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Relational Reflections: Yes, another blog, and this one’s from Dr. Nadine and Dr. Zan at True Heights

Confessions of a Failed Meditator

Dr. Zan’s Thoughts:

Sometimes we can take an experience that is naturally open, beautiful, and inspiring and transform it into something that is rigid and imprisoning. Such has been my experience and struggle with learning to practice mindfulness over a period of 35 years. I have literally lost count of the times I approached meditation, using some guru’s “tried and true” method to ensure my success. I would do so with all of the hope and zeal of one committed to something wonderful, inspiring, and consuming--certain of my destiny to find enlightened consistency this time. Yet, time and time again, I failed. I simply could not “empty my mind” or “find the spaces between my thoughts.” My mind was more bouncy-trouncy Tigger infested than it ever was calm or peaceful. I also struggled to maintain a meditative state when my body was screaming at me in discomfort, and many teachers espoused the virtue of sitting through and with the pain. These instructors made me feel quite guilty for even daring to consider adjusting my posture mid-practice. For a long time, I beat myself up about my chronic inability to “move past” my physical limitations by using the strength of my mind to transcend. I was even a bit ashamed of my weakness and ineptitude.

Now, to quote my children’s generation, “I call B.S.!” on this whole rigid approach to meditation and its effect of making me feel like a complete and utter failure in the pursuit of inner peace. I would never suggest that such approaches to meditation are not helpful or accessible for some people. There are obviously many who benefit from these very prescribed practices. However, I would argue with great vigor that such practices are not the best or only approach for all people. Far too often, we strive to find the one way to meditate or connect or heal, and then we forget that a “one size fits all” solution is overly simplistic and sometimes even harmful to those who don’t fit the paradigm.

When I teach, I learn so much from my students. Sometimes I even have the opportunity to learn from those who decide not to become my students. Recently, I had a very enlightening conversation with a beautiful soul who decided not to join my current course in Mindful Self-Compassion. As we spoke about the course, I included descriptions of potential benefits and challenges. It did not take much discovery for us to realize that some of her experiences with loss and trauma might still be too fresh to lend themselves well to this particular variety of practice. The very techniques that can be rich and supportive when one is not in the midst of grief or crisis can also be overly activating and even overwhelming when feelings are too raw or close to the surface. When I work with human beings, I see it as my job to be gentle, caring, and thoughtful regarding the unique experiences they bring to the table. Unfortunately, I am learning that not all who offer yoga, meditation, and mindfulness instruction feel that same sense of responsibility for their students’ individual issues.

There is a wide range of practices offered by people whose training is highly variable. If you teach, please take seriously what an honor it is to bring your practice to others, but also remember that you cannot possibly know another person’s full story. You cannot presume that your practice will ultimately be healing for another human being, and you should always provide an escape hatch when and if the practice becomes too activating. Shaming people into remaining in a process that is overwhelming is unkind at best and potentially quite damaging.

I know some amazing yoga instructors, for example, who have been personally helpful to me and to many others. They represent a variety of schools of thought and a myriad of expressions of poses. What they share in common is that none of them has forced me into staying with poses or practices that feel wrong for my body, heart, soul, or psyche. They support their students on a path to finding their own practice. Major shout outs here to the Califon Yoga Studio, the School of Royal Yoga in Chester, and Yoga and Barre Haven in High Bridge. I know or have worked with instructors at each of these locations and trust that they allow yogis to honor their own needs.

If you are a seeker and pursue alternate forms of healing, then I applaud your efforts. However, please be willing to back away--to say “No, thank you; this is not for me now,” when practices feel bad to you. A little challenge can be useful and helpful, but created pain and discomfort only add to your human suffering. Healing can be uncomfortable, but it should always occur in an environment of safety and personal efficacy. Don’t give over responsibility for your healing to someone else’s rigid interpretation of what is good for you. Decide for yourself. Be willing to walk away. Or, once again borrowing from my children’s generation, “You do you.”

Dr. Nadine’s Reflections:

Dr. Zan and I have talked lots about our meditation practices over the recent past, as we’ve worked to understand what they mean to each of us and how our understanding might help others.

I had a different experience with meditation than Dr. Zan. Twenty-five years ago I found myself unexpectedly alone and navigating a huge transition in my life. I hated my current job, and I wasn’t yet finished with the psychology training that I’d hoped would propel me into a more meaningful and satisfying profession. Depression wrapped around me like a big blanket, and I pulled it up over my head as if I was planning to stay in bed for the next hundred years. I felt like I was barely functioning. Day after day, I would get up and do the same thing all over again, with no end in sight and not much hope for any improvement.

At some point, I realized that I just couldn’t continue to exist this way. I didn’t have much motivation or much energy, but I forced myself to begin to read some inspirational books, and to journal some version of gratitude every day. Sometimes I was really only grateful for my morning cup of coffee or my fuzzy pajamas, so that’s all I wrote. Then as part of my readings, I discovered Wayne Dyer’s short book and CD on meditation called “Getting Into the Gap.” I figured I’d give it a try – what could it hurt? – and it seemed like another way of opening myself up and expanding my prayer time . So I began my personal practice of meditation by simply giving his suggestions a try. I’d come home from work, park myself in my living area, listen to his CD and put into practice his recommendations. Some of it felt weird and artificial, so in a moment of self-compassion (who knew what that was back then?) I reworked it to fit my personal needs. I decided to sit quietly on my sofa, close my eyes, and let my mind clear – until something popped into it and disrupted the emptiness. Then, I’d tell myself that I was done “meditating” for the night. Most of the time, my meditations were thirty seconds or less. This went on month by month till it became habitual, and in its familiarity became comforting, calming, and grounding. As I continued to regularly sit and clear my mind, the time I was free from distracting and intrusive thoughts expanded. After a while, I found that I could easily sit and meditate an hour, and once I hit that time, I knew I could go on indefinitely. It subtly altered the trajectory of my life.

So what’s my point? I didn’t follow any rules. Nobody scripted what I was supposed to do. In fact, I actually had no idea that there might even be a protocol for how to meditate. I was freed by my ignorance. I was simply guided by my heart, by my needs, by my style, by my desire, and by the promise of peace.

I’m not suggesting anybody should have my experience or do what I did. Rather, I’m suggesting that you can, as Dr. Zan suggests, “decide for yourself” as to what works for you. Nowadays, my life is much fuller, and concomitantly more complicated. The idea of sitting at the end of my workday and calmly meditating with the placid attitude of a yogi, unfazed by phone calls, kitties pleading for dinner, catching up on emails that didn’t get finished during the day, and lastly, my much-anticipated conversation with my Dear One, is utterly ridiculous. It’s not gonna happen.

Instead, I’ve completely shifted my practice. I meditate in the morning. I use guided meditations, sound meditations, timed meditations – and, to be honest, sometimes NO meditations. My soul’s healing belongs to me. I decide. You can, too.


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