As it turns out, if you meditate long enough the devils of self-criticism and fear may decide to make an appearance. In my reading about meditation I had come across allusions to this but I didn’t pay attention, in part because I couldn’t imagine it. Meditation had either offered me some gifts of clarity or it seemed absolutely innocuous. Most mornings when I meditate nothing much happens. My mind races – I forget to focus – I return to focus – I forget, I return. The bell rings, my to-do list is ready, the day begins. Devils, schmevils what could go wrong?
Then, on the first night of a week-long meditation retreat, I had the kind of insomnia which experts call “early morning wakening.” For some reason I decided that because I had never had this version of insomnia before, it was now here to stay. For the rest of my life! This was it: You will never sleep well again. A twinge in my stomach came and went, something I’d also never experienced before. Cancer for sure. I tried to reassure myself by saying: You’ll call your doctor at the end of retreat, most cancers are slow growing. But this was not in the least reassuring. During the long – forty minute – sittings – I began to yearn for the guiding teacher, Narayan Liebenson, to love me more than any other student and know me best. I wanted to be her favorite. Which was, of course, impossible and ridiculous. But the more I told myself it was ridiculous, the worse I felt. It was a very difficult seven days.
That was about two years ago, and since that time I have not attempted another long retreat. It took me a year to sort out what had happened – so although I write now with some clarity, while it was happening I was a jumble of anxiety and hopelessness, shame and disappointment. I was not even able to articulate what I was worried about because I was so ashamed of the content, even to myself. Even this last sentence I could not have articulated at the time – though it seems so obvious, and even poignant, in retrospect. Shame locked me in. Yet it took weeks of talking to meditating friends and reading to name what had happened. During the retreat I could only articulate that I was very, very anxious.
So I learned something about what meditation teachers mean when they say “You can be in heaven on the cushion or in hell.” If it is not too presumptuous to say so, I know a little bit more about what happened to the Buddha when he was assaulted by demons. I now know why writers in this field caution psychotherapists against leading meditation groups without a strong personal practice. Meditation can make some people sink into fear or dissociative states or worsen anxiety. A therapist needs to know that this is possible.
What I learned: One’s oldest patterns of fear and longing still sleep within the nervous system and can be awakened. Did I want to learn this? No. But there it was and is. And someday perhaps this insight will come in handy.
About a year later I attended a weekend retreat with the same teacher – whom I love – who really does radiate warmth at the same time that she can crack ironic jokes. No dark feelings arose during the sittings, but after my allotted ten minutes of individual interview I returned to my chair shaking, riven with longing. Not, I think, shaking so that others could see, but inside. There it was: intense and concentrated: love me love me best most all the time every minute. What infants must feel and, in optimal circumstances, receive. But this second time I was able to just sit with the pure bodily feeling, without believing its content, without being afraid or embarrassed. And it passed, after a little while, it passed.
This is one of the paradoxes of meditation. Five or ten minutes a day gives some people (some of my clients) significant relief from anxiety. But five to ten days of it may lead to special insight or calm or, sometimes, into a long dark tunnel. Yes, you will learn from living a time in that tunnel but these are hard and perhaps obscure lessons. (I haven’t decided on their value yet). You want to be careful out there.