Most of the time, meditation is pretty uneventful. You sit down (in a comfortable position with a straight spine), focus on your breathing, and leave feeling a bit more blissed out. But have you ever had unexpected feelings of anger, anxiety, or sadness wash over you with each inhale? You might even start crying without knowing why. Or maybe the unexpected change is more physical: You feel your chest tightening or your heartbeat quickening. Why do these sorts of things happen and what are you supposed to do when it does?
“Meditation isn’t just about feeling good. It’s about understanding all of who you are.”
As the co-founder of MNDFL, New York City’s premier drop-in meditation studio, author and meditation teacher Lodro Rinzler has pretty much seen it all—and experienced a lot of it himself. (Yes, even the crying.) “Meditation isn’t just about feeling good. It’s about understanding all of who you are,” he says. And that includes the uncomfortable parts.
“We shouldn’t be scared of our emotions. In fact, the more familiar with them we become, the more we can manage them in our day-to-day life and not get overwhelmed.”
But how exactly do you deal with all that uncomfortable emotion in the moment?
Focus on your breath
Disagreeable emotions don’t just affect your mind—your body reacts to them, too, be it in the form of a restless stomach, rapid heartbeat, or sweaty palms. “The first thing you can do is acknowledge the feeling and then come back to something soothing, like the breath,” Rinzler says.
Taking deep breaths works to calm both the body and mind, which in turn will help you feel more in control. And then, you’ll be ready for Rinzler’s next piece of advice…
Sit with the emotion
Outside of meditation, Rinzler says people have a few different ways of dealing with dark emotions. “A lot of times, they try to ignore it and stuff it back down by distracting themselves by drinking, watching Netflix, or doing something else,” he says. “Another common way they deal is by taking the emotion out on someone else.”
Here’s the thing: When you keep stuffing an emotion down, it will keep popping up unexpectedly—like during those 15 distraction-free minutes you’ve chosen to dedicate to meditation. “Emotions are not bad things,” Rinzler points out. “When we feel love, it’s wonderful to feel love. When we feel anger, it’s valid. It’s important we don’t judge our emotions as good or bad. It’s just what we’re going through on a given day. Acknowledging it is just becoming aware of that.”
Rinzler says there’s value in sitting with an emotion instead of pushing it away. “If you’re feeling heartbroken, that feeling isn’t going to just go away, but feeling it for what it is and exploring it can help you learn something about yourself,” he says. “It’s hard to sit with an emotion like that, but it’s fruitful—even if you’re just doing it for a moment.”
Know that it will pass
How were you feeling at exactly this time two weeks ago? Chances are, you don’t remember. Rinzler says keeping that in mind is helpful when you start to feel overwhelmed during meditation—whatever you are feeling in that moment isn’t going to last forever. Similarly, he says that it’s good to remember you’ve over overcome intense emotions before. Otherwise, you’d still be stewing over the jerk who made you cry in high school.
“An exercise you can try related to this is to ask contemplative questions about the emotion during your meditation,” Rinzler says. “Where does it exist in the body? Where does it go when you aren’t feeling it? What is its shape and color? The more you investigate, the more you may realize it’s not as solid [or permanent] as you may think.”
Have a good cry
Whatever you’re feeling may be so intense that you’ll actually start to cry. “It might be tears of joy or it might be tears of sorrow, but crying in meditation is totally fine,” Rinzler says. “It means you’re getting in touch with who you really are. No one has it all together all the time. That’s unrealistic for anyone to expect that of themselves. But acknowledging strong emotions will actually help you see your way through them much more quickly.”
And then, you can get back to all the feelings you normally experience during meditation: peace, calm, and (let’s be honest) that tingling in your foot.
If you want to try meditating but aren’t sure where to start, find out which method is best for your personality. These apps can help, too.