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Problems with meditation

Mike Pierce, modified 6 Years ago.

Problems with meditation

Posts: 2 Join Date: 4/5/14 Recent Posts
Hello, Dho!
I am having some weird experiences with my meditation practice and I hope maybe somebody here has experienced something similar along the way and could help me with a little guidance.
So, I started doing mindfulness of breathing about 2 months ago. I was meditating for 3 hours daily. I believe, I have a solid understanding of how the practice is supposed to work. I count breaths, once I realize I've lost count or failed to pay attention to the sensation of a breath, I notice that and go back to counting breaths. I can't say I've made a lot of progress, I am still getting distracted from time to time, but probably, my attention has become more stable at this point. I would consider that my practice is going well, unless I started having these weird feelings after meditating recently.
About a week ago I started feeling really uncomfortable after I was done with my daily routine of 5 sittings 40min each, spread evenly through the day. My mind was foggy, I had some tension in my chest, a headache, some weird tickling sensations in the body, feeling of anxiety and tension and something like suppressed sensual desire throughout the whole body. I think all these feeling were gradually gaining momentum and that day they became strong enough to ruin my evening. So, I figured, maybe I've been doing too much meditation and I should give it a rest. The next day when I was paying for a taxi I couldn't count what 10 coins in my pocket sum up to in 5 attempts. I had headaches and the rest of the symptoms I've mentioned for a couple of days. Then it got better and on the 5th day I did 40 min of breath counting. It was ok, not too much of unpleasant feelings afterwards. Then I meditated for 40min a day for 2 more days, today being the latest one. And after today's morning session I feel completely smashed again, so much mind fog and tension and uncomfortable feeling that even my eyes are tearing.
Here are some of my thoughts about it. First of all, I am pretty sure I understand the technique right and I'm doing it right. So, it's not like I was doing some crazy stuff, it's simple breath counting and I am trying to keep my mind as relaxed as possible, provided I still have to attend to each and every breath which of course required certain amount of effort. And this effort is what seems to throw me off and cause all the havoc breaking lose in between sittings.
Secondly, I don't really think that what's happening is normal or good for me. It's not like some tensions are being released, or I am becoming aware of some of the unpleasant stuff that has always been there. This is real, very unpleasant and effectively prevents me from meditating.
So, I'm really not sure where to go from here. Having put in all the effort just to discover that it actually hurts you rather than do you good is discouraging. I'm just hoping some of you guys might have the answer to point me in the right direction.
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Ian And, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 784 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Hi Mike,

Sorry to hear about your bad experiences with meditation. It is supposed to be a calming and clarifying experience.

That you are experiencing "mind fog and tension and uncomfortable feeling" might tend to suggest that perhaps one or more of the five hindrances are getting in your way. Something along the lines of sloth and torpor, for one, and/or restlessness and worry, for another. This is only speculation on my part without being able to interview you in person. Diagnosing things like this over the Internet can be problematic, to say the least.

A fragile mind can be easily upset, and sometimes that upsetness can trigger other related maladies. The mind can move with liquid speed (subconsciously) and create self-fulfilling scenarios that, were it fully conscious in the moment, it would not intend to create.

In order to try to track this down, whose instruction are you following? And what exactly is that instruction? It may be that the instruction is not compatible with where you are at in the present moment.

Next time, rather than counting, try something very simple and basic. Try just paying attention to the pleasantness of the breath and staying with that pleasantness for as long as you are able without a break or an unnoticed break in your attention. Simply follow the breath's natural course as you breathe in and out. That's all. You can follow it at the tip of the nostrils or the rise and fall of the abdomen. Your choice; pick one and use it. Sometimes counting can be distracting from the simple pleasure of just becoming mindful of breathing.

And before you begin your meditation, sit for a few minutes and become mindful of the breath. Establish this mindfulness first, each time before you enter into formal meditation. Just become aware of the breath's ingress and regress into and out of the body without trying to force your awareness of this process. Relax and just follow the breath on the intake and the outflow. As you feel the relaxation building, then you can eventually close the eyes and naturally enter the meditation mode. The more you are able to build up your mindfulness of the breath beforehand, the easier it can be to maintain an easy observation of the breath. And then, perhaps, these side effects will disappear all on their own.

Anyway, just a suggestion that you might want to give a try.

In peace,
Ian
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Richard Zen, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 1624 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
I think you're analyzing the breath and have too many thoughts of progress getting in the way of the practice. Disliking the practice and not waiting for it to improve with practice is a hindrance.

Step 1: Relax all the muscles in your body and face. When the mind gets tense the body does as well. When you relax the body the the mind has a better chance of relaxing as well.

Step 2: Let go of analysis. Analysis is simply thinking and releasing chemicals (usually unpleasant). You're doing a concentration practice so all you should be thinking about is the breath. When you're in daily life and counting change you shouldn't be in an altered state. This is where mindfulness is better because you just want to be normal but let go of the thinking habits that are causing the problem. Mindfulness allows thinking so it's better in the long run but when developing concentration you're trying to increase the gap between thoughts and quiet the mind temporarily.

For one-pointed concentration practice the best students don't analyze when the mind wanders. They simply and nonchalantly go back to the breath as if it's no big deal. You are trying to condition your brain through practice to stay with an object (the breath). After enough practice that conditioning will takeover and it will be easier to stay with the breath.

Step 3: Proceed without any goals and just continue with watching the breath for it's own sake. The purpose is to temporarily release negative ruminating about likes and dislikes from triggering the stress hormone cortisol. The insight practice focuses on long-term deconditioning of this habit by constantly interrupting the problem thoughts and conditioning more positive and functional perceptions and attitudes.

Good luck!
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sawfoot _, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 507 Join Date: 3/11/13 Recent Posts
Hi Mike,

My first thought was to think that it seemed odd to start mindfulness of breathing practice only 2 months ago and to do 3 hours a day, 5 sittings of 40 minutes. That is some serious meditation there for a beginner! Often people build up to that gradually over a long time. And so I wonder what else is going on your life, what is driving it, what your goals are. I appreciate you might not want to share, but my guess was that we might not getting the full story...

My other thought is the old doctor doctor joke:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCh7z5EwYF8
Mike Pierce, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 2 Join Date: 4/5/14 Recent Posts
Thank you for your thoughts, I really appreciate that.
I simply don't see how something can be wrong with the technique. I have read a lot about it, I understand how it works really well. I've studied some good science about mindfulness and its application in cognitive therapy for stress reduction and so on.
I am not over-analyzing anything when I am sitting, I am just staying with the breath, using counting or identifying long/short breaths as a way to interest the mind in the breath. From what I have read, I am allowed to think about the breath, I am not trying to defeat thinking altogether at this stage.
I can simply stay with the breath, it won't make any difference. I feel, it is the effort involved in the process of sustaining introspective awareness and redirecting attention if needed, that causes tension to accumulate. I can just sit and apply no effort and be in mind-wandering mode and I will be fine afterwards, but that won't be meditation per se.
There are some texts by Upasaka Culadasa on mindfulness of breathing, they are very detailed and comprehensive. He is a former neuroscientist turned meditation teacher, his instructions are very much to the point, and I am not doing anything that is not there.
http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/5377660

I am doing my very best to stay gentle and relaxed. I have no aversion or craving for the practice, just a natural desire to be effective at it. I am currently between jobs and I intend to use this time specifically to establish the practice. By establishing the practice I mean achieving the first milestone as per Upasaka Culadasa's classification: uninterrupted continuity of attention to the meditation object. So, I basically want some indication that I am moving forward with meditation before I reengage with my career.
I did have some prior experience with meditation. In spring 2012, I attended a Goenka retreat where you meditate over 10 hours a day for 10 days as a complete novice. From what I read about Mahasi Sayadaw retreats, they are even more rigorous in terms of daily amount of practice. So, I kind of took it for granted that the more meditation the better, therefore I adopted a schedule of 5 40min sessions a day.
Now, however, I am starting to reevaluate.
I think, my technique is not an issue and I am doing it properly. That leaves two options:
1. Some kind of meditation intolerance which is specific to me, which I hope is not the case
2. The wrong dose of meditation.
I am glad, Sawfoot pointed out that 3 hours a day can be too much. I'd love to hear more opinions on this. I think it makes perfect sense that what's happening to me might be the effects of too much stress on the brain while giving it too little time to recover and adopt from a physiological standpoint.
As a matter of fact, setting a ceiling for the amount of daily meditation is not unheard of. It is common practice in TM, for example. Many random websites with meditation instructions suggest that you should increase your exposure to meditation in a gradual manner.
Here is an interesting instructional video I found, it compares meditation to weight lifting.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eikveDVdV0
I guess I would really feel shitty if I was to go to a gym and lift weights daily 5 times per day for 2 months.
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Richard Zen, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 1624 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
Mike Pierce:
Thank you for your thoughts, I really appreciate that.
I simply don't see how something can be wrong with the technique. I have read a lot about it, I understand how it works really well. I've studied some good science about mindfulness and its application in cognitive therapy for stress reduction and so on.
I am not over-analyzing anything when I am sitting, I am just staying with the breath, using counting or identifying long/short breaths as a way to interest the mind in the breath. From what I have read, I am allowed to think about the breath, I am not trying to defeat thinking altogether at this stage.


It's not about "defeating" thinking. Buddhism is a practice of skillfulness. The fact you had trouble with counting change means you are doing lots of concentration and it's interfering with thinking. Concentration is supposed to interrupt thinking down to only thinking about the quality of the breath. You aren't trying to analyze whether it's a good breath or bad breath. It's just what is. The purpose of concentration is to create a cocoon of mental rest from perceiving/thinking/reacting. It's a process where you let go and feel like "oh all I have to do is just watch the breath, what a relief!" If you have a goal setting attitude to meditation it will cause stress because of all the evaluation and self-referencing. It may be true that you have to reduce the amount you concentrate but if you practice mindfulness with thinking allowed then you should be getting better at disenchantment which is unpleasant and has to happen to become less addicted to concepts. Concentration is hard when wrestling with thoughts but when they become under control there should be a sense of relief. You need to taste that flavour of relief when thinking is less and you're more in the ambient senses. That taste should give the brain what it needs to enjoy it further and to let go of craving/aversion and want to keep it more often throughout the day.

When I first concentrated it was hard and it was supposed to be hard. It was the constant bringing the mind back to the breath with no goals/self-evaluation that got me to experience the 1st jhana for the first time. I was evaluating my progress and that was getting in the way of resting the mind. It was very hard. After a few months I got the hang of it and was able to see the mind naturally progress to other jhanas on their own just from natural boredom and exposure. Every new attainment is like a big wow and then you get used to it.

With the insight practice I felt I was starting all over again and the thoughts were racing. The noting practice interrupted the ruminating/clinging and that clinging habit weakened over the years so that thinking is more directed and less problematic. If there's mental stress it's because some thinking habit needs to be let go of. Sometimes emptying your mind of all thinking until it's quiet is what's needed so you can compare when there's mental pain and when there isn't. I noted all day and it's what melted the habitual strain I had. Pain was a signal that I needed to let go so it was actually a good signal. If you're noting you're not ruminating.

I don't remember seeing it in your post but have you gotten any dhyanas/jhanas yet? If you haven't with all that practice then I'm certain you're still rating your performance to the point of interrupting the calm that is necessary to get to access concentration and beyond.

Mike Pierce:
I am doing my very best to stay gentle and relaxed. I have no aversion or craving for the practice, just a natural desire to be effective at it.


Yes you do.

Mike Pierce:
That leaves two options:
1. Some kind of meditation intolerance which is specific to me, which I hope is not the case
2. The wrong dose of meditation.
I am glad, Sawfoot pointed out that 3 hours a day can be too much. I'd love to hear more opinions on this. I think it makes perfect sense that what's happening to me might be the effects of too much stress on the brain while giving it too little time to recover and adopt from a physiological standpoint.
As a matter of fact, setting a ceiling for the amount of daily meditation is not unheard of. It is common practice in TM, for example. Many random websites with meditation instructions suggest that you should increase your exposure to meditation in a gradual manner.
Here is an interesting instructional video I found, it compares meditation to weight lifting.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eikveDVdV0
I guess I would really feel shitty if I was to go to a gym and lift weights daily 5 times per day for 2 months.


The above are a whole list of beliefs that will affect your emotions. I would read about depending arising so you understand better what I mean. Perception sees something to like or dislike and starts squeezing in your head like a tensing muscle and this can happen to how you evaluate your meditation practice.

Having a belief that you have an allergy to meditation or there needs to be a "special" dose are all hindrances of doubt. Hindrances always getting in the way of calm abiding. More so in beginners but it still does for experienced practitioners.

If I were you and had extra time between jobs I would meditate without a timer and just meditate as long as you want to constantly relaxing the face and skull and stay with the breath while doing tasks so you get used to reducing thinking but directing what thinking is left to tasks. Exercising, eating right, sleeping well, and completing fullfilling tasks will also be needed while practicing. Learning new skills always makes the brain feel sore. Taking brakes with no meditation whatsoever is also necessary to prevent burnout, but at some point you have to get back at it.

With all this practice at some point your brain will deeply relax into a jhana and when that happens you need to develop it with further practice and then move to the mindfulness practice so you can wean yourself off of needing concentration practices so they become more like tools and the deconditioning of bad mental habits deals with the cause of the problem in the first place. That problem is clinging/ruminating (including ruminating about the practice).

Here's some links on Jhanas from a Jhana master:

Leigh Brasington Jhanas

Here's an interview with Leigh that talks about side-effects of meditation:

Leigh Brasington Interview - Vimeo

I hope that helps!
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sawfoot _, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 507 Join Date: 3/11/13 Recent Posts
Mike Pierce:
.in between jobs [...] So, I basically want some indication that I am moving forward with meditation before I reengage with my career.


So perhaps we are getting closer to the full story!?

option 3?

Without knowing much about you and your life, it would seem that you are in middle of what might normally be considered a very stressful time and you have put a lot of pressure with regard to the perceived success of your meditation practice. So perhaps, for example, the stress and anxiety you have about your career and future is manifesting in your practice (or whatever other issues you have that lead you to pursue this path). Perhaps you are using meditation and a spiritual path as a way of avoiding those anxieties, and hence its bubbling up from underneath - I don't know, really, just guessing, and I might be way off base. But my point is the issue might not be about the specific practice or dose.
Rob Njosnavelin, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 24 Join Date: 3/29/14 Recent Posts
Hi Mike

Here's another hopefully helpful guess for you.
I think it is possible that the technique is the "problem". I myself had a softer version of what you described with mindfulness of breathing at one point years ago, though it was a couple of years into my practice. My solution was simple and the problem was solved immediately - I simply changed to a different object of focus, and left mindfulness of breathing alone for a while. Eventually came back to it after my mindfulness had a developed a little further, and love it - no further problems - nothing inherently wrong with that technique at all! It may just be a hump... its possible that your mind at this moment in time, phase of your life, etc, is relating to that object in a certain way, who knows - that seemed to be the case for me.

Small teacher plug - If you like Culadasa, and you like a lucid, direct, systematic, non-woo-woo scientific approach - you might find some value in Shinzen Young's stuff. The reason I mention him is because his system lays out an exhaustive menu of possible focus-objects to use - as well as lucidly describing different "gears" of focus depending on the quality of your practice at that time and space. His youtube videos on Sensory Challenges might also be helpful for your current predicatment.
Of course in the long-run, one doesn't want to be technique-hopping at the flux of whim, but for the bumps and potholes in the road, it can be extremely useful to have a flexible arsenal of strategies - rather than religiously, dogmatically banging ones head against the wall even when it shows no sign of breaking.

From what you are describing - I would also try upping the dosage of formal practice in motion - walking meditation, spontaneous freestyle ultra-slow mindful movement/"dance" (looks like tai chi except you just let your body make it up as you go along), mindful exercise - whatever floats your boat. Stuff like that is really useful for helping your "subconscious" getting a deeper, more-rounded taste and understanding of mindfulness practice.
Also mindfulness in daily life, as I'm sure you're aware, is highly essential. Shinzen talks about 'stopping on a dime' for minute or two of formal practice (e.g. you're tidying your house and you spontaneously stop and observe the breath (or whatever you like) as if you're doing a formal session for a minute).

The whole thrust of super-high-dose practice is IMMERSION. Ideally you want the practice to bleed into every nook and cranny of your life. Its excellent to have a set training schedule, but its also great to get used to practicing any time, any where, for however long opportunity permits - in small doses and big doses. Eventually you will work your way around the humps (and relaxation is difficult to overemphasize at the beginning).

I just read the article Culadasa wrote on Positive Reinforcement that someone posted on another thread in this forum. Excellent article. Maybe find a technique - any technique that you really enjoy and that naturally makes you feel GOOD - brighter, more relaxed, etc - and play with that for a while, at least until you're clear of this current hump and your concentration etc has become a little stronger.

At the end of the day - there's options. I highly doubt you're doomed to meditation hell for all eternity, most likely its just a temporary purgatory.
Good luck!
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Dream Walker, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Problems with meditation

Posts: 1311 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Maybe you could clarify what your goal is? Are you doing concentration meditation or insite/vipassana? Perhaps you could do some amount of each and see what that does for you.

Edit: Ian's advice is pretty good if you want to get into jhana... "Try just paying attention to the pleasantness of the breath and staying with that pleasantness for as long as you are able without a break or an unnoticed break in your attention. Simply follow the breath's natural course as you breathe in and out. That's all."
The pleasantness can help get you there.

Edit 2: I get foggy doing concentration exercises at first until I start going up the jhanas...I am guessing that if I didn't get into the jhanas I'd get pretty retarded after a while....I've always followed the pleasentness or happiness feeling.

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