Life Questions

Below, Sally answers students’ questions about emotional and life issues. This section will morph as new questions come in. These Life Questions focus on working with emotions.

  1. Dealing with Jealousy
  2. Transmuting Sadness
  3. Clearing Self-Doubt
  4. Too Much Thinking
  5. Jumpstarting Your Practice
  6. Dealing with Dull Meditation

1) First Aid for Jealousy

Q: I have recently found myself the victim of my own overwhelming jealousy after breaking up with my partner of 4 years. It feels so primitive and unfixable. Help!

SALLY: You might begin by simply observing the feelings. Notice how you judge yourself for having them, then see if you can let go of the judgment. This is the first step to change. Your yogi-self believes you should have gone beyond jealousy. But jealousy, like many other negative emotions, is rooted in childhood, which means that the feelings are old and consequently sticky. The present situation is probably triggering something that is already lurking inside your limbic system, which is why it feels so primitive. The good news is that if you can work with the feeling as it comes up, you will not only help yourself through this present bout of jealousy, you’ll also free yourself of a piece of the stored lump of jealousy that hides inside your body and brainstem.

The secret is to be willing to work with the feelings moment by moment, again and again, every time they arise. The emotion might come back again and again, but soon you will notice that it’s not as strong. Each time you choose to work with your feelings instead of giving into them, you loosen the grip that they have on you. (This, and the methods below, work equally well with other negative emotions such as fear and anger.)

Here are some methods:

Let the Energy of Jealousy Dissolve in Spaciousness
Start with tuning into the feeling—the pure emotion of jealousy. Find where it is in your body. Notice the thoughts that come up around it. Then see if you can let go of the story line around the emotion, and focus on the feeling itself. Notice the texture of the feeling in your body. See if it has a color. Fully feel the energy in it.

Now, imagine that there is space around the feeling-energy. Let the space surround the feeling, as if it is cradling it. Then, begin to expand that space. Expand it through your body, and then allow it to surround your body, having the feeling that a large field of awareness fills you and holds you. Continue to hold the energy of jealousy inside that space of consciousness. Without trying to make the jealous energy go away, notice how the sharpness of the feelings begin to loosen and open. Feel the energy space that remains as the jealous energy becomes more spacious.

Work with the Opposite Feeling
(This is a classical technique from the yoga tradition of Patanjali.)
When the feelings come up, again let yourself feel them fully. Then, imagine, if you can, the opposite feeling. If the opposite of jealousy for you is the feeling of being loved, remember a moment or a time when you felt loved or a moment when you felt great love. Let go of the circumstances surrounding the feeling of being loved or loving, and just concentrate on the feeling itself. Another way to do this is to imagine an incredibly loving, nurturing presence watching over you and let yourself feel how this presence is sending you love. You can use words to facilitate this–for instance, “I am loved.”

One effect of this practice, if you keep at it, is that it will begin to replace your feeling of lack, of not having what you need and want. It is the feeling of lack itself—even more than the feeling of lacking your ex-partner—that is at the root of jealousy.

Send Love to Your Partner
Another (and very radical) way to work with jealousy is to send love to your partner and the person they’re with. There’s an important principle here: as you offer good wishes to the other person, notice that you will feel them yourself. It is extremely powerful and transformative to create generous thoughts toward the person you are jealous of, wishing them happiness, wishing for them what you’d wish for yourself.

Remember, it’s your intention to work with the feelings that matter! Take each onset of jealousy as a signal to practice. As you do this, you’ll find that the practice begins not only to free you of this jealousy, but of many other related feelings.

2) Getting Past Sadness

Q: In meditation recently, I’ve discovered a bottomless well of sadness. At the same time, I’ve got bronchitis. It feels that the two things are connected.  Are my respiratory problems linked to this sadness in my heart space?  Is it really possible to go past it?

SALLY: The experiences you are having are part of the inner cleansing process that occurs when our meditation begins to go deep. The heart is filled with old griefs and accumulated sadness, not just from this lifetime but from many. These feelings have formed an energetic layer that functions like a wall. It blocks us from entering into deeper, subtler states of awareness, and ultimately from knowing the Self that lies beyond emotions and contains them. So the cleansing is extremely significant, and beneficial, and most of us will pass through it at some point.

The important thing to realize is that the sadness is NOT bottomless. It has an end, and when the meditation energy has purified it, the feelings will lift—and much of your layered sadness will be gone forever. Its helpful to keep reminding yourself of this when you are going through cleansing, because it allows you to open more to the process without being afraid of it.

Your respiratory problems and the sadness in the heart may well be related, because, as you know, there is often a physical cleansing that happens along with the emotional cleansing. You will help the process along if you take care of yourself in two ways: by nourishing yourself and by cultivating the inner witness.

Nourishing Practices:
Massage will help move the energy. Chanting will literally open the stuck places in the heart, and can give you a sense of the soft joy that lies behind sadness. Chanting also gives you a deeper sense of connection to your inner divinity. This might also be a good time for some short-term psychotherapy to help you process the roots of your sadness. Try simple physical self-nurturing–hot baths with Epsom salts, compresses for the chest.

Witnessing Practice
This is the most basic and effective way there is to get to the Self behind your passing (and even your deep-seated) feelings. Try working with a basic self-inquiry practice. Ask yourself, “Who knows I’m sad?” Then look for the witness/knower space that will arise. Understand that you aren’t looking for a verbal answer to the question, so each time a verbal answer arises, go beyond it by asking, “Who knows I think this/feel this?” and then pay attention to the space in your mind that arises. As you keep inquiring into the “knower”, you’ll become aware that there are layers of “knower” within you. Keep moving through the layers. Without expecting “answers,” keep looking for the space of the knower.

Let the Tears Come
Along with all this, do understand that your tears themselves are cleansing, and that not all of the tears are sad tears. Tears are a powerful sign of grace–the Sufis say that one tear is worth a thousand prayers–yet what often happens when we cry in meditation is that the tears trigger associations with sadness.  We begin having sad thoughts, and then they become sad tears. So that might be something to notice!

Ask for Grace
When the sadness becomes too acute, if it feels appropriate, try praying to the Source of grace within you, asking for help and guidance. Know that the guidance and help are there, all around you and especially within you. No matter how alone we may feel at any moment, the truth is that we are completely connected to the universe. It’s the ego-mind that fears and feels isolated, and who you really are is much bigger than that. Often the real source of the fear is the ego-mind’s fear of the greatness that you are….

Dialogue with Yourself
Along with all this, it’s important to keep dialoguing with yourself. Remind yourself that you are great, that you are loved, that you are love. Tell your ego that it’s ok, that you’ll take care of it. Tell the child inside you that you’ll take care of her, and even more, that the universe is taking care of her!

3) The Mentalogue

Q: My biggest problem is my mind. I have an incredibly hard time getting beyond my thoughts, running mental commentary, reverie, internal dialogue — whatever you want to call it. I call it my “mentalogue.” I have been blessed with a very keen and competent brain; however, I can’t turn it off. I have glimpses of a state of openness and clarity. Sometimes moments of clarity last for 15-20 minutes, sometimes for 10 seconds, sometimes I sit for the entire time and fight the mentalogue. Fundamentally I feel that there is some switch that I don’t know how to turn off in my brain.

SALLY: First, don’t fight the mentalogue. Simply notice when a thought comes up, say to yourself “Thought” and come back to the practice you’re doing. This is the basic meditation “sit-up.” It’s comparable to training a puppy. In time, the mind learns that you are serious and begins to let go.

Second, you need to take some extra time to meditate. The idea that the mind should get quiet just because you’ve sat for meditation is a myth. For most people, it can take up to 45 minutes for the mind to quiet down. So, at least once a week, set yourself up so you can sit for a couple of hours at a stretch. You’ll find that there’s a moment when the thoughts quiet down all by themselves. Its like a top running down, or like coke bottles settling in the glass. Once this has happened, that clarified state surfaces. If you can enter that state for a few moments once a week, it sets up a template inside you, and you’ll find that it’s more accessible to you even when your mind is full of thoughts.

It’s also important to realize that the state of meditative clarity, which the Indian tradition calls turiya, or the Fourth State, is not something you can control or make happen. It is in us, but it reveals itself spontaneously, on its own. However, as you notice, it does peek out at you for at least a few seconds when you meditate. If you can dwell on those 10 or 15 seconds of clarity when they come, they gradually get longer.

Moreover, there are certain ways of approaching the mind that actually encourage that state of clarity to reveal itself. Here are some of them:

Find the Space Behind Thoughts
Even in shorter meditations, take a few minutes to focus on the “space” in the mind. One way to do this is to actually look into the “substance” of your thoughts, and recognize that whatever their content, all your thoughts are made of mind stuff. In other words, every thought is just an energetic configuration. Combine this awareness with a practice of letting go of thoughts on the exhalation. Then rest for a few moments in the “space” that remains after the exhalation, when thoughts are still.

The Opening in Your Mind
Another way of accessing this space is to sit, follow the breath, then add the phrase “I am” to your thought-flow. (Or, if you use a mantra, work with that.) Then imagine an opening in that space, and take your attention through the opening. Notice where you are. Feel your way around the space that emerges “deeper” than the original. Create another “opening” and take yourself through that. Notice where you are. Focus on the inner “feeling space”—the inner pulsations or sensations in this deeper place—then with the exhalation, let yourself move “into” them. In that way, you are training yourself to literally go deeper inside. Thoughts will come up. When they do, note them by saying to yourself, “Thought,” and keep moving deeper inside with the exhalation, always having the feeling that you are moving deeper into your own mind space. As you do these practices, you become more and more aware of the fact that your mind is simply a field of energy. The thoughts become less seductive. And the inner control mechanism relaxes.

Even if your mind doesn’t get quiet, just sitting for 20 minutes a day is gradually creating a spaciousness in your consciousness. You may not be aware of this day-to-day, but it is certainly shifting the techtonic plates of your awareness. When we’ve spent our lives doing and thinking, it often takes months of what I call “meditation sit-ups”—the sheer practice of returning your mind to a focal point—to begin to shift the patterns in your awareness. And it works. Your consciousness shifts. Little by little, but still it shifts. This is why regular practice in and of itself is so valuable. As you probably are well aware, this is why meditation teachers through the ages have said, “Just sit, don’t judge,” because its so important just to get ourselves into the position for meditation to happen.

4) Self-Doubt and Its Antidotes

Q: I have a deep, pervasive feeling and belief of my underlying unworthiness. My ego’s main job is to hide the real self that it believes is unworthy and ugly. But there is something behind the ego that believes it too, for I can observe the ego’s survival techniques, but even that place of observation seems also to be of the belief that the deepest self is unworthy. How can I begin to approach this issue?

SALLY: The feeling that there is something behind the ego is actually another manifestation of the ego, which is clever, powerful, and extremely tricky! One crucial step in curing this inherent feeling of unworthiness is to begin to identify the part of yourself that is not affected by your feeling of being unworthy. Whether you call it the witness or the Self, it is the place you access in meditation, and even though at first you may only touch it for a moment, you can start to linger there, and remind yourself that THIS state is the reality, not your feelings of unworthiness.

Talk Back to the Ego
The next step is to begin to identify the “voices” that tell you that you are unworthy, and talk back to them. Listen to what they say, and then find a statement that contradicts them. In other words, create a positive ego to counteract the negative ego! What you are doing is creating a new mental habit—a habit of seeing yourself positively. You may not “believe” it at first, but in a relatively short time, you’ll notice that there’s a voice inside you that can give you spontaneous positive feedback.

Go into the Heart
Another practice for curing unworthiness is to focus in “the heart.”  First, go into the heart. If you have my CD, you can use the Heart meditation to do this. Explore the energy of the heart, and keep going “deeper” into it by creating openings in the back of the heart center and going through them. Do this until you feel a connection to your own peace. This is the space of grace. Now, get in touch with the feeling of unworthiness. Feel how it feels, and where you feel it in your body. Let yourself hear the words around it. Then, bring all these into your heart, as if you were dragging and dropping the thoughts and feelings into the heart space. Have the feeling that you are surrounded by a wide bubble or space of energy that moves out from the heart and surrounds you. Hold the sense of the heart space, the sense of the wider space, AND the feeling that goes with “unworthiness” together. Offer the feeling to grace, and ask that it be healed. Do this once every few days, or make it part of your daily practice. Little by little, you should begin to notice a change.

Inner Child Work
It might also be helpful to do some inner child work with the feeling. This is best done with another person. Basically, it’s a practice of anchoring yourself in the heart, then asking the question: “What age was I when I first had this feeling?  You’ll get a sense of this, intuitively. Then imagine yourself at that age, and bring the child you into your heart space. Cradle the child. Speak to the child–tell the child, “You are divine, you are worthy,” or whatever occurs to you to help comfort the child. Tell the child that you will be there for him, that you won’t abandon him and you won’t let him feel unworthy. Again, this is a process that you must do again and again, but it is a very powerful way to begin healing the deep-seated feelings. You may find that tears or other deep feelings come up as you do it. For this reason, it’s very important that you ANCHOR YOURSELF IN THE HEART SPACE and identify yourself NOT as the child, but as the adult who is holding the heart-space. So you, as the spiritually wise adult, are helping to heal this left-behind child part of you.

5) Jumpstarting Your Practice

Q: I get great meditations in retreat settings, but my practice often comes to a grinding halt in day-to-day worldly life. How can I find a balance?

SALLY: Three things help:

  1. Make sure that you make time for at least 20 minutes a day of meditation, no matter what time you do it, and no matter how full of thoughts your mind seems. This will set the context for the rest of the day.
  2. Get in the habit of taking 2 or 3 minute meditation breaks during the day, when you simply sit and follow the breath, or give yourself a teaching like “All is one” or “Love is real.”  In this way, you seed your day with remembrance of your goal.
  3. Finally, see if you can give yourself a Sabbath—a sacred period every week when you let yourself do a mini-retreat. It doesn’t have to be an entire day. For instance, you can make a point of taking three or four hours on Sunday to practice—not just meditating, but also doing some yoga, some chanting, or reading a spiritual text. All this will help keep you in touch with the deep Self, even when daily meditations have to be short. The most important thing is to remember that your goal is to continually keep yourself touching back into the Self. It doesn’t matter HOW you do it, just THAT you do it…

6) Dealing with Dull Meditation

Q: My meditation has been feeling dull. How can I work with this?

SALLY: Normally when meditation is dull its because of our lifestyle. It might be that you’ve gotten yourself into a chronic state of distraction, or negativity. Your diet—physical or mental—might be dulling your mind or making you agitated. Experiment with what you eat and when.  Eating too late at night can dull meditation. So can drinking.

Also, you might notice the mental diet you have been feeding yourself.

You might also want take some time and notice the thoughts and feelings that you are letting into your mind. When we are dwelling a lot in negative thoughts—that is, telling ourselves stories about everything that’s wrong with us and our world—it affects the quality of our meditation. There’s a certain internal discipline that might be helpful to you—the discipline of observing your thoughts and systematically replacing negative thoughts with their opposites.

After you watch the evening news or read the newspaper, spend some time wishing the best for all beings. When you feel angry, take a moment to remember something or someone you love. If you begin to dwell more in loving, expansive thoughts, it will help your practice.

You might also make some changes in the environment of your meditation practice. For instance, if you feel sleepy when you meditate in the early morning, try meditating at different times of day. Take some time to create a beautiful meditation space for yourself, even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom. Make it a place you want to sit, so that you look forward to meditation.

Then, instead of jumping right into meditation, take a few minutes to put yourself in the mood. For many people, reading a spiritual book or poem before meditation will give you a jumpstart. Teresa of Avila, one of the world-class meditators, used to say that she always needed to read an inspiring book in order to get into meditation.

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