the ground. Bring your full awareness to each step that you take as you walk. Keep your head level with the horizon feeling down into your feet.
Follow along to any guided meditation that feels right for you. I’ve tried Dr. Amen’s guided hypnosis and loved it, among others.
Feel, Kiss, Flow
This practice is taken from the work of the Awakening Women Institute. It will “help you move from being stuck in the mental story about a feeling into the actual feeling itself.
It cultivates the capacity to stay present with feelings-even strong ones-so they can flow through and leave you open and fresh for the next moment.
Feel: the feeling-any feeling-as a sensation in the body…
Kiss: touch the sensation with your breath, as if you would kiss it with the breath from the inside…
Flow: now the feeling has space to flow. When feelings are allowed to flow, they change very quickly…
Now you are ready for a new moment: Feel-Kiss-Flow…”.
Click here for more information on feminine embodiment practice.
Say ‘Thank you, I love you’ or just ‘I love you’ moment-by-moment throughout the day as often as possible. This is especially helpful when you encounter situations or events that cause a reaction inside of you. Maybe the reaction is judgement of something or someone, a situation that you do not agree with, or some other emotion. Just redirect your attention to internally say ‘Thank you, I love you”.
Please click here to find out how this process works.
Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian problem solving process to release memories that are experienced as problems.
I highly recommend that you take a course through IZI LLC, taught by one of their authorized teachers. As with Vipassana, there are many imitation websites and classes out there, go to the source!
Start each day by counting your blessings! Make a mental or physical list first thing in the morning or while you exercise. What is great about your life is always available if you focus on it.
This is also a great antidote to fear and any other negative emotion. You cannot simultaneously feel negativity when you are in a grateful state.
About the Author
Asha Mokrosz is a Registered Massage Therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience. She recently opening The Toronto Breast Health Clinic, a specialized massage therapy practice that treats all types of breast health issues. Asha has maintained a meditation practice since 2005. She continually enhances her knowledge and has traveled all over the world to practice and study various disciplines.