I am interested in contemplative strategies in particular because these can be undertaken during meditation and may lead to an improvement in emotional control that can be leveraged for the purposes of enhanced emotional learning and enhanced performance for other activities. This article has two sections beginning with preparatory guidance and concluding with the specific five strategies.
I. Preparatory Guidance
To prepare for these contemplative exercises, begin with a standard relaxation meditation. Guided or unguided forms can both work. Follow normal meditative practices including the use of a clean and quiet setting with dim lighting. Use a quiet setting. Total silence, low-level natural background noise, or quiet instrumental music may all work. Experiment to find what works best for you. For music, consider using a repeated and simple progression to minimize distraction. Minimize distractions by ensuring your phone and other noise-emitting, light-emitting, or similar objects are not within sight or earshot. Try to wear relaxed clothing, avoid wearing a hat, remove glasses or contacts, and put yourself in a generally comfortable situation including your posture and the room temperature.
Start with a standard meditative session leveraging relaxation techniques such as closing the eyes and proceeding to move intentional focus throughout muscle groups, expressing a conscious will to relax those groups one by one, with consistent and slow breathing through the nose.
During this time you should attempt to clear your mind by focusing on the physical space in your current vicinity. Most people cannot wilfully repress the mind from wandering, wondering, imagining, or recalling, but indirect repression can be achieved by intentional occupation. So, we call this “clearing the mind,” but in fact, you will be sharply focused on the current vicinity, the sounds in the current vicinity, and the pattern of your own breath.
You will be able to notice physical sensations that usually go undetected because you are explicitly and slowly probing your entire physical body for sensations. Those sensations may be in your limbs or in your brain. You may notice, for example, that you have had a background headache that you hadn’t been paying attention to. Try to intentionally relax your eyes, eyebrows, nose, ears, and even the brain itself if possible to see if this helps. You can also try physically massaging your forehead, palms, and so on to see if that helps.
If you are unable to achieve relaxation and aches persist, consider canceling the emotional practice and ending the session early to rest or do whatever would normally be appropriate. Avoid forcing yourself into an emotional state when you have been unable to relax, because this may unintentionally trigger feelings of anxiety, frustration, or other emotions, and create a negative reinforcement with uncontrolled emotion. Expect that progress will be made as long as you are able to carry out emotional practices three or more times each week, and don’t worry about missing one or even several days each week. If you have tried the practice for multiple weeks and have not been able to succeed even once, consider seeking external help.
Experiment with timing. If you can achieve relaxation in 10-15 minutes, you may also be able to achieve emotional sensitivity within a 30-minute session. If you need 20 minutes or more for relaxation, don’t count on being able to achieve emotional sensitivity in less time than relaxation required. It often takes more time, although this of course varies by person.
Once relaxation has been achieved, direct your attention to a stable location in space. Let’s just focus on the tip of your nose simply for convenience and the sake of consistency. After a few seconds of stable focus on the nose, begin a mental transition to emotional contemplation.
II. The Five Contemplative Strategies
When ready, here are some contemplative strategies:
- Phantom anger: Construct a logical situation in which you would find yourself properly and justly angry. Perhaps you witness physical violence on an innocent. Now, visualize that logical situation taking place with a specific character. Imagine what they would do and say. Try to imagine the sound of the words. Pay attention to whether you feel a physical sense of anger, blood pressure, or breath change as you imagine your anger at this phantom character.
- Phantom empathetic sadness: Construct a logical situation in which you would find yourself deeply sad by empathetic means. For example, you are on a walk one day and you find an injured child alone by a road and they are crying. Imagine looking at them and physically empathizing with the pain, then making eye contact with them. Imagine how they react to your presence, whether they say anything, and, if so, in what tone of voice. Imagine a deep feeling of sadness in response to this situation, and pay attention to whether you experience any associated physical sensations, such as a change in facial expression or the pressure of tears beginning to well up in your eyes.
- Memorial emotion: Whether anger, sadness, happiness, peace, stress, or any other emotion; draw on actual memories instead of a phantom situation. Replay the memory, paying attention to sensory details such as visual and audio details, even smells. After recalling the scene, characters, and sensations, focus on the emotions you felt. Imagine time slowing down so that you can remain in each emotional state, 1-by-1, for several seconds each. Notice whether you feel any physical sensations, changes in breathing, changes in blood pressure, addition or removal of headaches, or changes in muscular tension as you cycle through the mental experience of one or more emotions.
- Hypothetical emotion: Similar to memorial emotion, but instead of recalling a real past event, imagine a future situation that you believe could actually take place. Anticipate a real upcoming event, goal, or plan. Imagine it going well or not well for various reasons. Imagine situations that surprise or do not surprise you. Cycle through them slowly, not rapidly. Pick one emotion at a time and play with it for at least thirty seconds. In those thirty seconds, Imagine that this hypothetical situation takes place in a way that makes you feel the emotion in question. Notice whether this evokes an emotional response and whether this causes you to become repulsed by the hypothetical situation or attracted to it and possibly excited about it.
- Prop meditation: Don’t do this too often as props can distract from meditation, but give it a shot and see how it goes, particularly if you are a sentimental person with specific items that have an emotional meaning to you. With your eyes closed, hold the item in your hands. Visualize the item although your eyes remain closed. Visualize the situation the item relates to emotionally, and try to recall the related scene, characters, and emotions. Slowly reimagine the scene and the emotions, noticing any physical changes that go along with your recollection.
Over the course of several emotional meditative sessions, notice whether your ability to regulate emotions seems to increase, accounting for external factors like the amount of sleep, stress, and nutrition surrounding each session. As you find yourself increasingly able to self-trigger, try to channel or apply this emotion toward a concrete goal, and over time keep a mental list of your successes that were aided by emotion, as they can be used for additional meditative practice.
To end on a humorous note – need an example of emotional-fueled concrete action? Look no further than a famous enraged rant from Dave Ramsey about financial behavior!