Meditation has been proven to make people feel calmer and more at peace with their place in the world. It shares many of the same benefits as physical exercise, and can be a powerful tool for reducing anxiety and stopping negative thought patterns.
Because of all of the well-documented benefits, most people try meditation with the reasonable expectation that it will make them happier.
While it’s a safe bet that a long-term meditation habit will make us more content, it’s actually not unheard of for people to feel sad the first time they meditate. This experience can be understandably confusing and off-putting for new meditators. Surely meditation is supposed to cure sadness, not cause it?
If you find yourself feeling sad during your first attempt at meditation, you’re not alone. So why does this happen, and how can you work through it to experience the peace, contentment, and joy that we know meditation can bring?
Meditation and Repression
As a meditation teacher, I often see students who want to throw the towel in when they begin experiencing uncomfortable emotions during their practice. Their frustration is understandable, but it’s important to recognize that meditation isn’t the cause of these emotions.
Meditation gives us access to emotions that were always there, but that were either consciously or subconsciously repressed. This repression could come from environmental distractions, being taught to subdue emotions during childhood, or perhaps a general barrier we have put in place to protect ourselves from feeling.
Many of us will experience some degree of trauma during our lifetime. When a traumatic event happens, the body tries to protect you by methods such as memory repression and dissociation from intense (sometimes very sad) emotions. Still, trauma lives in the body — just because the brain is rejecting the feelings to protect you doesn’t mean that the emotions aren’t still living in your body.
Even if we don’t have a history of trauma, our first attempts at meditation can be an emotional experience. Meditation is one of the best ways to connect with our Higher Selves, or the Wise Being within all of us that is an accumulation of all of our positive characteristics, an energy that is deeply connected with the original Source of the universe. Most of us go through our daily lives not realizing how out of touch we are with our Higher Selves and the world around us. When we finally start to clear the fog and reestablish that connection through the practice of meditation, we can feel emotionally overwhelmed as we realize how long we’ve been going through life unaware that there is something so much greater to ourselves.
Observing and Feeling
During meditation, we are meant to simply breathe and observe feelings as they come and go. When we breathe deeply, the parasympathetic nervous system (also referred to as “the rest and digest symptom”) is activated. If your body was tensed up beforehand, the deep-breathing and body awareness during meditation helps it to relax. That’s when stunted emotions begin filtering through, and there’s a chance that some of those emotions might be negative in nature.
Think of it as a detoxifying process. If you feel sadness during your meditation, it’s often a sign that your body is releasing that emotion. In this way, meditation can operate as a kind of pressure valve, releasing unhealthy emotions before they become too much to bear.
As you relate to the sadness through meditating, you may be able to discover a root cause, which you can then explore and perhaps even heal. It’s important to note that if you’re dealing with chronic depression or a heavy past trauma, meditation isn’t always the best first step as emotions could be inundating. Visiting a trained professional such as a therapist or psychologist would be helpful in finding the safest way to begin your practice.
For general sadness and grief, though, meditation can be immensely healing. As you spend time with the emotions, it lessens due to your attention to it — difficult emotions need nurturance and acknowledgement like a child that was hurt and needed love and care from a supportive figure. By meditating, you are doing just that. You may even find relief being with the sadness, as it is something you have been avoiding for so long.
Try the following steps when you feel sad during meditation:
1) Gently pause your practice and allow yourself a moment to observe the sadness.
2) Find stillness and refocus your attention on the breath, starting with deep, expansive belly breathing. Slowly let your breath return to a natural rhythm.
3) Perhaps now you’re feeling a wave of sadness. Place your hand on your heart and feel into the emotion, gently and in a committed, non-judgmental way. Be curious about how the sadness feels, and see if you feel it in a certain part of your body.
4) Drop any thoughts or narration of the emotion, any stories or plans for dealing with it, and just be with the feeling. Maybe you even say out loud how it is you are feeling and that it is valid and okay to feel this way.
5) When you have fully acknowledged the feeling, thank yourself for this moment of self-care.
6) Let the entire experience go, perhaps with a quick stretch, three deep breaths, or some mindful movement and return to your meditation practice with a sense of focused consciousness.
Healing Through Stillness
Over time, meditation can bring profound feelings of inner peace, but some intense emotions may surface during your first few attempts. These feelings aren’t always easy or glamorous, but it’s important to recognize those feelings for what they are: lower unresolved tendencies and emotions that need to be processed so they don’t keep returning.
Remember, all of this is normal to both new meditators and “experienced” meditators”. Breathe, observe, feel. Then, celebrate the act of showing up for yourself, healing deep-seated wounds, and in turn, healing the world.