Why ‘Meditation Feels Like Torture’

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That look, I had seen it before: a startled deer, trying to decide whether to stay still or run. Body tense and big wide eyes asking; Is this dangerous? Am I safe?

I zigzagged my way through rows of students on their backs. Even under the dim lights, I could tell they were all relaxed, all except one. With eyes wide open, she stared up at the ceiling. Trying to stop herself from fidgeting, she clenched her fists and took a deep breath.

It didn’t work. If anything, it seemed to have made it worse. Like the deer, her eyes seemed to be asking: Is this dangerous? Am I safe? 

Back in my twenties, when I lived in sunny Los Angeles, I both practiced and taught yoga and meditation (like 80% of Angelenos on the westside) which meant I saw this almost daily. So many people walked into these classes because of a well-meaning friend or doctor who had recommended it, not knowing all the pose-holding and stillness would cause them a visceral reaction.

Not to mention how much worse it got when a teacher slid up behind them, whispering, ‘breathe through it.’ That phrase still makes me cringe.

Now, yoga and meditation can be wonderful practices… for some. But if you’re living in survival, it can feel more like torture, and there’s a reason for that.

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Forcing Yourself To Be Still

It’s been many years since, but I still remember this person, and so many others, laying on that damp, sticky floor, fighting the urges that come when being ‘forced’ to be still.

I used to do the same.

But the more I tried to control and fight these responses, the more I felt the panic boiling up. To be able to relax, I had to exercise for hours every day, pushing myself to the point where I couldn’t feel my body anymore. And while it worked at the moment, it didn’t take long until reality caught up with me. 

That’s the thing, reality will always catch up on those who won’t listen.

Whether through nudging or by shaking the foundation from underneath your feet, it will make itself heard and understood. Heart racing, your blood turning so hot it leaves you damp from sweat; everything inside of you screaming, ‘Get out!! Run!!’– that’s your body speaking to you.

Your body is letting you know it’s trying to survive.

Imagine being chased by something you can’t see. When we’re living in survival, even if our rational minds try to convince us that there is no danger, our bodies still have a very similar response as if we had been hunted as prey by a predator.

Forcing yourself to be still when you are in a survival response, more specifically, fight and/or flight response, is hard. Not because you’re not strong enough, but because it goes against nature. The only time being still might not be hard for you, even though you are living in survival, is if you’re in a freeze-response. Then you are just too numb to feel much of anything.

While our minds are powerful, we were never meant to control nature. These instincts are happening for a reason– to protect you.

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Instinct To Survive Versus ‘Mind Over Matter’

Industrialized societies have this idea that they can control anything, including our natural responses. And in many ways, we can because our minds are intelligent and powerful.

But it’s naive to think we can do it without consequences and limits.

If you struggle with being still, whether it’s relaxing at home or sitting down meditating; Understand that it has nothing to do with mind over matter or your willpower. It has to do with your instincts.

Anyone who tells you to breathe through this reaction or use your mind to pretend it’s not there, to ignore your natural responses; first of all, they don’t understand. And it’s not their fault. But if they haven’t walked the walk, they can’t talk.

Second, if they want to get an idea of what you’re going through, they can sit on a fire ant mound for one hour, butt-naked, and then get back to you on how easy it was to ‘breathe through it.’

All of this to say, forcing yourself to be still is not the answer. That’s allowing an ideology, a worldview that sees humans as part of an industry, not nature, precedence over the reality of what you’re going through: survival.

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Putting An End To It

A question(s) I imagine is on your mind right now: Is there a way to end this, and if so, how?

Yes, there is a way to end it. Just how your body can get into a survival response to protect you, it can get it ‘out’ to heal you. It just needs to complete the cycle.

Unfortunately, all the mind-and-body control in this society has made this process much harder for people. Anytime their bodies try to complete the cycle, they (subconsciously) stop it because they’ve been taught to do so. Even someone like me, who was raised by a traditional Native American family, still got swept along with this belief to fight against my instincts because I live in an urban society.

Anyone can lose their way no matter who they are or where they come from.

But it didn’t end for me until I found my way back to our traditional knowledge. That’s what helped me guide my body to do what it already knew to do, complete the cycle. The same goes for the members of my virtual school and community.

If your body is in survival then it will continue to have these responses until it gets to complete the cycle.

I don’t know what you’ve been through that got you here but as a living being, your body has a job to protect you; to keep you alive and thriving. That’s why it’s reacting this way. Not because it wants to hurt you.

What you can do now is show yourself more compassion. Don’t feel bad if you can’t sit through meditation, yoga, or if relaxing at home is difficult. And work on understanding yourself (here’s a free mini-class if you want to hear me explain it in depth). Most of all, avoid pushing and ignoring your instincts for the sake of unreasonable expectations.

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