Meditation makes me cry.
Not every time I’m on the cushion—I probably would not make it a daily practice if that were the case.
It seems that exactly three consecutive days of meditation lead to me to emotional eruption. The swell begins with deep knotting and pressure in my chest that travels upward, forming a solid lump in my throat and eventually emerging as a steady stream of tears.
Last spring I attempted my first meditation retreat at a Goenka Vipassana Center. It was a 10 day retreat and entirely too ambitious of an undertaking. After sitting for three days and wrestling with a mountain of resistance, my chest began to tighten.
As is my way, I fought against this unpleasant sensation with every fiber of my being. I released an army of “shoulds“: “Meditation should not make me feel bad. Meditation should lead to bliss. This should not be happening.” Alas, in a tiny room shared with two others, cloaked in noble silence and nothing to do but meditate, there was no place to hide from what was.
When the tears came, I panicked and left.
Fast forward to one year later and I find myself trying this whole retreat thing again. This time, more sensibly, with a six day retreat with a teacher highly recommended by my own teacher and surrounded by a support system of familiar faces.
Day one of the retreat, I was anxious. I waited with baited breath for the “crazies” to bubble up.
By day two, I felt strong, centered and maybe even a little cocky. The sessions in our shamatha (tranquility) retreat were broken up into 24 minute sitting segment known as a gotika, with six minute breaks in between. I joked, to myself, “I ‘got-ika’ this!”
Day three arrived and I awoke to a tight chest.
The feeling was familiar, but this time my response was something new. Two days prior, I met with the teacher for an interview and explained my knot during the retreat at the Goenka Vipassana Center. His response was, “You had no framework for what was happening.” I learned that my experience is not uncommon in the world of meditation retreats and according to my teacher, should be expected at any moment.
As we begin to settle the mind in its natural state, the membrane between conscious and unconscious material becomes permeable. Repressed material or “shadow elements” are freed up and all sorts of unpleasant memories, thoughts and emotions can appear. The distracting turbulence of daily life where we vacillate between excitation (the hectic pace of life, multitasking, etc.) and dullness (that glass of wine at the end of our day) keeps this unwanted material in check. Upon my return, until I actively sought out an explanation for what had happened at the retreat at the Goenka Vipassana Center, I had never heard of anything like this.
This time as the tears welled up in the meditation hall, I did my best to welcome them. Instead of pushing them down, or as my teacher put it, “placing my foot on the cellar door,” I went limp and did my best to just observe. At the break, I returned to my room where I cried mindfully, allowing the wave of emotion to sweep through and rock my every cell. What was coming up had no attached story line or conceptual overlay. It was simply raw embodied emotion—the dark damp heavy stuff I have worked not to feel for god knows how long.
When the tears subsided, I sat down and made the tightness in my chest the object of my meditation.
What I discovered shocked me. This thing, this weight on my chest, was an ideal object for meditation. It included coarse tactile sensations for me to observe and like the breath, it seemed to be ever changing. I observed as my knot pulsated, growing larger and then smaller and then finally beginning to untangle and dissipate. My attention was rapt and I even began to relax. Some piece of my awareness developed the mantra, “Welcome, welcome, welcome. You are welcome.” Later this mantra evolved to, “Bring out your dead.“
I have learned from my teacher that suffering is equal to pain met with resistance. Hell, I have even taught yoga classes centered on this theme. Reading this blog, you may wonder if there is a repressed memory of trauma that is trying to break through and causing me to cry. I think, “No.” I have had my share of pain and imperfect parents who did their best with what they were given.
I think it is my habitual response to discomfort lurking behind my tears. I am a “stuffer.” At some time, it was communicated to me that painful emotion was unattractive, weak, crazy and to be denied at all cost. I have developed a host of mostly healthy coping or “stuffing” activities that allow me to function at a high level, all the while avoiding uncomfortable emotions. In the intimate context of retreat where all of these resources are removed, the cellar door is blown wide open and raw pain flies out.
This is consistent with my direct experience with meditation. Shamatha meditation is a process of developing concentration that is balanced between excitation and relaxation. Part of the process is developing the faculty of watchfulness that checks in frequently, asking the question, “What do I need right now? More energy or relaxation?” Each time I checked in, what I found was that I had heaps of activity and a deficit of calm. After the storm of tears, I reached a new level of surrender that I had not achieved before in meditation. My meditation that afternoon was sublime.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the boughs of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place…”
I think it’s important to talk about the aspects of the practice that are painful, balancing these with the discussion of peace and bliss.
In my understanding, Sadhana, or practice, was not created with short term happiness as a goal, but ultimate freedom. If we disown the parts of the practice that are painful, such as injury from asana and uncomfortable emotional states, we create a collective shadow that limits us all as practitioners and isolates us when we are in difficult states. I know the practice is leading me to greater freedom. I can feel it. It is visceral and it is a process. Much can be gained by relaxing into what makes us uncomfortable, both at the personal and collective level, by asking the brave question, “What do I need right now?“
Izzy Shurte is a yoga teacher, meditator and graduate student residing in Asheville, NC.
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