This morning I got up to do my regular morning meditation. During that time I was sitting with a very uncomfortable feeling that was quite challenging. This is not good not bad, its just how it is. Sometimes when we sit we get these uncomfortable feelings, some are minor and some so heart-renching its like our soul is aching. It is important to recognise that in your practice you’ll have times like this. Sometimes it can be just for a few minutes during one sitting, or it can last for the whole sitting, sometimes it can go over several sittings or for a period of weeks. Often we’ll interpret this that there is something wrong and deep down we feel a strong urge to resist, to the move away from the feeling and sometimes to get away from it at all cost. We may also develop a fear of what we are experiencing that will stop us altogether from returning to try meditation as a practice This can be challenging as it disrupts our motivation for the practice and it can be very compelling to stop. So I want to address this issue here
Our meditation practice is exactly like a little microcosm for our actual life. In it we experience everything we do in our normal lives, but in the silence we have more opportunity to see and recognise subtleties that we may not notice in our normal busy lives. We may also uncover or experience things that we’ve never experienced before. How we interpret these things can alter our direction and motivation so interpreting them correctly is very important.
During those sitting periods things will always arise, come and go, just like clouds come and go through the sky. We must learn to be okay with it and to accept it. Some days there is good weather, some days there is bad weather. We are exactly the same in life and our meditation is exactly the same. This is because like everything in life we are a condition of Nature. We are no different to Nature in this respect and as such we’ll have feelings or uncomfortable emotions come up.
Two Broad Categories of Unease
While feelings and emotions arise inherently by the same principle and process, I want to seperate them into two broad categories here for the sake of the discussion. Some of these emotions, if we contemplate our lives, can be related to a predisposition in our nature and so we recognise the emotion in relation to that. For example, we may get an “unaccepting” emotion and in being familiar with ourselves will recognise that “lack of acceptance” is a regular emotion we struggle with in our interactions with people or life situations. Similarly, we may experience an anger or disapproval or we may be judgemental or harsh with ourselves for not doing the meditation right and so we see and recognise our regular habits arising in this way. This is what I mean by meditation being a microcosm for our actual life. Often these types come up regularly and pass quite quickly, so be aware of them, be aware of how they manifested and then return to your meditation practice. Over time you’ll come to see the patterns in the conditions within which they manifested and you’ll be able to break down the process and stop repeating it (this is called healing). You’ll see that the emotion came up when you start to think about how someone wronged you, or when you were thinking about work, or when you were thinking about your partner. These emotions arise in response to these conditions in our lives.
There are other feelings or states of unease that arise that we cannot rationalise or explain. We can’t see any link for this feeling to another other thing. Again, this is not good not bad, its just how it is. So notice within yourself this tendency to want to try to link it to something, to try and rationalise and explain it. We do this because we do not know and we aren’t comfortable with this ‘not-knowing’. Why is this? Parkinson’s Law is consistent with this, it is in fact a natural phenomenon; “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.” or stated differently “Nature abhors a vacuum.” As such when there is a space, our minds attempt to fill it with some thing, anything rather than just let there be space. Once you are aware of this phenomenon its very interesting to observe it in yourself and other people. As soon as there is unknown we get uneasy and so we will rationalise it out with thought. What is most disturbing about this though is how frantically we try to do it and how we’ll accept even the most irrational explanation as plausible. Take for example when we are expecting someone to arrive home, a loved one maybe. If they are 15 minutes late we get angry, but then as 15 minutes turns to one hour or two we start to get worried “What if something has happened to them? Maybe they’ve had an accident? Maybe they are having an affair?! I knew they never liked me!” And our mind will start to fill that space, the unknown of the moment with anything at all no matter how irrational.
These feelings or states of unease that we can’t explain are arising due to them being a condition of nature within us on a more subtle level. Some of these conditions can be quite deeply rooted in our existance of “being” and hence we rarely, if ever, have experienced them before with such clarity. In the quietness they arise and we are more adept to experiencing them.
To describe these feelings a bit more, its something you feel that is unsettling to your core and there appears an overwhelming instinct to want to move away from it. I’d liken it to going under water. Within it there is a feeling that something isn’t right and after a certain time there is a compelling deep instinct to get above the water, like your life depends on it. These are the feelings I’m talking about, they are subtle but powerful. You’ll feel a compelling urge to get up and move away from your meditation, like something in the world is just wrong and you must get above it, get away from it. Trying to sit with these can be very challenging and demotivating because the mind will also respond (as a condition of nature) and manifest a myriad of rational or irrational thoughts to justify why you should end the meditation and also why you should never return. It is this unknown and not being able to sit with the unknown that creates this reaction. Understanding what is going on here is really important so that it doesn’t sabotage your practice and your life.
Resting in the Unknown
Learning to be comfortable with this unknown feeling is directly related to coming to a place of lasting peace in your life. While you are uncomfortable with this unknown you’ll never know happiness or true peace. Life is always in a state of flux and as such everything is unknown. Not seeing this truth is why people are unhappy because their happiness if defined by knowing something. ”When I get a million dollars I’ll be happy”, or “When I have a child I’ll be happy” or “When I’m married and have a house and a good paying job I’ll be happy”. This is temporary happiness that will never last because it is based knowing something or having soemthing. It will never last because they are not understanding this vital truth to life, that everything is actually unknown and always changing.
What also arises with people when experiencing these feelings is often fear because we are uncertain of their meaning to us or what might happen to us if we continue with the meditation. This is a perfectly natural response that comes from the conditioning of the “self”, the self attempts to protect its own reality, its own existance. We’ll rationalise away the experience, no matter how irrational, as long as it makes sense or is plausible to “us”. And if we can’t find some plausibility then we’ll push it away. Flight or fight. Flight is the instinct to run away or push the feeling way, thought and irrationality is the instinct to fight, to try to face it with our rationalise minds.
I’ve spoken to so many people who have said they’ve tried meditation but “one day I experienced something that scared me” and so they stopped. This is a real shame. It shows that deep down that have a desire for meditation and to experience life differently but due to bad interpretation of their experiences they have abandoned the practice. A good teacher or someone to explain the meaning of these experiences is vitally important at this point, without it we make wrong decisions based on wrong thoughts about the experience. I relate it to a child going into the kitchen to cook. They start bashing pots and pans around not really getting anywhere, then they touch the stove and burn their hand. This is not good not bad in itself, but the thought “I’m afraid what might happen to me” stops them from returning to the kitchen altogether. The kitchen isn’t the problem and attempting to cook isn’t the problem, its the lack of understanding about what they were doing and how to interpret the experience. To understand clearly and specifically that “If I touch the stove element I’ll get burnt” would allow them to continue to learn to cook and to enjoy it without the fear that keeps them completely out of the kitchen. Interpretation of our experiences in meditation is just like this.
Just today I was talking to someone about this and he relayed a story about a meditation experience he couldn’t explain that scared him. It is quite interesting that this topic arose because I actually started writing this article yesterday and he bought the topic up today. Anyway, for him he is experiencing the feelings based on his own unique karma, on his conditioned nature that is unique to him. No-one seemed to be able to explain his experience. But this is simple really isn’t it? He was experiencing it as “he” would, as it is his disposition. This will be unique to him. No matter how he interprets that expereince, what is most important is that it is nothing to be afraid of and he should continue with the meditation practice. Just know it is a manifestation of the self and then continue.
In sitting with these unsettling feelings you’ll begin to see they are what we hide from or avoid or block out because we don’t feel comfortable with them, we aren’t comfortable with this unknown because we can’t link the feeling to anything. So we may not know why they feel bad to us but they feel bad so we push away from them regardless. Its similar to the child in the kitchen, “The stove is hot so I’ll just avoid the kitchen altogether”. This is a problem and while we may not be aware of it, these feelings are likely the deep roots that drive us to do a lot of things in our lives, and by that I mean we do things so as to avoid having to feel this “unknown”. In fact we’ll do anything to avoid having to feel it altogether! This unknown is a fact of life and we all feel it and sense it but we mostly choose to try to ignore it. What is most interesting is that at the same time we never question why we are unhappy.
Even if we don’t meditate we all get these exact same feelings when we’ve had a very busy period of our lives and then we get a few days of quiet. Shortly afterwards we start to feel almost homesick yet we haven’t gone anywhere, and while we want to be still we can’t bear too and that feeling will sit with us all day long. People often label it boredom and hence try to “busy” there lives so they don’t have to feel it, so they don’t have to feel this space. After a while it will pass and we think nothing of why we were feeling that, but this is the process that is occurring.
All Things Pass
While some individual meditations sessions will just be more challenging than others, these particular feelings I’m talking about will move through stages, last for a period of time and then pass. And they will always pass eventually, they always do. Once you start to uncover them and be more aware of them they’ll reside with you until you’ve moved through them. Sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a week or more. You can feel a little unsettled during these periods and away from your meditation mat they’ll bring with them the mental question “Something feels wrong?”, or “I feel bored” or “I don’t feel right” or “I want to do something” and also the thought “I don’t feel like sitting and doing meditation”. Its similar to waking up on the “wrong side of the bed”, for some reason you get up one morning and things just don’t feel right and all day you feel like this. It is very similar to this feeling.
How to Apply This
It is very important to continue to sit diligently and regularly through these periods, to be still and be quiet as this will help it pass. Don’t try to jump up and find something to do and be busy, this is just pushing it away. It will always eventually return to be addressed if you do push it away. There is a saying in Christianity I think that goes something like “If you send the devil out into the desert he will gather ten friends and return”. This is the same. By being present with it you are allowing yourself to transcend it so that you don’t have to continue to experience it. It also helps you to come to understand the “unknown”. So, being more still and sitting meditation will help.
It is similar to exposing an ice block to the sun. An ice block exists due to a certain set of conditions that made it become an ice block. It is made of water and a condition of water is that below zero deg celcius it freezes, under these condition it changes to a solid form and expands slightly. Then as it is exposed to the sun its conditions are changed. Heat raises its temperature and with these new conditions its melts. With enough heat it it turns into steam and completely disappears. The things we experience in meditation are exactly like this. Through meditation we are changing the conditions within which we abide, in which our thoughts and feelings and consciousness abides in, and just like the ice block they change when exposed like this. They melt and disappear. So while it is very challenging to be with these feelings its really important to continue to practice with them. It is a good sign of progress.
As your meditation develops you move from more course states of consciousness to more subtle states of consciousness. This process of uncovering the more subtle aspects to your existance will bring new experiences, understandings and insights to the forefront and also more moments of quiet and peace. It’ll also bring new challenges to the forefront and often these more subtle underlying existential feelings as well. Be mindful of this changing nature of the meditation, of your life. Be present with them and sit and accept them as much as you can. It is always in a state of flux. Sit quietly and feel how your body is feeling through this process. Don’t run away from it or try to cover it up. Just sit with it. No harm will come to you.
Notice your own internal reactions to it, your adversity to it, or desire to try to explain it, or the way you make excuses so as not to have to meditate again. These reactions are your own internal conditions that change in relation to one another. In fact if you watch closely you’ll notice the thought arises as a conditioned response to the emotion, a simple cause and effect process. It is only meaningful to you because it arose within you, this doesn’t mean it is right. And so a bad feeling manifests, and then a thought arises which manifests another feeling which manifests a desire which manifests a need to take action, and so on. Form affecting form, condition affecting condition. Notice this changing nature of your own existance. Try not to label one emotion good, another bad, just be with them as they come and go. Also, try not to push the feeling out of your body to try to shake it off. Let it envelope you, drown yourself in it and be with it and continue to meditate. Experience it fully and come to know it. Over time, it is like exposing an ice block to the sun – it will pass. Afterwards a new sense of peace will develop in you deeper than before.
Again don’t cling to this because rest assured eventually this will change too. And so the process goes.Over time you’ll notice this ongoing flux of good periods, bad periods, good weather, bad weather. You’ll start to be comfortable with its coming and going nature and you won’t try to alter your life in accordance with them. This is an important point, you won’t try to alter you life in accordance with them! That is you are breaking down the conditioning process and are no longer reacting to each thing or condition that arises. This is the process of finding peace. Peace is ability to be unmoved in the presence of the changing conditions of life. Within this space a natural state of happiness arises that is known as equanimity, a sense of happiness that does not pass when conditions change. This is lasting peace and happiness.