I can’t meditate! It makes me feel anxious. I’m too restless. I have too many thoughts!
If you think, “I can’t meditate,” it might be interesting to try again while looking carefully at your actual experience. And then determine if it’s really true that you can’t meditate, or whether you were seeking a different experience than the one you were having.
Mindfulness meditation can eventually lead to a calmer, more relaxed state. But to get there, most of us travel through discomfort. Meeting the dis-ease with curiosity and compassion rather than impatience and struggle turns the mind towards an attitude of acceptance.
Life isn’t always what we want or expect. On our meditation seat, we practice “being with” the inevitable ache, pain, boredom, restlessness, etc. We don’t have to like the experience. But letting it be, without labeling it as ‘negative’ and trying to push it away, helps us learn to avoid engaging in conflict with ourselves, which adds another layer to the original suffering. Pushing negative experience away was never successful in the long term anyway, was it?
Letting go of the fight doesn’t mean giving in or being complacent. We can go ahead and change the posture that is causing our back to ache, or move out of the apartment with the creepy landlord. But, ultimately, we will feel more peaceful and balanced if we improve our capacity to tolerate the less-than-ideal state we’re in as vulnerable living beings.
So perhaps you want to give meditation another try. When your mind pounds you with one thought after another, see if you can come back to the breath, gently and kindly, over and over again. When there is an ache in your hip or sadness in your heart, pouring your attention into that space in your body with an attitude of warmth, compassion and acceptance.
Sitting for fifteen, ten or even five minutes a day can make a big difference in one’s quality of life and relationships. You’re worth the effort!
I can’t meditate! (Part 2)
Many years ago, I signed up for a Mindfulness Based Stress Management course to help ease my stress and anxiety. But, in retrospect not surprisingly, I felt pretty uncomfortable as I sat through guided meditations. That familiar feeling of anxiety would bubble up into panic, and I’d start thinking about getting up from my seat and darting out of the room, only shame holding me back.
I enrolled in the program because I believed that mindfulness meditation would help me calm down … anxiety during the meditations definitely wasn’t what I bargained for! Matters became even worse when I opened my eyes and took a peek around the circle. Everyone else looks peaceful and centered. What was wrong with me?!
Now, as a Mindfulness Meditation Facilitator, I know that it’s a pretty safe bet that I wasn’t the only one feeling discomfort or anxiety. When we turn inward, we might feel unpleasant sensations, especially if we’re already prone to anxiety and panic. Sometimes even the feeling of relaxation can make us nervous!
I hung in for one reason … the presence of the instructor. He seemed so calm, at ease – unflustered by anything. I wanted what he had.
Ironically, letting the anxiety be was what helped me become liberated from its tyranny. I will, like we all will, feel anxious at times. But it is the relationship with anxiety we can cultivate through our mindfulness practice that releases us from its control. For me, not fighting with anxiety took patience, courage and practice. But it was worth the outcome.
Although mindfulness asks us to “be with” our experience, without pushing it away, sometimes it can feel overwhelming. These are the times when we can turn to techniques that others have found helpful. If you are participating in a mindfulness class and are feeling uncomfortable, you might consider experimenting with the suggestions below (which are in no particular order).
Managing anxiety during mindfulness class sessions
- Press the soles of your feet into the floor. Notice the contact between the back of your legs and the seat of the chair, the feeling of your feet against the floor.
- Open your eyes and look around the room, seeing the colors, shapes and patterns all around you.
- Deepen your breath, breathing up through the soles of your feet into the belly. Count the length of your inhalation, pause and let the exhalation be several counts longer than the inhalation, drawing your belly in to release all of the air.
- Disengage from thoughts that accompany unpleasant sensations, like “This is horrible.” “I have to get out of here.” “I can’t take it!”
- Put your right hand on your left side under your armpit, your left hand on your right bicep.
- Remember, this is just a storm of unpleasant sensation, and, like a summer thunderstorm, it will pass.
- Meet your experience with compassion rather than judgment.
- If the sensations feel like too much, give yourself permission to leave the room. Merely knowing that you have permission to leave may make as much of a difference as actually leaving.
Most mindfulness facilitators are caring, compassionate and non-judgmental. If you share your experience with the instructor, he or she will likely support you and offer guidance.
If you have a history of trauma or Post Traumatic Syndrome, you may benefit from private sessions with someone trained in Trauma Sensitive Meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be a powerful adjunct to therapy.