The instructor opened with, “State your name and briefly tell us why you came to this meditation class.” Adrift in an ocean of Lululemon and essential oils, I soon realized that one of these things was not like the others. All these yoga teacher lookin ass people had their gratitude journals open and were already scribbling at the speed of soy latte.
I was fascinated as they introduced themselves and listed goals, expectations, and motivations for attending. I couldn’t identify with any of it and was wondering if I should make a break for the door when suddenly all eyes were on me.
Oh. Uhhh… I’m Adam, and I came to this class so that… I would… be at this class?
I wasn’t trying to out-namaste anyone, but I couldn’t think of anything that felt like a legitimate “reason” for being there. I was into spirituality, metaphysics, zen-buddhism, mysticism, and shit like that. Saw a flyer on the door that said “free meditation class,” and there I was.
For whatever reason, that’s literally the only thing I remember, so I’m guessing it wasn’t especially life-changing. But what I did learn for sure is that meditation has infiltrated the mainstream of Western civilization.
Is this a bandwagon you should hop on because all the cool kids are doing it? What is meditation good for? Is it the same for everyone?
I’ve read a boatload of books on meditation and mindfulness and they all seem to focus exclusively on doing meditation or why you should. But never a word of caution. In fact, when I told my wife I was writing about the pros and cons of meditation, her whole face scrunched up in confusion.
Cons of meditation???
And that’s exactly why I need to write this article.
Camel Lights and Mindfulness
Before I started my healing journey, I was a fairly dissociated human being. As soon as my eyes popped open in the morning, I would fly out of bed and redline it until my body crumpled up and discarded its used carcass back into the same sloppy sheets from whence it emerged. Then I’d repeat the process. If I wasn’t compulsively working, doing, or achieving, you can bet your sweet ass I was gettin drunk and high (both now obviously forms of self-medicating and dissociation).
However, when I took a cigarette break, I would stop everything I was doing. Many people multitask and smoke while doing this or that, but not me. I pressed pause on the whole universe, sat down (on the ground if there was no chair), lit one up, breathed that sucker in, held it for a moment, and then exhaled with my entire body.
I would let go of all the bullshit my brain was screaming at me and just cherish each breath for five glorious minutes (then hop back into the dumpster fire of my life). Years later I learned this is essentially what Buddhist monks who have been meditating their whole lives do — only without the cigarettes. I didn’t know it at the time, but Joe Camel was my first meditation teacher.
Stepping Into My Own Shoes
When I eventually got bucked off the mechanical bull of drug and alcohol addiction, I realized that I didn’t have a drug and alcohol problem — I had a sobriety problem! Being human, having feelings, unprocessed trauma and grief, fear, shame, and anxiety. Experiencing all that with nothing to numb it? Holy shit was that uncomfortable!
Is there a volume knob or an off-button on this fucking thing?!
I recently heard Dr. Hillary McBride say, “We come out of dissociation the same way we went into it.” This is one of the most brilliant things I’ve heard all year, so I hope you let that sizzle on your hippocampus for a minute.
People dissociate when they experience something that overwhelms their nervous system’s ability to integrate or cope. An unbearable reality — terror, powerlessness, abuse, abandonment, etc. I often say dissociation isn’t a symptom of trauma; dissociation is trauma. When the present moment is absolutely intolerable and we sense there’s nothing we can do about it, the human organism has a built-in system override that separates us from the pain.
Unfortunately, the pain doesn’t go anywhere. It’s still in our bodies… just waiting to be felt. And people find a thousand ways to not be in their bodies so they never have to feel it (exactly what I had been doing for years).
In order to finally approach this unfinished business of trauma that was trapped in my physiology, my life needed to be significantly different than it was when I fled the crime scene. I needed to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure; to have boundaries, support, resources, guidance, nurturance, love, and belonging. Then and only then could I come out of dissociation and stand a chance of facing the pain I was unable to bear the first time around.
Learning to Meditate
Having just sobered up, I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground, so I was mainly taking suggestions from people whose lives weren’t smoldering ash. And one of those suggestions was to cultivate a meditation practice. Eager to not feel the way I was feeling anymore (per yoosh), I decided to give it the old college try. I arranged a cushion, candles, incense, crystals, and some random spiritual-lookin shit in a special meditation area of my apartment.
Initially, the only context my body had for just being still was to sleep. So my first intentional meditation regimen turned out to be glorified nappy time. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I sensed I was somehow doing it wrong. So I began sitting in a posture that made it harder to hit REM without toppling over.
I quickly discovered that being awake and not doing a single thing was utterly foreign to me. Almost violently so. My whole nervous system was like, What the hell are you doing?!?! The most faithful and constant companion in my life was a feeling of never doing enough. And here I was, doing less. If I thought I was doing it wrong before, I was definitely doing it wrong now!
Up to this point I had spent a significant portion of my life learning to suppress and ignore my thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, preferences, boundaries, and experiences. Meditation, apparently, was asking me to do the exact opposite of what I had been compulsively doing for years like my life depended on it. How impossible was this gonna be?
Meditation Ain’t for Everybody
I don’t know if I intentionally constructed self-hatred as a good enough reason to avoid the uncomfortable task of being in my body or if I hated myself because I couldn’t. Perhaps both. Whatever the case, meditation was double-dog-daring me to step back into a life that I had already decided with relative certainty was not worth living.
Now, before I get too far down the dubious path of “I did it and so can you,” I wanna reiterate that I had the good fortune and privilege of being embraced by a healing community that supported and guided me along this journey. I had therapists, friends, mentors, role models, and resources out the wazoo. Plus, I was in a position to dump all my spare time and energy into recovery work. This was the backdrop to my budding relationship with meditation.
However, there are people with profound trauma histories for whom meditation is a terrible idea. Imagine the little girl who laid still, closed her eyes and left her body during unspeakable sexual trauma. And years later some “spiritual” motherfucker tells her she needs to be still and close her eyes to commune with her higher self or whatever. Not helpful, bro.
For some, the experience of meditation can trigger a traumatic flashback. It can feel extremely vulnerable, which is a physiological cue for threat to some people’s nervous systems, and their bodies can’t handle it.
For others, it quickly becomes yet another means of dissociation. I fooled around with transcendental meditation for a couple years and could easily vanish into the ether for an hour or two with essentially zero brain activity. It was like achieving the same oblivion I sought through copious consumption of blunts and liquor. Only now it was “spiritual,” haha. Ok.
Embodiment IS for Everybody
As you can see, like most things in life, meditation can be a tool, a weapon, or a distraction. I don’t think it’s a good idea to meditate just so you can tell your woke friends you meditate. Without any intentionality, your meditation practice could be harmful, dissociative, egotistical, or a complete waste of time.
To illustrate my point, hydration is a fundamental human need. Drinking juice or Kool-Aid is a strategy for getting that need met. Certainly not a requirement. In fact, it’s probably not a good choice for diabetics, but to each his own. Similarly, embodiment and integration are key elements of healthy living. And meditation is simply one way to go about it.
If you can safely connect with your body, breath, thoughts, feelings, and experiences through meditation, go get some! If meditation is re-traumatizing or makes you leave your body… ummm… maybe don’t go get some?
Many people find embodying, meditative experiences in motion, such as yoga, walking, coloring, rock climbing, etc. I know a woman who finds building Legos extremely grounding and therapeutic. I don’t think meditation should ever be a goal in and of itself. Listening to your own body — now that’s a goal worth having! And however you do that is completely up to you.
Deeply traumatized nervous systems are more sensitive than most. These people tend to be highly mobilized. They idle at a higher rpm than most folks, so stillness doesn’t feel good or safe in their bodies. They feel most secure when their eyes are open, they can scan their environment, and they’re able to move freely in any direction at a moment’s notice. So obviously, being already in motion feels reassuring. Ya can’t hit a moving target!
All of Our Problems
Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Before I knew anything about trauma, I used to think that quote was the bee’s knees. It’s certainly a slick one-liner that’ll earn you some woke points in a pinch. But I’m not convinced ol’ boy hit the bullseye on that one.
I believe all forms of harm and violence against others, as well as ourselves (including both substance and process addictions), require dissociation. And you can certainly sit quietly in a room alone while dissociated.
If I were to climb up on Pascal’s shoulders and reach for a higher truth, I’d say “All of humanity’s problems stem from our aversion to fully living in the present moment and experiencing the human condition.” When we are unwilling or unable to inhabit our own bodies and experience our thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, fears, and sensations, we tend to encroach on others. I.e., blame, project, impose, violate, judge, control, manipulate, harm, etc.
It’s like our only options are presence or dissociation, where presence can lead us to embodiment, acceptance, humility, wisdom, and growth, and dissociation can only lead to more suffering.
A neighbor once asked me, “Could you hang your wind-chime somewhere else? Because we’re meditators, and it’s distracting.” I had been meditating for about a decade at that point and not once had I described myself as “a meditator.” That shit was kinda funny, actually.
I wonder if he was meditating to be with reality… or to avoid it.