Meditation: Theory, Practice and Its Use in Overcoming (Emotional) Pain

Summary

The first part of this post discusses the practice, theory, and benefits of meditating. It summarizes and is inspired by four books on meditation: Joy on Demand and Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Ronald Siegel and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction by Mark W. Muesse.1 The second part of this post, which is more based on my own thinking, contains a step-by-step program on how to use meditation to overcome negative emotions and thoughts. I end with a brief discussion of the similarities and differences between meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Table of Contents

Introduction and practice

Benefits of meditation

The following isn’t an exhaustive list and doesn’t contain many references (because I’m lazy).

  • Meditation improves concentration, the ability to not give in to distractions and thus the capacity to engage in deep work.
  • Meditation improves attentional control, i.e. you get greater conscious control to what you pay attention to.
  • Meditation improves self-control and “willpower” in the sense that it trains the mind to not give in to cravings.
  • Meditation increases one’s stress resistance and ability to endure discomfort, negative emotions and pain. In a sense, meditation is a form of exposure therapy which desensitizes one towards all form of suffering.
  • Meditation improves the immune system (by decreasing stress and cortisol levels).
  • Meditation can help with insomnia. Meditation might even decrease the need for sleep.
  • Meditation makes it easier to not identify with your thoughts and get lost in them. This can
    • increase one’s rationality (e.g. by reducing the sunk-cost fallacy)
    • decrease the emotional impact of needless, repetitive worries and negative thoughts in general.
  • By increasing one’s ability to accept, let go of and not identify with negative emotions and thoughts, meditation decreases multiple forms of “meta-suffering” or “meta-distress” – i.e. the second layer of suffering that results from e.g. being depressed about being depressed, or feeling angry about having been angry.
  • Meditation reduces anxiety by “shrinking” the amygdala – the neurological embodiment of our negativity bias. (Increased stress and anxiety is associated with increased grey matter density of the amygdala.)
  • Relatedly, meditation can help with all sorts of addictions (and habit-change in general) as it is a form of “urge surfing”. It desensitizes one towards urges makes one less likely to give in to them.
  • Meditation reduces depression and anxiety.
  • Meditation reduces the intensity of (especially chronic) pain; mostly by increasing one’s ability to let go of the aversion to pain.2
  • Meditation can make you more compassionate.
  • Meditation can increase happiness (and perhaps creativity as a result).
  • Overall, meditation can help you to become more productive.

Required amount practice

According to Chade-Meng Tan, it takes no more than 50-100 hours for meditation to bring about meaningful benefits and change one’s life for the better. Unfortunately, on average 1000 to 2000 hours are required to become very good, e.g. to be able to experience (intense) joy in sitting meditation 95-99% of the time in normal circumstances or to calm your mind in difficult situations more than half the time.

Duration

Chade-Meng Tan recommends to meditate at least 20 minutes per day. This seems to be the minimum duration necessary to reap the greatest rewards. Jon-Kabat Zinn thinks that 45 minutes is optimal. In my experience, 20 minutes is much more effective than 10 minutes because I usually need (at least) 5-10 minutes to calm my mind and reach a sufficiently intense degree of concentration. I could imagine that longer durations are considerably more effective still.

Don’t give up – difficulty as a prerequisite to growth

Even seasoned meditators experience days when they will feel bad and have trouble meditating or experiencing joy. This might be due to a variety of causes such as illness, bad sleep, stress etc. It’s important to not give up in times of difficulty and stress.

Think about this way: As a beginner in meditation, you might be able to stay calm (and maybe even access joy) when faced with negative emotions or difficult situations of maximal “intensity-level 1” or so. After some more practice, you might be able to handle level 3, but level 4 and beyond will still throw you off balance – but this doesn’t mean you aren’t getting better.

Adversity as an opportunity for deliberate practice

I often use the following reframing-technique whenever I find it difficult to (motivate myself) to meditate: The more restless, bored, tired and overall unmotivated to meditate I feel, the more effective the training is because the difficulty level is so high and the urge to quit so strong. By managing to keep meditating, however, I will train the mental habit of not giving into urges (like e.g. stopping to exercise when tired, continuing to ruminate in bed, etc.), of staying strong and committed to my goals, even in the midst of emotional turmoil, in states of decreased mental alertness and in difficult circumstances in general. In summary, higher difficulty levels provide an opportunity to practice meditation on a higher difficulty level – which is more strenuous and less enjoyable but also more effective (cf. deliberate practice).

Different paths to meditative expertise

Chade Meng-Tan’s “joy-focused” path to meditation (which I outline below) is just one path among many. It might be the easiest for many people but everyone has different inclinations. Similarly, different teaching can be most helpful during different stages of your practice. For example, beginners might better focus on developing concentration, attention and discipline, whereas seasoned meditators might be better off focusing on relaxation and ease.

Notes on theory and formal meditation practice

Informal meditation exercises are outlined further below and usually involve being mindful in everyday life (for short periods). In contrast, formal meditation practice means sitting in silence for extended periods of time (usually at least 10 minutes) and e.g. focusing one’s attention on a meditation object (often the breath).

Letting go as the foundation of meditation

In Joy on Demand, Chade-Meng Tan writes that if he had to summarize the entirety of his meditation practice, he would say that meditation is about learning to let go – letting go of distractions, sensory addictions, negative emotions, etc. In general, meditation is about letting go of the craving for pleasure and the aversion to pain. In Search inside yourself, Chade Meng-Tan also writes that letting go is probably the most foundational skill of meditation practice.

The biggest misconception about meditation is that it’s about emptying your mind of all thoughts. But this is false. Don’t attempt to suppress your mind from having thoughts or negative emotions. This is counterproductive and doesn’t work. Aim to let go of thoughts as they arise and, gradually, less and less thoughts will arise. Likewise, it’s impossible to stop negative emotions from arising. What you’re aiming for is to let go of negative emotions.

Settling the mind

Another very important and fundamental skill of meditation is the ability to settle the mind, i.e. to rest the mind so it approaches stillness.

The basic meditative state: Simultaneously relaxed and alert

All meditation practices that aim to settle the mind have two features in common: Attaining mental stillness and attention to the present moment. Thus, all practices lead to the basic meditative state: The mind being relaxed and alert at the same time.

Balancing relaxation and concentration

Another very important meditation skill is the skillful modulation of effort and energy. When you meditate, equanimously observe your mind. If you’re too tired, apply mental energy and resolve to focus your attention on the breath. If you get too restless and stressed, relax your mind and rejoice. Meditation is about having the right balance between relaxation and concentration.

The importance of training the mind to notice joy

The more you train your mind to notice joy, the more naturally your mind perceives joy and the more frequently joy arises. Practicing to notice joy is like practicing to notice blue cars. Usually, you aren’t aware of blue cars, but after some time, you’ll see them everywhere. Similarly, after some time of training you’ll notice joy much more often. Be careful to not force your mind to experience positive emotions, but gently incline the mind towards joy.

If you associate meditation with experiencing joy, you are more likely to meditate (and for longer periods of time) as the practice of meditating becomes intrinsically rewarding.

Three basic mindfulness practices

This classification is mostly taken from the book The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Ronald Siegel.

1) Focused attention and concentration

Here one focuses one’s attention on the meditation object, e.g. one’s breath. This practice is used to refine one’s concentration and should be trained first. Without sufficiently trained concentration, the mind is too scattered to observe what is happening in each moment.

2) Open monitoring

After one has trained one’s concentration sufficiently, one can practice open monitoring. Open monitoring means broadening one’s awareness and paying attention to whatever arises in consciousness.

3) (Self-)compassion and loving-kindness

Through practicing open monitoring, one realizes how often judgmental, aversive and negative thoughts and emotions arise in the mind. That’s when the practice of (self-)compassion and (self-)acceptance is so helpful.3

Insight (Vipassanā) meditation

The three marks of existence

Vipassana traditionally means insight into the true nature of reality, namely the three marks of existence: 1) impermanence, 2) suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and 3) non-self. Meditation can help one to see the truth of the three marks of existence on an instinctual, system-1 level.

Impermanence
Through meditation, you learn to perceive the transitory nature of all phenomena (including your emotions, sensations, and thoughts) on a more visceral, perceptual level.

Non-self
With enough vipassana training, you realize – on a visceral, perceptual level, not only on an intellectual level – that what we usually call self is only an illusionary mental process. The mind creates the illusion of a self/an observer in reaction to other phenomena arising.

Dukkha
Suffering permeates existence. Through meditation, you realize that most of our suffering is caused by our desires to either get things we like (cravings) or avoid things we dislike (aversions).

Gaining conscious awareness of pre-conceptual, usually subconscious mental processes

Insight-practices sharpen the mind so it can perceive mental processes at very high resolution. Highly experienced meditators recognize that sensations and thoughts are actually comprised of many micro-sensations. Seasoned vipassana meditators can switch effortlessly between the pre-conceptual level of perception and the default, conceptual level of perception in which the mind integrates sensory data automatically and without our awareness into higher-level concepts.4 For example, the breath is comprised of hundreds of micro-events that the mind instantly integrates into the higher-level concept of breathing. Lastly, Chade Meng-Tan writes that experts in vipassana meditation can notice about 10 phenomena per second (with conscious awareness), whereas beginners notice only about 1 per second.

Informal meditation exercises

Notice thin slices of joy

Train the mind to notice joy, even if there is only a subtle hint, a thin slice of joy present. Examples of thin slices of joy: The taste of coffee in the morning, the feeling of warm water on your skin when showering, etc.

Noticing joy is not enough. You should also attend to joy, i.e. pay intense attention to joy and nurture it.5

One-mindful-breath practice

In my experience, this is a very effective habit to acquire. It takes almost no willpower, only takes a few seconds and it can be done everywhere. The one-mindful-breath practice relaxes you and provides temporary relief from suffering such as boredom, anger, sadness, stress, etc.

How to: Take one slow, deep breath and focus your attention on it. When being aware of your breath, practice gentleness in attitude and intensity in attention, like gazing intensely at a loved one.

Great cues for doing the practice, are, for example: When waking up or going to sleep, whenever you’re waiting, and whenever you experience a negative emotion.

3-breath-exercise

Take 3 slow, deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths decrease blood pressure, heart rate and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a feeling of calm and relaxation.

First breath: Bring full attention to the process of breathing. Second breath: Calm the body and relax. Third breath: Bring up joy. If you don’t notice joy, smile gently which usually causes joy to arise (after some practice).

Meditation and overcoming pain, negative emotions and thoughts – an algorithm

It’s impossible to be joyful all the time. Besides to learn how to incline the mind towards joy and meditate in general when things are going well or at least ok, it’s very important to learn to endure and deal with (intense) negative emotions.

The following “algorithm” for dealing with (emotional) pain combines insights from Joy on Demand and The Science of Mindfulness, as well as my own ideas.

Two remarks before we delve into it. First, the algorithm can be used in everyday life but also during meditation – especially the first two steps. Second, the 2nd (affective) and the 3rd (cognitive) steps can (and often should) be used repeatedly and in varying order.

Step 1 – Attentional step: Calming the mind

Calm your mind by focusing your attention on the breath, away from negative emotions and thoughts. Stay in the present moment. When the mind is calmer, the next two steps outlined below can be done more effectively. Note that this step can be very brief if the negative experience isn’t intense.

With enough practice during minorly stressful situations, you’ll eventually gain the ability to calm your mind even when faced with very stressful situations.

Step 2 – Affective step

Our instinctive reaction to pain and negative emotions is to try to push them away, get rid of them, fight or suppress them. But it’s usually the aversion towards (emotional) pain that causes the suffering – or at least intensifies it. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s often more effective to accept or even embrace and welcome negative emotions and thoughts – while being careful to not identify with them. It can also be very helpful to investigate negative emotions and pain with an attitude of kind curiosity. Although the attitudes of acceptance, embracement, non-identification and curiosity are distinct, there certainly exist substantial similarities

Accept and really experience your negative emotions

Aiming to connect with and accepting your pain and negative emotions can be much more effective than trying to suppress them – which is what we usually do (potentially subconsciously).6 Allow the negative emotions to exist, stay with them and don’t try to push them away. This merely tends to cause meta-distress by adding a second layer of negativity.

The central role of aversion

Aversion plays a central role when it comes to (emotional) pain. By learning to let go one recognizes that suffering and pain are two different phenomena: You can feel pain without suffering as it’s your aversion to the pain that causes the suffering. The more averse and resistant you are to pain, the more suffering it causes.

Don’t identify with your negative emotions

Be careful to not identify with or lose yourself in negative emotions or thoughts – this will only perpetuate them. In essence, emotional pain is not more profound than a toothache and simply comprised of bodily sensations and often kept alive by negative thoughts. Pay attention to the bodily sensations and thoughts, but see them for what they are: impermanent phenomena arising in the mind. Allow them to stay and watch them with equanimity but don’t identify with them. After some time, they will often go away on their own.

In other words, whenever you experience a negative emotion, e.g. sadness, don’t think existentially: “I am sad”. Instead, think experientially, i.e. “I experience sadness in my body”. Or even better “an experience of sadness is present in consciousness”.

Another common metaphor is the following: Your mind is like the sky and thoughts are like clouds; they’re just passing through the sky. But they are not the sky.

Investigate your negative emotions with curiosity

It can be even more powerful to go further than simply accepting negative emotions, and trying to meet them with an attitude of gentle curiosity. Generally, negative emotions often “try to tell you” that something is wrong and can teach you something about yourself. For example, if you experience anger or depression, neither suppress nor express it, but reflect on why you’re angry or depressed and investigate the causes of your anger or depression with a sense of curiosity. Gaining a deep understanding of the causes of your negative emotions can help you to integrate and eventually overcome them. Note that this kind of investigating also blends in the cognitive step (outlined below).

Embrace and befriend your negative emotions

It can be even more powerful to go further than simply accepting negative emotions, and trying to embrace and befriend them. To be honest, I find this attitude very difficult. On the other hand, this attitude is similar to the one outlined above, as it seems best to investigate one’s negative emotions with an attitude of friendly, curiosity.

Willingness to experience joy in the midst of emotional pain

One last attitude is to be open towards experiencing joy even in the midst of emotional pain. This is possible but can be admittedly very difficult but our emotional state fluctuates more than we realize. Having access to mere moments of joy during periods of great emotional pain can be as useful as being able to occasionally rest in small oases while travelling through a vast desert.

Step 3 – Cognitive step: Reframing the situation

The effectiveness of the different steps depends on the person and the type of suffering to be dealt with. Of course, the attentive and affective step are usually more effective when dealing with simple physical pain (e.g. a toothache). The attentional and affective steps, however, are often not enough to overcome more enduring or intense emotional pain.

The cognitive step seems more effective for people (like myself) whose cognitive style is less associate/emotional/visual and more “intellectual”/abstract. The cognitive step has less to do with meditation and much more in common with techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or positive psychology (more on this below). That’s why I’ll write a much longer post on the cognitive step in a later post. For our purposes here, a short and cursory discussion of some, in my view, valuable concepts must suffice.

Reinterpreting adversarial situations

We usually interpret events either negatively or positively, which results in the emergence of either negative or positive emotions. Thus, reinterpreting the meaning of an adversity or difficult experience more positively usually tends to decrease our associated negative emotions. I’m not advocating to be delusionally optimistic or overconfident. But it’s often more rational (instrumentally as well as epistemically) to aim to be more compassionate (to oneself and others), objective and beware common cognitive distortions (e.g. catastrophizing, or overgeneralizing) and the negativity bias.

Interpreting adversities more positively and as an opportunity for growth
Stoic wisdom recommends viewing obstacles and adversities as opportunities to grow and become stronger. In general, most adversities usually contain at least some positive aspects. It makes sense to focus on these aspects and make the best of them.

Serenity prayer

Another crucial stoic teaching is the importance of distinguishing between the aspects of reality one can control and the ones one cannot control. Try to solve the ones you can control but learn to accept the ones you cannot. Reinhold Niebuhr said it best in his serenity prayer which Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) adapted to the following, secular form:

“Have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The attentive and emotional steps can certainly help one to accept the things one cannot control.

Beware of excessive “shoulding”

We often increase our negative emotions by thoughts of unfairness, fear or frustration. As Albert Ellis, would say, we needlessly exacerbate our suffering by excessive “shoulding” or “musting”. E.g. we think to ourselves that “I shouldn’t get sick so often!” or “the pain must not get worse, I couldn’t stand that!”. In essence, we’re “shoulding” at the universe, in the irrational hope that it changes. This just amounts to the futile effort of trying to change the parts of reality that lie beyond our control.

An alternative classification: Gentle, “experiential” acceptance (step 1 & 2 / meditation proper) vs. active, intellectual disputing (step 3 / CBT)

Although there exist overlaps between the affective and the cognitive step, one could sort the attentional and affective step on the one hand, and the cognitive step on the other hand into two distinct algorithms for dealing with negative emotions and thoughts: the algorithm comprising the attentional and the affective step is more “experiential” and characterized by an attitude of friendly, gentle acceptance. It’s all about not identifying with, allowing or even embracing and eventually letting go of negative thoughts and emotions.

In contrast, the cognitive step is more “intellectual” and characterized by an attitude of actively disputing irrational, negative thoughts and emotions and actively replacing them with more positive, rational thoughts. Usually, this is most effectively achieved in written form as this way of externalizing negative thoughts makes it easier to not identify with them and recognize their inaccuracy and repetitiveness.

Meditation vs. CBT: Differences and similarities

It’s obvious that meditation, for the most part, consists of step 1 and 2 while CBT is mostly about step 3. Of course, there also exist similarities between meditation and CBT. In meditation as well as CBT, the practitioner learns to give less weight to and identify less with negative emotions and thoughts and not take their accuracy for granted.

REBT also emphasizes the importance of identifying and ultimately letting go of intense, absolute desires and aversions (excessive “shoulds” or “musts”) and replacing them with more moderate preferences. Buddhism and meditation, likewise, are all about letting go of (maybe even all) desires aversions and cravings.

Lastly, we saw that (self-)acceptance/loving-kindness is one of the three basic mindfulness practices. Likewise, CBT and REBT (and Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapy maybe even more so) also emphasize the importance of profound self-acceptance.

Footnotes

  1. I can recommend the two books by Chade-Meng Tan and the one by Ronald Siegel. The one by Mark Muesse is okay, but not really good. Also note that this post doesn’t even try to be a comprehensive or balanced summary of these four books; I don’t summarize some parts at all, while I discuss others at length, adding my own commentary.
  2. We often develop chronic pain by paying excessive attention to slightly painful bodily sensations and excessively worrying about them. For example, the friends of people who recently got diagnosed with a brain-tumor report having significantly more headaches than before – simply because they worry about and focus excessively on even slight feelings of discomfort in their head.
  3. Mark Muesse, Chade-Meng Tan and Ronald Siegel all emphasize the usefulness and effectiveness of a certain kind of compassion meditation, namely the (what I call) “just-like-me” meditation: Here you contemplate the fact that other people are similar to you in that they make mistakes, have weaknesses and generally exhibit all-too-human flaws – just like you.
  4. This reminds me of some of my LSD experiences. On LSD, I think that I sometimes become aware of mental and bodily processes that usually operate subconsciously such as e.g. the detailed workings of some of the muscles in my legs. It might be that young children who recently learned to walk feel similarly. I think I’ve used this conscious access to synchronize my leg movements more harmoniously with the beat of the music and develop a smoother dancing style. Maybe I’m mistaken but I think this newly found conscious access allows one to more easily change the workings of lower-level bodily processes. In a sense, LSD allows one to consciously rewire neural pathways that are usually outside of one’s awareness. It seems not implausible that one can do the same with “lower-level” mental processes.
  5. Of note: The whole practice of noticing joy is very similar to the technique of “taking in happiness” as outlined in Rick Hanson’s book “Hardwiring Happiness”. And the step of “attending to joy” is basically the second step of the HEAL-method which is also outlined in Rick Hanson’s “Hardwiring Happiness”.
  6. In a similar fashion, when talking to others about their negative emotions, it’s often more effective to simply listen to what they have to say instead of trying to “argue” against the validity of their negative emotions, e.g. by pointing out how their thoughts are exaggerated and how their situation is less bad than they assume.

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