Fear & Pain in Meditation
by Marcus Antebi
Article at a Glance:
In the past, I didn’t have the strength of mind to tell myself things I needed to hear to be relaxed. I needed to alter my chemistry somehow, whether it was through coffee, sugar or something sweet, getting up and doing something dangerous or creative, or working on something.
One of the things that some people might encounter in their meditation practice is extreme boredom. This feeling is unbearable for some. It can make certain personality types twitchy, jumpy, and uncomfortable.
In my 20s and 30s I went to such extreme measures to not feel boredom that when I approached meditation I would feel tortured. It was boredom, and I didn’t have enough awareness to call it by name. I just knew that it was uncomfortable. I knew that my mind did not want to be still. As far back as I can remember, I even resisted sleep.
It could have been my personality type or the events that happened in my life that molded me into this type of person. But it appears that many people struggle with this. I believe that many events taking place around us were created by us to avoid boredom.
Is it really necessary to put a man on the moon? Do we really need 65 different channels of TV with 24-hour reality TV programs? The content of such programs seems to be such that they were designed for different personality types to fight off boredom.
I don’t think that boredom is a sign of a character defect. I think it’s actually a very natural condition, because I see it exhibited in young children all the time. We’re all familiar with car rides with children of all ages who constantly ask, “How far away is it?” “Are we there yet?” “How much longer?”
Children love activity, and they love to play. The most important question a five-year-old child needs to figure out at the beginning of the day is what they are going to be doing on that day.
When I look at boredom and children, I realize that it’s a great mechanism for ensuring that no matter what’s going on a child will take interest in getting out into the world of doing things.
Play for a child is a way of learning how to use their body and learning how to relate to the world around them. The desire to avoid boredom is the counterbalance to the natural inclination to be lazy. Laziness is caused by one of a variety of mindsets.
It is physically taxing to exert yourself in any endeavor. It’s no wonder a child who has limited energy would find themselves complaining if they had to walk instead of being carried. They haven’t yet developed the tolerance for the discomfort of having to exert physical energy, unless what they’re doing is something that’s fun.
When a child’s mind is stimulated, they can then exert energy until they are physically exhausted and ready to collapse. Children love to take out their toys and throw them all over the place. They are never too lazy to run around in the playground. They always find a way to pretend, and the fantasies that they create make the activities more interesting to their developing minds.
I do not think that we ever truly outgrow this as grownups—we just get involved in more sophisticated and complicated activities. I moved from dirt bikes, to jet skis, to rock climbing, to skydiving. I just had bigger playgrounds and bigger fantasies of what I was engaged in.
What is boredom? Isn’t it the feeling that you’d rather be doing something different? Isn’t it the lack of the ability to occupy your mind with something entertaining, even if your body is doing nothing?
What does boredom bring up for different people? For a five-year-old, boredom would likely bring up something totally different in them than it would for a grown-up. For me, boredom feels like emptiness. I haven’t practiced sitting still. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to stay home on a rainy Thursday and just be in the house, maybe getting some sleep, reading a book, or organizing something that needed my attention.
I’m not totally clear on what that type of sedated behavior brings up, but I experience discomfort during inactivity. I feel as if I am designed to always be doing something. That something is always intense and active.
Perhaps that’s connected to my internal drive. Perhaps I’m emotionally wired in such a way that if I’m not accomplishing something I feel that I have no value. So that message creates a very subtle vibration of anxiety when I experience stillness.
I’m saying “perhaps” I experience this because there are lots of other possibilities that I want to stay open to. I don’t want to unnecessarily associate anything negative to my personality type. My desire to not be bored and keep moving could lead me to creating something that could be useful and helpful to people. I like to tell myself that I am a visionary person who’s looking for the vision. I am an inventor looking for my next invention. I’m an activist looking for a cause that I could be great in.
I want to focus all of my attention on creating something exciting. It gives me a charge, it gives me a thrill—I was designed that way. At this stage in my life I’m just not cut out to be living in a Zen monastery in Japan. I think about those places and I say to myself, “Wow, one day I’ll probably be ready for that.” But only after I accomplish a lot of things and I get bored of accomplishing and I want to accomplish nothing further. Maybe accomplishing stillness will be my greatest achievement.
The point of what I’m saying is that meditation, even if we only practice it for two minutes a day, is like getting the key to the Zen monastery and going into it for a short time. We have to be comfortable with the idea that there’s value in making our mind and our body still, while we’re still awake, for a little bit of time each and every day. The practice of doing that takes time.
The worst thing that any person teaching meditation to another can do is to tell them that meditation is black and white. It’s ‘this one thing’ and it’s not ‘that.’ The worst mistake that some teachers in meditation make is the way they sell the idea of meditation in the first place. The way to teach meditation, in my opinion, is to teach what it is to you. Then, make sure that the student knows that for them it’s going to be something different. But the student can certainly borrow a teacher’s ideas and try to implement them.
The idea that there is a “master of meditation” is ridiculous. Any master of meditation is a master of meditation as it pertains to himself or herself. If there is such a thing as a master of meditation, that master of meditation would be psychic. A master of meditation would be a master of human emotions. A master of meditation would have incredible control over their own mind and their own actions. The master of meditation would be a person who could see many different layers of reality.
The best masters of meditation are people who look totally ordinary, even if they are wearing purple or orange robes. They can also be wearing jeans and a T-shirt. A master of meditation probably isn’t very flashy anymore, because all of that flashiness can be a distraction.
But “flashy” masters will appear. I suppose you could be a master of meditation and get out of a giant Rolls-Royce limousine. It doesn't seem likely, but it’s possible. The master of meditation would never say that that’s impossible.
In meditation, there’s a little bit of mental silence followed by a lot of chatter in the head. Maybe we pick up on one thing that’s been bothering us our entire lives. Maybe we realize that there’s nothing happening and that we need that activity to make us feel balanced again.
For me, meditation practice had a few side effects when I started the practice. I felt I had an increased appetite, then I lost my appetite. I had a few separate times where I felt exhausted and wanted to sleep. I’d put my head down on the pillow. I felt anxious, and that gave me a feeling in my body that I couldn’t overcome.
I didn’t have the strength of mind to tell myself things I needed to hear to be relaxed. I needed to alter my chemistry somehow, whether it was through coffee, sugar or something sweet, getting up and doing something dangerous or creative, or working on something.
My habits, even the destructive ones, gave me a sense of calmness because they kept my mind occupied. Even when my dependencies caused me problems, solving problems gave me relief and excitement. I could not allow myself any stillness: Something in my thought processes compelled me to keep moving and doing!
It took me many years to embrace meditation. I practiced yoga, but I did so for fitness, not for meditation. When I look at my life, I see that in every activity I got involved in I was “all in.” I’d be completely committed. I had to let my mind be consumed by anything I was involved in: That was the way I figured out things. Whenever I would sit to meditate it felt slightly uncomfortable to me. Besides being incredibly boring, it stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions that I wasn’t prepared to deal with.
It took me a very long time to get to the place where I knew the right questions to ask people who were more experienced with meditation than me. I wasn’t finding the answers or the support that I needed in books written about the subject.
I didn’t realize that my dependencies, my way of thinking, and all of the various attachments that I had in my life were at odds with the practice of meditation and stillness. The practice that really finally gave me my breakthrough was doing hot yoga. I almost immediately got something profound from hot yoga that I got from no other activity: Stillness of mind.
This stillness translated in many ways to focus and concentration on what I was doing in the moment. But when I was in the hot room doing a posture, I had to concentrate on that moment or I wouldn’t be able to make it.
Suddenly all of the things that I had been practicing for years were coming into focus. I saw each thing in that room as a tool to help me go deeper inside my mind and stay with it. I found a way to stop thinking about things from yesterday or tomorrow, and a way to stop inventing things and/or fixing things. I would just put all the weight on my foot and concentrate on my balance. I used the mirror to stay focused on the form reflected in front of me. The hot room was a metaphor for all of my problems. Once I stopped resisting the heat I learned to feel comfortable in it and continue breathing. And I learned that I could continue to accomplish each pose.
I found a way to convince myself that I wasn’t hot at all. And I really wasn’t. I learned how to use my breathing to calm myself down. When I was following the extremely specific word-for-word instructions of the teacher, I learned to listen. I learned how to take direction. The teacher’s voice would keep me present in the room when I would drift to something going on in my head. I learned how to stay with the timing of each instruction and to not either go ahead or fall behind.
I learned that going into the pose, being in the pose itself, and leaving the pose were all equally important. This was so because focusing on each of those activities entailed focusing on the present moment.
The exercise also tired my body out. So my body would tell me that I needed to work out or do more things. This would have a lasting impact on me after class. I liked the fact that I would be physically tired so that then I could concentrate on things that required my mind such as my work and my relationships.
The most important thing I learned while practicing yoga was involvement with a support group. They were individuals with the common goal of supporting each other in the process of achieving improved physical health through yoga exercises. When I’d show up on my mat, I’d have to surrender the day and be present for the session, not in outer space. I’d check in with my body and say, “How do you feel, body?” And the body will tell me immediately, “I feel strong and healthy. Or “I feel bloated and out of shape.” “My lower back is aching.” I would listen to my body. When I listen to my body, I am a better caretaker of it.
So for me it was this practice that helped me understand meditation better. After class I would have such clarity that I’d feel that I was channeling all my life’s knowledge into things like this writing. And I wanted to share the things that I’d been learning in a positive way.
When I’m relaxed and I’m not in a state of anxiety, then I’m not self-serving. That state of awareness doesn’t remain forever; it comes and goes based on my actions, my thoughts, and the words I speak. After years of much more intense meditation practice, now I’m starting to find the thing that was missing for me in it. What I want for meditation is probably different from what a monk who lives in the Himalayas may be trying to achieve.
When I start my meditation, I create an intention. My intention is to heal myself from the things that have happened to me in the past and to heal myself from the things that I have caused to happen to me. In my meditation I want to find a way to forgive myself for the things that I have done to harm others. And my intention is to have a better understanding of the meaning of the word compassion. Not because I’m trying to win a spiritual award, but because I understand that compassion is a very intellectual achievement. It takes intelligence of some sort to truly feel compassion—it’s a higher way of thinking.
Now I’ve learned how to divide my practice; meditation is two different types of practices. One type of practice entails sitting quietly and contemplating things that I need to think about without distraction or noise. I need to be in a place where I can see whatever problem that I may have, find a cause, and find a solution. I don’t get that instantly. I may have to work on it for a while.
In the other type of practice, what might be called the true practice of meditation, I am trying to be absolutely 100 percent in the moment for as long as I can. I'm trying to concentrate on sensations in my body, including the breath. I’m trying to push out all extraneous thoughts. The only thought that I want present is the experience of the sensations of the present moment.
This room is cold, this room is hot. I feel the weight on my legs. I can smell the ocean, I hear the seagulls, I am completely mesmerized by all the sparkles reflecting off of the ocean. I have no concept of time. I don’t understand the nature of creation—I'm just amazed by it. My senses are overwhelmed by the beauty of this natural world.
I’m not happy, I’m not sad. I'm just experiencing it all. I try to hold this way of thinking for as long as possible. It’s a mental exercise that I now see the benefit of. The benefit in this for me is this: If I can control and guide my thought processes I can place them where I need them to be in order for me to be a good human being. And being a good human being includes me being successful in the things that I endeavor to do.
If I have a chain of negative thoughts that come up, I can place them where they need to be. I can shift my focus on the positive. Of course I don’t want to use this incorrectly and say that I should never look at negative things that are happening. I wouldn’t be a good problem solver if I did that.
And I don’t want to be in total denial. Some experiences are painful and difficult for us as human beings, and they have to be experienced. I build confidence in myself by meditating that I will be able to allow myself to have negative feelings and that I will have the ability to slowly lead them out of my consciousness.
This means that I don’t have to be afraid of a negative thought taking over me and becoming an obsession. If I need to focus on something that’s challenging and uncomfortable, I can let myself do that without interrupting the process. I can trust in the process of my mind sorting things out. All of this is happening in just a few minutes of meditation every day. I’m building up my strength and my mind is becoming my consciousness’ friend.
I’m seeing certain philosophies for myself and I’m deciding whether or not they work for me. I believe that the ego is an incredible tool that needs to be handled carefully. It needs to be tempered and trained. It needs to be given boundaries, and it needs to be held accountable to the things that the ego is supposed to do for the consciousness and the body.
Ego is not supposed to be dissolved, disbanded, discarded, rejected, or beaten down. The ego is a member of the family in my head. It’s never going to go away unless I erase my memory completely. It’s never going to go away unless there’s a way for me to convince myself that I am not in this body at this moment. I can expand my idea of ego to include more things than just my physical body, but my little tiny ego is important. It’s not the most important thing—is probably not even number four—but it’s an important thing nonetheless.
I don’t believe the ego is supposed to be destroyed and smothered. I believe ego must be kept in check, not destroyed and discarded as a bad thing.
We have to learn about how our egos operate and what the ego is made of. It’s made mostly of memories, it's made up of preferences that we have created from things that have happened to us in the past. The ego is the knowledge that you have a pair of eyes and you can see your reflection in the mirror. The ego is that little creature that says, “Let’s get up and do something.” The ego is the thing that competes.
The ego is the thing that makes you unique from any other creature on the planet. I can see this now. My ego is the consciousness that’s also with me to tell me that it’s a good thing that I did a good job today. My consciousness is proud of my ego for working on this book. My consciousness is grateful that the ego knows how to pick out a pair of sneakers, because the consciousness doesn’t care that much. The consciousness knows we need those running sneakers, so the ego serves us!
I know this is going to sound a little corny, but it was in meditation practice that I figured out why I need to sometimes order curry. Why do I need to eat something sweet? Why do I crave my early morning coffee? Well, it felt like for me that all of my life I was somehow detached from my body. And so if I ordered a spicy curry dish, it gave me such a physical sensation that it put me in the body deeply. I had to purchase things and own them to feel connected to them. This is how I was trained to think because I lived in the “modern age.”
When we feel physical pain we are deeply connected to the body. Our consciousness is being signaled by the body that something physical is happening and “we” (the conscious mind and the physical body) are sharing the experience together. These two entities are connected through the intense discomfort of pain.
The puzzling question is, are the physical body and consciousness separate things? Or is the body consciousness itself? Who cares?
Let’s just say that we can separate our life into 3 parts:
- A body that is made up of atoms that cluster together to form molecules.
The body is directly linked to the substances that are here on earth. The body is linked to your place of birth even more directly. Our molecules cluster together to form cells. Cells that cluster together to create tissues that come together to form organs
- An ego that is composed of memories and experiences clustered together to form a unique identity, preferences, personality traits, specific desires, ideas, theories, attachments, feelings, and thoughts.
The ego is made up of substances that can be transmitted through the mediums of the body. The ego is enmeshed with the substances of the body. If the body dies, the ego dies with it.
- Consciousness itself. This is the most mysterious thing. It can be called “soul” or “essence.” It is the part of you that is eternal, the part of you that is directly linked to the cosmos and beyond.
The consciousness is is pure and very wise because it is timeless. “It” is on a continual journey of learning and adventure. It is influenced by the body it inhabits. It merges with that body and essentially there is no difference between the body and consciousness until you die. When you die, that consciousness in an instant returns to another dimension of reality. In that reality there is no time. There is nothing but pure consciousness. No one can explain this “place.” It’s neither heaven nor hell. It’s actually not a place, because as I stated it’s not a thing.
No human mind can describe the facts of this space, who created it, or why it exists.
My guess is that it is God or the creator of all of reality and all of the universes and more, it is his/her/its consciousness, and without an earthly body our consciousness is just unmistakably merged with “it.”
Why, then, would the consciousness be compelled to return to the material universe and all of its problems? Some philosophy says that we are connected to the material world through the actions that we took in any physical form in which we existed. This is defined as karma.
Those who believe in karma consider it to be a type of punishment. Something we do in the body causes an effect, and that effect creates another cause, which creates another effect, and so on. In meditation we are trying to see the links of all these different causes and effects. In the case of suffering we are trying to end our suffering once and for all.
I can’t tell you why your little piece of God consciousness ends up in your tiny little body. We could make up stories about such things and laugh about them.
We could say that when a little life is created, in an instant the divine creator takes a little piece of him, her, or itself which is pure consciousness and places it into that life form. If it’s created by a divine creator it’s probably automatic. Maybe the divine creator has really good computer software that tracks all life forms that need a consciousness.
The fear of experiencing something deeper than what we can understand is deep fear, even if we are unaware that it’s there. Deep contemplation, or a practice by which one checks in with their emotional state, can be disconcerting for some people.
To sit with oneself and intend to achieve mental quietness may stir up difficult emotions. This is why if one has trauma of any kind they should move slowly in this process. You can’t read 11 books on mental health and start attending therapy 5 days a week and also meditate 4 hours a day right off the bat. One would likely find themselves breaking from reality if they tried to rush with such speed through their healing process.
Healing takes time.