How to Deal with the Unexpected - in Meditation and in Life

In my stress reduction classes I often talk about the practice of meditation being a microcosm for the larger macrocosm of your life. The patterns you witness in your mind during meditation are often the same patterns that play out on a larger scale in day to day living.

Recently, I witnessed a familiar pattern play out during my own meditation practice. It gave me a chance to put on my observer spectacles and see how distractions and interruptions to my plans and good intentions can be a training ground. Distractions during meditation can help you work more skillfully with the unexpected when it shows up in life - which it will! But more on that in a moment.

Expectations affect your experience

I’ve come to discover over my years of training and working as a stress reduction teacher that meditation is often not what people imagine it to be. It’s not necessarily a time of blissful tranquility. Meditation is the gentle practice of letting go – again and again – of thoughts, reactions, ideas, plans, beliefs, assumptions, and rigid rules, in exchange for the opportunity to experience the immediacy of life directly, without all of those things coloring and influencing our experience.

Our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations act as filters which obscure our direct experience of what’s actually happening, and turn it into something else. Recently I realized that I was unconsciously approaching my daily meditation practice with an unspoken assumption about how my time on the cushion was going to be – quiet, peaceful, undisturbed. But, a few minutes into my practice, I discovered that the landscaping crew at the house next door, with their loud mowers and blowers, had a different agenda. How would I work with this unexpected cacophony that just so happened to coincide with my planned meditation time? How would you handle such a scenario?

I could have spent my allotted 30 minutes filled with angry thoughts and feelings about the intrusion. To be honest, some of these thoughts did come up: “Why can’t I just have a quiet neighborhood?”, “I want to live where it’s quiet!”, “ This is noise pollution!” However, having a mindfulness practice, and being serious about it, asks us to let go of our ideas about how this moment should be. As you learn and practice mindfulness you begin to  notice how your reaction to what’s happening may be causing you to suffer more than the intrusion itself.

Stirring the pot

Inside our mental world, we’re quite used to being “right”. Right in our beliefs, opinions, and the positions we take. And we don’t always want to let them go. So, one route I could have taken would have been to stubbornly “stew” in my angry thoughts throughout my meditation time until the bell on my timer chimed. I might have even kept the incident alive throughout the day with more thinking, and even mentioning it to others: how my meditation practice was “ruined” by the loud landscapers.

All of this would probably have stirred my inner pot of righteous emotions – anger, resentment, and even some anxiety about having “missed” my daily practice. And my body would have responded – reliving my emotions physically the more I kept them alive by thinking about the incident.

Your meditation practice is your laboratory

Does any of this sound familiar? Isn’t this what many of us do in our daily lives when things “go wrong” (also known as “not as we planned”)? Meditation practice serves as a laboratory in which you can examine these things and experiment with trying different alternatives, rather than following your automatic reactive habits of mind.  These, after all, influence and color the experience of your life.

You might discover that you don’t have to do what you’ve always done. If you can stay present, you can steer the course of your life in a different direction when things don’t go as planned. We practice in the safety of our meditation. This is what meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “weaving your parachute”, so that when those unexpected stressful events come up in life, your parachute is already strong and will hold you.

An emotion as the object of your attention

So, imagine yourself in my situation. You’ve scheduled your meditation time into your day, and as you sit down to meditate, dropping your attention into the physical experience of your breathing body, the loud gasoline engines of the mowers and blowers next door begin to tear through the soundscape. As you sit, you turn your attention toward your own arising reaction, noting its components: a startle, a hardening in the chest, an emotion which you identify by name – anger. Here you are at work in your own inner laboratory, learning much about how anger feels and shows up in your body.

You might also note your angry thoughts as they arise, “This always happens!”, “I never get my quiet time!”, “It’s always going to be like this!”, “Don’t they know I’m trying to meditate?” As you observe your thoughts, you might also notice that there is a part of you that is just observing. It’s as though there is a part of your inner self that is holding a clipboard and ticking off all that’s happening in this explosion of experience: physical sensations “check”, angry thoughts “check”, the powerful emotional energy of anger in the body “check”.  Yes, all that is happening right here, right now.

But that part of you acting as this inner observer with the clipboard is, itself, none of those things. It is something distinct. It’s a part of you that is observing the explosion of angry thoughts and feelings, but is not caught up in them or identified as them. It may be hard to believe, but if you look really closely, you’re likely to find that this observing part of you is not angry. Rather, this part of you is simply noting that anger is happening (“check”), but also sensing into it, and becoming aware of its components.

This observing part of you is much more neutral and objective. It is aware of the anger without having to be the anger. And it’s important to note that in this process you’re not denying or rejecting the anger. Rather you’ve stepped outside of the anger in order to observe it. To witness it. To get to know what it is. This takes you out of the realm of automatic reaction, and into the realm of curious, non-judgmental learning about what an emotion is, and how you can move beyond your automatic reactivity when it shows up.

Tracking an emotion in your body

This observing part of you is really what meditation is all about. This is the part that – if put at the forefront of your attention  - can really aid you in the curious exploration of “what is” that we call “mindfulness”. You might begin to wonder: “Is this observer me?” or, “Is this anger me?” Hmmmm. “If I look more closely, what can I discover about what exactly is going on here?”

When the observing part of you is active and alert (something that gets stronger with meditation practice), you can experiment with noting the angry thoughts and putting them in the background (at least for the moment), and then continuing to observe what remains. The emotion itself is probably still very much alive in your body. Where is it exactly? What does the energy of anger feel like? Can you describe the sensations that make up your experience of anger?

Notice how this is all observation. Once you locate the sensations of anger in your body, you can continue to explore what the anger is doing. Is it moving within your body or staying still? If it moves, can you track its movement in your body? Is it becoming more intense as you track it, or less, or staying the same? Is the quality of the sensation changing from, say, a blunt dense sensation to a twisting tightness? Is there a part of your body that is not experiencing the anger, or experiencing it to a lesser degree? Where is that? Can you move your attention there? If so, what happens with the anger then?

Notice how this process of observing, tracking, and noting is unfolding moment by moment. It’s your direct experience in real time. By exploring what’s happening, you become fully present. Suddenly it may dawn on you that you’re meditating! You’re not focusing on the breath necessarily  - that’s just one technique. Attending to the changing field of sensations in your body is another. It’s a good thing to be flexible and able to let go of your plan in order to be with what’s actually happening.

A process for working with any challenging emotion

Mindfulness is about being with what is. And, if an emotion is arising in you, there is nothing that says you can’t make it the object of your attention – the focus of your meditation – in order to get to know it - not through thoughts, but through your direct experience of it in your body. In fact, this is a very good way to begin to work with anger or any emotion. To observe it, to track it in your body, get to know it, and learn from your own experience that the part of you that is observing and noting what the anger actually consists of – thoughts, sensations, and emotional energy – is not itself consumed by the anger. You are not the anger. Rather, you are what is observing the experience of anger as it moves through you. 

By the way, this technique can also be used with other emotions like anxiety, and with physical pain. The key though is that you are observing your thoughts, not thinking your thoughts or seeing the experience through your thoughts. (We explore all of this in great detail in my online course Mindfulness for Stress Relief).

And none of this involves denying the emotion or trying to suppress it or make it go away. Rather, this practice involves turning toward what’s happening, sensing into it, naming it, tracking it in the body, continuing to observe moment by moment, and learning from your own experience.

Being flexible with expectations

Letting go of rigid expectations about how things “should” be – this moment, your meditation practice, and many other things in life – and getting to know life as it is, can soften you, make you more flexible, allowing you to see new possibilities beyond automatic reactions and limiting expectations. This is what strengthens your resiliency to life’s inevitable unpleasant circumstances.

Learning how to stay with things as they are, in your meditation practice, enables you to learn experientially that all conditions are temporary – both the pleasant and the unpleasant. They will change – including an angry reaction. Tracking how an emotion moves through your body like a wave – rising then eventually subsiding – helps you learn this from your own experience – and this you can trust.

If you can practice working with anger over little things – like noisy landscaping equipment – you will strengthen your ability to skillfully work with anger when more significant disturbances inevitably arise in your life. You’ll have an important resource already strong inside you for handling it.

To learn more about mindfulness for working effectively with stress and difficult emotions, register to watch my free webinar Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.

Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads the weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe.



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