“Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.”
The alarm sounds quietly, a preprogrammed set of chimes from my phone, indicating the end of my meditation for this evening. Unfolding my legs I become aware of excited voices of people in the other room, muffled words but excited tones, and I imagine they are fully engaged in a level of Halo. Closing my eyes again I find myself longing for the sense of connection they share, perplexed by the sense of separation which has entered my mind within moments of calling my practice to a halt. What gives, man? Just a second ago we were one with the universe and now you feel lonely? If you really believed that you were part of all the things…how could you possibly feel alone?
What a question. I have been practicing meditation and mindfulness for nineteen years, my ego screams for dear life on occasion still. So this week I wanted to reach out to those of you with an established practice who have run into the existential angst which comes to visit sometimes.
Meditation and mindfulness practice is a refuge. It is a space I open for myself twice daily, a stillness I allow myself to exist within for a set amount of time. I practice to cultivate that stillness within, to remind myself in moments of chaos that I have never been apart from that stillness I seek. However there are moments like today where I bring my practice to a close and there is a space within my chest which aches. Sometimes I look up from practice and I am afraid. Terrified of the vast weight of the universe all around me, and the tiny nature of what I consider to be “me”. In the quiet just after practice and just before I engage in my life again I feel alone. It is almost humorous how quickly my ego or self or whatever you call it, rushes in and begins to clamor for attention. There is no other activity I partake in which makes my capital “I” self begin to gripe quite like meditation. I am always in awe of how threatened my image of self must be to begin complaining that we are disconnected and alone after twenty minutes of sitting quietly in a room.
In the beginning the worries and complaints I hear from people about mindfulness practices fall two categories. First the: My mind won’t be quiet/sitting still is difficult variety. And secondly the: I am wasting time variety. The restlessness passes. It is akin to a workout routine, at first it feels difficult but as you become accustomed to the work it becomes easier. Meditation feels strange to the mind and body because often you have never used them in this way before. What I do not mention is that once you get past the initial strangeness of beginning a meditation practice there is a whole world of strange mental textures that present themselves. There is a whole world of difficult to describe weirdness that lives in that space between mind and body. Most of which has a lot to do with the capital “I”, ego, perceived self, freaking out because moving away from attachment and distraction is threatening to that idea of self. It is the definition of existential panic.
There are a few articles and books out there that address the angst of post meditation, but I felt that much of what I was reading fell into the category of phantasmagoria. Even some of the conversations I had with mentors seemed to fall into this very strange space. Much of it centered on “Well it will pass after a few years, when your connection with god is stronger it won’t happen, and coming back to the real world is sad for all of us.” I do not feel this addresses the root of the experience nor does it provide a solution to those experiencing. I am not so concerned with the “why” it is happening. It simply is. What I was seeking is a way to continue that mindfulness in moments that are unpleasant. That is the goal of my practice, to find a way to apply the Buddha mind I find within the times that I sit to my other life where I wear a suit, drive a car and feed the cat.
Mindfulness does not end when the timer goes off. I seek to apply the non judgment I have cultivated within meditation to my emotions and thoughts as we. So as you become aware of your angst, simply notice the feelings of negativity without judgment. Take a friendly interest in these thoughts. Rather than approaching them as something to be eliminated, think of sitting down to tea with those feelings and hearing what they have to say. Through years of practice I have gotten to know my own emotions intimately and have learned to pay attention to them as they are often trying to remind me of something. I challenge you to turn toward that which is a little uncomfortable or strange as growth never occurs within our comfort zone. It is okay to experience discomfort in our practice, it is a reminder that we are changing. There is always pain to be found in growth but that is no reason to turn away. Venture forth and see what you discover.