Sometimes when we try to cultivate a sense of ease or joy we can be surprisingly met with its opposite. In other words, when we try take in the good or practice loving kindness, we can find ourselves becoming even more aversive, resentful, irritable etc. Don't take this as feedback that you've flunked! In fact, it's quite normal to have this reaction. Anytime we challenge our habits, they can fight back and resist. It's part of the process. When you realize you've taken an unexpected turn, it's important to remember that this, too, is part of the practice. One of my favorite quotes, which I repeatedly use when my practice takes a surprising twist is, "What's in the way is the way." (*That quote happens to be the title of Mary O'Malley's book, but I haven't read it....yet.)
I recently worked with a friend who reached out to me because she felt she was doing something wrong in her meditation practice. Her meditation practice had been going well, as my friend put it, until her new couch was delivered. When it was delivered she was bummed that it wasn't as comfortable as she remembered it being in the store. She couldn't return it, nor could she afford to buy a new one. Each time my friend sat down to meditate, her mind would fixate on "the stupid couch." It had gotten to the point where she wanted to drop her meditation practice because she could not longer tolerate what was becoming a pattern. I shared with her that looping thoughts often shine a light on an unmet need, and I suggested we do a meditative exercise together. I started by leading my friend through a modified body scan with the hopes that she would feel more embodied. And then, we began. I repeatedly asked her the question - What would that do for you? This is what unfolded:
Lauren: If you had the perfect couch what would that do for you?
Friend: I'd feel cozy.
Lauren: What would feeling cozy do for you?
Friend: I'd feel like I could relax.
Lauren: What would feeling relaxed do for you?
Friend: I'd finally feel safe.
Almost immediately, my friend's eyes popped open and tears began streaming down her face. Underneath this "trivial issue," was the most primal issue - a yearning to feel safe. The couch was the trigger, which cast a light on a tender wound that still needed to be held. I asked her if there were any words she could say to comfort that part of her that wanted to feel safe. Could she get a sense of how old that voice/ feeling was? What did it need to feel and could she give that to herself? The couch was not the issue. Our minds would rather fixate on a couch, or anything else for that matter, than explore the pain its is masking.
When we bring a gentle tone and caring curiosity to a challenging emotional state, it's amazing what can transpire. Suffering in all its forms has a tendency to make us feel alone. Again, it's quite common to feel sadness, grief, anger etc. when the mind begins to settle. At times, it can be helpful to call to mind a person, pet, spiritual figure, teacher etc. and feel yourself held in his/her presence. Rest in that felt sense of connection. What comforting words might he/she have to offer you? If you've called upon the image of a pet or a particular place to comfort you, then let yourself linger in that felt sense of safety and connection. Sometimes, I will play "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt when I'm wanting to feel connected to a larger, loving presence. Be creative and tweak these suggestions to meet your needs. Studies have shown that a 20-second hug can release oxytocin, which is a hormone that flows through our brains when we feel safe, connected and loved. Oxytocin is even released when we imagine ourselves being hugged or comforted by others. Even placing your hand over your heart can communicate a sense of connection, which causes a release in oxytocin. Talk about the power of our thoughts!
Lastly, I just want to point out that sometimes these unwanted and unexpected reactions can actually be signs of health and healing. Having a meditation practice can be like opening a window to let in some fresh air and light. Dust gets kicked up and anything hiding beneath the shadows becomes illuminated. You may not like what I see, but try to include it as part of the practice (even the resistance and judgment). One meditation teacher I sit with once shared that he's noticed how often people give up on their meditation practice just when it's starting to take off. My friend was about to do just that. It takes great courage to be with these disquieting, yet temporary, states of mind that make us feel vulnerable. Dr. Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly, "If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it." I hope this post provided some guidance for how to do just that. Dr. Brown continues, "Only when we're brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light."