Meditation to Repress Emotions?

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 2, Part 6 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I had two things that I was wondering about. The first one is, when I was watching my breath at one time, it was like I could see inside my breath. I could see or experience emotions from that part; emotions, like stray emotions, which were like reminiscent emotions. So it was like a hallucination. There was something wrong with that because when I was looking at my breath, it was in the breath. So I was focused on my breath, but I was experiencing things that weren’t there.

CTT: Was the experience of these emotions a body experience, an image; a mental-visual imagined experience?

Student: [This paragraph seems to set up the discussion of emotions, but very difficult to understand, so just fragments presented here] It was like; it was like if; like a _____ being like; like it was like being _________ and have the feeling of because the air was cold and it reminded me of the ________. And so as I was feeling the coldness in my nose, it was as if; it reminded me of that feeling of being in the ________. And so I as focusing on; on the breath and it was taking me back to being in that state that I was in in the past.

CTT: Did you stay in touch with the breath?

Student: Yeah.

CTT: Then you were doing well. It’s not like if you focus on the breath, all of the rest of the stuff automatically stops.

Student: Okay.

CTT: You know we’ve all had 20, 30, 40, 50 years of that stuff going on and on and on. It’s not going to stop just like that. And in fact, while some meditators will talk about that kind of activity stopping, others will say it never really quite stops, it just becomes less important and doesn’t take you away all the time.

Student: Okay.

CTT: I saw it expressed somewhere recently as some people want to become spiritual because they don’t like their emotional life. So they think somehow, “I’m going to get so focused that I’ll never have an emotion again.”


It’s very appealing if your emotions are really bad for you. You can do something like that.

Have any of you ever read John Lilly’s book, The Center of the Cyclone, his autobiographical book? Do you know who John Lilly was? Anybody who doesn’t know who John Lilly was? (Hardly any hands go up) Oh dear.



This is like about 15, 20 years ago. I was lecturing in my altered states of consciousness class up at Davis and an older woman student asked me about Timothy Leary’s theories about the way the mind works and what I thought of such and such a theory of his. I responded to her and then this sweet young lady raised her hand and said, “Who’s Timothy Leary?” (Laughter) I felt so old. (Laughter) I’m not even going to ask if anybody knows who Timothy Leary was, okay? (Laughter)

John Lilly was a neuroscientist who got involved in the consciousness movement, especially heavily involved in flotation tanks. He’s the one who really pushed the floating in water thing, and started the flotation tank boom combined with psychedelic drugs, and he got way out there. He’s one of the few people who could kid me terribly and make me feel so square. Anyway, he’s dead now so I don’t have to worry about being kidded anymore… <g>

In his autobiography, he told of some very traumatic experiences as a kid when his brother got killed and he spent, I don’t know, three days in a closet crying, or something like that. At the end of that time, he resolved that he was never going to feel anything again. That no way was that kind of suffering ever going to come into his life, and he was successful at that for the next 20, 30 years of his life.

You can learn to focus in a way to keep yourself under control, and you can really keep emotions pretty much out of consciousness. I think people who do that eventually realize that they pay a terrible price for that kind of suppression. That’s the same kind of reason that, in Buddhism for instance, they’ll say the concentrative meditation can take you a long, long way into very profound altered states of tremendous peace, absolutely no suffering, but they haven’t changed you fundamentally. And when something comes along that’s going to stir those things up again, you’re basically not much changed.

You can ignore a threat by keeping your eyes closed, but that often is not a terribly good way to deal with a threat. It requires your attention and some positive action on your part. That’s why the Buddha invented what we translate as Vipassana meditation or as insight meditation, to try to really understand yourself, not simply concentrate.

You could take concentrative meditation and really just push it as control, control, control and get very, very tight about it and there will certainly be some rewards for that. You know, your spouse dies, you stay aware of your breath. Don’t let things bug you. But somehow, something pretty profound hasn’t been dealt with. So maybe we should take this conversation into Vipassana meditation, unless there are other people who’ve been having trouble with the concentrative meditation that I can say something about.


  1. Hi,

    I think the subject of emotions arising during meditation is something that ought to be considered at the outset. Meditation will unleash emotions. A beginner might start out thinking meditation will make them feel calm and serene. But it is also possible that this calmness of mind will lower defense mechanisms and eventually open an emotional pandora’s box. Beginners need to understand the potential for emotional turmoil. Working through emotions can be immensely healing in the long run but is can be difficult to go through. Not everyone wants to take that path. It should be something that is chosen not something stumbled upon.

    I think I see where you are going with vipassana – that it is a good meditation for helping to get in touch with emotions. But I don’t think concentration mediation will let you hide from emotions. At least that is my own experience.

    I think the exerience of Gopi Krisna who wrote “Living with Kundalini” is an example of how concentration meditation will not let you hide from emotions. Gopi Krishna had a severe kunalini experince while doing a type of concentration meditation. From my experiences I understand Kundalini “energy” to be experienced due to the releasing or expressing of strong emotions. If muscle tension coincides with repression then the release of emotions can have effects that are also experienced in the muscles and this I believe is related to the sensations that comprise the experience of kundalini energy.

    Anyway I guess my point is that if a student begins asking about emotions arising during meditation I would want to make sure he understood the potential for turmoil is just as likely as the potential for serenity.

    If anyone is interested, I’ve discussed this in more detail on my web site:

    1. Good reminders! I sometimes remind students: “Life is dangerous! Doing anything can be dangerous! Doing nothing can be dangerous!” If we knew enough about individuals’ personalities and likely reactions to various types of meditation, we would sometimes advise people “Don’t meditate. See a therapist. There’s too much repressed stuff or wrong motivation to take a chance on messing up your current mental equilibrium.”
      Too much of the time we don’t know enough about either, so we take a chance going in some particular direction.
      In general – and I’m expressing a hope more than solid knowledge – if your motivation is good, you want self-knowledge and you’re in reasonably good psychological shape, meditation be helpful. If your motivation is not good, you want to suppress your problems, etc., meditation may not be good for you (or others).

  2. As much as the mindfulness stuff has been very helpful to me over the past couple of weeks, it has brought up some unexpected emotional issues. I guess it is a good thing that I am seeing a counselor as I try these things out.

    In my case it seems to be grief coming out. Which is odd, because I have a pretty good life right now. In many ways I’m very happy. But I’m changing. I guess I’ll really miss that stubborn materialistic scientist who used to deny the existence of silly things like ghosts and psi despite the overwhelming evidence right in front of her nose. I’d like to be able to go backwards and be that way again, as silly as that sounds. Even though the changes are making me a better scientist, which is something I find very surprising.

    My counselor thinks I should keep working on the mindfulness exercises. But he also thinks I need to have a good cry and celebrate the loss of my old self.

  3. In Dec. of ’05 there was a meeting of neuroscientists with the Dalai Lama at Stanford. The DLs view: what Tibetan Buddhism has to bring to that table is mastery (my adjective) of the emotions. When I sit down to meditate it is the emotions that drive the most disruptive incessant thoughts that deny me the ability to focus my mind on an object of my choice. I think that is true in everyday walking around functioning such that (invasive, disruptive, historic unresolved) emotions also deny optimum functioning in mundane matters… as well as matters of love, creativity and intuition. Also they are the wellspring of those rewarding endeavors so denying or suppressing them is the worst option of all as it cuts us off from the goodies of life.

    When during meditation I became able to focus my mind on a simple object for just thirty seconds or so (that tooks a lot of effort) then when I got up to go about my day for the first time in my life I experienced freedom from incessant mental chatter and a steady stream of negative emotions and negative reactions to things.

    The neuroscience and psychiatry community has a slew of catching up to do since subjective “science,” the “science” of each persons internal environment and our ability to “master” it, have been neglected, denied quite completely until recently. On a psychiatry rotation in a large state mental hospital I observed the patients are locked up due to behaviors mostly driven by emotions that are amplified, distorted, fabricated out of nothing, summated from a long history of emotional injuries. The word emotion was not mentioned at all in any treatment planning conference I attended for the first month I was there and then it was only in passing, not taking emotions seriously, snow “em under with drugs and try to talk sense to decidedly whacked out stream of emotions driving the behaviors.

  4. @Rocket:
    Sometimes it is all to accurate to describe my (and most folks’) “normal” mental stream as — I think of something, which reminds me of something, which triggers an emotion, which makes me think of something, which makes me think of something else, which triggers another emotion…….REPEAT THE ABOVE SEQUENCE FOREVER! Once in a while there’s a perception of something that’s actually happening in the stream, but the perception can get distorted and swept up in the thought/emotion stream…..
    And yes, meditation training can produce quiet(er) spells, let more subtle things in, reduce the constant agitation of thoughts/emotions….

    I don’t know how the smiley face appeared in the above – the Universe is commenting?

  5. Here Dr. Tart brings up a point which is a critical hinge point regarding meditation practice as a souce of stable fruitful permanent progress vs possible short term benefits that do not produce stable permanent growth:

    “You could take concentrative meditation and really just push it as control, control, control and get very, very tight about it and there will certainly be some rewards for that.” … ” with high cost…”

    With intense effort one may develop increased Samadhi (ie highly focussed mind) however that approach results in burnout, exhaustion and inability to sustain the progress attained. Necessary for more stable progress is the first step in the process which is deep unperterbable relaxation, the opposite of monumental effort. In the context of deep relaxation we (well, I) encounter all the psychic contents that incessantly invades the space of (our) minds from our own psyche …. it is brought into relief since it interrupts the state of relaxation. In this process the “rotting corpses” buried deep in the “mud” of the back of our minds are brought into our conscious experience. In the process of becoming conscious of previously buried contents those things no longer “have us” … we may still have them to a degree but they loose power to control us … they no longer exclude us from parts of our own psyche. The tail no longer wags the dog.

    This is no picnic as our anonymous contributor at the top of this sequence alludes. It’s not all sweetness and light, its facing the “shadow” contents that impairs ability to experience those peaks. As Jung taught us a new and higher peak experience often follow close after we allow an encounter with one of those “internal demons”.

    The “high amplitude” emotional injuries, engrams, contents, what have you may be more efficiently processed in psychotherapy . Diligent application of the practice of Shamatha (developing highly focussed attention) will heal the minds injuries my experience has been quite rapid only after gross stuff is healed in therapy. I have considerable experience with that and am a relative novice in meditation practice.

  6. Afterthought:

    As I attained a little progress in seemingly modest abilities, such as relaxed and sustained focus of my mind on an object of attention, I was flooded beyond my wildest expectation with riches in my internal environment, insight, states of a sweet low level sustained “bliss’. I felt I began to understand why all those Tibetan lamas seem to have a huge grin and be so jolly all the time.

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