"Body like mountain
Breath like wind
Thoughts like Clouds
Mind like sky"
-Buddhist Poem Author Unknown
Meditation is supposed to bring calm. Peace. Patience. A sense of wellbeing.
But what about when it doesn't?
What about the days or moments when meditation brings a wave of discomfort. Pounding heart and shallow breath?
What about when coming to meditation bring anxiety?
I belong to a lot of forums. Movement forums, yoga forums, facebook groups about meditation, spirituality, yoga...the full gamut.
And in all of these formats on a fairly regular basis I see posts from concerned, new to the mat meditators asking if there is something wrong with them because meditation is giving them anxiety, fear, or even straight up panic.
"I sit down to meditate and I'm overwhelmed by emptiness. I get so afraid..."
"I felt like I couldn't breathe. I had to get up."
"Does anyone else get super anxious when they try to meditate? Is it just me?"
No. It isn't just you. And it is where the work begins. Stay.
Anxiety when we come to our meditation seat is totally normal.
It is our fear coming to the surface. It is the moment when we get quiet enough to face our own minds. To be the witness to the condition of our hearts. To enter the cave of our own soul.
And that kind of adventure can be scary. Anxiety inducing even.
It is also a thrilling journey and the path of the hero.
Heroes don't get to be heroes by taking the easy route.
Here's the deal. Getting intimate with the ways in which our minds and emotions have a tendency to pull us into circles is the first step on the path.
Getting downright snuggly with those uncomfortable feelings that come with the quiet are the very pathway to coming to understand all the ways that we harm ourselves and others with our thoughts and minds.
And most importantly it provides us the very necessary opportunity to learn to see how and when harmful thoughts and emotions arise.
And why is that good?
Because when we feel the impulse arising, in time, we learn to quiet it. We can learn to stop the chain reaction, the stimulus and reaction cycle before it spins out of control. We can learn in those moments how to face our fear, look fear square in the eyes and stay put. And not let things that are not so big spin circles around our minds and pull us into attachment and pain where it is so unnecessary.
This is challenging work.
Our impulse is always to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
It is oh so beautifully human. Our ego self is very attached to sensory experience and speaks very loudly. So the moment that there is discomfort ego says "lets get out of here, this is uncomfortable, something must be wrong. Meditation isn't for me."
The soul, your Highest Self is also there, whispering under the doubt "Stay. Pause. Listen. Be in the restlessness and you will also find spaciousness."
Our culture doesn't teach us to be in stillness or in discomfort. We are taught to fill up the spaces with conversation, idle chatter, movement, impulsive action. Our collective tendency is to fill up empty spaces with drinking, smoking, over eating, talking too much, more activity, overworking, and a million other avoidant strategies.
Anything to keep us from having to look inside. Anything to keep us from dealing with the darkness directly.
Mindfulness teaches us to be with what is. My friend Glenn teaches that mindfulness is
"non-judgmental awareness of this present moment with curiosity."
The gift of this type of mindfulness is that we begin to know ourselves. And in knowing ourselves we begin to be like that mountain in the poem. Mountains get hammered by rain and snow, tread upon by animals and yet they are steady.
We can be like those mountains, kiya sthira the body still.
Being like a mountain takes practice. That anxiety that comes? It's the snow storm and the fowl winds. We are learning is to step out of avoidance and straight into understanding of this present moment as it is. No running away. No compulsive eating or overworking. No drinking to hide who we are and no escaping from every uncomfortable conversation. No fidgeting on our meditation cushion, fixing our clothes, scratching our nose...all the avoidant behaviors we do. Subtle and not so subtle.
This isn't about control. We aren't learning to control anything by staying in our seat. We are learning to be with what is.
To be less taken and shaken by things.
It is the opposite of control. It is total surrender.
And that is perhaps why it feels so scary. Surrender.
The thing is what we are really giving up is the illusion of control so we can make way for grace and spaciousness that is already present.
When we come to meditate we're not hoping to add anything to ourselves. Or to change who we are.
All we are doing is subtracting. Subtracting what is no longer serving us and uncovering the magnificent and noble Self that is already here.
We are learning to be at home in ourselves so we can truly be at home in the world. And it is an inside job.
When we sit and we are faced with anxiety, anger, fear, discomfort it can feel very confusing. Like you are meditating wrong, like it's not "working." I'm here to tell you to have faith. In yoga the word is shradda. Faith in the practice and the aims of the heart.
That fear, that anxiety is not confusion my friend it is the beginnings of wisdom and clarity.
It is the beginning clear seeing and creating a future where you are at home in yourself. Unmoved by circumstances. Restful and resilient.
When we learn to sit in the discomfort and the anxiety, when we face ourselves, in time that is where we find our liberation. We start to learn to refrain ourselves from acting impulsively and purely out of stimulus and reaction cycles. We start noticing more of what we do and who we are. We learn to ride the waves. And in time, with commitment and patience, the waves get very still.
Body like mountain.
Breath like wind.
Mind like sky.
We get clear.
No one warns us when embark on a meditation or yoga journey that it isn't going to be all sunshine and rainbows. The path is presented as some soft, pleasant, I'm going to be all Zen as fuck when I start doing yoga "thing."
Well I'm here to tell you that's not what it is about. It's the warrior's path. And it is not comfortable. Hatha yoga. Forceful or violent union method. Vira. Courage.
It's the hero's path and it takes great courage of heart and mind and great faith in the practices.
And the first step is perhaps being willing to give up our security, our comfort, and our sense of control and being willing to draw up our courage and rest in the unknowing and all of the discomfort that comes with that.
Into the cave of the heart. Willing to see our darkness. Willing to let go and shift.
Do you get anxious when you sit? Have you stayed in the practices long enough to find stillness?
What are your greatest meditation challenges?
Ready to start practicing? Explore my free meditation practices here