Edit: go read this comment, in lieu of me writing up a new post or series of posts on embodiment.
Mindfulness is your primary tool for introspection. Here are the instructions:
Keep your attention in either the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip—or the area just inside the entrance of your nostrils. Remain aware of any sensation, or lack of sensation, in this area both during and between breaths. Do not think about your breath on an intellectual level, or think ‘in’ and ‘out’ as you breathe; focus only on the sensations in your nostrils. Your breathing should be natural, not intentionally changed.
Being distracted for long periods is normal, working through tough emotions is normal, just return your attention to the sensation or lack of sensation in the area of focus when you remember to.
That’s really all. The answer to questions like, “I am feeling some strange senstation/I am not feeling anything/I keep getting distracted and am distracted for 55 minutes out of every hour I meditate/ I keep remembering past trauma and it’s really painful”, is universally that you should continue meditating, and just shift your attention back to the sensation of your breath whenever you remember to. Those experiences are normal, and you should keep meditating, just as you were.
If you’re physically uncomfortable, you can try changing positions: it’s encouraged to meditate either on a cushion, on a stand, or by sitting on the edge of a chair with straight posture. It’s important to be physically comfortable, and if you need a five minute stretch break mid-session, that’s fine. It’s much more comfortable to meditate on a cushion or stand if your knees are both lower than your pelvis, as such:
It’s hard to pin down why, but the empirical result is that mindfulness meditation is much better for working through emotions than other types of meditation are. Not just better than body scan meditation, but better than zen, mantras, visualization, etc. Some other types of meditation are more pleasant than mindfulness. But they will not help you do the mental work you are setting out to do here.
One other thing: when you’re meditating, you’ll often have a thought that you’d like to follow come up, only to realize that you’re “supposed” to be focusing on your breath, not having thoughts. Emotions have a chance to get processed when they come up in this way, but I’d recommend you shift your attention back to the sensation of your breath anyways. Why?
One effect of maintaining your attention on your breath is, not so much that it calms you, so much as that it centers you, and grounds you in reality despite the emotional pain you might be feeling. It’s a hard feeling to describe!
Remember in Flinching, where we said,
Now, let’s say you imagine a spider, are scared but keep imagining it, and then, the fear fades once you’ve imagined it long enough. The phobia should be permanently reduced if you manage to do this.
The mental mechanics of dealing with emotions that come up when you meditate, aren’t the same as the mental mechanics of dealing with a phobia, but in practice the same principle applies. You want to keep your mind on the emotion, and not flinch away. Directing your mind back to your breath will center you, and help you not flinch away. That’s why it’s typically better to direct your attention back onto the sensations of your breath, rather than try to think about whatever useful thing was distracting you from your breath. Early on, the grounding effect you get from focusing on your breath is absolutely necessary in order to process emotions, memories, fantasies, and other thoughts that come up on “accident” when your mind inevitably wanders from your breath.
So, mind wandering is actually integral to letting your emotions be processed. But if you put off mind wandering to focus on the sensations of your breath instead, your mind will wander back to the same things later if they are important to you.
Once I hit maybe 150 hours of meditation, and was feeling pretty stable but definitely hadn’t processed all my stored emotions yet, I switched from trying to attend to the sensations of my breath whenever I remembered to, to letting my thoughts wander. I’d only go back to my breath in the longer spaces between thoughts. This was the right decision for me, and you can try the same once you’re not feeling much emotional pain on a daily basis—if it doesn’t help, just switch back to the old strategy of trying to focus on your breath whenever you remember.
Next post: Unresolved Pain