I was having a discussion about meditation before my class at De La Sol Yoga last month and a question came up that I think deserves more exploring.
The person I was speaking with asked if meditation could at some point become harmful.
They described that lately during meditation they found themself replaying a trauma, drama or negative thought over and over again. However because they are supposed to be physically still and let go in the meditation itself, they felt powerless to do anything about it.
(First, if you aren’t familiar with how to sit for meditation you can check out this video for the basic instructions)
To address the concern of this particular student, the short answer is:
If meditation is causing you ongoing or worsening anxiety, there may be different work you need to do instead of or in conjunction with the practice.
Here is the thing:
Many people (myself included) have had huge personal breakthroughs from regular practice of these techniques. After all, it takes effort and commitment to sit down with yourself day in and day out. However, meditation can be both a spiritual and wellness practice, but that doesn’t mean it is a cure-all.
A Monster or a Two-Year Old
When things are light and free flowing in your practice, it is easy to conclude that the meditation is “working”. When you feel unsettled and have difficult or upsetting thoughts it is just as easy to decide that you aren’t doing it right or that the meditation is wrong. In fact, the experience you have during meditation, positive or negative, doesn’t necessarily say anything about you or your practice.
In my own practice, a difficult period of meditation usually comes right before a breakthrough. Change can be a scary beast and I know very well the part of myself that will sabotage everything it can (including my practice) in a last ditch effort to stay entrenched in my crappy status quo.
Knowing this doesn’t make the practice more comfortable, but it might help you re-double your efforts and go through the discomfort treating the mind not like a monster, but like a two-year old having a temper tantrum.
Time for Intervention
The other side to this is if you are having ongoing, disturbing thoughts or experiences during your meditation, there may be something you need to address that shouldn’t be dealt with on the cushion alone. We often look to spiritual practices as a method to greater wellbeing. While meditation can be a powerful tool on the journey, if you have suffered serious trauma there are other tools you should be utilizing first or at least in conjunction with seated practice.
When I was an acupuncturist I saw some incredible transformations in the health of my clients and knew the power of the medicine. At the same time, I would never tell someone to skip the emergency room and come in for an acupuncture treatment if their appendix were to rupture. That would be dangerous and probably land me in jail. The emergency room is the place to deal with that level of health crisis.
Likewise if you are having a mental health crisis or have endured something that is impacting you negatively not only on the cushion but elsewhere in your life then speaking to a health professional is an important step in your journey. Empower yourself by getting all the support you need.
Time for a Change
On a less intense scale, if you notice that you are running into the same problem over and over in your head each time you meditate and it is more annoying and unpleasant than deeply traumatic, then perhaps you have some unfinished business to take care of. If you can’t stop replaying the last argument you had with a co-worker who you haven’t spoken to in weeks, you may need to simply address it in order to move on. Things that nag and tug at us relentlessly take energy away from the practice, so if you can’t truly let it go then deal with it directly.
In short, don't judge the value of your meditation based on fluctuating highs and lows, but if your meditation is stressing you out there may be something deeper for you to look at. Meditation can bring beautiful transformation to your life, so it's worth investigating the source of your discomfort so you can receive the fruits of the practice.
Photo by the amazing Me & Her Photography