During meditation, it’s common to experience sensations of anxiety or tension that arise seemingly out of nowhere. Since most of us associate meditation with being calm and relaxed, it’s natural to assume that these uncomfortable feelings mean we’re doing something wrong and to try to figure out where they’re coming from. But what if these challenging feelings are actually a sign that you’re doing it right? In this short Q&A, Craig shares an unconventional perspective on the experience of tension in meditation and offers a simple approach to navigating even the most uncomfortable feelings when they arise.
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In one of your meditation practices, you guide us to be aware of the awareness of our feelings and thoughts. When I tried to do this, I experienced an intense tightness in my chest, as if, I almost couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t an emotional tension; it was more of a sensation of discomfort and tension in my body. Am I doing something wrong?
I would say probably not. Here’s the thing about sensations, feelings, emotions, tightness, or anxiety: Let’s say that when you sit down to do your meditation practice, you’ve been having a good day. Everything seems good and you’re excited to meditate. You carve out space in your schedule, you sit down, and then a few minutes into the practice, suddenly all this anxiety comes up or you just start to feel very tense. This triggers your mind, and you start thinking, “I wonder if I’m doing something wrong.”
This sparks a whole reaction. You start asking what the experience means, but the reality is that most of the time you just don’t know. Sometimes it might be clear why you’re feeling tense. You might realize that you’re feeling tense because you remembered something that happened at work that didn’t get resolved and now you’re full of anxiety about it. But more often you don’t know where the strong feelings and sensations that come up originate from. You don’t really know why they’re there. So, it’s best to not try to figure out whether you did something wrong or not.
The thing about meditation practices is that they are generally very simple and the instructions are pretty straightforward. So doing them wrong generally doesn’t cause any adverse reaction. It’s more often the case that any reaction you’re having is somehow being triggered by doing the practice itself.
Meditation practices can be disorienting. They can bring up fear of losing control. We spend our entire lives with our attention focused on objects, then a meditation teacher like me asks us to practice taking our attention off of the objects and onto the subject. This simple act of shifting your attention away from the objects in your awareness can bring up a lot of feelings. It can trigger sensations. It can trigger a reaction.
Because your attention has always been on the objects in your awareness, and now, suddenly, you remove it from the place it has always been focused. It’s a bit like breaking an addiction. We have a big opioid crisis in our country that has been caused, in part, by the fact that there has been a lot of overprescription of pain medications. When you’ve become fully dependent on pain meds, and then stop taking them, your body violently reacts. It brings up all kinds of anxiety and physical pain and discomfort. That’s why people go and take the drug again: to relieve the pain and anxiety. In meditation, we are, in a sense, breaking our addiction to objects. We’re breaking our addiction to the mind. We’re breaking our addiction to being identified with our feelings.
I don’t mean addiction in an overly negative sense. I’m not wagging my finger saying that you shouldn’t be addicted to your mind, or anything like that. This is simply the human condition. This is just how we are wired.
The point is that we’re breaking a dependency on something. We’re breaking free from a habit. We’re breaking free from a habitual way of placing our attention on the objects in consciousness, and this can bring up all kinds of reactions at any given moment. You might be having a great meditation for 20 minutes, and then suddenly experience all this tension and fear. It might be caused by the fact that your meditation was going really well. The fact that you actually went somewhere and opened up to something profound, could be frightening to another part of you.
So whenever strong feelings or sensations like this arise in meditation, the best kind of remedy is to simply not try to make any meaning out of it. Just observe the fact that you’re experiencing a lot of strong feelings, but don’t try to understand why. Take the position of not knowing: “I don’t know why I’m experiencing this tension. It’s just happening.”