26 September 2011

Clearing unpleasant emotions

How best to deal with an emotion that is recurring, unpleasant or maybe quite painful? Some use drugs or alcohol. Some use crazy and really traumatic behaviour to mask the pain and distract themselves. There are several more effective and intelligent ways to approach this common dilemma, and here is one of the best: Mindfulness of Emotions.

The basic approach is quite simple. What you do is use your willpower to selectively drop any thinking about “the story” and instead go into “the emotion”.

Why does this work? When we feel a difficult emotion, the natural tendency is to keep going over the story. He did that… I said this… What if that had happened? Why didn’t I try that? What if she did ....??  And on, and on, and on. Over and over and over.

Inevitably the story will go on forever, like a classic, long-running soap opera with a few key players who manage to recycle a never-ending list of problems. The more we dwell on the story, the more we fuel the emotions.

Hence this solution. Let go of the story and focus on the emotion. We do this by feeling the emotions in our body.

Often, before our awareness is brought to this and we train ourselves a little, emotions in general are felt as some vague pleasant or unpleasant feeling that we recognised as an emotion, but we have difficulty really knowing what it is, or where it is. In this way, emotions can remain rather abstract, vague and more in our head than our body. In our head, emotions tend to become stuck, linked to their story and gone over again and again with no resolution. Left in our head, it is not surprising that difficult emotions may well be painful and chronic and, as such, either suppressed or left uncontrolled and unpredictable.

The solution is simple. We turn our attention to our body and investigate the feeling in our body that goes with the emotion. If you have not done this before it is easy. It can be done in meditation posture, sitting casually or lying down. Probably easier with the eyes closed, we simply bring to mind the emotion, then notice where in the body we actually feel the sensation in the body, and we acknowledge it to ourselves.

Most emotions register in our central core – abdomen, solar plexus region, chest; maybe up into the throat region or down into the pelvis; but mostly in the chest and abdomen.

If you have a strong emotion, you can try this straight away. If you want to experiment with this technique you can recall one of your emotional stories for a moment, just long enough to generate the emotion, then drop the story, bring your attention into that central core area of your body, and go into the bodily felt sense of the emotion.

There are three crucial points with this technique:

Simply dwell on the feeling in your body.
Avoid the temptation to think the feeling in your body needs to change or you need to fix something. Your awareness will take care of it automatically. By holding your awareness on the feeling, it will slowly, steadily and reliably dissolve.

Hold the physical feeling in your awareness non-judgementally.
This is very important. Let go of any tendency to be critical or to analyse. Simply be interested to notice the feeling. That is all. Just notice it free of any judgement; free of any commentary or internal discussion.

To do this is the discipline, the personal kindness you need for the technique to be effective. So whenever you notice yourself becoming judgemental, simply drop the commentary and go back into the feeling.

Remain undistracted. 
Whenever you become aware that your mind has wandered or you have gone back to dwelling on the story, recognise this, be gentle with yourself (do not beat yourself up!), and return to the bodily-felt sense.

If you find emotion welling up, maybe tears flowing or other emotions becoming quite strong, aim to remain undistracted and stay with the feeling in your body.

This technique is well described as Mindfulness of Emotions and is a powerful way to actually become comfortable with, and then release, destructive and painful emotions.

Give it a go and if you have feedback, add it to the comment section below.

Smile and enjoy!


I am very excited by the invitation to speak at the 2012 Happiness and its Causes Conference.  I have been requested to co-present a one day, pre conference workshop with Sogyal Rinpoche and to present a Key Note address to the main conference. As Rinpoche has been my main teacher for over 25yrs this is a daunting but wonderful prospect. The Conference regularly has had 2-3,000 people attend and is one of the great Mind-Body-Spirit Conferences held anywhere in the world. It is well worth considering attending, I recommend it highly. Follow the link above for the program.



Meditation An In-depth Guide: Ian Gawler and Paul Benson contains a large section on managing emotions.


Emotional Health: Ian Gawler


Love and its conditions

Orgasm, healing and wellbeing


  1. Ten weeks after my wife's passing from a tough battle with cancer I am having many emotional experiences, I have much support, people are kind, meditation is partially helpful, I say partially because we were meditating together, in fact did almost everything together. My wife is not here. It seems so unfair that she is not here to share the many earthly blessings we have had. If in a short ten weeks I can say I am three parts way through the DABA assessment, fine; if people ask 'Are you coping?' 'Yes I am', But do I like it 'No.' This article on clearing emotions seems sound, but other than release the physical pain side of emotion, I cannot clear my thought processes of concern with what is lost, with what cannot be regained.

  2. Having been to several 'Happiness" conferences I can vouch for their great qualit. Seeing you are to speak on life and death there next year Ian, I hope you will include some of the techniques above as they helped me a lot to manage a death in the family. good luck with the talks

  3. Becoming more clearly aware of emotions and life situations and the space in which they occur might open us to a still more panoramic awareness. A compassionate attitude, a warmth, develops at this point. It is an attitude of fundamental acceptance of oneself while still retaining critical intelligence. We appreciate the joyful aspect of life along with the painful aspect. Relating to emotions ceases to be a big deal. Emotions are as they are, neither suppressed nor indulged but simply acknowledged. So the precise awareness of details leads into an openness to the complex totality of situations.

    From Ocean of Dharma: The Everyday Wisdom of Chogyam Trungpa,

  4. I loved your Blog for Earth Day Activities, I'm going to Follow Your Post for my Gardening and planting trees on Earth day
    What to do for earth day. You are an amazing nature loving Person.