We can experience a range of things when meditating such as boredom, bliss, emptiness, busyness, frustration, anger and sadness. These and other states are all normal and possible processes that can arise when we look more deeply into ourselves. At times we can also experience extreme feelings of grief, anger or fear. Memories can also arise and some experiences can be very difficult to sit with. Even those of us with no known history of trauma might recall something we were not aware of.
The following are some strategies for managing ourselves during meditation if we begin to feel overwhelmed:
- Be somewhat prepared. Meditation is the business of getting to know yourself deeply. Be aware that intense experiences might occur during meditation. If you are attending group classes, please discuss concerns with your teacher prior and post participation and/or let your teacher know if you experience any major distress during any practices.
- Remember that the breath is the go to place! This is perhaps the most important instruction of all and sooner or later we’ll all be in situations in life beyond the meditation cushion when the best we can do is consciously keep breathing from moment to moment as we adjust to new realities. The same applies during meditation – if/when the going gets tough, keep returning to the breath and stay with each breath in and out. Lengthening the breath can help. Taking deeper breaths in and out can move us away from more subtle states. It is exactly these subtle states that can allow us access to deeper feelings. If these deeper feelings or states become overwhelming, then taking deeper breaths can feel safer. Move breath awareness from the nose to a larger area such as the abdomen. Counting breaths can also help.
- Go to a part of the body that feels safe and grounding and keep your focus there. Similarly, when mentally scanning around the body, do not stay on any part of the body that might trigger overwhelming responses. This is of course unique for each person but if we notice ourselves beginning to feel unsafe, then discontinue any physical or other practice and return to somewhere safe, whether through deeper breaths or holding the awareness somewhere more grounding in the body. Focus on something more externalising such as the feet in contact with the floor.
- Use a visualisation. Visualising a safe scene or place can be both a very soothing practice and something you can return to at any time. By consciously focusing on this safe space you move the attention away from other experiences you might not be ready to sit with or integrate. The visual space is something an individual can create that is entirely unique and meaningful for them.
- If required or helpful, open the eyes. One way of coming out of deeper states is to gently start to bring yourself back by opening the eyes. This can be done in stages such as blinking for some time and then staring or gazing at the carpet, a blank wall or some other focus that still remains somewhat internalised but might feel safer and more grounding.
- Use any other technique you think will keep you safe. Remember that you are in charge of your own experience and therefore please ignore any instruction given to you in a meditation class that it is not right for you. Feel free to guide your own practice in a way uniquely suited to you in each moment. After a few years of coming to my classes a participant once told me she used to repeat the words “pink elephant, pink elephant” as a mantra that worked for her. Whatever works! A personal Lovingkindness mantra or affirmation that an individual knows in advance might be soothing can be used. There is also no shame in ceasing a practice that is too triggering – it might be that the same practice done for a shorter length of time can be safe but if done for too long, it might feel too challenging.
- Finally and most importantly, if/when you are able to stay with difficult experiences through the support system of your own internal witness, please do it. The magic of meditation is that it allows us to be less reactive. Meditation can help us to integrate experiences and accept things in ways that bring freedom. When we are in a more-relaxed state in meditation, we reduce our fight-flight-freeze responses and therefore can more easily bear witness to things that might otherwise overwhelm us when we are in more aroused states. By facing and/or somewhat integrating our fears or other difficulties through meditation, we can reduce or get to know the shadow or challenging parts of ourselves. This is the deep work that can take place in meditation because our nervous system is supported and soothed through our concentrated attention. It’s not easy but sometimes feelings and thoughts bubble to the surface exactly when they require our attention or they finally arise when we feel it might be safe enough. If it is safe enough, then meditation can help us stay with experiences long enough to integrate rather than continue to suppress, run on react. It is the stuff of bravery but also of freedom.
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications