The Limits of Mindfulness
Shifting the Relationship to Emotion
Let us look at the example of anger. Meditation can only shift the relationship to anger; it won’t in and of itself clear it. The shift allows one to observe anger as an object in awareness instead of subjective experience. One goes from “being had by” the anger to “having it.” This shifts the angry person from a victim of outer circumstances to a creator.
Shifting one’s relationship to anger while being angry in this type of meditative fashion will help one deal with the anger in healthy ways, but it still has to be dealt with. (Sometimes this shift will spontaneously clear an emotion, but this is not common).
Mental Diet for a Healthy Mind
Meditation is like a healthy diet for our psyche. When it comes to physical bodies, people with healthier diets are less likely to get injured or sick and more resilient when they do. Yet diet alone will not cure the injury or sickness. Similarly meditation can make people less likely to get angry, but it will not “cure” the anger by itself when anger does arrive.
What then, to do?
Dealing With Emotion
(1) Giving space to feel and investigate the anger (or whatever other emotion) without judgement (2) but also without unnecessary indulgence, we can (3) examine how it is blocking some deeper feeling of anxiety or not-enoughness, some inner pain projected outward. (4) Unless we’re dealing with the visceral fear of our own infinite potential and love, there are almost guaranteed to be deeper levels. (5) The most healing occurs at the deepest level that still feels real and isn’t just an abstraction. That is where we want to play.
Let us examine the above points in more detail in an example.
Accepting Without Judgement
(1) Let us say John is angry at his boss for asking him to work late. If John does not give himself permission to investigate this anger then he is repressing it, and it will come out in pernicious ways. He might say mean things to his boss, talk about him behind the boss’s back, or do poor work. The result of his repression is that it does nothing to dissipate the anger and makes his life worse.
The Importance of Restraint
(2) Yet if John indulges the anger too much, he will blame his boss for everything. He will not be able to see the anger as an object in his awareness, and he will be nothing more than a victim to outer circumstances over which he has no control. The only response for him is to lash out and try to wrest some control from the situation through some form of violence or reactivity. This is obviously not good. So investigating anger does not mean indulging it, because indulgence (a) leads to consequences that hurt our well-being and hinder goals, and (b) because it ignores what hides beneath the anger.
(3) There is almost always a deeper emotion underlying our original reactivity. These emotions are context and situation dependent. So for example John’s anger at his boss asking him to work late could be a way to hide his fear that he is incompetent and could not get the job done in the normal hours. Or it could be his guilt at not spending more time with his children. Or it could be anger at himself for not quitting the job a year ago, or not pursuing his creative passion, or whatever. When he has accepted the emotion (1) but gotten enough distance from it that he is not indulging in it (2), he is well served by examining underlying causes.
(4) Let us assume that John examines his anger at his boss asking him to stay late and finds out that he feels guilty for not spending enough time with his children. What deeper belief is beneath this emotion? Perhaps he is afraid that he is a bad dad. What underlies this fear? He will have failed, and his children are going to be wounded because of it. What underlies this fear of failure? He should be able to succeed. Why? Maybe it is because he believe God loves him. So if he has to stay late for work, it is really a symbol of God not loving him.
(5) We can keep going deeper and deeper, but John will likely lose interest as soon as the depth becomes an abstraction. As soon as John no longer feels the emotion called up (guilt, fear, etc.) and can just nod his head and say “sure,” without any emotional investment, he probably will not care enough to heal it. So his goal is to go as deep as he can without losing interest.
When John finds the deepest emotion that still produces a trigger, he is in the sweet spot where the most healing, insight, and growth can occur. There are many suggestions as to how to encourage this healing, insight, and growth, but there are no quick fixes. There may be accelerants such as therapy or a strong community of practice, but it is always a process, almost always messy, and often quite mysterious.
Wrapping it Up
When people try to use meditation to get rid of anger, it is a basic form of escapism. Trying to escape from the present moment is a negative judgement on it. This is ironic, since usually the purpose of meditation is to be present and cultivate an attitude of non-judgement towards whatever arises. The benefits of peacefulness, stress reduction, increased concentration, lowered blood pressure, increased creativity, and others are a result of this accepting and present moment centered orientation, not the goal of it.
It is a paradox. It is difficult. That is okay.