Is Mindfulness Meditation Difficult?
Is mindfulness meditation difficult? Is it good for you? Bad for you? What do people say about their experiences with the body scan, or sitting meditation?
“I fell asleep somewhere around my pinky toe.”
“It was relaxing.”
“It was difficult.”
“I noticed that I couldn’t feel anything.”
“I noticed sensations that I didn’t know were there.”
“I love this practice.”
“I most definitely did NOT love this practice.”
“I had a really hard time at the beginning but came to have this as my ‘go-to’, my most helpful practice.”
“I disassociated… I was not in my body.”
“I came into my body… but it wasn’t comfortable at all.”
“I had this moment when I felt more alive than I think I ever have…Then my thoughts went back to my grocery list.”
“It’s deeply relaxing.”
“It makes me tense.”
As we learn how to pay attention to our experience, it’s all sorts of things. When we sit for the first time, we may feel bored, impatient, sleepy. Our mind may feel dull, or agitated. We might feel deep sighs of letting go and self-acceptance or we might experience resistance. Paying attention to our experience in the ways that we invite are acts of self-kindness that some of us aren’t very accustomed to. And just as when you may make a kind inquiry towards a friend, (“Hey, how ARE you?”) at times, unexpected things come up. Because there is a listener, because we’ve come into stillness, the body, the heart and the mind, might present painful sensations, emotions, memories, and thoughts.
And we believe that it’s important to be aware that for some it can bring up difficult emotions and painful experiences.
Mindfulness practices have been associated with many, many good things. Reduction in depression and anxiety, decreased risk for Alzheimers, weight management, improved attention, greater satisfaction within relationships and at work, and all the physiological benefits of reducing stress reactions. And, for some, it can increase undesirable symptoms, and bring painful emotions or memories to the surface.
Please know that you can always come back to rest your mind and to end a practice if it feels too uncomfortable. When we have been impacted by trauma, it’s particularly important to go gently into mindfulness practices. Please talk with your mental health supports about your participation in any program if you have any concerns.
It’s possible that a more fitting solution for you is to join a live group with a trauma-informed teacher who can give you helpful suggestions for self-care, or to schedule check-ins with your therapist who understands mindfulness practices. It might not be the right time for you to do a program with us such as a learning retreat or mindfulness retreat if you’ve been through a recent trauma or loss or if you have a mental illness or medication change that is not well managed at this time. Online, unsupported learning also might not be right for you. That doesn’t mean that mindfulness will be ‘bad’ for you or unhelpful. In fact, mindfulness practices are incorporated into Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and have also been implemented successfully with veterans experiencing PTSD.
It simply means you should work with someone who is knowledgeable and can support you in the ways you deserve to be supported.
As a mindfulness teacher, I appreciate the possibilities of online learning but also want to be there to support you as you begin to work with the practice. In my live classes or retreats we have really wonderful conversations about what we find, often in ever more subtle levels of awareness. We explore options when difficulties arise. We learn that others experience the same thoughts, sensations, emotions. We are inspired, and we are reassured. Live, in person experiences, when they are small and supported* are going to offer more tools, but you’ll have to let your instructor know if things are getting challenging.
*Some professional learning retreats may be large or have a packed agenda. For these events in particular, we expect that someone who is not sure about their readiness to attend such an event, would connect with their professional supports to evaluate whether or not this is a good time to participate.
In any case, whenever you choose to work with a guided mindfulness practice, please know that you are empowered to sit in whatever way best suits you, to create an environment that feels most safe, to pause or to stop at any point in a guided meditation, and to fall asleep if you need to sleep. You are your own authority on your experience.
With simple self-care and realistic expectations, mindfulness offers healing opportunities as we learn to befriend who we are. And it’s ok if you need to enlist more resources to get to a place where you can experience greater confidence to greet what’s going on for you in any given moment.
In the guided meditations we talk about anchors. What is an anchor? We know that the mind will wander and take us down some rabbit holes. It’s just what minds do. So mindfulness practices call our attention back to an aim of attention that is our choosing. An anchor is whatever supports us to come back into the present moment. In our guided practices, I offer some suggestions for your anchor, usually the breath or the sensation of your body’s connection with the earth. For some, attention to the breath is not helpful. If someone has asthma, for instance, concentrating attention on the breath may make one feel more anxiety. Maybe the body isn’t the best anchor either. If you have pain or paralysis, this might not work well for you.
As you begin exploring formal practices, see what it’s like to find your own ‘tether’ (some people don’t like the word ‘anchor’, and that’s ok too!). It might be that you hold your hand on your lap and that is where you bring your attention. Or it might be sounds in the room. You could hold a cup of warm tea and use that as your tether/anchor. Feel free to see what works best for you.
Karen Laing is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher with experience in trauma and caregiving. She's spent the last 25 years supporting families through major life transitions such as birth and postpartum care.
She founded Birthways over 20 years ago to support expectant families and provide training and support for birthworkers. She created WisdomWay as a means to continue supporting all caregivers with mindfulness-based training and certifications. She speaks nationwide on mindfulness, parenting, caregiving, and mental health.