This is my story. I believe there are many different ways to awaken and inhabit the present moment. This is the method that I used. It was largely through meditation. There are countless different ways to meditate. I practiced a very simple twice daily meditation using the out breath and a mantra to ground me into the present moment. There were short meditations 10-15 minutes, in the morning and evening. In addition to this, I learnt to cultivate the “observing self” which is the ability to observe the activity in the body and mind without being completely caught up in it. This takes practice, but it can be done and with even more practice, it’s possible to stay present with some pretty tricky thoughts and sensations.
For the first year, I experienced largely positive benefits of mediating regularly. I noticed that the body-mind, (let’s say for simplicity thoughts and feelings) was always in flux and things didn’t stay around very long if I observed, rather than getting involved. I also recovered a lot quicker from upset. I had moments when I felt blissful for no real reason. A chronic inflammatory condition I had experienced for many years began to improve. I was very impressed and taught the meditative exercise to many of my patients who also found it helpful.
Then there were some experiences that weren’t quite as pleasant. I remember one night waking up in a cold sweat after an extremely vivid nightmare where I knew something awful was happening but I couldn’t see what it was. The following day, I found it very difficult to stop crying. This was a problem as I had to appear as if I had my shit together for the patients. One of the effects of this particular type of meditation is a gradual release of trauma and stress. I kind of knew this could happen but I had no idea it would be as intense as it was.
I’d experienced quite a bit of childhood adversity, and I knew this intellectually but I didn’t seem to have any access to the feelings that were associated with these historical events. I continued to meditate and hoped that this stage would pass quickly. Unfortunately it got worse. I found I would almost get stuck in days of difficult feelings, depression, despair and what made it worse was the thoughts. They were negative and critical and more than once I made serious plans to end my life. Thankfully these shifted eventually. I became tearful, jumpy, anxious and slightly paranoid. This seemed to go on for weeks. I knew at some level that people weren’t really out to get me, but the body felt like they were. It was really disconcerting.
I was being guided by a teacher who I had a lot of respect for in many ways. However, I didn’t feel I was fully informed about what could potentially happen in meditative practices. I don’t feel I fully consented to it and when it was presented to me, only the positive aspects were discussed. When I started having problems, he then talked to our group about some of the “adverse” effects of practice, so he clearly knew about it! I kept on drawing parallels in my head to medicine. When I am prescribing a drug to a patient, I have to inform them of the side effects. To not do so, would be negligent. Why was this different?
Well, perhaps I am being unfair in comparison. Perhaps telling people what could go wrong primes them via a nocebo effect. However, I do feel that being forewarned would have helped me cope with it better. Instead I felt like I’d failed in some way. I didn’t tell the teacher everything because if I’m honest, I was too embarrassed. I went to the internet which, while informative, contained some scary stories about people who had become psychotic whilst meditating and stories about some people who had never fully recovered.
On the advice of the teacher, I reduced my practice right down to a couple of minutes a day. This was helpful advice and gradually the suicidal thoughts started to abate. I was still very jumpy and anxious and being present was not as pleasant as I thought it would be. The main thing that happened next was a kind of OCD that made it very difficult to practice medicine. I struggled with making clinical decisions. So much of my day involves trying to navigate the grey areas of peoples’ presentations and I was so anxious, I couldn’t tolerate any uncertainty. I eventually took three months off work and when it started to happen again after my return, I realised that the emerging feelings and stress as a result of the meditation probably contained unprocessed trauma. It was almost as if the past was presenting itself and the decisions that I was making where actually trying to deal with the feelings (the past) as opposed to navigating though the present moment. Confused? Well, I was too.
My teacher told me that I was resisting what was happening and creating more stress in the process This was true. The problem was that accepting and almost giving in to this tide of trauma and difficult feelings, imagery and thoughts was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t know who I was anymore, I felt as if I’d lost all the things that held my life together. I read about the process of “ego dissolution” in books and it terrified me. I couldn’t go back because I didn’t want to get stuck in this process. I hoped and prayed that something more stable and clear would come out in the wash.
Gradually, I began to see the processes, (even the negative ones) as simply processes. They were terrifying but familiar and I tried as far as possible to allow what was happening to happen. It was challenging. My whole body buzzed with energy. I developed tinnitus. Sleep was odd with periods of lucid dreaming and further nightmares. I had to be really careful who I spent time with as I was really affected by their energy. It felt like what they were feeling, I was feeling. I started to realise how many patients were struggling with anger and grief and general stickiness. I found it difficult to work out what was their stuff and what was mine.
Gradually, gradually things began to stabilise and they continue to do so. They settled in the sense that I was able to observe what was happening and tolerate the state pleasant or unpleasant. I was more familiar. I noticed that the “ego” or sense of self really kicked back on the brink of change and seemed to be trying to keep this largely negative self-concept alive. The familiarity made it easier to deal with. It was about this time that I discovered the work of Willoughby Britton at Brown University who is working to raise awareness of difficulties that can occur during meditation, often in those with a history of trauma.
David Treleaven is a writer and author of Trauma – Sensitive Mindfulness and his book is an excellent resource
Mindfulness can be really helpful in those with a history of trauma. It appears it can also be destabilising. This was something I discovered through experiencing, perhaps without adequate preparation. If you are embarking on such a journey, please do look these guys up and learn from them. Talk to your teachers about it and help spread the word
Until next time,