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When you’re afraid of meditating

Birds nest in old mans handsFor various reasons, we can sometimes experience a fear of meditating. We may know that meditating would help us, but we find the thought of getting on the cushion terrifying. Perhaps we bury ourselves in distractions in order to keep the fear at bay.

If this is something you experience, how can you deal with it? I’d suggest that rather than “be tough” and forcing yourself to meditate, it would be more useful to be accepting and compassionate toward your anxiety. Your anxiety isn’t intending to be your enemy — it thinks it’s protecting you from some kind of danger. It’s misguided rather than “bad.” So what you need is reassurance.

I encourage people to notice where the anxiety is most strongly centered in the body (often it’s the solar plexus, where there are lots of nerves that get activated when fear is aroused).

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Then, as best you can, let the anxiety be there. The part of your brain that’s generating the anxiety is already expecting an attack, so do you really want to confirm its fears by being the one who does the attacking? So let go of any thoughts about how anxiety is bad, or how it shouldn’t be there, or how you shouldn’t be anxious, or how there’s something wrong with you for being anxious. If those thoughts arise, don’t encourage them. Just note their arising and relax back into your experience of the body. Your anxiety is just a sensation in the body. It’s not (if you’re anxious about meditating) a sign that there’s something wrong, or that there’s something wrong with you. It’s OK to feel anxious. You can reassure yourself about this by saying, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.”

What the anxious part of you needs is kindness and reassurance. So try putting your hand on your solar plexus and saying to your anxiety, “I love you, and I want you to find peace. May you be happy.” You can make reassuring movements with your hand as you do this. If the anxiety is specifically about meditating, then you can add things like, “It’s OK. We can do this. I know you’re afraid, but we can handle this.” Become your own healer.

At this point you’re already meditating, so you can just sit where you are and continue. Perhaps after some time you can gently move to your meditation place.

As Rilke wrote, “Be of good courage. All is before you, and time passed in the difficult is never lost.”

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from Catherine
Time: December 18, 2013, 6:07 pm

Thank you for this. I have no problem regularly going on retreat, listening to dharma talks, meditating at the local centre, etc but I do anything rather than sit down on my own. Yet when I do it I know how helpful it is. I really am going to try what you suggest.

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Comment from Janet
Time: January 14, 2014, 1:24 am

Bodhipaksa, this doesn’t really relate to anxiety that arises while I’m meditating but is more generalized and makes it difficult to cope with certain situations, ie., work, and is then met with assertions from a loved one that I *should* be able to cope and if I would only do a, b, and c, I *would* be able to cope. Any suggestions? As I am sure you can guess, those assertions send my reptilian brain right over the edge :)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 14, 2014, 7:13 pm

Hi, Janet.

I’m not entirely clear whether you’re asking for advice about the anxiety at work, or the suggestions from your well-meaning loved one :(

With the anxiety at work, it could depend on what’s causing the anxiety. My ways of dealing with being overwhelmed with tasks would be quite different from my ways of dealing with inter-personal problems, or from my ways of dealing with problems with the tax office. Generally, though, the techniques I outlined in this article would be useful for any anxiety. In fact they’re useful for any suffering — something I’ll come back to in a moment.

With regard to your loved one, the advice is meant well, even if it’s lacking in empathy. It would be helpful, when being on the receiving end of such advice, to remember that the other person is well-meaning. They do have your best interests at heart, even if the execution is flawed. So there’s scope for having metta for the other person because they’re trying to help, compassion for them because they’re lacking the ability to actually be helpful, and also to have compassion for yourself because it’s hard not to get what you need. You can do that by adapting what I wrote above: noticing where in the body your suffering is located, allowing it to be there, and by wishing it well, for example by saying “May you be well; may you be happy.” And what you need is, after all, empathy, so giving yourself empathy will take the edge off for you so that you’re less likely to have your reptilian brain pushed over the edge.

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Comment from Janet
Time: January 17, 2014, 4:56 pm

Thanks so much for this, Bodhipaksa! I’m going to try that – compassion for both of us in that moment of suffering, because you’re right, my loved one is *trying* to help and I’m sure my coworkers are doing the best they can under their circumstances as well.

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Comment from Anna
Time: December 26, 2014, 3:46 pm

Hi..when i close my eyes and try to clear my mind i feel like something bad is going to happen i i feel that i need to open my eyes imediatly..is like i feel that something “evil” is watching..when i open my eyes i calm down

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 27, 2014, 11:33 am

Hi, Anna.

Fear is just a feeling. The thought that something evil is watching you is just a thought. You don’t have to believe that the fear is about something real, and you don’t have to believe your thoughts. While you’re meditating, try standing back and observing your fear and the thoughts it gives rise to. You could try noticing different places where you feel fear, and different sensations that you recognize as fear, and as you identify each one say to yourself, “That’s interesting.” Just see what happens…

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Comment from Jenny
Time: February 18, 2015, 6:28 pm

Hi Bodhipaska.
I have an issue that is somewhat troublesome to me and i think I’m working through it but I might need something more.
I had a couple of bad experiences with over breathing/hyperventilating. I do read comments telling me this can happen but I haven’t seen any comments coming close to the intensity I felt. All of my skin seemed to heat up and feel strange… not tingling but something like it, just not pleasant. I was lightheaded and probably would have passed out. My heart was racing which I think was simply caused by the fear I felt. Now, I can think of many reasons it was so uncomfortable to me. I have a strong fear of losing control in general, I am blind so I have a very acute awareness of body sensations and sound. I did read up on the parasympathetic nervous system and how things can get a bit weird. But all of this logic helps little.

I have mentioned before that I’m a firm believer in the power of knowing. But It seems it backfires on me when this happens and I don’t know in detail what is happening. So this fear of meditating that brought me to this post is most certainly a fear of losing control.

I’m not quite sure how to go about dealing with it.
I would appreciate any thoughts on this.

Jen

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Comment from Jenny
Time: February 18, 2015, 6:31 pm

Hi again. I just want to clarify that the method of breathing that brought me to that state is not what I do now. I learned from the mistake. But again, logic doesn’t help much.
:)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 12, 2015, 10:58 am

Hi, Jen.

Things like your skin feeling warmer and tingling are not only common, but are good signs. You mentioned that you’ve been researching the parasympathetic nervous system, which is of course boosted by meditation. One thing that this system does as its activity increases is to increase blood flow to the skin. This is usually most noticeable to people who are new to meditation. Once people have been meditating for a while these things often settle down and become less noticeable.

So what was happening was a sign that your meditation was working.

Now, about this being “unpleasant” — it’s a peculiarity of the human mind that the same sensation can be perceived as pleasant or unpleasant depending on how you interpret it. The physical sensations of exhilaration and fear are, as far as I can see, exactly the same, but fear is unpleasant while exhilaration is welcomed and even sought. In fact when I’m experiencing fear I can “flip” it over into exhilaration just by telling myself that I’m exhilarated!

So your mind was telling you that these good signs were something to be worried about, and so you not only worried about them but interpreted them as being unpleasant. You don’t have to do that. It’s a choice.

As for losing control, you only think you have control in the first place. You can’t stop yourself aging, or getting sick, or dying. You can’t become happy just by deciding to do so. You can’t stop yourself from thinking by force of will. Thoughts of various kinds will appear in the mind even though you might not want them to be there. Try not to think of Winnie the Pooh, for example. How did that work out for you? :)

So relax. You’re not in control. Life is the wind, and you’re flying a kite. You can tug at the strings and have some effect, but ultimately you don’t control anything because the wind does its own thing, and all you can do is adapt. The more you can accept that, the happier you’ll be.

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Comment from leona
Time: June 5, 2015, 7:55 am

Dear Bodhipaksa,
i experience a problem when i am meditating.when i start meditating i get quite bad pressure in my head,which is anxiety.I sometimes gets in on my chest,it can basically travel round my body.I am trying to observe it but i think i am doing it wrong.i kind of feel subconsciously that i shouldn’t be anxious.my anxiety is all about getting anxious,so it is a vicious circle and i don’t know how to get myself out of it.any advice please?i do meditating on my own,do you think it would be a good idea to have guided meditation with a professional?thank you for your reply.leona

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 5, 2015, 8:02 pm

Hi, Leona. You didn’t say what kind of meditation you do, which might have been relevant information. But in principle I’d agree that it’s probably a good idea to try a guided meditation meditation, since it might help you to adopt a new set of habits and perhaps lose some less helpful ones.

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Comment from leona
Time: June 7, 2015, 9:02 am

Hello again,
thank you for your comment.
i am doing the breathing meditation when i concentrate on my breath and and go into my body,but when I do so my anxiety kicks in and it can be overwhelming.any advice please?thank you for your reply.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 8, 2015, 11:59 am

Hi, Leona.

I’m on retreat, which is why my reply is delayed.

I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been experiencing anxiety. But be aware that this is normal. Usually the actual core of the anxiety is quiet minor, and the majority of the experience is us being anxious about being anxious. Simply locate where the anxiety symptoms are manifesting most strongly in the body, accept that it’s normal and OK for you to feel that way, and then give the anxious part of you reassurance. Say to it things like “It’s OK. It’s OK to feel like this. I’m here for you. I love you and I’ll take care of you.” Treat your anxiety the same way you might treat a scared three-year-old, in other words. (All of us have a scared inner three-year-old do deal with!)

You might also want to try lovingkindness practice, which will help you to give yourself more reassurance as you go into mindfulness of breathing or walking meditation.

As to why you’re anxious, in a calm moment you might want to try to put into words why you feel this fear. Sometimes we’ve been encouraged to think that there’s something “bad” lurking inside us that we need to avoid. Sometimes there are feelings in the body we want to avoid. Identifying the views that lead to fear, and then questioning the validity of those views, can be very helpful.

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Comment from leona
Time: June 10, 2015, 5:20 am

Hello,thank you for your reply.i know exactly what i fear it is the healing energy which surounds us.i am trying to let it in to take care of my anxiety but the anxiety is still present,this is when i do the walking meditation.i can feel the energy around me,how light and calm is and tryinh to fill my body with it but my ego fears it so badly.

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