Meditation: When the Going Gets Rough

seated meditation
Photo by Amelia

“Does meditation make things worse?” I typed into the Google search bar, curious about the enduring spate of unpleasantries that had emerged after attending my first meditation retreat. Post-retreat, I noticed myself feeling highly emotional, lacking motivation, and plagued with annoyingly persistent health and musculoskeletal problems. These difficulties only worsened when I attended a two-week loving-kindness retreat several months later, where deep experiences left me feeling unbearably vulnerable, raw and open. The resulting anxiety and misguided efforts to ground myself (overeating and so on) seemed completely at odds with the consciousness I was attempting to cultivate through my practice.

In truth, despite the panacea meditation is cracked up to be, the reality is often less glamorous. Committed practice can awaken our heart-minds (bodhicitta) and facilitate self-realization, liberating us from the bonds of suffering. But this is not the same as the short-term happiness touted in self-help books and pop culture. In fact, the road of a committed practitioner is riddled with roadblocks, aptly illustrated by the demon Mara’s temptation of the Buddha with his three beautiful daughters and subsequent attacks by fearsome monsters.

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A recent publication in the The Atlantic discussed what an extreme form of these roadblocks can look like, termed “dark night of the soul” (DNoS). Occurring most frequently after an experience of the non-self in meditation, DNoS is characterized by subsequent and enduring impairments in functioning (defined as “the inability of an adult to work or take care of children”). While the article highlights extreme cases of DNoS, for many meditators, meditation can make things worse before it makes them better, or, perhaps better stated, before it facilitates more skillful relationship to whatever arises.

Why does this occur? Many of our treasured beliefs about the world and our place in it (samskara)—e.g., our uniqueness; beliefs in God; that romantic love should last forever; that good things happen to good people—can be shattered through meditation, which systematically deconstructs the conditioned self and its attachments to the manifest world. Destabilizing these defenses threatens our very sense of self, safety, and integrity in the world. “Who am I,” we might ask, “if not a mother, boyfriend, believer in God? If not the self I know so well?”

The realization that we are not our personality or our belief structures can trigger a number of responses. Often our beliefs will reassert themselves fiercely, like the demon Maya, tempting us from the path of awakening. Despair and anxiety are not uncommon, nor are engagement in addictive, compulsory, or impulsive behaviors to help us cope.

To deal, some may opt to ramp up the frequency or intensity of meditation practice, bringing the recently described striving mindset to bear, hoping to soldier through and conquer one’s demons. Others may stop meditation entirely when threats arise, defaulting to normal consciousness. While halting practice may bring immediate relief as the personality settles back into its familiar patterns, the commitment to awakening and the possibility of liberation from all suffering is lost.  Either scenario represents succumbing to Mara’s temptations.

What is possible when we recognize the difficulties arising through practice as a natural and organic process that reflects that we’re on the right path? A willingness to face and enter into inquiry with our own suffering, and the deconstruction of our selves and belief systems, allows us to access the fertile void, in which all is possible. Although we long for certainty, identity and belonging in our daily lives, investigated more tenderly and deeply, the void is home: A world of recognized impermanence where we become liberated from the trappings of identity and limiting belief structures. It is also in the void that the heart’s spacious resonance can be accessed and honored, facilitating the realization that the void is as full as it is empty; that the fullness one has sought externally abides persistently within.

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For those of you navigating difficulties arising in meditation (or in your life as a result of meditation), pay close attention to whether you experience any of the following: Anxiety, depression, mania, psychotic symptoms (e.g., hallucinations), relationship problems, poor coping methods (e.g., overeating, smoking), or physical health problems. Experiencing these is a strong indication one should seek the support of a studied teacher or licensed therapist (preferably a meditator or someone who incorporates Buddhist psychotherapy into their practice). If that’s not possible, attend a local meditation group or sangha for support.

Other techniques can support you in navigating tough times. Loving-kindness (metta) meditation is a beautiful technique that helps us to hold, comfort and soothe ourselves in the face of suffering. Mind-body practices, such as yoga or Qigong, can help to integrate, ground, and contain the energy generated in meditation, enabling greater skillfulness in dealing with what arises. Getting outdoors and connecting with nature can also be profoundly soothing, as well as mindful exercise and time with pets or loved ones. Finally, it is important to consider one’s relationship to current practice. In some cases, with the consultation of your teacher or therapist, a short-term reduction in the amount of time spent practicing meditation may be helpful.

Have you hit rough patches in your meditation practice? If so, do you have any thoughts to share about how you navigated or worked with them?

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