The Myth and Magic of Meditation

2123257808_ea0c2612b1_zYes, myth.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I am a HUGE proponent of meditation. Meditation has been scientifically proven to strengthen the immune system, reduce blood pressure and the risk of stroke, minimize pain sensitivity, enhance cognitive function, and even grow a bigger brain. (I think doctors should prescribe meditation not medication.)

Meditation is the closest thing to a happy pill that I’ve found.  However, there is one misnomer about meditation that I would like to clear up right here and now.  Meditation is not always peaceful.

We typically picture someone meditating with that blissful, other world expression on their face.  You can just see the peaceful vibes emanating off of them like heat radiating off of the pavement on a hot summer day.

It’s this image, this ideal that I think intimidates people so much that they don’t even try to meditate or, if they do start, they quickly end up very frustrated feeling as if they are failing miserably.  The actuality of meditation, especially at first, may be nothing like this picture.

In the beginning, meditation is not particularly peaceful, blissful, serene, and/or calm.  Far from it.  When first beginning to meditate, a person is going to wonder what in the heck they are trying to do and if they are doing it anywhere near right. Meditation may feel terribly awkward, confusing,  and uncomfortable, at first.  It brings up all sorts of emotions and issues from the past and present into the current awareness.  It can be emotional, upsetting, ugly – the exact opposite of peaceful.

When I first started meditating, I’d cry.  And, I don’t mean just a few, dainty tears.  I mean, whole body, shoulders-heaving, nose-running, can’t-catch-your-breath, wailing sobs.   I would also have intense anger surface so that I felt the need to scream or pummel a pillow.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, wrote this poem about her initial days of meditation at an Ashram in India:

All this talk of nectar and bliss is starting to piss me off.
I don’t know about you, my friend,
but my path to God aint no sweet waft of incense.
It’s a cat set loose in a pigeon pen,
and I’m the cat-but also them who yell like hell when they get pinned.
 
My path to God is a worker’s uprising,
won’t be peace till they unionize.
Their picket is so fearsome
the National Guard won’t go near them. 

This is not typically what you think of when you think of meditation.  I’m here to tell you that this is a normal part of it.  The almost violent regurgitation of emotions  is what a person will most likely encounter when first beginning to meditate.

The purpose of meditation is to exercise a passive awareness of the mind objectively, become detached from the thoughts and feelings, and observe rather than identify with them.   So, you just let the feelings bubble up – the good, the bad and the ugly – without labeling or judging them.  I found this ridiculously difficult, at first, as does most everyone, but, therein is the beneficial work of meditation.

Building awareness of and detachment from the thoughts is the basic premise of meditation.  In doing so, at first, all the scum, the past wounds, the old hurts, grudges and resentments are going to surface.  It can be unpleasant, unsettling, scary, painful, and absolutely no fun to deal with.  BUT it is good work  essential to healing emotional wounds and becoming a whole, healthy, happy person.  This is the magic of meditation.

As layers of the shitty stuff are peeled back, you can start to sometimes achieve that goofy grin that goes with glimpses of peace and bliss.  To achieve this serenity can take years of practicing meditation and is not a steady state by any means.  It’s not as if a person graduates from one level to the next permanently.  When dealing with challenging or emotional issues a person dips back into the work mode of meditation and it can get ugly again at any time.  That is the whole point, if you ask me.

Within reason, there really is no wrong way to meditate.  Trying to meditate IS meditating as far as I am concerned.  To me, any time spent with the awareness and intention to meditate is meditation. A meditation practice is fluid and is always evolving and morphing.  You are learning.  That is why it is called a practice.

I have been meditating daily for over five years now. On some days, my mind is crazy busy and cannot settle down with thoughts emerging like popcorn popping. On some days, I still express emotion.  Just last night, tears rolled down my cheeks during my meditation session.  However, I haven’t experienced the raw, powerful emotions since the beginning of my practice.  On most days, my meditation session is calm, peaceful without much emotion. Kind of boring, but I’ll take it!

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/hape_gera/

  • Jonathan

    Nice article, Debbie. It encourages me to try meditation again. My problem with meditation is that most of the times that I try I get really sleepy and sometimes even fall asleep. Do you think that’s something that will get better with more practise, too? Or should I rather try a more active kind of meditation or something?

    Thanks and have a nice day! :)

    • Debbie Hampton

      Johnathan, thank you for your comment. I do think that getting sleepy will improve over time. Be patient and gentle with yourself. This is part of the practice…to improve this, but, for now, it is what your mind does. Work with it.

      I find that my propensity to fall asleep has a lot to do with the time in which I meditate. I am not near as prone to fall asleep first thing in the morning as later on in the day or at night. Or maybe try a shorter meditation time period with multiple sessions in one day.

      I say to do whatever works for you. Find your groove. That is where the magic will happen not following some script that some philosophy has dictated. That is a recipe for frustration!

  • Angela

    This persecptive really helped clear things up for me.
    I thought it was “just me” and of course that something was wrong that I felt so much sadness..anger..(fill in emotion blank)..I also have had the preconceived notion that I was suppose to feel “blissful,peaceful, instantly happy” if I was doing it “right”! THANK YOU!

  • Debbie Hampton

    Hey, Angela! I am glad you found it helpful. I have never seen this particular aspect of meditation covered before. That is why I wrote it. It is only my opinion, but, I think that is what matters in meditation a person’s opinion and interpretation of their experience. Be gentle and patient with yourself.

  • http://www.vishnusvirtues.com Vishnu

    Hi Debbie – I don’t think my meditations have been too emotional. But meditation is a good way to observe the emotions that flood over us. It’s like watching waves pass us by but instead of riding them to the shore, simply watching them go by.

    My challenge is continually having to bring my attention back to focus on my mind instead of what cereal I’m having for breakfast!

    • Debbie Hampton

      Vishnu, you must not have a bunch of emotional crap to process. Lucky you! I like your wave analogy. Exactly.

  • http://www.lifeforinstance.com Lori Gosselin

    Hi Debbie!
    This is a wonderful post on meditation! I love how you say this: “Trying to meditate IS meditating” as that’s about where I am – still! I was in the habit of meditating years ago but fell away from it. I remember at the time feeling the way you describe: “When first beginning to meditate, a person is going to wonder what in the heck they are trying to do and if they are doing it anywhere near right.” Thanks for the reminder. I need to stick with it again :-)
    Lori

    • Debbie Hampton

      Lori, thank you for your comment. I think too many philosophies make meditation too complicated and too rigorous. This dissuades many from trying it or sticking with it, I believe. It does not have to be so hard.

      I am back to trying to meditate. I feel that because I have worked through the hard stuff, I am not having the productive meditation sessions I used to. So, it feels too easy and relaxed. But, I tell myself that “it is what it is” and “it is what I need right now . It is meditating.” Some might disagree, but I am all for being gentle with ourselves.

  • http://alwayswell.wordpress.com Sandra / Always Well Within

    Debbie,

    You’ve painted a very accurate picture of meditation! Through meditation we have the opportunity to “purify” our habitual patterns of thoughts and emotions. It can be uncomfortable at times! But once you get the idea, there’s more space between you and the emotions that arise and gradually we relate to whatever rises with less and less of a sense of pain or suffering.

    People report lots of bright spots along the way in my meditation courses so it’s not all about dredging the pit of our pain! The main point though is not clinging to either the bright spots or the dark ones.

    I don’t necessarily agree that there is no “wrong” way to meditate, but I concur with the essence of what I think you are saying, which is that there are lots of hills and valleys as we learn to meditate. Often, we learn more moving through the tough spots!

    • Debbie Hampton

      Sandra, thank you for your comment. In reading it, it made me think that I have probably not represented the good qualities of meditation very adequately enough in the post.

      Upon reflecting on it, I can think of some “wrong” ways to meditate where a person may do more harm than good. However, I do think that the initial hurdle for many people is to do it “the right” way. My intent was to encourage a person not to let this be an intimidating factor – just to get started and, then, they can worry about technique.

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  • Jen

    Thank you for this. Today was my first time trying meditation and I couldn’t even finish…..I was overcome with ugly sobbing! ugh~ Anyway thanks to your article I am encouraged and plan to continue on this new path I am on. I am actually looking forward to purging out this mess of emotion and find my way to clarity.

    • Debbie Hampton

      Jen, I am so glad these words resonated with you and had some meaning for you. I am no expert and some purists would disagree, I have no doubt, but I would say that the ugly sobbing was your meditation for the day. Meditation is not always sitting peacefully with a serene expression. It is whatever you need it to be that day, I believe.

      When I was doing some serious mental and emotional healing, my meditation sessions were messy, emotional, and hard work. I cannot say it enough…meditation IS whatever you need it to be that day. There is no right or wrong here. Only when you have worked through all the shit…and this took YEARS for me…then maybe, just maybe, meditation becomes like the pictures you see of the monks sitting. Even then, you will still have ugly days where you are using the meditation to work through what comes up in your life. In my opinion, that is what it is all about. It is a mental health tool just for that purpose.

      More information on my take on meditation for you: http://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/the-myth-and-magic-of-meditation and http://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/what-meditation-is-to-me

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  • Steve

    When I first meditated, tears and rage happened to me.

    When describing meditation to a friend I failed to mention this part originally. After having a bad time again and doing meditation I re-encountered it. I feel so much better now.

    • dblhampton

      Steve, I hope you stuck with it. That is part of meditation’s healing benefits. It’s a process. All this stuff will bubble up at first. Then, it only surfaces when something is going on in your life that needs to be felt/expressed. Keep going. That means it’s working! :)