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Divide and Conquer

A meditation method for grappling with emotions.

The process involves breaking the emotion into five distinct parts. Use your attention to home-in on each of the five facets of emotions separately for several minutes at a time before moving onto the next. Distil each component of experience from the rest and try to get an understanding for what that part the emotion is like to experience on its own.

  • 1. Context — These are the thoughts that come with the emotion. The story we tell ourselves of why we ‘think’ (I interject ‘think’ here because often we do not have the full reason why something happened) we are feeling what we are feeling. Most people never move beyond stage 1. There is a time and place for acknowledging these thoughts, but for the process of this practice allow yourself at least 10 minutes to put the context aside and move on to the other stages.

  • 2. Location — Where do you feel the emotion most strongly? Most of the time there is a somatic sensation associated with the emotion. Find where this is e.g. in the stomach, forehead, chest etc. Trace the outline of this physical feeling with your awareness. Try to find the boundaries of this feeling. Normally the edges of the sensations are diffuse, but simply be aware of this. You may be feeling multiple sensations in the body, just pick the most prominent and focus on that.

  • 3. Flavour — How does this emotion feel? E.g. is it hot, sharp, tingly?? It very well may be of a certain character that doesn’t have a word to describe it, but just get the taste of it. The character of the emotion can be hard to distinguish from the location in your awareness, but the two are not the same. Because you can feel different emotions in the same region of the body at different times, for example, when someone is anxious they may feel in it their stomach, but at a different time they may also feel excitement there too. These two emotions have very different flavours to them, despite appearing to the subject in the same place. So for this stage, it’s not a matter of trying to locate something in a spatial sense, but rather just a feature/feeling of experience at that time.

  • 4. Intensity — How strong is the emotion? All sensations come in waves, and the intensity of the emotion will do too. Notice that within seconds the emotion may flare up, then die down a bit, then flare up again etc. Try to track the vicissitudes of strength in the emotion with your awareness. Here, noting can be helpful. This means when you notice the intensity grow, say to yourself either out loud or in your head “stronger”, and conversely make a soft mental note “weaker” when you notice the felt intensity of the emotion subside some. Eventually, you will be able to predict the peaks and troughs of the intensity levels for the emotion. “Ok, it’s calmer now, and now I know in a second it will rise again…..*waiting*…..and there it goes ‘stronger’(note)…..and now it’s dipping down again ‘weaker’(note)….” etc.

  • 5. Valence — What is your attitude towards this emotion? Do you view it as Positive (you want it to continue), Negative (you want it to stop), or Neutral (you neither care if it continues nor if it ceases)? Try to silo that part of your experience which is doing the judging from the other parts. Again, noting is helpful here. When you ‘locate’ (it does not exist in a spatial place in consciousness) the judging mind, note “negative…..negative…..negative….”; the judgement may even turn to neutral or positive, but don’t force it. Be honest with your judgement towards this emotion. All is fair game. Whatever you feel, you feel. It’s okay to want an experience to go away. Accept that this is how you feel. Acknowledge it.

Remember to spend several minutes on each of the 5 parts separately. Being able to differentiate and maintain attention on individual nodes of experience is a skill that takes time to develop, but will get easier with practice. Perhaps when you first try this you won’t be able to parse apart 2. from 3. but in time you will notice a difference. Keep at it!

By focusing your attention on each part of the emotion separately, you can begin to distil the facets of your experience from the others. This skilful means of experiencing emotions helps to give you a more objective understanding of what the emotion is like. By doing so it can create some distance between the observer of the emotion and the emotion itself, thus making it less burdensome. While systematically going through each part of the emotion, the meditator can gain insight into the fact that they are not any of these parts of the emotion. The meditator can pierce through the grips of their emotions and subsequently take them less personally.


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