by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac
There’s a growing awareness in our society that stress can wreak havoc on your health. I’d be surprised to find a single health care provider of any flavor that wouldn’t suggest stress management is an important part of maintaining good health.
Meditation is something I’m seeing more and more health experts recommend as a potent tool for relieving stress. Many people are aware that it’s hard to beat meditation when it comes to stress relief, but there’s often a hang-up when I suggest that someone try meditation. The most common response I hear is something along the lines of: “There’s no way I could meditate—my mind is just way too busy.” Many of these people have even tried meditation before and found it an amazingly frustrating experience because their minds just won’t shut up and the harder they try, the worse it gets. I can understand, then, why meditation doesn’t seem like the most appealing tool for stress relief.
The funny thing is that that’s kind of the point of meditation: all of your baggage, the things you’ve been avoiding, your suppressed emotions are going to come bubbling up.
That has definitely been my experience. When I discovered meditation and was convinced of all the wonderful benefits and experiences that it could open up, I jumped in with both feet and meditated as much as I could. I thought meditation was a tool I could use to escape all the stressful emotions in my life. I experienced sublime periods of relaxation and moments when I forgot all my stresses. And that relaxation often translated into the rest of my day.
But after that initial “honeymoon” period things got a lot harder. It became more difficult to reach the places in meditation that had come much more effortlessly before. And the anxiety and agitation bouncing around in my mind seemed to be harder to quiet down—maybe it was growing or maybe I was just becoming more aware of it. My plan to meditate all my emotions away wasn’t going so well.
I came to realize that the only real way to release stressful emotions was to let myself fully feel them and even express them. I started to let myself experience the anxiety and frustration of not being able to quiet my mind. That would lead to memories of other things in my life that would bring up anxiety and frustration. It started to become easier to express to people in my life the things that were frustrating me. With that came relief—the relief of getting the weight off my chest—and a sense of empowerment: it was OK for me to stand up for myself and set my boundaries.
After a while I started to realize that there was more than suppressed anger that was agitating my mind. Underneath my angry, teenage self was a sad, fearful, ashamed childhood version of myself—some would call it my “inner child”. And it was wounded. I always knew it was there, but it was something I had rejected because it was too painful to experience.
I was blown away at how powerful it was to let myself remember and re-experience all those childhood traumas and have it be OK that I was afraid and hurt. And despite what I had previously expected, I didn’t wallow in depression and self-pity for weeks on end. Letting myself fully experience those painful emotions started to neutralize the “charge” they had in my mind.
I’ve learned that this is a common experience among meditators. After the initial peaceful and even blissful experiences in meditation, there comes a time when all of the painful thoughts and emotions you’ve suppressed come up to be felt and integrated into the new “you” you’re becoming. St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul.”
Meditation didn’t turn out to be the totally relaxing and blissed-out experience I expected, but it’s also turned out to be better than I expected. More and more I’m finding relief from stress not by avoiding it or through coping mechanisms (which even some forms of meditation can be), but by addressing the thoughts and the emotions underlying the stress. It’s part of what people are talking about when they say there’s “no way around your problems but through them.”