Someone emailed me with the following question:

I feel like I am getting the hang of being with the feeling when fear or anger or other difficult emotions arise. It is a kind of burning, and I’ve been noticing the thought or story associated with the feeling, then letting go of the thoughts and letting it burn. When I do this, I find that the difficult emotion is really just energy, and when I allow it, it is actually invigorating.

My question is how do I know how long to stay with the feeling? Sometimes it turns to pure energy and goes away. Other times with more deeply rooted emotions, it doesn’t go away. When it doesn’t go away, should I try to devote hours to being with it? Sometimes I’ll sit with a feeling for a while, but then I’ll have to go to work or attend to other everyday matters. I can still allow the feeling, but it is more difficult to concentrate and fully allow it.

Could you please share your thoughts on how to approach this. I feel like I understand the practice of being with feelings, but I don’t understand the timing.

And here is my response:

Sorry to take a while to get back to you. It sounds like you are definitely getting the hang of being with feelings. As for how long to stay with a feeling, there really is no formula for how long and also no formula for what happens when you do stay with a feeling longer. Every experience is unique. Sometimes the energy of the feeling releases or dissolves and a deeper level or dimension of your inner experience is revealed. Sometimes you find another feeling under the one that is releasing. Sometimes you find a more essential quality like peace or joy. And sometimes you just stay with a feeling for a while and not much seems to happen. In every case, it is working perfectly. There is a deep intelligence within your Being that knows exactly how to unfold each experience. The more you can just stay with whatever happens and let go of any ideas or expectations about what is supposed to happen, the more this inner intelligence can work.

And again there is no formula for how long. I would invite you to just follow whatever feels true to you in terms of how long to do this process, and how to balance it with the other demands of your life. Remember the truth is whatever opens your heart and expands your sense of “self” and also whatever quiets your mind. So you can just notice if it feels true to stay with a feeling a little longer, or if it feels truer right now to move on to another activity. And of course it is fine to continue to keep some awareness on the inner experiences even as you engage in other activities.

Finally I would add that the real value of staying with feelings is not actually the results you experience. Ultimately the point of being with feelings is not to resolve or get rid of uncomfortable feelings even though this kind of open-ended inquiry can have this effect. The real point of this practice of awareness is to realize the powerful mystery of awareness itself. What is this that can notice and observe a feeling? What does it mean that you can choose to stay with a feeling? What is awareness? What is aware?

In some ways spiritual seekers are so busy digging for some imagined buried treasure that they do not notice that the shovel they are digging with (awareness) is covered with large diamonds and rubies. The treasure is already in your hands! What a miracle this attention is that you use to stay with a feeling. Do not overlook the immense value of the awareness that is already here in every moment.