Ask Abdi: Is My Meditation Practice Making Me Sick?

Question: On New Year’s Eve, I began my second attempt at vipassana meditation, a daily 2-hour meditation practice, in addition to my existing daily 30 minute pranayama practice, and have noticed a lot of changes in my life, not all of which are good.

In the beginning, practicing vipassana was a test of will and then it became necessary to smooth my energy. I have become increasingly sensitive to the energy of others since starting this practice. I can also see the dynamic of my relationships more clearly and I feel that I can integrate this information more seamlessly, allowing me to cut out the drama that usually accompanies these lessons. However, because of this heightened sensitivity, I find myself completely energetically drained after these encounters. I have also recently caught pneumonia. I wonder- Is this increased sensitivity putting a strain on my immune system and allowing me to get sick? This experience is especially odd because I haven’t had so much as a cold in over 7 years. I’m trying to take this experience as an opportunity to observe the feelings it brings up, hoping that it will unveil my shadow and bring me closer to my self. And it has- I have had to miss work, leaving me feeling helpless and insecure about the future.

Pneumonia is not my first strong reaction to vipassana; I had an emotional breakdown after my first attempt at this practice, causing me to stop. I felt like a washing machine: all of my emotions were coming to the surface, getting even stronger until they finally washed away. Now my pain is physical- I feel like my body is burning, restructuring from within. The vipassana instructor mentioned that very old samsaras could come to the surface to be healed- Is this what I am experiencing? If so, is my pneumonia the manifestation of my unconscious opposition to the process?

I feel scared to continue my daily meditation practice although deep down I feel that I should go further. I consulted an acupuncturist with solid credentials about this issue. He recommended that I cut my meditation practice (or keep it “superficial”) and stated that I am in adrenal burn out. He instead advised me to see a therapist, believing that I have depression. I believe that he does not understand meditation. Can you help me with this issue: is my meditation practice making me sick or is it helping me to clear out old wounds and live a more integrated life?

Answer: You have a two and half-hour daily practice between your meditation and pranayama. That is a massive amount of time to be spending in the “washing machine,” to use your words. I take it that you also are engaged in life and have to hold down a job. The first question I would put to you is how compassionate do you tend to be to your self in your life? The mind/body/psyche is not a rug to be cleansed by whipping it with a branch. You say that you emotionally broke down at your first go round with the practice. It sounds like you pushed through that and went back to practice. Now your body is breaking down. It sounds like you are pushing through once again. You have to ask your self: is this wise or is it spiritual pride masking unprocessed emotional material? Sit and feel before you answer this question. There is an addictive quality to what you are describing. Addiction is a reaction to unprocessed pain and it can come in many guises; spiritual practice is one of the most covert places it can hide. Examine to see if this is true in your own case. You say that your intention is to lead a more integrated life. Would you describe what you are experiencing as integration?

You state that the practice is making you see relationships more clearly and process them without getting caught up in the drama. Yet you add that you are feeling more drained after the interactions. These two comments do not make sense. When one is truly clear, there is no feeling of being drained. One either stays away from unhealthy relationships or does not get caught up in people’s drama. That approach does not lead to being drained. So sit with this piece too and feel what is amiss here.

Your acupuncturist might not understand meditation and good for you for having the clarity to know that. He does, however, know bodies and he is observing something in you that you yourself are not seeing. Adrenal exhaustion and depression point to the addictive quality that I was talking about earlier. Whether these are due to overdoing of your practice or a function of all that is coming up due to your practice, you need to step back and take an inventory. Life and spiritual practice, when not approached wisely, can lead to damage that can take a long time to remedy. Proceed consciously.

Your shadow is fully out and about, you need not look nor push any further. The nature of the shadow is that we are blind to its presence so we have to learn to observe it by its effects. You are exhausted, you are ill and you are worried about your future. What other signs are you waiting for specifically? Your teacher was correct in pointing out that old samsaras can come up to be healed with meditation practice. As do old wounds. But meditation by itself does not heal the wounds; it merely reveals them. It is up to us how we respond. It is tricky business to navigate the waters between spirituality and psychology by our self. Some expert guidance in this area could be helpful.

As Westerners, and even more so Americans, we are deeply psychological beings. This cultural aspect needs to be respected and attended to. This is especially true when we are engaged in practices that originated in a different continent and from a different time. This is where healing modalities like psychotherapy come into play. It will be worth your while to find a psychotherapist that you feel comfortable with and roll out your dirty laundry. Use this trained person to get a clear picture of what is going on. You have done much hard work to bring up this muck, do not lose the opportunity to clean it up. Get out of your head and will power. Drop into your body. Root your psyche into your physical structure and feel into your self. Learn to be kind to your self. True love of self (not the narcissistic, self-indulgence often confused with it in our culture) is a deep salve. Learn to harvest some and apply freely to your heart.