ANXIETY WHILE MEDITATING
I have been promoting meditation and holistic well-being to people and once in a while I come across people who feel that meditation made them feel worse. Recently there has also been studies on how some people actually experience more anxiety when they meditate although most people seem to feel more relaxed during their meditation. Those who experience anxieties during meditation definitely would not try it again, some even were advised by their therapist to discontinue the meditation. It's totally understandable because when you suffer from anxiety, the last thing you want is to feel worse. However, I do have my own view on this. Let's start from the beginning. What is meditation, really? If you look up the meaning of the word you would get a wide range of definitions from 'not thinking (emptying the mind)' to 'thinking (contemplating)'. For people who are new to this, it can be confusing. Even people who meditate may disagree on what it should be about and thus how to truly meditate.
WHAT IS MEDITATION
In Thailand, where I came from, when people talk about meditation, many of them refer to totally emptying the mind. A lot of them get really hard core with the practice of forcing oneself to empty the mind. In fact, in many meditation places, including many temples, when you go to meditate, they simply leave you there with hardly any guidance. On the one hand, it's totally understandable, you're supposed to be with yourself, your mind, face your inner reality. On the other hand though, this might not suit everyone. Some people need guidance, they don't know what to do, they don't know what it is they should experience, or if what they were experiencing and feeling was normal, some need explanation, some need a little bit of training, and when they receive no help, many of them quit. There are some who would just keep pushing until they can really empty their minds, but these aren't the majority. I remember that my father told me to do the same thing. Basically sit with it, don't even get up before the hour has passed! That was the only instruction. I was stubborn enough to stick with it but I only tried this as an adult, a determined adult who wanted to get deep into certain things.
METHODS OF MEDITATION
By that time, however, I had already learned many other methods of meditation from different places so in a way, I already knew there were other approaches, I knew that there were many ways to work with my mind, but I just wanted to learn it the traditional way, our old-school way, back in Thailand. Believe me, it wasn't fun. If I hadn't had any experience with any other methods, and if I hadn't known the peace meditation could bring, I would have quit, too, just like many other people. I remember that my first experience with meditation was at school when I was 6 years old. A teacher made us sit in a row and then guided us to count one as we inhaled and two as we exhaled and that worked for me. That was definitely more instructions that from my father. The teacher was basically guiding us, for a few minutes, and for a child, that was enough, that was manageable, so I never really hated meditation although as a child, I didn't bother to continue the practice on my own. So technically, I learned the practice of mindfulness first, with breathing.
Later on I was curious about how other people really meditate and I started reading more on meditation. I came across many different things that are categorized as meditation, mostly what people do in the west. It was quite interesting to find that people have very different understanding of what is called meditation. I came across more ways to be mindful, and I came across visualization. Visualization is very interesting. People seem to think it's a way to meditate. Visualization, in my opinion, should be classified as energy work, used properly, by someone who knows what they're doing, and it can be very healing. Visualization for relaxation can be an effective way to calm the mind. This is much easier and more beginner-friendly than being told to sit through an hour with no further instructions or explanation. When you have someone to guide you through visualization, then it can be very relaxing.
You can also get into meditative state by praying. There has been studies on this topic, too. I was supposed to be very familiar to this method, in a way I was, but in a way I was not. I grew up with half of my family being Muslim and the other half Buddhist. My Muslim mother would pray as a good Muslim should, naturally my brother and I were taught to pray since we were little kids. But for us and from what I saw, a lot of people pray because they're supposed to, because they were told to, because of every imaginable reason but to find inner peace, this goes to some practitioners of other religions, too. Even the Buddhists I knew back then would recite mantras when they were supposed to. You see in school, there would be praying time when the Buddhists would recite mantras together. Then on every special occasion, in Thailand, the day starts with praying. So from both sides of my family, everyone seems to pray. I grew up with this, however, oftentimes, it was done just to 'get over and done with'. But then again, that was my childish observation from my childhood, I didn't see beyond that. Only later I understood that if you really sit down and just be with whatever you're reciting, be present, feel the words, try to understand the words and repeat them over and over again, you can reach the meditative state. In fact, this was another thing my father made me do, keep reciting mantras over and over again. Every time I received a new mantra from my father, he would make me recite the same thing for 49 days, while my mother, still trying to make me a good Muslim, would give me a verse from the Koran to recite for a few thousand times, so I've had my fair share of praying and I know from my experience what prayers can do and how powerful they can be.
WORKING WITH THE MIND
So what is meditation then? For me, meditation is about working with the mind. You can contemplate and meditate on things in order to bring clarity and thus some sort of peace. You can use various methods to work with your mind or you can simply observe your mind, observe yourself. There is no need to get involved with what your mind brings up. You can just observe. Usually, once you get into the meditative state, you become more relaxed. Your brain wave might reach alpha frequency or lower and normally, in these frequencies, you would feel relaxed. Why, then, do some people feel worse? I'm no psychologist, I'm not a doctor but as a healer and someone who meditates, I suspect that one can feel worse during meditation if there are unresolved issues and trauma. Our mind tends to bring up things when we have a quiet moment. How many times you can't fall asleep because as soon as you think that the day is done, your mind brings up things you've forgotten, things you need to do, things you worry about? The same goes for when you meditate, when you're meditating and having your quiet moment, your mind brings up different things. The mind is used to working. Sometimes, our mind tells us about things that we should work on, things that we should do something about, so that we get them out of our system for good. It's like when you empty and defrag your computer, or just cleaning anything for that matter. You need to see the dirt and garbage before you can clean them out. But It's one thing remembering the forgotten laundry and it's totally something else when you've been hurt deeply and you haven't worked that out of your system. Imagine being reminded of that!
With that said, I'm not implying that you should avoid meditation altogether as soon as you hit a rough patch in life. It simply reflects the state you are really in even when you manage to somehow drown the pain most of the time. But that's the issue, isn't it? A lot of us numb ourselves and drown the pain by focusing on other things and never face the issues we buried somewhere inside us. So once we have to be with ourselves, we can't avoid facing those issues anymore. So if you have unresolved issues, maybe you need help working on that and before giving up meditation altogether, you could find someone who could help you find the right approach as you work on your trauma. You can take a break from meditation while you seek help. There is no need to torture yourself further. For the rest of us there are times, when we're going through a difficult period of our life, we might want to cry during meditation, and that's fine. Crying is also cleansing and relieving. Our situation usually comes up in meditation in order to be released and you will notice that next time you meditate or work on the issue, it will feel a little lighter and it will continue to become lighter until it doesn't bother you anymore and it will simply disappear. I recommend finding someone who can guide you through your life situation if you're having a tough time, someone who can help you heal, if you find it hard to meditate, especially alone. So while meditation is very helpful and relaxing, some of us cannot meditate and there's a reason why, but for the rest of us, I'd say 'keep meditating'!