Sunday, August 16, 2009

Help! Why Can't I Mind My Meditation?

So what do we do when we feel ourselves spiraling down into that dark place of crippling fear, anxiety, or panic. We can see our demons taunting us, hear our critical voice scorning us, and feel our blood pounding through our veins. The logical part of our brain tells us this would be a really good time to reach into our tool box and pull out one of those meditation techniques that we've been working on , but the emotional brain is overpowering and our awareness is more on that incessant and relentless theme of negativity tugging on our thoughts, poisoning our minds and mocking every effort to find some peace. Bringing mindful awareness to this intolerable feeling of restlessness is someone's idea of a poor joke. Minding the breath, or conjuring up calming visualizations or watching the belly rise and fall seems like an irritating, overwhelming effort intended for those strange creatures hatched out of some yogi's nervous system, but not intended for a normal, fearful, neurotic wretch like me.

Fear not, even in your worst moments there is hope. It's not easy, but there are techniques to help us find immediate relief. It does take some will power, but it is not beyond us. We can do it. Most importantly, stay very present and move, step by step, toward initiating the simplest and most readily available coping skill. For most of us, that will be conscious breathing.

First, find a comfortable position and settle in. If you have been steadily practicing mindful breathing or meditation for a while you may already have a favorite coping technique. If not, simplify the process as much as possible. Start to focus on your breathing. Place your hands on your belly. Turn your senses completely inward, visualize the diaphragm gently moving up and down and feel the belly as it rises and falls. At the same time, try to activate your inner voice as it cues you to count to three on the inhale and three on the exhale, or merely guide yourself to silently say "breathe in, breath out."

If you find your thoughts wandering or feel the urge to get up and give up, try to stay calm and return to minding the breath. If you just can't get there on your own, admit it and find or call someone to help you breathe. Sometimes the soothing sound of someone else's voice set to the rhythm of your breath can help relax you into the deep breathing cycle long enough to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that calms us down) soothing the thumping in the chest. The hardest time to ask for help is when we most need it and this of course is not the time to remind ourselves that reaching out is a healthy part of the growth process. Just try to tell yourself this is not the time for shenpa (see post on Pema Chodron) and force yourself to call someone you trust to guide you through those first few moments of mindfulness. That may be all you need to break the cycle of uncontrolled anxiety. If you can't think of someone you feel comfortable calling, check back soon as I will be posting an audio to help you.

Another strategy that frequently works is to simply settle into a comfortable position and listen to one of your favorite meditation or spiritual leaders. There are many excellent audio books available in your library, bookstore or online and several are recommended on this site. It doesn't necessarily need to be an actual guided meditation or visualization. Sometimes just listening to the inspirational insights of an experienced teacher can have a profound positive impact on your thoughts. Just listening can be a form of meditation.

In conclusion, committing to a mindful practice; meditation, prayer, visualization, chanting, breathing, eating, walking, or whatever needs your dedicated attention, is easiest when you are not in a critical emotional crisis. The more you incorporate a practice into your daily routine, the easier it will be to call on those skills when you are in physical or emotional distress.

Please come back for my next post which will address why we feel acute physical symptoms when we are experiencing stress, anxiety, fear, or panic.


  1. Hi Donna,
    I have been following your blog and forwarding it to friends.I am trying to "get it" and am hopeful that this will help in addition to the books by Jon Kabat-zinn(Wherever you go there you are) It's really readable for everyone. You need to write a book next!!(on a personal note-I am so grateful that you are coming east in September- Your strength and calmness will be a gift to Barbara. Thanks, Lynn

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