If you have been getting my newsletters (subscribe below if you don’t and would like to get them), then you know that I introduced this topic in my last one.

Talking about the disadvantages of meditation is not widely popular or known. But, after some experiences I’ve had recently, I wanted to share – because I still wholeheartedly believe in the overall benefit of meditation.

But, I have learned that if one embarks upon a practice of meditation, three things are of tantamount importance: 1. Listening to yourself. 2. Choosing the right technique for you. 3. Exploring the inner mind is as individual as the individual themself.

the dark side of meditation

It Began With Anxiety…

Let me begin with a story.

Picture a 13 year-old girl who had a family friend that gave her the book, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. She read it and loved the positive messages. There was a section in there about spending time in silence each day.

So, the girl went into the walk-in-closet on the basement level of her house so she wouldn’t be disturbed early in the mornings. She did this on and off, sporadically for a couple years. But then life took over and she stopped.

Fast-forward to her early 20s. She happened upon a book where she was working at a bookstore called, Getting in the Gap by Wayne Dyer. She listened to the guided meditations and began her “real” journey of meditation. She began to meditate here and there, often for about 10 minutes or so.

She loved the feeling: the sense of calm, the sense of ease, the sense of comfort that sitting in silence provided.

You see, she was always an anxious sort. Other family members had to be medicated for their own anxiety. It’s a stressful world out there. She was a sensitive soul who loved to please others, often at the price of neglecting her own needs.

She didn’t like to rock the boat. She loved peace and harmony and craved positive human relations.

For the next several years, she made sure to keep a mindful practice, commune with nature, and spend plenty of time indulging her creativity.

She discovered a book in 2007 called Deep and Simple by Bo Lozoff. At the time, she didn’t know how that book would affect her life. But it changed her. She adopted a mantra: Jai Ram.

She began reciting it to herself day by day, in the mornings, in the evenings, while driving – while going about her daily activities.

For several years, she remained with this mantra: it felt right to say.

She tried another one: Om mani padme hum – a mantra of compassion. Though she liked the words, she wasn’t sure about the length and it felt cumbersome to say in conjunction with the breath. So, she stopped reciting that one.

As she explored the world of meditation, she discovered binaural beats and other guided meditations. She discovered how she remained calm and peaceful, despite the ebbs and flows of modern life. But she didn’t like the feeling of being out of touch with her innermost self as a result of listening for longer periods of time to the binaural beats.

During the summer of 2016, she embarked on a new journey: forays into “metta” meditation in the world of Buddhism. She stayed at a retreat center to learn from a monk on meditation technique.

This form of meditation would become the preferred method of the girl, now in her 30s. She’d sit for an hour at a time each day, concentrating on her breathing, sitting with legs crossed on her meditation cushion, or just on her bed, with her back straight.

She’d meditate in the early morning darkness, before the sun shone its light on a new dawn. In the silence that is akin to the silence of the stars in the sky.

This practice enabled her to move confidently and with ease through different jobs and ranks.

Until recently. Recently when she began a new job.

One that was familiar, but left her feeling uncharacteristically anxious. Where she enjoyed her work, but the new pressures left her experiencing a deep-core anxiety she hadn’t felt in years.

One random Saturday night, she sat down after dinner and felt a wave of dread. She felt short of breath. Dizzy. Like the world was meeting its end.

A panic attack. The first she’d ever known.

What was wrong?

It was as if she wasn’t meditating at all, despite spending 60 minutes a day toward her practice.

In case you haven’t figured it out, that girl is me. And this is a true story.

Brainwave States: Not All Are Equal

I hopped online when I was experiencing these sensations, sure that I was not alone in what I was experiencing.

I definitely wasn’t.

With the smartband on my arm, I have verifiable proof that I descend into a theta brainwave state (a slow brainwave) when I meditate.

Basically, those slow brain waves were heightening my awareness to being at a new job, with new deadlines and expectations and amplifying the sense of nervousness that I felt surrounding it.

While being at a new job is naturally stressful and most people feel some uncertainty when navigating the landscape of a new position, I could tell this was different.

It wasn’t the job: I’d worked there before. It was my own mind doing its own thing.

I’d always just assumed that meditating for 60 minutes a day was absolutely beneficial. If I derived so much benefit from 30 or even 45 minutes, surely 60 minutes would be incredible.

But something triggered my anxiety. Perhaps it was the stress of one job ending. Or the stress of traveling so much in July. Or the stress of starting a new job. Or the stress of doing the LIFE Project. Or none of these. Or all of these.

I really can’t be sure. I do know that my own anxiety bubbled to the surface shortly after starting a new job.

And that meditation didn’t feel like it was helping.

Many Factors At Play

In doing some research, I found out that the type of meditation one does, for how long, how often, technique, and what’s going on in an individual’s life all contribute to the outcomes of the practice.

The thing about meditation is that given all these factors, it becomes an extremely individual experience, capable of producing profoundly different outcomes in different people.

Outcomes in which you deal with your own mind, your own positive and negative thoughts, and it’s not always so easy to discount them and watch them “float by, like clouds hovering over a mountain.”

Some types of meditation amplify and exaggerate depressive or anxious symptoms. Other types encourage and cultivate more positive feelings.

I’m finding that silent, wordless meditation where I focus on the breath is probably not the best practice for me.

I’d only changed over to this a couple summers ago.

I have always been attracted to mantras and reciting a phrase or using a phrase to imagine its letters and then “dive into” the space between.

I’d often considered it “more work” to try to just focus on the breath. My mind has craved more to do.

Eventually, I accepted that my mind would never really be “thought free.” I tried not to “follow” my thoughts and follow the tangents they produced. But I didn’t judge myself if I did. And I continued meditation that focuses on the breath.

Apparently, though, me doing this type of meditation reached its saturation point for my individual circumstances, and my nerves won out.

I don’t consider this a failure, nor do I consider this to be a reason to stop meditating.

meditation is as individual as the person

The Quest For a New Type of Meditation

After reading some articles and making my own educated opinions on the matter, I cut back my formal meditation time.

I also changed what I was doing. I decided that 60 minutes of complete silence, while trying to focus on the breath was not the best type of meditation for me.

One week ago, I returned to the one mantra that I have always felt comfortable saying: Jai Ram.

For the first 30 minutes of my meditation, I sit with my legs crossed, my back straight, and I recite this mantra each time I breathe out.

I also do some more positive visualization: I envision me following through with my intentions and the affirmations that allow for me to be the highest version of myself.

I alternate between the mantra and visualizations.

I feel LOTS better. The same sense of relaxation and comfort that I used to get has returned. The sense if insight that I hold so dear is once again an omnipresent feeling. I didn’t even realize I’d lost it.

Now, after 30 minutes, I grab my mala beads and recite Jai Ram 108 more times. Then, I move into my affirmations, followed by some introspective journaling.

 

Different Types of Meditation

There are as many types of meditation as there are people.

Personally, I feel like it’s kind of like searching for matters of the heart: don’t stop until you find something that feels right.

If you like a guided meditation, you can certainly try that.

Silent mediation is more your thing? Do it.

Send others a little love and a little kindness? Go for it.

Recite religious prayers and/or mantras? By all means.

Meditate to become more psychic? This is a real thing and if that floats your boat, you have my blessing.

You like mantras and want a teacher? Try transcendental meditation.

You like meditating with groups? Go find one.

You like just being mindful? That’s valid, too.

 

What To Do If The Meditation You’re Doing Is Producing Feelings of Depression or Anxiety

  1. For goodness sake, STOP.
  2. Consult someone trained in teaching meditation (this depends on who you’re comfortable with; since I practice a secular type of meditation, I might consult with a secular meditation coach).
  3. Try tweaking your practice in meditation type, how long, how often, and the technique you’re using.
  4. Understand that we all hit bumps in the road. Sometimes we just need to move on, despite our feelings, if we feel that we are really comfortable with a particular type of meditation.
  5. Also know that if you’re at all hesitant to do a type of meditation, or have trouble with how you’re sitting, then listen to yourself. Listen to what your body and mind are telling you at all times.

When I was at my meditation retreat last summer, the monk there reported on how a friend who was also a monk forced himself to “not move” despite his legs falling asleep and creating agonizing pain.

He meditated through this pain, to the detriment of his legs. Now he has chronic nerve damage and pain in his legs, and cannot sit in standard meditation pose any longer.

This would be a classic example of listening to your body.

Personally, I sometimes try to avoid scratching an itch during meditation, for example, but occasionally I will give in. If my legs hurt, I move. If I’m “just not into it,” I just allow myself to sit, or open my eyes and just sit in silence.

Meditation is so personal and individual. I consider hiking in nature to be a meditative experience. I consider drawing to be meditative. Sitting and writing is meditative.

Time spent in introspection is meditative. And this is telling me that perhaps I can and should be more fluid in what I consider to be 60 minutes of meditation. Because honestly, I don’t always feel like I need or want to get up to go have a sit. Sometimes I want to draw. Or read. Or something else.

 

Seek Out Guidance

I really should take my own advice here.

I’ve spoken with others about meditation and my one encounter with a “guru” was the summer of 2016.

Eventually, I think I’d like to get certified in mindfulness/meditation instruction to help others with this powerful practice.

But, I don’t have a lot of time to do this just now. Eventually, I will. In the meantime, I will keep reading up, keep looking into how I feel and I’ll continue to honor my hour of silence each morning – even though that now looks different than when I started out with the LIFE Project.

And that is okay.

Now tell me: what do you do that’s meditative? Have you ever experienced negative side effects from it? What did you do to address it?

 

References:

When Meditation Worsens Depression or Anxiety

The Taboo Against Honesty in Meditation

Tibetan Buddhist Master Monk Explains How Meditation Is Not What Most People Think It Is

What Mindfulness Gurus Won’t Tell You: Meditation Has a Dark Side

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