Category Archives: Emotion

Smiling Meditation

Buddah rock face 230There is a Qigong practice you might have heard of called Inner Smile.   Essentially it’s about feeling happy inside and amplifying your innate capacity for joy.  You engage your body, mind and emotions in this process so that your outward smile is a reflection of what’s inside.  

Let’s say you don’t feel very happy and don’t have much reason to smile but you would like to.  Typically there are two main approaches.  Either you practice the action (purposely smile) in hopes of getting the attitude, or you work on your attitude in order to produce the outward manifestation.  The parallel in religious/spiritual practice is, Do good deeds until you feel a change of heart, or Change your heart until you want to do good things.

We could dissect this further, beginning from the outward  action. Before you start, take a good look at your smile in the mirror or take a “selfie” snapshot.  What do you see?  Be honest. Now sit down quietly with your eyes closed and very slowly begin to smile.  Take at least a minute to let it develop.  What do you feel?  Which of your face muscles are comfortable or strained?  What parts of your face are quite happy to smile and what parts don’t want to, say because they’re too sad or mad or afraid or lethargic or just numb?    

Then ask, what is it that makes you smile?  How do you experience whatever that is?  Is it  lightheartedness, exuberance, joviality, humor, gratitude, comfort, contentment, serenity, peace?    As you go from one to another how does that change the feel and shape of your face?  

Maybe you don’t like this exercise because you think there are more important things than joy.  Maybe find yourself drawn into your usual cravings that you associate with whatever you think you need to be happy.  Perhaps disappointment creeps in.  Maybe there is old sorrow or bitterness just under the surface.  Any of these will effect the inside feel of your facial expression.   Locate those effects physically.

Now, suppose you want to make some change, what would you do?   The main thing from a Taoist perspective is to relax the restricted spaces and allow them to open so they have the room to be happy.  Choose just one spot, even one muscle pair such as the “Depressor anguli oris”  (they pull down the corners of your mouth.)  Feel your eyes which typically hold a ton of tension.  Or maybe there’s something deeper inside your facial bones that you can’t quite pinpoint.  There will be some not-so-happy feeling associated with the spot but you don’t really need to define it.

Do your best to do two things: relax the area and try to make it happy.  You may get  some change right away.  But take your time because most likely that’s what it will take. Treat it like the meditation that it is.  When you do feel a shift or when you’ve had enough for that day go check yourself in the mirror.  Is anything visibly different?  More importantly, do you feel anything different inside?   

This is essentially the process of Taoist meditation which is always centered in your body.  It may sound simplistic but don’t be fooled.  It is much easier said than done.  If it were that easy more of us would be a lot happier.  There is always another unhappy layer but the practice is still the same.  It is deceptively simple, but elegantly and profoundly so.  

Actually the standard practice of relaxation and Dissolving takes you toward neutrality, while the happy part is decidedly positive.  You may resonate more with one direction than the other, so experiment with both.  Happiness is a range of emotions. The French word for happy is content which is more neutral than say, ecstasy, and I’m not sure what to call the inane blather of advertising. 

That’s all about starting from the outside and going inside.  You could also begin internally from your heart, what we usually consider the seat of happiness, but we’ll look at that another time.

Emotion Meditation 3

Many years ago I got a most valuable lesson in human relations through a workshop exercise that required a certain amount of courage.   It might have come from anywhere but the Taoists are particularly adept at creating scenarios that cut to the heart of a matter and give you immediate tools for resolution.  The point of this Qigong/Chi Gung exercise was threefold:  1) to understand when you are putting out what type of emotional energy,   2) to discern when what types of emotions are being projected at you and  3) to gain some control over both. 

What required the courage was sitting face to face with a partner and deliberately sending and receiving strong emotions back and forth.  Now of course we subject ourselves to this every day without much thought when we get into heated arguments and such, but we rarely stop to examine closely exactly what’s going on, particularly not within ourselves.

The specifics of the exercise are fairly simple.  Two people face each other and one is the Sender and the other the Receiver.   The Receiver may close his/her eyes to eliminate the visual cues and emphasize the kinesthetic, felt (or “sixth”) sense.   The Sender then musters up and projects out a strong negative emotion such as contempt, aggression, hatred, etc.  

The first lesson for the Sender is that these emotions can be turned on and off at will as opposed to them being involuntary.  The first lesson for the Receiver is to perceive when they are on vs. off.  

Once that is established the Sender will probably will get some insight into what their normal habits are, e.g. is contempt a familiar emotion?  The Receiver will take note of their usual reactions to negativity whether it’s responding in kind, in fear, in escape, in denial, or even in empathy.   Next the real trick is to neutralize the negativity so that it has no real effect and there’s no need to react beyond observation.

How do you neutralize negativity?   A common idea is to create a barrier of sorts, but from an energetic viewpoint this is considered way too difficult to do effectively.  Some folks would try the opposite, positive approach where you “kill with kindness,”  which might work but could get much more complicated, as we’ll see in a minute.  

The Taoist Qigong approach is so simple it sounds simplistic:  Dissolve the charged energy into harmless neutrality so there’s no need to engage or not engage any further.  And how is that Dissolving  done?,  you might well ask.  On a fundamental level it means relaxing your physical body deeply enough that your heart rate, breathing rate, nerve firing rate, etc. remain stable and unchanged.  Yes, that takes some real practice, hours of it.  In fact it’s the main practice of the old school, Water/Yin methods.  Usually it’s done solo, here it’s duo.

If you can learn to do some of that magic you might try taking it to the next level by dissolving the space around you, your personal space, your energy field.  This is considered to be more difficult but a few, the more sensitive types, may find it easier.  The advantage here is that the highly charged emotional energy won’t get to your body, so in effect you have a sort of shield without the need to build up one.  Clever.

If you want to test your ability here try moving a step closer and dissolve the space in front of you until you can no longer feel the bad juju being projected.  We did the exercise until we stood nose to nose, very definitely in each others’ personal spaces.  

What could be the problem with counteracting negativity with positivity?  Maybe nothing but it’s always good to ask if you have an agenda here:  if you can’t successfully create a positive atmosphere is that still fine with you or does it become an issue?    Some related problems are more insidious:  What we think of as positive might be a mistake on our part and instead be an insult.   A classic example is Compassion where you see the other as your equal vs. Pity where you put yourself above the other.   We’ve all seen or put on smiles and other kindnesses that are not quite genuine.  And very often we expect something in return for our goodness which misses the point entirely.

You could extend the game as we did to include Sending strong positive or almost positive emotions such as praise or flattery, which can easily turn into manipulation or seduction by the Sender and who knows what in the Receiver.  We found this more revealing than the obvious negativity game.  

Dissolving is meant to create neutrality, a lack of need for any other outcome.  It’s equivocation, neither good nor bad, where you start over from square zero.  From here you have the most freedom to be spontaneous, to act without constraint. 

Paradoxically (or not) we found that when the Receiver did not engage, the Sender had less motivation to keep it going and got tired, so the situations never escalated.  Anyone who’s had a class in behavioral psych might recall that no reward, no reaction is the quickest way to eliminate a behavior.  (But beware, as the surest way to maintain a behavior is to give only the occasional reward/reaction.)

You may not find anyone willing to go through such an exercise but you can still try it by yourself in your daily existence without telling anyone.  Pick easy scenes first such as a problem solving discussion, or a social media thread, or a struggle in which you have no interest.  You may not graduate to the point of contending with armed opponents but whatever progress you make will make your life that much more calm and smooth.  




Emotion Meditation 2

Previously we explored how we could change our emotional patterns, indirectly just by observing them and directly by purposely creating different emotional states at will.   Now let’s look at the direct methods in more detail.

The main method will be familiar to anyone who knows something about psychotherapy, and really it’s closer to that than to meditation.  In keeping with the psych tradition let’s suppose you have nagging emotional issues around one of your parents (though any other highly charged live person will do.)  Pick either parent, the more difficult one if you’re up to it.  Let’s say that your stuff comes up predictably almost every time you think of and/or have any dealings with him or her.  You’d love to change how you feel and react but you don’t know how.

The main trick is to identify a place where you can most easily effect a change, try on different changes, and see what works.  You  will need to sit down by yourself and spend some time and effort.  Depending on your personality it might be on the level of Emotion, Intellect or Body.  (These divisions are convenient but arbitrary, e.g. Buddhism considers emotion a form of thought.)

1.  If you’re the Emotionally dominant type you will want to examine what happens in that sphere at the deepest possible level.   For example behind bitterness and resignation you will often find anger and sadness and behind those you will often find pain.

Let’s say pain is the root experience.  Okay, so you’ve been hurt by a parent (or someone else), now what?  What other emotional reactions could you have?   You might try relief because the painful experience stopped long ago or at least it doesn’t go on 24/7.  You might try sympathy because people often cause pain out of their own painful experiences.  You might try gratitude because it could have been far worse.  You might laugh if you see the absurdity in the situation.  Try on these alternative emotions, experience them, amplify them and see how they sit with you.  Next time you deal with that difficult parent, or whomever, live, try experiencing the more benign emotions instead of the usual problematic ones and see what it does for the interaction.

2.  Suppose you’re the more Thinking, rational type.  You will want to analyze your emotional processes in detail and see if they make any practical sense.  You might ask if it’s reasonable to to stay bent out of shape for any length of time?  Does it help?  If not why stay in that emotional framework?  Or you could follow how your thoughts and emotions lead to each other and start to identify your usual patterns.

For example say you’re having a debate and you get shouted down and have your intelligence insulted.  You might feel hurt. You might think up better arguments. You  might feel defensive which could become offensive. Your ego might swell. You might think “no, I’m not stooping to that level”, or “what a waste of time”.  You might feel exasperated or resigned or maybe stuff it down.  You might explode but then regret it later.

Ask yourself rationally, at what point in your process can you most easily change the script?  It might be at an emotion:   “I don’t need to feel insulted,” or a thought:  ”My friend’s mind is already made up, so I don’t need to construct better arguments.”  Whatever, it must be something that makes sense to you and this will require some experimentation.

3.  You might be the Body oriented type in which case you’ll want to feel the emotions in your physical being and identify the possible change points at that level.

3A.    For example, our breathing rates tend to increase when we get upset and we commonly hear the advice to take  a dozen or so slow breaths in order to calm down.  You could be more specific and locate exactly where your body is going off balance and then direct your breathing there, such as your heart, your stomach, your neck muscles, your brain, etc.

3B.  You might also place your hands there and try to calm down and rebalance that way. We sometimes do this instinctively when we bring our hands to our heart, our face, our stomach, etc. in response to stress, but the intent needs to be more conscious.   Specifically and in general, high stress reactions make bodies tense and call for softening, melting, unraveling, and dissolving the rigidity of the physical body.  Dissolving  is the quintessential practice of the old school Taoist Water tradition and should not be underestimated.  Emotions live in your body and can be unraveled there.  You can think of it as dismantling their residences giving them no quarter in which to live.

3C.  A more advanced practice is to use your mind alone, not really your intellect, independently of breath or touch, to direct your body organs and tissues to relax and let go.  However you can effect physical relaxation, what we call dissolving, it will often reverberate to your emotions and your brain making you more even keeled and clear headed.

The main exception to this rule is depression which can be seen as an immobilizing form of relaxation.  Often what helps here is more vigorous physical activity.  To quote James Brown, “Get up offa that thing and dance till you feel better!”

4.  Finally you may wish to explore the patterns of how your Emotions, Thoughts and Body interact with each other.

Let’s say you’re watching a presentation detailing several disastrous trends that could spell an apocalyptic cataclysm in your peaceful little world.  That intellectual information makes you emotionally horrified and your body goes into distress mode.  The stress might be immobilizing or it might make you determined to take action, perhaps out of anger.  Maybe you spend a lot of time reevaluating the facts and surmise that it’s not that dire after all, or that it’s actually worse.  You watch your emotions adjust accordingly.  You also note that your body adjusts, anywhere from rising up to a Herculean task to sinking into an abyss of despair & illness to finding a calm balance in the face of any eventuality.

Once again, the idea here is to identify where and how you could effect a change.  Does accurate information give you hope?  Does hope make your body function better?  Does a healthy body clarify your mind?

In each of these exercises you only discover what works for you through a certain amount of self examination and experimentation.  One insightful change is quite wonderful but taking assessments regularly is much more rewarding.  And don’t think that your changes are necessarily permanent; you will want to revisit the situations on a regular basis, the same as you would with any other practice.  Whatever time and effort you put into these endeavors will come back to you in manifold ways.


Emotion Meditation 1

Whether you have a little or a lot of experience with meditation there are a few simple Taoist meditation tricks that work very well and can do you a world of good.  It’s first helpful to delineate three general meditation categories.  You could make the focus on your Body, your Mind & Thoughts, or your Emotions.  

In this article I’m choosing Emotions, by themselves and as they interact with Mind and Body.   We know intuitively that there is a continuous interaction and what we need to do is experientially understand that process better.  An experiential understanding is what gives us the means to shift everything toward more balance and harmony.

1.  Let’s look at what emotions may arise in a simple everyday situation.  Say you’re in a public place and find yourself in the presence of a complete stranger for whom you have an immediate dislike.  That’s one emotional reaction.  Next you might ask yourself why you were so prejudicial, another emotion.  That may take the form of embarrassment or guilt.  You might then reassess your reaction by feeling acceptance instead, which in turn might make you more comfortable, or proud of yourself.  Or you may say that your first reaction was right because you sensed a good reason to avoid this person, you just have to learn to trust your intuition.    Or it may dawn on you that this person just happened to trigger one of your buttons from way back, something that you need to get over already.  But maybe you can’t deal with that right now. 

It may surprise you to realize that all these emotional reactions, about ten in that example, could come and go in a few seconds, producing a small  “tempest in a teapot”.  Multiply that by a few hundred simple interactions in a day and you might have a big mess brewing just below the surface.  All these emotions will have a direct effect on what you say, think and do in the immediate situation as well as in the long term.  

1.A. The first step in gaining some stability in this possibly turbulent stream is simply to sit quietly and take notice.  Pick a situation which could be emotional but doesn’t require you to interact such as watching the news or listening to an argument.  Or you may want to go internal and examine an emotionally charged circumstance in your life.   Ask what emotions are coming up and what others they lead to.  If you get caught up in them, take note of that and just keep watching.

This perspective, which is found in many traditions,  is sometimes called the Independent Observer.  You could be watching with your intellect but you might also be accessing a part of yourself that is beyond, behind, deeper than, more stable than the vagaries of capricious emotions. 

You will realize that emotions come and go like the breeze and might have about the same importance.   One perspective is that all humans throughout time have had these same emotions all their lives and you are just one of them here in one moment.  To think that yours are all that significant could seem a little ridiculous. 

With practice you will notice that certain patterns repeat themselves, that you have certain habits.  It’s probably less important to know how they developed than to note how they are maintained.  

1.B.  A second method you could try might sound as though it requires a bit more courage:   Take any situation wherein you find yourself, intense or neutral, attractive or repelling, and allow whatever you see and hear to be absorbed into yourself.   Let in the humans, buildings, media, weather, whatever, and then let it all out again.   You could try inhaling and exhaling as you do.  Observe what emotions arise.  Keep this up until something changes, for example becoming more comfortable with what was uncomfortable.  

A refinement of this exercise is to bring the scenes into and out of your three main energy centers, brain, heart, and belly.  There will be a different sensation in each one. What is the nature of each and how do you react differently?   Note that no situation need have any particular effect on you;  you still are who you are.  

2.  That’s dealing with emotions alone, but of course they never exist all alone.  So next you could watch how they interact with your thoughts.  What might be associated with an everyday thought like  “If I’m late I’m late?”  Relief?  Relaxation?  Anticipation? Resignation?  Urgency?  Dread?  Callousness? 

Any of these emotions will lead to another set of thoughts, so if you’re Relieved you might think,  “I could just do some breathing exercises.”  If you reacted Callously you might construct all kinds of ways to blame it all on anyone and anything else.  Watch what emotions are then associated with these thoughts.  It sounds like an endless morass but you’ll soon discover a lot of repetition. 

3.  You can also examine the interplay of your emotions and your body.  In a literal  sense emotions live in your body.  They express themselves through changes in your breathing rate, your heart rate, your nervous system firing, your organ functions, your muscular tension.  Conversely, the condition of your body affects your emotions:   How you feel affects how you feel.  

An easy exercise here is to pick any one emotion, feel it as thoroughly as you can, and see what it does to your body.  Where do you feel Fear or Joy or Depression or Anger?  What happens where you feel it?  

Then pick two emotions, opposites like Courage vs. Fear.   Inhale one and exhale the other, either way, and feel how it changes your insides.   Pick other pairs of opposites like Contentment vs. Desire, Appreciation vs. Disgust, Enthusiasm vs. Depression and amplify them as you breathe in and out.   Notice also the difference when you switch each one from inhale to exhale, e.g. Courage in vs. Courage out, Fear in vs. Fear out.

These exercises will shine a light that enables you to recognize what your usual patterns are.  It will also give you the sense that you can have some direct control over your emotions and your body, an immensely useful ability. 

Once you realize that you can create a more balanced emotional life you can do these Taoist meditation exercises whenever you feel the need.  You will also be able to empathize with other people because you’ll recognize their particular patterns.  There will be a harmonious effect on all your interactions.