Woman in meditation

Meditation – when it’s a real pain

In Meditation and Mindfulness, Mind and Movement by Steve RayLeave a Comment

Meditation is not a technique to be perfected. If we approach it in that way, then we will miss the whole point of it.


Someone sent me a blog the other day that was entitled: Is mindfulness making us ill?

The person reported feeling anxious and as if they were having a panic attack after being guided through a meditation where they were told to focus on their breathing and thoughts as part of the meditation. Far from feeling relaxed they felt agitated and a ‘tightness in the chest’ whenever they thought again about the experience.

It reminded me about the importance of recognising the diversity within the population and the danger of assuming that people are going to immediately respond to relaxation as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread.  “You just need to relax”we can unthinkingly say to people suffering from stress, as if they have never heard of the word.  That’s a bit like saying to someone experiencing depression, “just be happy, then you’ll feel better”.

Our Western society has normalised stress

That is the first thing we need to recognise, and it means that, even though we know that it is not good for us, all our attitudes around the way we live our lives tell us the opposite:

  • Stress is what we do people–just soldier on and get with the program
  • You don’t get something for nothing
  • Work is good for us and it’s what made this country great (for those with the relevant Protestant work ethic background)

Relaxation on the other hand is something you only do once you’ve EARNT it.  The idea you can or should relax in a work place is often seen as indulgent at best, and irresponsible at worst, given the amount of work everyone has to get through.

With this conditioning hitting our unconscious 24/7, the above panic response to meditation starts to make a little more sense. While this may be on the extreme end of the range, meditation classes in the workplace are invariably attended by a tiny minority –and probably by those who need it least of all.

I hear so many people say, “Oh, I can’t do meditation”, or “I’m not very good at meditation”. Here again is our cultural performance-based conditioning coming to the surface. What do those comments mean? Usually, when I ask people, I discover that whatever is happening to them as they enter a meditation space makes them feel like they are doing it wrong. Their thoughts are becoming more active, not less, and they are feeling agitated as they are being told to relax and let their thoughts go.

I have a strong sense that those of us in positions of responsibility as trainers or instructors are generally not very good at normalising the broad range of experiences people have when first beginning meditation.  Unfortunately, many instructors seem unsure of how to deal with those experiences where people are freaking out. Offers of “it takes time”or “just keep focussing on your breath”or other apparently helpful statements can simply reinforce in people’s minds that they are failing in some way.

Whats going on?

Meditation is much more than ‘a relaxation technique’,  just as yoga is much more than an exercise regime. Unfortunately, we in the West have adopted the surface benefits of these practices and redefined them for our own purposes. We have stressful lives; so we look for a fix, and while drugs are still a major part of the mix, meditation is now seen as a way of dealing with it effectively too.

Inevitably in our consumer-driven desire to keep up with the trend, we’ve grabbed meditation off the shelf, without taking the time to read the instructions to find out what it’s actually about.

The truth about meditation is that it was never developed as an antidote for stress. It is an ancient tradition designed for the purpose of helping people discover their true nature. If we had any idea of just how far we have travelled from our true nature, perhaps the panic response described earlier would not seem so strange.

We can at least assume that our true nature is less stressed, more at peace, and more able to be compassionate towards our fellow humans, based on the evidence that comes from people who do meditate regularly.  “Wow!”we say, “Give me some of that! Meditation sounds awesome”.

Unfortunately, when we start to meditate, we really don’t know what we are getting ourselves in for. While some parts of us are signed up for that meditation journey, other parts are definitely not. The deeper parts of our unconscious, which have been scripted through conditioning of not just this life, but thousands of years of evolution, can be deeply triggered by meditation. The fear of leaving behind who we THINK we are can be the most terrifying of experiences. From that angle, a panic attack makes complete sense.

Dealing with these responses has to be handled with incredible care.  Far from doing it ‘wrong’, a person who has a strong experience might be on the brink of what some people describe as a spiritual crisis, meaning they are on the threshold of a huge transformation, which can easily be misinterpreted as ‘not yet having got the hang of the meditation technique’.

As an Open Heart instructor, I’m always reminding myself that every person’s experience is valid. When people ask me “Im experiencing X, Y and Z…Is that normal?”, I always reply, “If you’re experiencing it then the answer is yes”. This is the first step towards a person’s feeling like they can ‘do’ meditation, because they have been validated. Whether or not the person’s experience is one born of deep resistance, or whether it’s one of surrendering to the moment, is not relevant.

This understanding is so important if we are to fully understand the meditation process; deeper responses to meditation are not ones we can control, which means you can’t do it right or wrong. If you come at it from a right or wrong perspective, you will end up putting yourself in the centre of the practice which means you cannot allow the REAL you –your deeper nature –to be revealed.

Ed Rubenstein, author of The Way of the Spiritual Heart, recounts a moment in his own meditation journey when he was sitting in a room as an experienced meditator, learning an open-heart meditation practice for the first time. Despite being told to “let go of trying and techniques”, they were so deeply embedded in his psyche, that his experience was one of deep resistance as he tried not to try. Meanwhile, a woman across the room who had never meditated was in a blissful place because she had no previous experience and was truly letting the experience of her heart open to the blessing/Love because she knew no other way.

Meditation is not a technique to be perfected. If we approach it in that way, then we will miss the whole point of it. If we want to become a ‘great meditator’, then our real identity will be hidden from view as we instead assume THAT identity: the meditator. We have to let go of everything.

To let go of everything seems simply insane, as we have to turn our back completely on everything that we think got us here. When we truly begin to realise what this means, there is a slow dawning within that tells us we need to be BROUGHT to where the meditation practice is attempting to take us. If we can really surrender, we will be led there.

About the author
Steve Ray

Steve Ray

Steve Ray is one of the co-ordinators of Padmacahaya's Open Heart activities in Victoria. He is a Reiki tummo and open heart instructor with more than 8 years of direct experience. He has a strong belief and commitment to practices that actively improve and grow our connection to the Source of Love and Light - the Source of our True Selves - Our Creator. For information about Padmacahaya, go to www.padmacahaya.org.au

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