What I Didn’t Know About Meditation Almost Broke My Brain

Practicing meditation can bring joy, focus, healing, and many other incredibly powerful benefits if you go in prepared.

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I adopted meditation out of need. As I healed from childhood trauma and subsequent addictions, my wife recommended we try a simple meditation in the morning. I felt the benefits over the next few days and weeks and I haven’t looked back. I extol meditation and how it helped me heal in a book I wrote about my trauma and how I survived. It had been six years of daily meditation when I decided to enter a ten-day silent meditation retreat. As it’s called, the Vipassana retreat, practices sitting and walking meditation for twelve hours a day. The retreat prohibits any speaking, reading, eye contact, or any communication with the outside world. In preparation for the retreat, I upped my meditation time to two hours a day which instilled confidence, excitement even, as the day approached.

The first day felt like a spa. Although I loved and missed them dearly, I was without my wife and two-year-old daughter. There was no social media, no work, no gym, just me. The silence felt like a relaxing massage for the senses. Day Two brought with it a thin layer of intensity as my mind let go of the outside world and I ventured further within. Day Three brought forth anxiety of the past and set me up for Day Four where memories, thoughts, and emotions shocked the foundation of my psyche. In the darkness, I saw a little boy gaze at me behind an imposing and protective faceless figure. My inner child behind my immense ego. I shook my head out of it.

I reached out to counselors at the retreat but their advice didn’t help. Closing my eyes to meditate became frightening but I trusted in the process and continued. By Day Five I could no longer close my eyes. My mind presented images I could not unsee, un-hear, un-feel. I left on day six, my sanity barely intact. I was no longer able to meditate. The images were still there waiting for me.

Out of Context

What I’ve learned since the retreat was that I was missing a major component in my practice. A part so important it threw me out of balance leaving me ill-equipped to handle the darkest thoughts and memories raised after fifty hours of meditation. What we in the West know as meditation is a practice taught out of traditional context. Neuroscientists attach electrodes to the heads of Buddhist monks to demonstrate the “high-amplitude gamma-oscillations” indicative of neuroplasticity while MRI scans show us the regions of the brain firing in veteran meditators. We get excited at how meditation can help our sleep, our focus, our temperament throughout the day. And these are powerfully positive to be sure but there are times where memories and thoughts can get the better of us, ruining our sleep, our days, and our relationships if left unchecked.

The traditions that practice meditation lay a psychological foundation upon which we can build a more balanced knowledge of ourselves. They help us work through and even embrace our past traumas, to foster healing and help us grow stronger psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Buddhists practice Metta, or LovingKindness, meditation that fosters compassion for ourselves as well as others. Developing self-compassion helps us integrate any challenges experienced in observational Vipassana practices such as body scans or mindfully observing the breath. Yogic traditions practice “clear seeing” when the mind reveals our true nature and intentions which may seem unrecognizable or even repulsive to the seer. Clear seeing is considered to be masculine while the feminine is known as “calm abiding” that works to foster equanimity and self-compassion. Apart, these practices can be as damaging as they are valuable but together they can bring healing, strength, and empowerment.

One Year Later

I entered the Vipassana retreat hoping to heal but I didn’t have all the tools. I didn’t build the foundation of self-compassion or calm abiding and the imbalance sent me spinning into space disoriented, without gravity. It took months to recover and rebuild the confidence I had with meditation and myself. I learned more about practices in compassion like LovingKindness, parts of Sam Harris’s Waking Up course, and practicing calm abiding guided meditation working to observe reactions without embodying them. After months of practice, I was better able to prepare myself for deeper self-exploration with greater certainty although I still tread lightly.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype around meditation but to go deeper can bring with it a mirror into which you’re not yet ready to look. This is not to suggest to ignore the entire practice altogether. Practicing meditation can bring joy, focus, healing, and many other incredibly powerful benefits and I’d recommend it to anyone. I would just advise going in prepared.

Written by

Father of daughters, volunteer, author of Before I Leave You: A Memoir on Suicide, Addiction, and Healing. Co-founder Assent Compliance #LGBTQIA+ 🏳️‍🌈

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