Meditation is a powerful way to bring more serenity into your life. But you have to actually do it to see an effect.
Meditation will never be a magic bullet if you can't get yourself to sit down because you are subservient to an endless to-do list. This potent stress medicine also won't work if you jump up from the cushion as soon as a torrential thought-stream of obligations makes you feel like you are about to explode.
When the call of life is like a constant alarm bell, there's a good chance you'll never find time to meditate. But giving up on meditation is like giving up on you.
To be honest, there isn't always an easy solution for this dilemma. Meditation has an uncanny way of showing us exactly where we need to work with ourselves if we are willing to see. But breaking free of life-long habits is not a piece of cake. The truth is that you may need to take a hard look at the reality of your life if you want to successfully incorporate meditation into your routine and reap its stress reducing benefits
4 Ways to Work with Pressure, Stress and Overwhelm in Meditation
Here are a few common places where people get stuck in meditation due to stress and overwhelm and tips for working around them.
1. Scaling Back
Meditation will feel like an extra burden if you are already leading an overwhelmed life. The obvious solution is subtraction not addition.
So the first question to ask is: What can you subtract so that you can add meditation into your life minus the sense of pressure and stress?
There's only a limited amount of time in each day. But may of us get trapped in trying to accomplish more than is humanely possible. Does that ring a bell? In addition to creating space for learning meditation and establishing a regular practice, you might also want to consider additional ways to simplify your life.
Meditation often brings relief when life is occasionally overwhelming. However, it's not necessarily a fix for a permanently overwhelmed life. The way to manage an overwhelmed life is to scale back.
Do you have too much on your plate? How can you scale back? What can you subtract to make space for meditation in your life?
2. Deceptive Brain Messages
Scaling back sounds good, but does it feel impossible? If so, why might that be?
It may be due to inner messages that keep you on the wheel of overwhelm. Most of us are subject to deceptive brain messages that were acquired early on in life. For example, you may have a deep-seated belief that your value in life depends on holding the world together, staying busy or productive, being perfect, or being the best.
Deceptive messages like these get entrained in your brain and result in unhealthy behaviors. Due to the way the brain functions, you then feel compelled to repeat the same unhelpful behaviors over and over again. It comes to feel like a matter of survival. Busyness can become one of these seemingly inescapable ways of being.
It's not easy, but it is possible to retrain the brain. However, it' important to know that you are up against intense brain biology so that you don't become discouraged. This explains, in part, why mediation can feel extraordinarily uncomfortable at times.
I learned about deceptive brain messages from the book You Are Not Your Brain, The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life by Jeffrey Schwartz, M. D. and Rebecca Gladding, M. D. Mindfulness is the first step in their proven 4-part strategy for identifying and breaking free of deceptive brain messages. If you feel trapped in busyness, it may be time to investigate the possibility that long-held inner messages are keeping you locked in.
Are there any repetitive inner messages that seem to control your life?
3. You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person
Research has shown that 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive. These individuals have a more sensitive nervous system due to genetics. And people who are highly sensitive are more easily overwhelmed than others. That doesn't mean you're flawed. There are many positive aspects to being a highly sensitive person. In fact, the highly sensitive person is generally more in tune with the spiritual dimension of being.
But it might be harder for you to settle into meditation if your nervous system is overcharged, especially if you are biting off more than you can chew in your day-to-day life. Chances are, you will feel and operate better if you understand and accept your propensities, be realistic in your expectations, and give yourself more downtime to regenerate. Meditation can nourish your nervous system and give you a protective barrier if you are willing to scale back and make space for it.
Are you easily overwhelmed by sensory input? Are you more aware of the subtleties in your environment? Do other people's moods tend to affect you? These are just a few clues that may indicate you are a highly sensitive person, which is also known as Sensory-Processing Sensitivity.
4. Staying With It
Another possibility is to simply stay put regardless of what arises in your mind during meditation. The way to get through the feeling of your mind being like a steep and thunderous waterfall is to sit it out. The mind doesn't magically calm down after your first few sessions of sitting. In the beginning, it often seems wilder than ever.
The key is to just keep applying the method - for example, returning to the breath - whenever thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise. Eventually, the mind will calm down. It may take a few weeks of regular practice to see a shift, but one will gradually begin to occur.
Yes, it might feel utterly excruciating at times. But you are not going to explode from seeing how busy your mind is or the felt-sensations that come along with agitation. It may feel uncomfortable for a time, but this will pass. It's a matter of patience and persistence.
If you feel annoyed, pressured, or stressed when you are trying to meditate, it's just another thought or feeling coming up in the mind. It's just your personal version of distraction. The trick is to be aware of it, but not to act on the impulse and get up and get busy.
It could be this very feeling of annoyance and pressure that is keeping you in the loop of overwhelm. Often, we try to to calm the annoyance by doing something. That works on the short run - it might make us feel better to tick something off the list - but it just keep us in this endless cycle of having to be busy to dispel the feelings of annoyance, stress, or pressure.
If you can sit through this feeling of annoyance, overwhelm, or stress in meditation, it might have a very beneficial effect on the rest of your life too. Of course, I'm not recommending marathon sessions, ignoring serious physical discomfort, neglecting important responsibilities, or an embattled stance. You can start out with short sessions that are just 5 - 10 minutes in length. A gentle, playful approach is almost always more skillful in meditation. And, you'll be halfway to victory if you can remember, "It's just my mind trying to pull me away from meditation." If agitation is a major problem for you, you may also want to consider some of the traditional recommendations for overcoming a wild mind in meditation.
Meditation is a powerful way to bring stress to its knees when we understand our own proclivities and work with them accordingly. In time, if you practice regularly, mind will naturally calm down and you will discover a greater sense of inner peace. But if you are turned on to high speed all the time, chances on it's going to take more time, a sense of humor, and a very regular practice of meditation to shift gears. It may even require a few changes in your lifestyle.
For additional help with these challenges check out this series of articles on really integrating meditation in daily life.
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Have you worked with the shrill call of stress, pressure, and overwhelm in your meditation? What's worked effectively for you?