Buddhist and psychotherapeutic approaches to dealing with sadness

The Buddhist approach to dealing with difficult emotions is generally deconstructive: go to a lower level of abstraction, observe the components of the experience (including physical sensations, mental images, and mental talk), and meet them with equanimity. Observe, but don’t get involved.

The Western psychotherapeutic approach to dealing with difficult emotions generally does not deconstruct, but instead meets emotions at a personal level. Gently inquire in order to find out what’s really behind it.

Both approaches are valuable. It’s helpful to know when to use each approach.

Sometimes a sadness is a signal that there’s something wrong in the external world — some unmet need, or a value that’s being trampled, or some psychic tension that needs to be released.

But sometimes sadness is not a signal of anything important in the external world that needs to be addressed. Sometimes sadness is just fatigue and momentum.

Here are some thoughts:

  • If you’ve been feeling a lot of sadness recently, then at least some of your current sadness is of the fatigue & momentum kind.
  • The fatigue & momentum kind of sadness is best cured with tactics more on the Buddhist side: don’t get involved in it, and either meet it with equanimity or intentionally direct your attention elsewhere. Directing your attention to positive things can be helpful — gratitude journaling and focusing on immediate physical pleasures are excellent ways to do this.
  • If you’ve had some traumatic loss that you may not have fully processed, there’s a good chance you have psychic tension to resolve. Creating the space to sink into the sadness and potentially to have a good snotty-nosed cry is probably a good idea.
  • If there’s some way in which the conditions of your life are dissonant with your values, there’s a good chance that your emotional brain is aware of this and hurting from it. Processing with a friend or a therapist, journaling, smoking pot and thinking it through can all be very helpful.

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