The Scary Side of Meditation

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Back in the 1990s I started mediating. I was hoping it would offset the stress I felt in college, where I was majoring in a field I didn’t enjoy or feel very good at. I felt a lot of pressure to get good grades to maintain my scholarship status, else my (single) mom who was paying for college would start freaking out about me losing financial aid. And I would be a disappointment.

When I first began meditating, I was instructed to focus on my breathing as a way to stop my mind from thinking about these sorts of things. Sometimes just bringing my attention to the bodily sensations caused by my inhales and exhales worked, but other times my mind continued to race, calling up a never-ending list of “to do’s”, worries about the future, and regrets about the past. But as I practiced more consistently, I had a few mediation practices where my mind actually became still.

I remember one in particular. I was living in Rocky Hill Connecticut at the time. I set my cushion on the floor, and sat down. I might have had a CD from Zazen in my boom box: a guy I’d been talking to on email (who was trained in Zen) sent it to me. Almost as soon as I sat down, everything just stopped. The next thing I knew, there was pure…nothing. When I finally realized this, I freaked. How much time had passed? Where had I gone? To this day I don’t recall whether I sat for 2 hours or 2 minutes, but there I was. Freaked out. Scared or busy, I stopped meditating very much, and “got on” with my life.

monsterFast forward many years later. It was about 2011 or 2012. I was married, and had a house with my own meditation / yoga / reading room on the third floor of a fancy house in a suburb of Boston, MA. I would sit on my cushion in front of a little altar I’d built. I would still meditate using my breathing to focus my attention.

One day, an image arose in my mind. It was silver, monstrous and pointy, like one of those magnetic desk toys you’d find at Spencer’s. I felt so small and helpless as it loomed over me, with pointy claws and an equally menacing jaw. It moved as if to attack me. I felt my body physically shudder in response. Yet, I knew on some deep level that this was a release of past demons, so I stayed. I sat. I felt my body jerk forward each time the evil metallic monster lashed out at me. I breathed. I stayed. After another unclear amount of time had passed, I recalled something a therapist had told me once: handle only what you can at once. There’s no shame in backing out, you don’t want to “overload”. Sometimes these things must be taken in small doses. And so I opened my eyes to see that I was in fact safe. I left my cushion. I drew the picture of my monster that you see here.

The next few days of meditation, I kept seeing pictures. I’m not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I drew what I saw anyway. And it freaked.me.out. I stopped meditating. I just couldn’t take the pictures anymore. I was scared to sit on my cushion. I stopped entirely. And then my (real) life (as I knew it) disintegrated.

It’s 2015, at the tail end anyway. I’m back to mediating almost every morning. But with my Yoga Therapy training fresh behind me, I now know it’s helpful during meditation to link to an object that has qualities we desire to cultivate in ourselves. I no longer focus on my breath when I meditate. My object (given by my mentor) is the moon. The healing, the cool, the very still…the (ever changing but usually) full moon. After inviting the light of the moon into my body, and moving it through my body, I stay with the feeling of moonlight in my body. And I find a stillness, a peace, that I’ve never known before.

Many times, as I’m sitting in this stillness, images still surface. But now the images aren’t scary. For example, the other day I saw a brown-sandaled foot about to step on a mosaic tile as if frozen in time. I wondered whether what I saw was in the past, in the future, in some other life. My life, or someone else’s? A parallel dimension? I don’t know, but the images no longer scare me. They’re just images of something else, and I’m fascinated by them. I enjoy my meditations because at the very least, time stops, and I’m still in body and mind. At best, I see things that may be useful, or are just interesting and provoke curiosity.

What has your experience with meditation been? Has it just been frustrating, or like me, did you find the stillness terrifying? Did you stay with it? Could I help?


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