Dealing with Shadows in Meditation
I sat down to settle into a steady seat. The position was comfortable and familiar. After all, we had already spent two days in silence alternating between periods of sitting meditation, walking, eating, and sleeping. I was far from home on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, indulging in a practice my soul yearned for, and just a few breaths in, I met a familiar dark shadow: grief.
Memories of my father’s recent passing came rushing in like a storm. I had just noticed my mind thinking how much he would have enjoyed a retreat like this when I felt my throat close up and my face quiver. Warm tears began flooding my face, and, of course, the stream of thoughts continued just as fast… I missed him. Horribly.
I missed everything about him. I wished I wasn’t crying so hard. He used to give the best daddy hugs whenever I was feeling down. I just wanted the overwhelming sadness to pass. I knew it would, but the fear that it could haunt the rest of the entire retreat was heavy. Breathe.
Soon fear turned to anger as I remembered the teachers asked us not to move during sittings. I remember thinking, “What am I supposed to do, just sit here covered in my snot and tears for the whole day?” Before I knew it, I was frustrated with the whole affair. My hips were screaming from the sitting. My mind was racing faster than my heart. Hopelessness about the next eight days was setting in. In truth, I was most irritated with myself for falling into a whirlpool of such uncomfortable emotions. Where were my decades of experience meditating now?
Whether you are a new explorer of meditation or have been on the contemplative path for ages, strong emotions and uncomfortable thought patterns are bound to arise during a practice. You don’t have to be at a silent retreat for them to show up. Even in a five minute seated meditation at home, it is completely natural for deep-set feelings to manifest.
I Thought Meditation Was Supposed to Be Relaxing…
From my years of sharing meditation with others, the notion that meditation equals blissed-out relaxation is one of the most common misperceptions. Although the pausing and breathing associated with meditation can initiate the physiologic relaxation response, relaxation is not necessarily a promised byproduct.
As a relationship with innate awareness matures, so deepens the ability to include and recognize more life experiences – the pleasant with the unpleasant, the empty and the overwhelming. The teachings of mindfulness urge practitioners to maintain equanimity, clarity, patience, and loving care through it all, but at times the emotional tone can feel like too much. When the experience is far from the expected delightful rest, failure seems like a reasonable deduction, as does quitting the practice altogether.
Though our first tendency is to turn away from such negative experiences, maybe there is another way to relate with them. Inviting a freshness of curiosity, let’s explore why these challenges may arise and navigate strategies to approach them that can support you and your practice.
Am I supposed to be feeling this?
Difficult emotions and feelings of discomfort can arise during a meditation for many reasons. Sometimes they are in relationship to a present-moment focus of the meditation practice. Other times they refer to an ongoing experience or current life-event. Now and again they can be associated with unprocessed or deeply rooted emotions from the past.
Just as massage or foam rolling with broad strokes can soften superficial soft tissue tension over time to reveal defined sources of tightness underneath, cultivating a relationship with inner experience through meditation can begin to release overtones of joy, anger, sadness, and/or ambivalence. Meditation opens space in awareness for more subtle nuances of emotion and related thoughts to be known.
Raw emotion rarely exists in a vacuum. Thoughts, the stories we tell ourselves, memories, assumptions, judgments – these are all often intertwined. Also enmeshed are patterns of gripping and softening within the body and, of course, our habitual reactions to them. Awareness of any of this can trigger a myriad of responses ranging from positive to negative emotions. Sometimes negative reactions can quickly spiral towards significant distress.
Here are some ways to reconnect with innate, resourceful strengths within the context of meditation when you feel like you need a breather.
1. Remember you have choices
Firstly, there is always the potential for aspects of meditation to be a re-traumatizing experience. Whether you have a significant history of trauma or not, most everyone has felt wounded in some way or another – made to feel othered, left out, silenced, or rejected. If triggered when these or other kinds of difficult feelings resurface, it becomes easy to forget that choices exist.
Just as with any new behavior, we can sometimes get caught up in the rules we place around a practice. For example, there are many meditations where it is encouraged to stay with discomfort to nurture intimacy with life experience. These can be beautiful practices, but there is also a point where “following the rules” may not be the most skillful means. Healthy engagement with challenging emotions may begin to shift towards unhelpful distress.
Emotional dysregulation can express itself in a number of ways as our bodies engage with the stress response. Hyperarousal may initially present itself with a sense of agitation, anxiety, or anger. This can turn more severe as threatening feelings may become overwhelming, leading you to even feel out of control. Sometimes, rather than fighting or fleeing with stress, we can become frozen, disengaged, or hypoaroused. This can translate into feeling emotionless, numb, disconnected. Thoughts can be apathetic or unmoved. The body can feel absent of sensation.
You may be able to think about how these different responses have impacted you in daily life. You may also be very familiar with your personal range of tolerance – that space where you can effectively cope with life’s challenges in ways that are calm and engaged (vs. exhausted or anxious).
Engage & Check-In
In the context of meditation, if you begin to move past your own window of healthy engagement, check in with your heart, mind, and gut. If the wisdom you carry says this is truly not right for you at this moment, trust yourself. Maybe this is not the best time to explore a meditation practice. You can always come back to it when you are ready. Maybe the skillful option is taking a mindful walk in nature, journaling, calling a trusted friend, or speaking with a trained counselor.
Simply noticing yourself in a state of disharmony is an act of mindfulness itself. It opens a little room to consider all of your options. Trust your inner ways of knowing. If it feels like you can keep meditating, continue reading below for more choices to explore.
2. Ground into stable anchors
Re-establish a connection with your presence by anchoring into a stable, comfortable focus of attention. Examples of an anchor could be the breath or a particular sensation within the body (feeling the feet resting into the floor or pelvis heavy in the seat). You could even place your hand over the heart or belly, feeling into the warmth of sensations this creates. Mantras or affirmative words can also be stabilizing anchors for practitioners. Repeatedly resting attention back upon any of these can re-orient you back to the present moment. It can help to regulate the stress response, making it easier to sense into your presence of body, heart, and mind.
3. Re-orient to the environment through the senses
Sometimes using an internal anchor such as the breath, body, or a repetitive thought/mantra may not feel stabilizing. If this is the case for you, explore grounding into the present environment by resting the attention upon one of the five senses.
If your eyes are closed, open them. Take in the visual landscape. We often forget this simple option is there while meditating. If you prefer to keep eyes closed, then explore the process of hearing. Explore allowing sounds to come and go or anchor into a particular one for grounding.
Touch can also be a stabilizing sense to explore. As mentioned above, hands can be placed on the heart or belly. A hand could also simply be placed on the solid floor or chair beneath you.
4. “Tend and Befriend”
The more familiar you become with yourself through meditation, the more you may realize how inner strengths can be relied upon in times of need. A big part of contemplative self-study is learning how to befriend yourself and your ability to hold space for your experiences in the way a close friend can. Unfortunately, when we are in significant distress, it can be more difficult to sense into this presence of clarity, courage, and care within.
In times like this, we can tap into the “tend and befriend” mechanism of the stress response by anchoring into the felt sense of someone or something we care about that makes us feel safe, loved, and resilient. You can experiment with this right now.
Take a moment to pause and recollect what makes you feel truly safe, loved, and resilient. It could be a person, a close friend or family member, an animal, a pet, or a plant – alive or not. Another option could be someone you admire or find inspirational like a teacher, a healer or a leader. It could also be a spiritual figure you take refuge within or a sacred place you love to spend time in, like someplace in nature, a temple, or within community at church.
Bring these resources to your heart and mind. What does it feel like to be in their company? What do you notice happening now? Can you feel warmth and care supporting you? Where do you sense it? Can you rest into these feelings of safety, love, and resilience?
As you practice resourcing inner strength in ways like this during periods of calm, pathways of self-regulation and integration become more familiar and easier to access. Even in periods of strong emotion or reactivity, you may find yourself able to come back to presence with more ease. Resourcing resilience in this way isn’t meant to be an escape or a way to spiritually bypass reality. It is meant to increase the inner capacity to live mindfully – to be purposefully present in wholeness, with life just the way it is.
5. Find your rhythm – focusing and expanding
Lastly, just as we might use the silence of meditation practice to help us restore and build resilience for our daily lives, within the context of a meditation practice, focusing on stabilizing presence through the practices above can help build a healthy foundation for widening attention. Once you are feeling more solidly connected to the safety of wisdom, love, and courage present within the moment, this resource of presence can support your return to continued contemplative practice.
As you include more aspects of inner experience into your meditation, if at any point you feel yourself shifting from your personal window of tolerance towards distress, take a break or come back to resourcing presence. Find more safety and peace before expanding into broader circles of awareness.
It is a constant touching and going, focusing and expanding. In the same way that present awareness can sometimes contract while the mind wanders only to reveal itself as we awaken to the moment, we can focus our experience of awareness by grounding into the present before expanding this witnessing presence to include more.
Experiment, Play and Grow
At the end of the day, contemplative traditions all arose to help support human growth and development. They were never meant to torture us (though it can feel like that sometimes). Explore the various strategies described above. Take it slow, and consider shorter durations of practice. Experiment playfully with different styles. Know what you can really anchor into, and stay with it as long as it feels safe. Once you are comfortable, adventure into other contemplative ways of experiencing the limitless essence of you.
If you are someone with a past or recent history of trauma or mental illness, strongly consider consulting your therapist before delving into a full-on meditation practice. Also, consider reaching out to a trained counselor if new mental health issues arise. Allow them to support you. Some therapists and healthcare providers have experience with contemplative traditions, like mindfulness, and may even be able to work with you to ensure your relationship with meditation is safe and healing.
(1) Meditating in Safety; and (2) Cheetah House. For more information and research on meditation-related difficulties, visit the Britton Lab at Brown University. If you are a yoga teacher leading meditation for clients impacted by trauma, consider reading Trauma-sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleaven for specific recommendations.
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Dr. Rashmi S. Bismark, MD, MPH is a US-trained physician, board certified in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. In parallel with conventional medical training, Dr. Bismark has spent the past 15+ years studying various complementary and alternative healing modalities, including ayurveda, energy healing, yoga, and meditation. She is currently in the process of completing RYT-500 training with Yoga Medicine and is receiving mindfulness teacher training through the Oasis Institute, Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts.