Why Does Meditating Make Me Anxious?
Got this question in an email from Marc.
“Hi Roger … I recently started meditating and frankly I find it makes me even more anxious than I usually am. But I persevered and I’ve been meditating now for over two months, and I still find it an uncomfortable experience. I’m wondering if other people find it as stressful as me, or am I doing something wrong.”
Hi Marc – if you haven’t read my new book, ‘Being Still’, you really should, because more than my other books, I talk extensively about what you’re asking me about. In my book, I relate an important lesson I learnt from a Sinhalese monk when I began meditating about forty years ago. I’ll paste it here:
“Around that time, I heard about a local Buddhist temple where a Sinhalese monk was teaching meditation two nights a week. People I knew who had attended his classes were telling me his teachings were clear, and most importantly, they made practical sense.
Sounded good to me, so I decided to give meditation one more go.
At first the same thing happened as last time – daydreams, nausea, aches, pains, boredom, claustrophobia and so on. I stuck it out for two weeks, but eventually I just couldn’t take it anymore. I declared to the monk that I was giving up.
He wasn’t impressed.
He said in his quaint Sinhalese accent, ‘So what did you expect to get from meditation?’
I thought about this.
‘To have a calm experience,’ I said. ‘At the very least.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘So tell me, are you a calm person?’
I laughed and shook my head.
‘And your life,’ he said. ‘Has it been calm?’
‘Oh no, not at all,’ I said.
‘Well then,’ he said. ‘How would you describe your life?’
Once more I gave this some thought.
‘It’s been a bit chaotic,’ I said. ‘Well, actually, it’s been a total roller coaster … which is why I want to learn how to meditate.’
He nodded again.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘So after living this chaotic life, suddenly you expect to sit down and be instantly calm, and instantly different to who you’ve always been?’
I nodded, though dubiously now, because I was beginning to see his point.
He smiled and said, ‘Can you not see how illogical that is?’
‘But isn’t that what meditation is supposed to do?’ I said. ‘Isn’t the meditation experience supposed to make me calm? And what about the alpha state?’
‘Meditation is not magic,’ he said. ‘Each of us is what we have made ourselves to be. Nothing can change that. So forget about alpha, beta, delta or whatever you’re talking about. Meditation is nothing to do with those things.’
‘Oh,’ I said, somewhat discomforted.
He went on. ‘Meditation teaches us to experience the truth of what we’ve become, and what we are. Only then, when we learn to be still and we feel the truth of what we’ve become, will mind and body naturally readjust themselves.’
I found myself struggling with this.
I said, ‘So you’re saying that all the pain and thinking that I experience when I meditate, is because of the kind of life I’ve led?’
He smiled and nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It is the chaos of your life as it has been retained in your mind and your body as mental and physical habits and reactions, which appear in meditation as pain and discomfort. And all you have to do is remain still, and your mind and your body will readjust themselves. Eventually, they will let go of the chaos and find balance on their own. But this takes time. After all, you’ve spent a whole life creating this chaos so it will not disappear overnight.’
Then he added, ‘Always remember, just because you feel pain and anxiety when you meditate, does not mean stillness is not here. Stillness reveals whatever stands in its way. And stillness will renew you on every level, so long as you keep going.’”
So then, I think it’s helpful to remember the kind of life you’ve been born into, and the kind of culture you’ve been conditioned by, and the nature of the organism that you’ve been made into. As R.D. Lang, the famous American psychiatrist once said, “Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world,” and I think it is particularly apt when it comes to the deep dive into our mentality that we do when we meditate.
We close our eyes, and unlike every other waking period of our day, we choose to sit totally still – something we’re not used to. And on that space, uninterrupted by outer distractions, it is inevitable that we will meet our inner Self – the truth of what we have become. And I would say, considering everything, that the anxiety you’re experiencing is a common reaction to that meeting.
So then, what to do?
Well, a three phase approach is best.
- Ignore all the expectations you have of what you want from meditation, and accept what’s happening now … and now …. and now. Accept the feelings of anxiety as they are, in each moment.
- Break the anxiety down to it’s most basic element, aside from what your mind is making of it. That is to say, look past your dislike of it. Go into how it feels in your body – the physical aspect of the anxiety. Work on relaxing the patterns of tension it’s causing in your body. Being the cause of all your mental reactions, the physicality of the anxiety is the only aspect you can can change.
So, work with the sensations.
Find the tensions the sensations are made from, and work on relaxing them.
- Instead of berating yourself for feeling anxious, love this mind-body, which tells you how it feels and lives your life for you. Meditate with compassion for the organism that you are.
As Acharn Thawee, another of my teachers, once said to me: “Your mind and body are like your children, often ignorant, needful and lost. So, like a good parent, treat them with compassion, firmness and patience.”
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)