ASK ABDI: WHY AM I OVERWHELMED WITH EMOTIONS AFTER A MINDFULNESS RETREAT?
QUESTION: I have been a solid TM practitioner and recently decided to try a mindfulness retreat. I followed the instructions of awareness and did not use my mantra. It was a pleasant enough experience at the time, although I could feel something brewing. Some anger reared its ugly head during my stay. Now that I am back in my busy life, I am confronted with a mountain of rage and grief. It has caught me by surprise, as I am a relatively calm person. What am I doing wrong? Why am I overwhelmed with emotions when I should be feeling calm and relaxed? Which one should I be practicing?
ANSWER: Meditation techniques tend to have supporters and detractors. People tend to swear up and down that their technique is the one everyone should practice. It seems to be human nature to think this way. All I can share with you is my own personal and clinical experience, as I have no vested interest in pushing either. Both techniques have strengths and weaknesses. I have found that people can benefit from both in different ways.
You are not doing anything wrong and everything right. The coming up of emotions is a common enough phenomenon with the practice of mindfulness. I do come across it now that TM (Transcendental Meditation) has come strongly back into vogue. TM practice involves the repetition of a mantra. Mindfulness technique primarily involves awareness and observation of bodily sensations, including breath.
As with all else, we tend to be attracted to paths that play to our strengths instead of weaknesses. People who are heady tend to love TM and people who are touchy-feely tend to love mindfulness. I always encourage people to push against their comfort zone and try things that might not attract them right away. Good for you for doing that and making your discovery about these emotions that were hiding below the surface. All that has happened here is that what was repressed is now coming up to the surface to be released.
The intensity of these emotions will pass, but you have to make room for these feelings. Don’t repress them nor act them out, merely stay present to their presence. The true purpose of meditation is not relaxation, although that can certainly be a byproduct. Rather, it is about seeing through the nature of reality. In order to do that, we need to clean house and that is what you are doing. Meditation is being hustled as a productivity or efficiency tool for the marketplace these days. While as true as such things may be, they are byproducts. We are after bigger fish to fry.
Now to the techniques. The wonderful thing about TM is that it offers a focus point for our thought-addicted minds. We are addicted to thinking from a young age as a coping mechanism to deal with our underlying anxiety and other overwhelming emotions. We literally think from when we wake up to when we fall asleep. The repetition of a word helps give a gentle focus away from incessant thinking. Once we are lost into thinking, the awareness that we are not paying attention to our mantra will help us refocus. A nice mental gym to work on that attention muscle. That is the positive of this technique. The one potential downfall, as you have found, is that it is possible to disconnect with repressed emotions. It should be remembered that TM was imported from a culture that was much more physically embodied than ours and much less hyper-individualized.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, can give one an awareness practice, something sorely missing in our culture. We are never present, always in the past or future. But we are also never in our bodies. In your experience, when you removed the willful defense mechanism of detaching from your body and going into your head, emotional movement occurred. That is the strength of mindfulness. Now, no thing is magical. We are masters of repression and can unconsciously lock anything up in our psyche. You were ready to start dealing with these emotions, which is why you had the courage to try this technique after years of TM practice. I am sure the discipline you gained from TM helped you with your mindfulness practice. You now have to discover what works for you. Luckily, you have access to two powerful techniques. Work with them, now that you know you have a blind spot. Feel your feelings in order to know what feeds you.
Here are my own clinical observations. I worked several years as a biofeedback therapist, many decades ago. A part of that work involved teaching people how to meditate using EEG brain feedback. You sit someone in a chair and hook them up to brainwave reading equipment. Then you can both see and hear what their brain is doing with different techniques. An interesting observation at the time was how many people, regardless of technique, were actually thinking when they believed they were meditating. What I discovered over and over was that if people could bring their awareness into their extremities (not thinking about their limbs, but actually being kinesthetically AWARE of their hands and feet) they would start going into the relaxation response. That is what I teach neophytes who have no prior meditation practice. One can practice this technique throughout the day, regardless of activity, and it is a powerful self-awareness modality.