Spirituality & Health Magazine

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Monks with hands in namaste
Thu, October 06 2016

Meditation Is Hard When You Hate Yourself

By:
Anneli Rufus

Maybe at some point you decided to try meditation—thinking it might help you resemble those placid, robe-draped figures chanting in the documentaries. Maybe you marveled at those scientific studies linking meditation with reduced anxiety and better sleep.

Maybe you started with a workshop or retreat. Maybe it worked: Maybe the practice you began back then fulfils you still.

Or maybe not.

Maybe, back then, you struggled with even what seemed to be the easy parts: silence, stillness and watchfulness. Maybe your struggles made you restless, hopeless, angry or ashamed.

Maybe you called yourself stupid or spiritually dead. Maybe you told yourself: STFU and sit.

Maybe meditation made you hate yourself.

You weren't warned that this might happen.

So, swamped with despair, you quit.

Consider yourself warned. Consider reassessing meditation with the gentle, patient realization that this practice pushes all our buttons.

Calming the frenetic mind, being here now, feeling the body—flesh on fabric, flesh on flesh, then every gurgle, twitch and itch: These meditation basics challenge nearly everyone, even the robe-draped folks. But they seem specially designed to torment those of us who struggle with low self-esteem.

Many of us have spent our lives dissociating: mentally fleeing the body, because being in the body felt unbearable during whatever traumas made us hate ourselves, so in the face of bullies, inept parents or unjust societies we told ourselves Eject! Eject! Eject! and escaped into fantasies or food or frozenness or anywhere but here.

Being asked, in meditation, to maintain a persevering presence in the body can cause us to panic. Being in our bodies, simply staying there, sounds simple but it's not: It's scary and it's what we've trained ourselves expressly not to do.

Inviting emotions to surge, being asked to observe them coolly then release them as we might watch twigs floating downstream, requires more courage than we might feel capable of conjuring. It requires willingness to re-experience feelings so dire that they drove us from our bodies in the first place and left us dissociating ever since.

Rage. Shame. Fear of annihilation. Revisiting these can be cathartic, yes. But only once we are prepared for it, once we've been warned. Only once we can really truly trust—and trust is hard for us—that we're no longer back there when whatever happened happened but here and now, safe.

Yet hardly anything seems safe to us. Our tormentors who made us hate ourselves booby-trapped every situation, practice, place and person—even and especially the person one observes and is while meditating: the dangerous, hated self. Life with self-loathing is a constant state of prepping for whatever feared but (we think) deserved punishment comes next. Sitting still makes us feel like sitting ducks.

And yet: We embrace meditation hoping for a "cure." We want it to release us from our inner torment, from those voices—our own voices—screaming in our ears so fiercely that we cannot sleep and sometimes want to slash our skin or jump off cliffs.

When it feels otherwise, when sitting still in silence finds us flooded in thoughts, trembling in terror of some imagined attack, we feel we've failed. We scream at ourselves Loser! Why can't you do meditation right? Why can't you do ANYTHING right?

And what's that? Thinking.

For those of us who struggle with low self-esteem, thinking hurts.

Thoughts hurt.

That is, the kind of thoughts our trauma has conditioned us to generate, proliferate and barely tolerate, thus hate. For good reason, we hate our thoughts—because whatever or whoever made us hate ourselves poisoned our thoughts, reprogrammed our thinking processes to perpetually harm us. Our tormentors tricked us into memorizing, then repeating their terrible scripts. This is what thinking is for us.

A common misconception about meditation is that it stops thoughts. Rather, in focusing on mantras or the breath, it can slow thoughts and separate them, which helps meditators keep from chasing and embracing them. Making this mental shift is hard for everyone; the human mind is made to think-think-think. It is monumentally hard for those of us whom trauma and self-hatred have taught to react wildly and instantly to every thought—fearing them, fighting them, believing them, obeying their brutal commands.

But still: consider re-considering meditation. All those scientific studies and 2,500 years of placid, robe-draped figures can't be wrong. Just realize that it presents special challenges for us which others never face. This realization can help you approach the practice with more kindness, knowing now that just by starting, just by trying, you are brave.

Anneli Rufus’ latest work, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, was released by Tarcher Penguin in May 2014 and continues this path, addressing self-esteem.

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