If you’ve read my previous entry you know the benefits of meditation: inner peace, deeper calm, greater joy, and enhanced asskicking.
So why aren’t you doing it?
I know all your reasons, because sometimes they’re my reasons too: Not enough time. Too tired. Can’t find a quiet space. Keep getting interrupted. Not in the mood.
But there’s another reason too, which seldom gets talked about:
If you’re completely new to the practice, meditation can make you feel worse about yourself, not better.
More on that today.
Stress Mismanagement 101
Life can be pretty challenging at times. This is actually a good thing.
Challenge is what helps us to grow. Pushing out of our comfort zone is how we become wiser, stronger, better.
But problems arise when the challenges of life seem greater than we can handle. After all, few of us are ever trained to manage our stress effectively.
Most people only ever receive two kinds of advice:
- Run away (to a parent, authority figure, or divine being who will then hopefully solve your problems for you)
- Suck it up (endure the pain until you’re either permanently damaged or dead)
These approaches only really apply to young children or military personnel. And most people are neither.
Most people thus try to develop their own coping strategies. Unfortunately, they tend to wind up taking the easiest possible route: they deal with the difficulties of life by distracting themselves from them.
Stressed-out people look for temporary highs and instant gratification. And so they overeat. They fill up their emptiness with high-sugar foods. They turn to alcohol, go to wild parties, overindulge in sex, shop compulsively, create drama on social media, and hunt for books and TV shows that will take them to fantasy worlds. Alternatively they turn into workaholics or exercise addicts.
All of those things, taken in moderation, are good in themselves. Food, alcohol, partying, sex, shopping, social media, fiction, work, and exercise all make our lives more pleasant and enjoyable.
But that’s also what makes them so open to abuse, since most people find it easier to overindulge in good things than to actively pursue bad things.
So now we have a problem: an entire society of people lurching from distraction to distraction.
Why Does Meditation Make Me Feel So Bad?
Maybe you sat down with the best of intentions. You tried to clear your mind and let your thoughts go, hoping that life would feel better (at least for a while).
Instead you found yourself becoming increasingly angry, sad, resentful, fearful, anxious, or some vicious combination of them all.
Why does this happen?
Because you’ve spent a lifetime distracting yourself from your problems. But meditation is the practice of pure focus and concentration. It is the opposite of distraction.
And so when you sit down and try to meditate, all the demons you’ve spent a lifetime trying to avoid come to your attention at last. Suddenly you’re face-to-face with your own anger, your sorrow, your grief, your resentment, your fear.
And that can be rather disturbing and unsettling.
The Only Way Out Is Through
So now you’re sitting still, trying to meditate, and you find yourself roiled by a torrent of negative emotions. What do you do?
The simple answer is that you sit through it.
You don’t try to escape. You don’t try to fix things. You simply accept that all this negativity is also a part of you. And you sit with it. You sit with yourself. Without judgment. With compassion.
And over and over and over again, for as long as it takes, you let your negative thoughts and emotions go and you come back to what you’ve chosen to focus on. If you’re following the technique described in my previous post, that means simply coming back to watch the river of your thoughts.
This can be hard. That’s why you set a timer, just as you would if you were practising a plank.
Can’t manage 15 minutes? Then set your timer for 1 minute, 4 minutes, 7 minutes, 12 minutes. Do what you can.
It might not be easy at first. You’re engaging mental and emotional muscles that you didn’t even know you had. It will hurt, just like it hurts when someone who’s spent a lifetime slouching tries to sit up straight. But over time it gets easier.
This is how you get good at dealing with life: by having compassion for your pain while looking it in the face, and by training your ability to choose what you’re going to focus on.
And once you’re able to do that, by itself the pain goes away.