Problems in the Use of Meditation
Patricia Carrington, Ph.D.
Author of “The Book of Meditation”
Perhaps, more surprising than the people who do not want to learn meditation in the first place, are those who learn to meditate and then quit. Their actions are often difficult to understand when taken at face value. While some people stop the practice because they are having difficulty with it, many stop just when they seem to be getting excellent results. There are a variety of reasons for dropping out, and our meditating patients have provided an opportunity for us to explore some of them.
Certain people seem to become disappointed with meditation because they have built up too many expectations around it. In their fantasy they might have seen meditation as a sort of ‘ideal helper’, as though it were a genie or a fairy godmother onto whom they could depend. This is understandable because meditation is an intensely personal experience and the comfort it brings when it is working right is rather like the soothing of a kindly parent. If it does not go right for some reason, we are all somewhat disappointed. But the person who sees meditation as a ‘magic helper’ does not just feel disappointed when it is not going right, he feels crushed, devastated. He may then react like a hurt child having a temper fit or one who has gone to sulk in the corner.
A patient of mine, Rochelle, thoroughly enjoyed meditation. After she commenced meditating she felt cushioned for the first time from the harsh accusations of some of her family members and began to interact with them more positively. She was more hopeful and experienced a sense of peace which she had not known before. She began feeling so well, in fact, that she hailed meditation as a major contribution to her life. But this picture changed when she came down with a severe case of the flu. At this time she became so weak that she was unable even to lift a glass of water to her lips. Although she tried repeatedly to meditate during her illness she found herself unable to summon up the energy to do so, even when lying down. She simply could not mentally repeat the mantra in her mind.*
As a result Rochelle felt that meditation had ‘deserted’ her just when she needed it most. This made her bitterly angry. From then on she resented meditation and refused to resume the practice after she had recovered from her illness. She could not justify this decision on logical grounds since meditation had been extremely beneficial to her, but her negative feelings were so strong she could not overcome them.
Fortunately Rochelle had an opportunity to work on this problem in psychotherapy, where we were able to explore the reasons why she had turned against meditation so strongly. She had been one of eleven children brought up in relative hardship on a country farm. When she was ill as a child, her overworked mother, finding a sick child in the family an extra burden, would remove herself emotionally from the child. She would order her to her room and rarely, if ever, visit her there. To the little girl this meant that the time when she needed parental comfort and support the most, she was abandoned.
This painful experience had shaped Rochelle’s life in important ways and now, many years later, when, as an adult, she found herself ill and entirely alone (she was divorced at the time) and tried to meditate to comfort herself, meditation too seemed to be ‘indifferent’ to her. As a result she experienced a resurgence of the despair she had felt as a child when she lay in her room ill and alone. It was as if the meditation had changed at that moment from an ideal ‘good mother’ (which it had felt like up to this point) into an indifferent ‘unavailable mother’.
It was only as Rochelle’s feelings of abandonment and personal unworthiness began to change through therapy that she found herself once again interested in the idea of meditating. To get her started meditating, however, it was necessary for me to meditate with her. She appeared to need my encouragement and support in this experience – the presence of a sort of ‘mother-therapist’ who cared enough about her to stay with her. Gradually she once again began to look upon meditation as positive and resumed the regular practice of it, with good results.
Another person who had a highly personalized reaction to meditation was a man who became enraged at his TM mantra because it would not readily enter his mind when he sat down to meditate. He was particularly angry because he felt he had spent a considerable sum of money for the mantra and it ‘should’ come to him when he wanted it! This man was acting toward his mantra as one might toward another person who refused to cooperate or come when called.
He began to work on this problem in his therapy and soon remembered that as a child he had experienced a similar fury at his mother when she paid attention to his brothers and sisters and was not available when he needed or wanted her. He had not been able to control his ‘mama’ the way he wanted to; now he could not control his mantra the way he wanted to – both seemed to evade him. His reaction was to reject meditation as though saying to an imaginary mother, ‘If you’re a bad mother and don’t come to me when I want you to, then I will desert you.’ The result of this personalizing of the mantra was that this man stopped meditating until the problem of his mother could be worked through in therapy, after which he returned to practicing meditation with a fair degree of regularity and satisfaction.
Some people, however, stop meditating for a different reason: they have made the meditation ritual into a tyranny for themselves. Such people tend to be over exacting about their meditation. They tell themselves that they must do it in a certain way, at a certain time, and are intolerant of the least infringement on their own part of their own rules. It is scarcely surprising that they eventually rebel and dismiss meditation as ‘just too much trouble’.
I have found that people who react this way tend to be puritanical and harshly self-disciplining in many other respects as well. They seem to be experts at making that which is inherently pleasant into something difficult. Simple instructions of when, where and how to meditate are interpreted by them as authoritarian commands which they deeply resent. Showing such people how to vary their meditation ritual to introduce a bit of freedom into it may do some good, but I find that in most instances insight into what they are doing is the best solution.
If they can understand that they themselves are responsible for their supposed ‘enslavement’ by meditation, and if they can begin to ease up some of their rigid demands on themselves, then they may be ready to return to meditation.
Other people may react adversely to meditation because of personal associations with the process. A friend of mine found herself becoming alarmingly depressed whenever she had to sit still with her eyes closed for TM. Because of this she soon discontinued meditating. When talking with her about this afterward, I asked her what ‘sitting still’ brought to mind. She volunteered that as a child she was punished by being made to sit absolutely still without speaking, a condition which she had dreaded. While it is not certain that this was the reason for her depression when sitting still during meditation, it is possible that this early training may have caused her to have an antipathy to any situation which involved enforced sitting in silence. Under the circumstances, assigning her a form of meditation where she could move about and keep her eyes open might have been a solution to the problem. It is also possible that she should have been instructed to meditate for only very brief periods at a time.
It is apparent that ‘what is one man’s meat may be another man’s poison’. The stillness which is such a welcome part of meditation for most people may be a frightening aspect of it for others. We have discussed tension-release during meditation. This occasionally causes someone to stop meditating entirely because deep emotions or bizarre and dreamlike thoughts during tension-release may be so intense that they cannot be tolerated. If reducing meditation time does not remedy the situation, then there seems no alternative for the person but to abandon the practice altogether and it is probably a wise idea to do so. We do not know at present what it is that prompts such occasional ‘allergic’ responses to meditation, but it is sensible to treat them like any other allergy – by avoiding the source of the irritation.
As Maupin discovered with creative people, it may not be the appearance of strong emotions or bizarre thoughts that is important, but the degree of control one has over them that makes the difference. Those who feel, for whatever reason, that the process of tension-release is out of control in meditation, may become alarmed and quit. On the other hand, meditation may help to make strong feelings manageable for the first time in a way they have never been before. One meditator describes her experience:
I find that in meditation I am in tune with my feelings. I wouldn’t listen to them before . . . Now I find that I can experience the most devastating feelings, but meditation somehow gives me a sense that I’m in charge of them. They’re not out of control, I have control of them.
* Some physically ill patients find themselves unable to meditate although others seem to be able to do so successfully. The ability to meditate when ill seems to vary both with the person and the type of illness (see discussion in Combating Physical Illness with Meditation)
Dr. Patricia Carrington’s award winning meditation technique CSM (Clinically Standardized Meditation) is a clinically sensitive meditation method developed by the Medical Department of New York Telephone Company and used by numerous medical institutions, organizations, and individuals worldwide. For information click here.