How To Unravel A Bad Mood: A Meditative Reflection

The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on May 17th, 2022.



I just returned from an 8-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts — what a delightful experience!  Although, like most retreats for me these days, there weren’t really any big fireworks or grand insights, but rather like a stonemason who has been working on a sculpture for a long while, it was a process of refining the details and smoothing out the edges.

In that spirit, today I’ll share one such “smoothing out,” which will perhaps also offer you some actionable tactics to bring into your day-to-day life.

Anyhow, one early evening on a break, I was feeling a bit tired, so I laid down for a short rest.  I ended up napping for about 20 minutes and then woke up to find myself in a “bad mood.”

In my body, I felt heavy, molasses-like, unpleasant sensations.  In my mind, I felt hazy, irritable, grumpy, and sort of like a toddler at bathtime, imbued with a sense of “I don’t wanna.”

More simply, I felt icky inside and I didn’t like it!

Using simple mindfulness skills, I was able to recognize all this without any particular intention — it was all immediately obvious.  And, being able to observe it so clearly, I was genuinely able to accept the bad mood as it was, without any frustration or criticism.  I noted, “a bad mood is happening. No problem.  Right now it’s just like this.”  I got out of bed, took a little breath, and embarked on the three-minute walk to the meditation hall.

On my walk, I felt a wave of curiosity about what was going on “under the hood” of this bad mood.  I noticed several interlacing threads that bound together to create the ickyness, including:

  • I was tired, still a little sleepy
  • I was hungry, with my tummy actively rumbling.
  • A couple of hours earlier, I had an unpleasant memory reverberate through my mind that was still lingering in the background
  • I was feeling a general dissatisfaction with how things were going.

As I noted all of those threads, I felt a great tenderness around what was happening, especially the dissatisfaction, as that seemed the most hidden, but also the most responsible for the bad mood.

It was as if I had seen the layers of discomfort that the bad mood was covering over, and this allowed me to gently acknowledge the different parts.  From there, I was able to offer myself a little self-empathy & encouragement to take another breath and keep going.

There was still a sense of unpleasantness in body and mind, but I also felt a greater okayness around it.  When I went to meditate, I didn’t ignore any of that unpleasantness, but I also didn’t feed it — not with my thoughts, not with my emotional energy.  I simply softened into present-moment awareness.  Relaxed my body, relaxed my mind.  Moment after moment after moment.

An hour later, the meditation ended and I stood up with a little smile on my face.  It wasn’t that I was suddenly feeling fantastic, bursting with enthusiasm and zeal, but rather that I now felt a deeper inner balance.  There was still a little ickyness in my body, but the disliking & irritability had vanished.

More simply, the bad mood was gone.

Curiously, there was even a little gratitude, as it occurred to me how differently this went versus bad moods in my younger years, where they could trip me up for many hours or even weeks.  I was generally oblivious as to what was “under the hood,” and completely incapable of steering myself out of bad mood land. When I did come out of them, it usually seemed to be through distraction or the mysterious process of “time passing.”

Considering all this, and seeing how quickly a meditative mind can unravel a bad mood, I felt a tremendous thankfulness for this practice, for my teachers, and for all those who have helped me learn.

So what can you learn from this?

Firstly, that it’s possible to not be stuck in a bad mood, sour mood, irritability, or grumpiness — through mindfulness & related skills, you can gently steer into more inner balance.  Here are the basic steps I went through in the above example:

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening (a bad mood…).
  2. Accept & allow it.
  3. Offer yourself a little care, kindness, and empathy.
  4. Investigate more closely; not so much the story around “why” you feel a certain way, but rather looking more closely at what’s “under the hood.”  When you can “see” it clearly, on some level of mind, you demystify it and it loses much of its hold over you.
  5. Whatever you see under the hood, more acknowledging, acceptance, and kindness.
  6. Patience — not freaking out about it, needing it to go away, or feeding the mental stories;  instead, dropping into mindfulness, relaxation, and gentle perseverance, one moment at a time.  As I like to say sometimes, “out of the thoughts, into the present.”

What’s one of those steps you could give a little more intentionality to the next time you’re in a bad mood?


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