When Meditation is Too painful, Try Metta

Steve Goodheart Essay

Steve Goodheart Essay

Maybe you’ve heard that meditation is “good for you” and that it can help you find peace of mind,  Or maybe the concepts and teachings of Buddhism really speak to your heart, and you understand that meditation is the key to Buddhist practice.  It is commonly believed that meditation is only what you do “sitting on a cushion” in the lotus posture or with your legs crossed and your eyes closed, trying to make your mind blank (Good luck on that!  And by the way, trying to “blank” the mind is not something the Buddha ever taught!  What he taught was paying attention.)  In any even, this popular view of meditation as only being “on cushions” or sitting in a lotus position is actually much, much more narrow than the Buddha’s!

Whatever the dharma tradition, whatever the instruction one receives for beginning meditation, one’s first encounter with one’s mind, as is, can be pretty unsettling.  Here’s what the Venerable dharma teacher Bhante Vimalaramsi writes about it:

Swinging monkey“Let’s take a look at the mind of an ordinary person, a person like you or me. What one finds is a grasshopper mind, a butterfly mind, or one could also say, a mad monkey mind. It is ever moving, ever-jumping around. It changes its fantasies and impulses every moment. The mind is a prey of stimuli and its own emotional reaction to them. This is actually a reaction that is mostly re-acting to conditions the way one always acts when a certain stimuli arises. It is a chain of linked associations, hopes, fears, memories, fantasies, regrets, streaming constantly through the mind, triggered by memories of the outside world…”

“Thus, when one first begins to meditate, the mind naturally runs all over the place and stays away from the object of meditation for a long time. Sometimes it even takes two or three minutes before one is able to recognize, they then gently let it go, relax the tension in the head, calm the mind and re-direct the attention back to the breath. This is only natural, because the mind is used to running wherever it likes. But as one’s practice develops and they are able to recognize and let go more quickly, their mindfulness gradually becomes sharper. The mind might only stay away from the breath for one minute, before recognizing that it is not on the breath. It then lets go, relaxes the mind, and comes back to the breath.”

For many people, what the teacher writes is true: starting out is hard, but with patience and the development of concentration and other good qualities, we begin to make progress into being truly present with ourselves, without judgment or fear.

When You Can’t Be with Yourself

But what if right from the beginning we find that being quiet with ourselves, even for a minute or two, is literally impossible?  What if we are in so much emotional pain and stress most of the time that sitting down and being quiet with our mind and that pain feels like entering a fiery furnace?  A person who had high hopes that meditation would help them with their terrible mental pain may feel crushed and hopeless.

“If I can’t be with myself, with my feelings and thoughts in this quiet way for even a minute or two, what hope is there for me?”  And since Buddhism is so linked with meditation, the dear one may conclude that any kind of Buddhist practice is fruitless, if not impossible.

Worse still, a person may attempt to force himself or herself to meditate, out of desperation, or because a teacher or guru unwisely and unskillfully dismisses the student’s fear and pain, assuring the student that he/she can do it. If this happens,  tremendous damage can occur to the dear one’s mind and heart.  A person really needs to trust one’s own heart and instincts in such a situation and resist all pressures, internal and external, to force any kind of meditative or contemplative practice.

Don’t be Coerced by Authority Figures

If you ever find a teacher or guru pressuring or coercing you to do or believe anything, then run from this teacher as fast as your legs can carry you.  Your most precious possession is your own inner voice, light, and guide. And though we may err in hearing this inner guide truly and clearly, the inner guide itself is never wrong. ( I have a lot more to say about trusting your inner light when working with teachers and scriptures, but want to stay focused in this post on what to do if meditation feels impossible.)

So, what to do?  You want to mediate.  You know it would probably help you, if you could just do it. But the mental and emotional pain are too great every time you try to sit down and be present with yourself.  Well, don’t give up!  If formal meditation is too difficult, loving-kindness, or metta, almost always is not.

Metta is not a Technique – It’s an Attitude of Heart

Metta is not a technique.  In a certain sense, it’s not even something we do. It’s more a way of being.  Metta is a gentle, humble, loving intention and attitude toward oneself and others.  It’s amazing, but there’s almost always some way to love oneself!  Indeed, for some dear ones, even considering the possibility that we can or could love ourselves—despite all our mental pain, self-hatred, guilt, and lack of self-worth—is a momentous and revolutionary step.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to take these first baby steps of loving-kindness.  In the meantime, if what I’ve written here speaks to your situation, how about just considering, very gently and tenderly, the idea that you can learn to love yourself?  How about considering the idea that in your heart there is a great good that is literally aching to manifest itself?  How about considering the idea that  you are worthy of liberation and deserve to be free at last, after all these years?

Even to consider such loving, self-accepting thoughts can be the first steps to a happiness that’s beyond anything we can now conceive.  And, it all can start with just giving a  gentle, tender “hello” to what our our hearts have always yearned for.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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