Meeting difficult emotions:

with the light of compassion.


Someone emailed me recently asking if I could say something about meditation and coping with deep, heartfelt emotions, which can sometimes feel like physical or mental pain.

As I read the email, I remembered the many times when I’ve been caught up in a storm of difficult, painful emotions and struggled to be compassionate to myself, to follow Jesus’ teaching to “be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate”[1]

Yet, I have seen in my own life and in the lives of many people I have known and taught, how our relationship with our emotions can be transformed if we can acknowledge what we are experiencing and learn to meet this with a spirit of self-compassion.

A way of being with difficult emotions that has been a great help to me involves a threefold movement of recognising, allowing and compassion.

Recognising what we are experiencing, we become aware of it. We can allow what we are experiencing to be present within the light of compassionate awareness. We can tend to it within this gentle light, allowing our relationship with the emotion and its energy to be transformed and peace to arise.

Let’s look at this a little more closely.



By recognising, I mean acknowledging the emotion we are experiencing, which brings it into the light of awareness.

To help us do this, we might quietly name what we are feeling, saying to ourselves, “I am feeling sadness” or “I am feeling anger.”



By allowing, I mean letting the emotion we have recognized be present, simply because it is present.

We drop any inclination to avoid or fix anything, and allow what is here to be here, practicing Jesus’ teaching not to let ourselves be caught up in worries about tomorrow[2] (or what we did or didn’t do yesterday, or twenty years ago). We allow what we are experiencing to be our meditation seat, our place of practice.

Saying our prayer word, following our breath, we notice and let go of any thoughts, any mind-chatter about the emotion we are experiencing, and allow the experience to be present, naked and just as it is.

If we need a little help with this (who doesn’t?), we can return to quietly recognising and naming what we are experiencing (“I am feeling sadness”, “I am feeling anger”) as many times as we need to. It’s always good to recognise and allow the simple reality of our experience in the present moment.

Then we return to our prayer word united with the flow of our breath and rest there, trusting that God, the ground of all compassion, is present and ready to comfort us[3], to bear our burden and give us rest,[4] even as the emotion, the pain, is present.



One of the great gifts of our meditation practice, is how it stills the reactive, chattering mind and clears a space for compassion to arise. In the moment of recognition, allowing what is present in our experience to be present, compassion arises quite naturally to meet our suffering.

In the calm space of awareness, we can recognise our experience, our pain, our anger. We can allow what is present to be present and tend to it with the gentle light of compassion.

We can allow self-compassion.

We can allow ourselves to be embraced by others and receive their compassion.

We can allow our relationship with the emotion and its energy to be transformed and peace to arise.


Many years ago when I was twenty, going through a difficult time and desperately needing a ray of light, my teacher said to me, “Chris, whatever you are feeling or thinking right now, try not to forget that God is not just within you, but is ceaselessly manifesting as you. We are compassion, compassioning; we are love, loving. This is who we are.”

Our deep, heartfelt emotions, which can sometimes feel like physical or mental pain, run deep. But they do not run as deep as we do.

In our depths, there is only love, only peace, only compassion, even as the storm is bearing down on us.

The compassion we touch in meditation, which touches us, is God’s ceaseless gift of himself to us, a single movement of love, an ever-present embrace.

[1] Luke 6:36.

[2] Matthew 6:34.

[3] 2 Corinthians 1:3.

[4] Matthew 11:28.

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