A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were giving a talk to a group of healthcare professionals about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Afterwards, two women approached me talking about their experience with meditation, and how it’s helped them with stress. I couldn’t help but notice that both of them were making jokes about how they still wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, heart and mind racing. Most people would think that if you are practicing meditation, this wouldn’t happen. But as they continued to talk, a realization hit me.
Although there are hundreds of different styles of meditation, in my mind, there are two very different ways that we can engage with the practice. One is self-guided and one is teacher-guided.
Many people use meditation apps or videos to listen to meditations. There are so many styles of guided meditation out there, vivid visualizations, positive affirmations, motivational talks, meditations with beautiful music and much, much more. These recordings are peaceful, serene and designed to ease your stress by capturing your attention and walking you through a relaxing experience. But there is one thing that all of these guided meditations have in common, and that is that the experience for the listener is very passive. Mentally, it may not take much effort to stay with the recording. And if you drift off into a dream-like state, or even drift off to sleep, in most cases it’s very pleasant and usually a much needed rest. Absolutely fine and good.
Imagine going to a gym, where rather than you moving the equipment, the equipment moves you. Very little physical effort is required as you relax and have your limbs rotated, flexed and extended. Similar to a Thai massage, you would experience stretching and relaxation, but would your muscles become stronger over time? No. While this type of movement is likely beneficial, we wouldn’t necessarily consider it a workout.
Our muscles need to experience resistance in order to get stronger. I would argue that meditation is no different.
During a self-guided practice, the meditator is expected to be able to use their mental effort to stay focused on a particular “object” of concentration. The work, or effort begins when the thinking mind starts to get busy. So many thoughts rush in, from practical planning thoughts, to emotions, like boredom or frustration. Fantasies can take hold, memories come flooding back. We may feel very strong urges to move, to fidget, to do anything except be in the present. And this is when the practice truly begins. Similar to the resistance our muscles experience during exercise, our mind faces its own resistance. With practice, our consciousness learns to divide itself, into the thinking mind and the observing mind. The observing mind triggers us to come back to the present. And each time we bring our focus back to the present, we reaffirm our intention to stay focused on the object of attention, and we strengthen our ability to concentrate. It is internal work. It is difficult work. It is work, period.
I fear that too often, people think of meditation as the same thing as “zoning out.” People may not appreciate that it’s supposed to be effortful. Concentration is a skill. Meditation hones that skill. It also hones our skills of discipline, patience and emotion regulation.
So what does all of this have to do with waking up in the middle of the night? Remember those women who meditated but still found themselves struggling with restlessness and insomnia? Let me tell you a story about a recent experience that I had with sleeplessness. For many months I’d been having the experience of waking up in the middle of the night, heart and mind racing. It’s extremely unpleasant, and I really wanted it to stop. But, frankly I didn’t really understand why it was happening. Most of the time, I would blame it on my partner, who also suffers from insomnia, or my pets, or the city. Anything other than my own mind, really.
This had been going on for almost two years, when I signed up for a week-long silent retreat. In my mind, this retreat would be an opportunity for me to get in some good meditation practice, and to learn some new things to teach. It didn’t occur to me that it may also be an opportunity for me to really deeply understand the stress I was experiencing. That might be surprising, but that’s the power of the mind, we can hide things from ourselves. And the power of silent retreats, is that there is nowhere to hide from yourself.
I knew that I had the option of staying in a private room, or even a little private cabin, but I opted instead for the women’s dorm. This was scary to me because this meant that when they said “lights out”, it really meant lights out. No cheating, as in reading until my eyelids were too heavy. Or listening to music, or anything to distract myself from my inability to sleep. I didn’t know how I was going to handle it. But, there was a part of me that felt this might be what I needed to overcome my sleep issues. I knew that it would challenge me, but I thought maybe I could turn this challenge into an opportunity for growth.
The first night, after the mandatory lights out at 10pm, I tossed and turned, unable to relax, so used to reading until I fell asleep, or if I’m being completely honest, watching a tv show on my laptop until I dozed off. I found myself so frustrated, I thought about going for a walk, or hiding out in the kitchen, but I eventually fell asleep. Only to be woken several times throughout the night, each time someone coughed, walked by, or made even the tiniest sound. I found myself startled, heart pounding, scared, and exhausted. And all of this after doing nothing all day except sitting and walking meditation, eating delicious vegan food and hiking in the gorgeous North Carolina woods. You would think I’d sleep soundly, so peaceful and relaxed, but no, not at all.
On the second full-day of the retreat the teacher introduced the practice of Metta (loving-kindness). Generally this practice is taught by directing loving-kindness out towards others, but this particular teacher had a very different method of teaching. She invited us to begin by cultivating metta towards ourselves. Using these words:
May I be free (or safe) from all forms of inner and outer danger and harm.
May I have mental happiness.
May I have physical happiness.
May I have ease of wellbeing.
Throughout the day, whether engaging in sitting meditation, walking meditation, working meditation, or eating, we were instructed to not just repeat the words, but actively cultivate the feeling-state that underlies the words. I chose the words “may I be free…” rather than “may I be safe” — the teacher gave us the option to choose whichever felt more in alignment. I must have repeated those phrases hundreds of time. Walking slowly, repeating the words with each step, timing my breath with the steps and phrases. Each time a worry arose, each time a fear thought, or an anxious feeling overtook me, returning my focus back to the present and repeating, repeating.
The phrase “inner and outer danger and harm” struck me deeply, and I puzzled over it and its meaning all day. Inner danger and harm must refer to all of the ways we can cause ourselves harm with our thoughts. The ways that our imaginations create danger where there isn’t any. I am well-practiced in this. My mind has developed a tendency towards worry, and will spiral outwards with all sorts of dark thoughts if I’m not careful. So inner harm, I get. But outer harm? How can we keep ourselves from that? Don’t bad things just happen sometimes? I had a chance to ask the teacher about this and she told me that often our negative mind-states can create negative situations for us. Like how a person who has experienced childhood abuse may be attracted as an adult to an abusive partner. Our unconscious processes can often put us in harm’s way if we don’t work to become conscious of them. This wish, or vow to be free from all forms of inner and outer harm is a way to become mindful of these processes as they are happening. The practice is to notice the fear arising, and then remind ourselves that we have the choice, and the ability, in the moment, to choose metta instead of fear.
That night, it was the same thing. I lay awake in bed, in the dark for what felt like hours. I thought about getting one of the flashlights from the kitchen, and reading under my covers like a little kid. But I didn’t want to stumble through the darkness outside, and I didn’t know if it was locked anyway. I vowed to remember to get one the next day. So many more racing thoughts, but I eventually, slowly, fell asleep.
After what may have been hours, but felt like only a few minutes, I awoke in a sheer panic. My heart felt like it was going to leap out of my body. As usual, I had no idea what had woken me up. But this time, almost immediately, arising as if from the dark depths of the ocean, the words appeared in my mind:
May I be safe from all forms of inner and outer danger and harm.
And with the words came a distinct feeling of safety. Of calm, peace and a deep relief. And in a matter of minutes, I was asleep again.
Over the next few days this pattern repeated. I began to find, even though I hadn’t slept perfectly, that I felt permeated with such a deep sense of calm, unlike anything I’d experienced in a long, long time. Not only was my mind free from it’s usual onslaught of to-do lists, worries, startling reminders and just general feeling of unease, but my body also felt loose, a tightness in my stomach and chest was lifted. On the morning of the fifth day, I felt a lightness, like something had been released.
In Buddhism, we talk about “finding refuge” in the practice. The definition of refuge is “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble.” In those moments in the middle of the night, when panic and anxiety arose from the depths of my primitive subconscious, I was able to feel safe and sheltered by this practice. And I was able to give myself this shelter, this refuge. My gratitude for this newfound ability overwhelmed me at times, and I would find myself spontaneously crying with relief.
Over the past two years, I’ve experienced real trauma. Without going into much detail, suffice it to say that I have had to be strong and present while the ones who are most dear to me are suffering. But I have a way of compartmentalizing my pain, and being a “rock” for the people in my life. I have the ability to continue to be consistent, making sure things get done, errands are run, daily tasks are completed, even when things feel like they are completely crumbling. This is a form of dissociation. I haven’t, during this time, been present with my own pain. Even though I felt like I was holding it all together, what I couldn’t see or appreciate was that I was experiencing the terror of it all, it was just churning in the depths of my subconscious. During the day it might manifest itself in irritability, impatience, numbness, or overwhelm. And at night, this pent-up terror-energy would rise up from the primitive depths and cause me to startle awake.
One evening during the retreat I went for a walk and spent almost an hour just crying for the pain that I had been living with and not letting myself experience. In a way I was grieving for my own sorrow. I finally allowed myself to feel the sadness and suffering that I had been afraid to face. During my “normal life” the idea of facing these terrors were too overwhelming to handle. But in this space, the practice gave me a refuge. I felt safe to feel, safe to be. Not because I was alone, or on retreat, but because the practice had empowered me. I knew that I could face these fears and they would not destroy me. That night, I fell asleep easily and slept through the night for the first time in almost two years.
So, let’s return back for a moment to the original topic, the difference between self-guided and teacher-guided meditation.
It was only through a deep level of concentration that I was able to finally piece together my fragmented consciousness. I was finally able to see the fears that were beneath the surface. The inner harm that I was creating, but unaware of.
Simply listening to another person tell me to relax or guide me through the process would not have done this, because my experience is unique to me. As is yours. No one can tell you what you fear. No one can tell you what is happening in the depths of your subconscious mind. This is information that only you have, and by noticing what is arising during your meditation practice, you can begin to illuminate that information. By experiencing resistance, and turning towards that resistance, rather than away, we learn.