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In 2008, I sat in the Ballroom of a Marriott at Tampa International Airport, trying to meditate. I felt like I was going to puke.
My head hurt. My body felt like a dumpster fire that had just been doused with expired milk. Worst of all, frustration and self-blame clawed at my consciousness.
A group of between 20 and 30 of us was arranged in a circle. A teacher guided the group through a long meditation. My thoughts wouldn’t shut up.
I don’t feel the energy.
If it works so well, how come it’s not working?
I’m such a loser.
After we finished, others around me rested and smiled. I slouched to my right and almost keeled over.
I feel worse than when I started.
The teacher asked for some feedback. One woman said, “This is the best I have ever felt.”
I, on the other hand, felt worse than when we started. I blamed the teacher for not caring. I blamed myself. I blamed the practice. Hey, if I felt like garbage afterward, then I proved the meditation didn’t work, right?
A couple of hours later, a quieter, wiser voice from my gut whispered through the dense discomfort. “Maybe it was what you ate for lunch.”
We had done the group meditation right after lunch. I had eaten pizza. Weird hotel pizza at that. Even the server had given me a skeptical look when I ordered it. I realized that my lunch had caused indigestion, which blocked my flow of energy during the meditation, which caused my mood to sour and my thoughts to get irritated. After that day, and some self-experimenting, I decided to never judge a spiritual training unless I practiced it on an empty stomach. And I’m much more careful about where I order pizza.
Years later, I’d learn how, if you don’t properly prepare for your meditation, you might feel worse after you practice. According to Daoism, a spiritual tradition that stretches back thousands of years, what you eat affects more than your physical health. Food can also enhance, or hamper, your spiritual development. Foods that cause inflammation can also produce spiritual phlegm above your head. It often manifests as inexplicable brain fog.
Think of meditation like exercise: if you eat some bad food and have trouble with your digestion, and then immediately perform an exercise like lifting weights, the combination will make your digestion worse. Does that mean lifting weights is bad? No, it just means lifting weights is bad in that combination.
You don’t need to subsist on sprouts and tea as if you’re training for breatharianism. Test how certain foods—or lack of food—affects your meditation. You might be surprised by the difference.
The food you eat isn’t the only variable to consider when you want to do an energetic practice like meditation. The next time you meditate, go through this checklist to maximize the benefits and avoid feeling worse after you finish:
Check your posture.
When you’re tense and out of alignment, you block your body’s flow of energy. It’s the spiritual equivalent of trying to ride a bike with a bent wheel. As you pedal, instead of gliding forward, you need to grind forward. If you’re sitting, sit at attention to straighten your spine. Tuck your chin slightly down. Make sure you’re not leaning in any direction because this will cause muscular tension.
Scan your body for tense muscles.
Are you frowning? Are your lips pursed? Your shoulders shrugged? You might be surprised to find that your “normal” seated or standing posture is actually full of tension, but you’re so used to it that you stopped noticing. Wherever you find tension, let it melt away. Tension blocks the flow of energy.
Check your breathing.
You can research studies of how slow, deep breathing affects your health, but there’s a better way to get straight to the point. Monitor for the next time you’re anxious or angry and check your breathing. Are you breathing into your belly or your chest? What happens when you switch? Chances are, you’ll find breathing into your chest makes you more worried or angry and breathing into your belly calms you down. When you meditate, breathe into your belly. Make sure your chest and shoulders don’t rise.
In your spiritual journey, it will often be the mundane things that trip you up—both because they’re so common and because they’re so, well, ordinary that they might go unnoticed. When we have a bad experience meditating, it’s way easier to think we’re cursed, have a bad teacher, or that meditation just doesn’t work.
Focus on the mundane—the factors you can control—and you might be surprised by how deep your meditative practice goes.