I remember the scene clearly: I was sitting on the floor of my walk-in closet with the door closed behind me, light off, staring at a candle, and suddenly starting to implode.
This was my first ever attempt at meditating.
(I’d read about the candle thing somewhere as an easy way to keep yourself focused. Why I was doing this in my closet is anyone’s guess, though I recall it being the only truly quiet spot in my apartment at the time.)
I’d ventured into this for the same reasons we’re all told that meditating is a good idea. I wanted to be clearer, calmer, more centered.
What I got was the exact opposite.
I’d spent my entire life up to that point studiously pushing away any difficult emotions. I assumed that meant they obligingly evaporated and disappeared forever.
Boy, was I wrong.
In fact, they’d been waiting for me all along just barely under the surface, biding their time until I would sit still long enough for them to plead their case. That day, sitting in my closet, was the first real opening they had, and they really seized the moment.
Instead of feeling soothed and revitalized, it felt like falling into a black hole with no oxygen.
As 25ish years of grief and anger came crashing down on me at once, I realized there was a very good reason why I hadn’t done this before. It was overwhelming and panic-inducing and, I concluded, a terrible idea not to be replicated.
I think this is where most of us stop. We intellectually agree with the premise of meditation for other people but, in practice, we feel like *our* issues are too big to even begin addressing. Instinctively we know what’s in store if we risk opening Pandora’s box.
The negative effects of this experiment persisted well beyond the confines of my closet. It left me with even more painful questions like: Why did so many people hail this meditation stuff as a silver bullet, but all it did was scramble me and make me feel worse? Was I that messed up, that I was the one person who couldn’t benefit from the ultimate panacea?
I didn’t know anyone else that had this experience, so for a long time I chalked it up to my own personal failing. It would be many more years before I had the language to understand what was happening for me that day.
Here’s what I wish I had known then, the disclaimer that I think should be mandated for anyone touting meditation as the cure for your ills:
1. Meditation brings you into the present, into your body, and into contact with your sense of self. It assumes a prerequisite of safety within yourself.
2. If you have learned that it is unsafe to be in the present/your body, or that you are fundamentally bad and broken, meditation will bring you to that place, and you will experience all the painful feelings associated with that.
3. Depending on the severity of your past experiences and your skill at self-soothing, the intensity of those feelings may seem unbearable and create a new layer of damage.
There is nothing wrong with directly experiencing difficult feelings; in fact, it’s necessary. But there’s an important distinction between the “normal” range of difficult feelings (great to work with in meditation), and unprocessed trauma that feels like a threat to your survival. The latter is what needs to be approached with extra care and diligence before entering into a standard meditation practice.
There are a lot of other ways to address those underlying issues besides meditation. For a long time, I went and did those other things instead, and they really helped. I slowly got to a baseline of feeling like I could inhabit myself and acknowledge my emotions without being destroyed.
Only after that did I begin to dip my toe back into the waters of meditation. And this time, it was a totally different experience.
The calm and openness were there, as promised. They were there because, by then, I’d worked on the trauma directly with a trained professional and learned the foundational skills necessary to create calm and openness within myself. My subsequent meditation practice helped deepen and hone those skills, but that wasn’t how I acquired them in the first place.
Meditation is fantastic, but if you’ve got a lot of unaddressed pain in your past, it might not be step 1 for you.
If you’re feeling like you can’t slow down or touch your emotions with a ten foot pole without risking implosion, know that you’re not alone. You’re not doing it wrong. No matter how many times your company’s wellness team cheerfully reminds you to install the Calm app on your phone, that foreboding avoidance will probably still show up. It’s your brain trying to protect you.
Honor that foreboding feeling, slow down, give yourself some grace, and try something different. Meditation will always be there when you’re ready to come back to it.