When meditation is awkward

Meditation in all its various forms does not suit all people in all circumstances. This isn’t about being in situations that deny you the calm and time to meditate – which is an issue in itself – but about methods that really don’t deliver what’s needed.

Non-judgemental self reflection. Just sit with your thoughts and feelings, watch them arise, notice what they are and let them go. Sounds lovely. However, if what you are is in pain, this process strips away your mental defences and rapidly brings the pain to the fore. I know, because I’ve done it. Equally, if the thoughts that arise are anxious and you just sit with them in a non-judgemental way, what you can end up doing is giving those thoughts more space to develop. If you suffer from anxiety then it’s really important to challenge anxious thoughts as they arise. Letting them be is not a good move.

Some people don’t get on well with breathing exercises. For some, controlling the breath can add to panic, for others who are panicking, breath control can be a vital tool for keeping it under control. The only way to find out is to test it at a safe time and see what you get. If breath work doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t right for you.

I suspect for some people the problem with breath work is more to do with another person telling you what to do with your body. For anyone who has been physically abused, being told what to do can be triggering. For anyone with pain, or potential for pain, the allegedly ‘safe’ yoga moves can turn out to hurt. I’ve done this several times where I was told it would be safe and gentle, but it wasn’t, which in turn reduces my willingness to have someone else tell me what it’s ok for my body to do. If you’re taking physical instruction, you need to entirely trust the person you’re working with, and it needs to be ok to say no to them if something hurts.

Some meditations depend on sitting still. Some injuries and ailments of the body make sitting still for any length of time painful. Some positions favoured for meditating will hurt some people. If it hurts, it should be ok to stop, and the teacher or group that don’t support stopping when in pain are suspect. It usually means you’re dealing with inexperience, and some very narrow ideas about what is good and helpful. Anyone who thinks that what their body can tolerate is a reasonable measure of what anyone else can do, is simply not to be trusted.

Sometimes, meditation just opens the door to all the difficult stuff you’ve been trying to avoid or manage. If you don’t have the room to deal with things, meditations that take you into your own thoughts and feelings are to be avoided. Wait until you feel safe and ready.

Tiredness, illness and overload can make it really hard to concentrate. Visualisation and pathworking require concentration, but if you’re already mentally exhausted, this can just make you feel worse. The frustration of not being able to stick with the work just adds to the problem.

Any meditation method should leave you feeling better, not worse. It should be calming, not stressful, it should be inspiring, not despair inducing. If you’re getting results that aren’t good, it’s not a personal failure of any sort. What it means is that the methods you are using, and your current state, mental or physical, just don’t match up. A different method may yield better results. It’s worth having a range of meditative methods you can work with, so that if one doesn’t deliver, you can switch over to something that better suits your needs.

Forcing yourself to stick with something may sound like discipline and devotion, but that only makes sense of you think that it’s basically good to suffer. It’s very easy for people who are not suffering, and who have never suffered, to tell those who do that its good for them to keep doing the work. Whether it’s a good idea to keep pushing or to change tack, or to try again tomorrow, has to be the judgement of the individual, and should not be about trying to conform to someone else’s standards.

(You can find out about my book on meditation here.)

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “When meditation is awkward

  • Redfaery

    Thank you so much for this. As a Buddhist, I think this needs to be said.

    • Nimue Brown

      I suspect (but do not know because it’s not my path) that proper Buddhist teaching is a lot more complex and nuanced than the versions of it that travel about the internet and are regurgitated as new age memes and methods. I know ‘do mindfullness stuff’ is becoming a vague but enthusiastic answer to depressed people via our underfunded NHS, and that worries me, too.

      • Redfaery

        Your suspicions are indeed correct. When I finally went to a Buddhist center here in the US, I found that their approach to meditation was far different than what I’d seen as a Pagan.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Each person has to find the way that works for them. I find meditation an ongoing matter of learning and experience. Still after thirty years there is still has more that I need to learn about more effective meditation. It took many years to make it regular practice, and more years to make me able to do twenty minutes.

    I can now do thirty to forty minutes, but I would like to make it to about an hour if possible. Most of my meditation is still only to a light trance, with different amounts of time to reach eve that. I have not had much experience with deep trance, and it may, or may not, be possible for me to experience it.

    So I a still learning, and I am still experimenting, but then, I find that true of my religious practice, belief, and understanding as well.

  • Tania Allen

    I am just beginning to practice meditation, and it’s comforting to read this at this stage of my practice. I can’t always get settled enough to meditate, and I’m glad to read someone saying it’s okay to be too tired, too in pain, to something to meditate. Too many times I’ve heard that I should be able to push past those things and do it anyway, that I’m not really dedicated to it if I don’t. So, thank you.

    • Nimue Brown

      I think the most important thing is to have and hold a bit of quiet time, and see what comes of it – because its important to look at the sources of tiredness and pain. Yet more pushing through it isn’t going to help you, but being gentle with yourself might. I suggest gazing at things – skies, trees, wild birds, patches of grass – whatever you can get really, because it’s easy and it doesn’t matter at all if you concentration slides, what you’re looking at stays there. The knack of stopping and finding any calm at all isn’t easy or automatic, but it’s the calm that matters.

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