Meditation and Healing: Exploring the Relationship

The growth in the popularity of mindfulness practices has skyrocketed in recent years. According to IBISWorld, in 2016, it was a one-billion-dollar business. Being a meditator these days is a little like being one of the cool kids in school. You’re either in or you’re out. All the hoopla might have those who don’t plop down on their cushion every day wondering what the big deal is. Why has meditation become so popular? Is it hype, or are there real upsides to a regular practice? And, is it for everyone?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises by paying attention.” It is distinguished from ordinary awareness by three integral characteristics.

  • It is always and only in the present moment (now)
  • It is intentional (not passive, like daydreaming)
  • It is in the absence of judgment (not an evaluation of one’s experience, but an observation)

At its root, meditation is simply learning to focus one’s attention intentionally. Concentration can be on the breath, a mantra or sound, observing the mind’s chatter, sensations, or an object. The aspiration is to hold the focus steady without reacting to thoughts or feelings as they arise.

Why People Meditate

Some of the benefits from such a practice might be obvious. The benefits outlined below are a few common effects that many people find useful.

Being able to concentrate at will serves us in nearly every area of life. And, learning to observe the fluctuations of the mind and emotions without reacting is a skill hard to overvalue. This habit gives the meditator the ability to pause before reacting to stress and opens the door to what is a superpower in the world today—non-judgment.

Non-judgment means to observe and not assign value to one’s internal or external (interpersonal) experience. Rather than assessing, say, deep sadness as a terrible feeling, the meditator might learn to name the experience of the sadness using neutral observations. I feel a hollowness in my belly. My chest is heavy. I feel like crying. I am sad.

Having the ability to live life with the choice about whether or not to evaluate what is happening is a superpower precisely because it gives us the freedom to make that choice. Most people go through life judging everything they see, feel, and do. The problem with doing that is that we are often wrong. We are not actually seeing what is there. We’re overlaying filters that quite literally create our reality. If we could all see more clearly what is unfolding, the world would be a more peaceful place.

A regular meditation practice also strengthens our connection to sensory experiences in the body. The benefit to this is, in part, being able to pick up on the signals our body might be attempting to give and learning to see the relationship between mind, emotions, and the body. This type of self-awareness allows the meditator to recognize emotional disruption sooner, leading to greater control/balance.

It is notable to point out that the rise in popularity of mindfulness isn’t happening in a vacuum. The internet, email, and social media have overwhelmed us with information. Managing this constant onslaught has us more stressed than ever. One tool that we have to help remedy today’s ever-increasing demands is mindfulness. Meditation is a tool we can use to help offset constant stimulation (stress management). Stress management is a big selling point for meditation and rightly so for most people. Being able to pause and let your mind and body catch up can be integral to managing modern life effectively.

Healing (Some of Us or All of Us?)

Healing can mean a range of things, from overcoming an unexpected challenge or loss to resolving the impacts of severe trauma. Fundamentally, meditation heals by increasing one’s ability to focus on the whole human experience, consequently slowing (or stopping) the reaction time between perception, thoughts, feelings, and action. This dampening effect on reactive cycles increases the meditator’s tolerance for uncomfortable emotions and sensations. Meditation doesn’t necessarily end the discomfort; it changes how we relate to it.

I have been through long periods in my life when I meditated every day and others when it was either impossible or deeply disruptive. As you re-embark on or begin your meditation journey, keep in mind that what it looks like today may be different from last time or next. Approaching the practice with curiosity and acceptance allays potential downsides by not adding to one’s sense of loss or disappointment.

As a survivor of both developmental and complex trauma, it’s hard to be sure what next month will look like. Meditation and forgiveness have helped me find lasting acceptance of my experiences. The key to making progress is to respond compassionately, listen, be patient, and come back when the time is right. Only the individual on the journey knows when that is. Just remember that if any of the following risks ring true for past experience or arise in the future, you’re not doing it wrong or failing. Your internal system is trying to tell you something—listen and be kind to yourself.

Potential Risks of Meditation

The risks associated with meditation are not as commonly discussed as they should be. It is essential as a practitioner or a facilitator to be aware that many factors can influence individual responses to practice. If you or someone you know has difficulty sitting still and observing the activity of the mind and body without getting hooked in, it may not be solely a lack of practice.

Increased tension: Sometimes, when I sit and pay attention to my breath, the tension in my body actually rises. It could be that before sitting, I was repressing or dissociating from parts of my system. Learning to reconnect with those parts is important, but it is a process that takes time. More tension could also be caused by thinking about the past or future, or particular breathing patterns. Making adjustments and paying attention should help if this arises.

Anxiety: Several factors could cause anxiety during meditation. It may be that it was already there, and you are only now noticing it. Or an unexpected sensation, emotion, or thought could trigger it. Sitting through the discomfort would be the traditional instruction. I find it better to push gently and pause when necessary.

Emotional upset/dysregulation: Similarly to anxiety, you may begin to meditate and realize you are deeply sad or angry at that moment. If you can identify the source of the upset, sitting with it can be profoundly helpful. It could make sense to pause if it is more generalized or worsens.

Depersonalization: Meditators sometimes lose a sense of self. This may be caused by observing parts of ourselves we do not recognize or the disintegration of the boundaries of our body that could come from extended periods of stillness.

Traumatic re-experiencing: Particularly for meditation facilitators, it’s essential to know that if a student becomes dysregulated and reports terrifying memories or sensations, they may be encountering trauma in the body. It is wise to stop when this occurs unexpectedly and develop a plan for next time. Processing the trauma this way can be helpful, but know if you begin the journey, finding resolution and balance again can take a long time.

Dissociation: I don’t know how much of my life I have been dissociated, but I would guess maybe 30-40 percent. Mindfulness and self-forgiveness have helped me name it and observe it without judgment, but as of yet, mindfulness has not helped get me out of the state. Dissociation is a sense that you are not fully connected to all of yourself, your memories, or your aspirations. It might manifest as fogginess or numbness (mental, emotional, or physical). It is much more common than is currently acknowledged.

Psychosis: There are many stories of past meditators and yogis losing their grasp on reality. Perhaps this is due to having an energetic experience that one cannot comprehend. Psychosis is usually temporary.

Meditation and Trauma

For those recovering from trauma, meditation can cause dysregulation they may have otherwise avoided. The idea that we have to plow through all of the energetic entanglements to overcome the impact of trauma is mistaken. If nothing else, the lesson of trauma should be to learn how to be tender and compassionate. The overwhelming disruption that can arise during meditation is not helpful. If you are a trauma survivor interested in the benefits of meditation, try it. If you feel yourself becoming tense or have uncontrolled, unpleasant thoughts or sensations, stop immediately. Let it go for today. Try again tomorrow or in a month (or a year). Whether you are processing with the help of a therapist or using your own mindful intentionality, at some point, you will likely be able to benefit from a wise meditation practice. My sagest advice, having been through this cycle more than once, is to be patient and do not push. I wish I had known that before diving headlong into any promise of freedom from suffering.

Meditation and Forgiveness

Meditation increases acceptance and non-resistance by allowing the meditator to observe what is happening without reacting. Forgiveness begins with the willingness to see and accept ourselves and our past as they are. You can’t get any traction unless you’re standing on the truth (truth with a little “t”). Mindfulness helps build the capacity to see the painful parts of our past without denying or judging.

Meditation is also an asset in forgiveness because it increases our present moment awareness. All healing takes place in the heart and in the present moment. As we experience the discomfort associated with the forgiveness process, we also have a greater ability to allow the uncomfortable sensations to come and go.

How to Ease In

I’ve been meditating on and off for decades. I have had long periods where it was impossible to do, and times when being able to sit, close my eyes, and allow the process to unfold was the best part of my day. Here are a few lay-person tips to help encourage tenacity and compassion if your meditation journey is complicated like mine.

  1. Take baby, baby steps. If you begin and find ourself distressed, try observing the experience. Don’t get attached to the sensations and thoughts you have. If you find this difficult or impossible, take a break. You’ll have a sense of when your internal landscape is coming closer toward equilibrium. Stay for a few minutes (with a timer) when that time comes. If it gets bumpy, permit yourself to stop.
  2. Have a plan (and maybe stick with it). I can go to hell and back four times in a twenty-minute meditation. I need to know I will be safe and back to normal (whatever that means) on the other side. If you plan to sit for five minutes, sit for five minutes. If you plan to have lunch with your best friend afterward, do your best to do that. And, most importantly, be gentle with yourself.
  3. End the meditation intentionally. Especially if you cry or feel deep wounds, get up and do something fun or physically rigorous. Try to avoid checking out, but be kind to yourself if that happens. You didn’t choose to dissociate. When you come back, the safety you feel will teach you to trust the process.
  4. Plan to take time afterward if needed. It still amazes me how much a short meditation can impact my day. For years I meditated in the evening for this reason. I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t disrupt my day. Use how long it takes to get back to normal after meditating to help determine when to try again.
  5. Don’t give up. I might not be able to sit for months at a time (during times when I am again processing the impact of past traumas). But, I am still a meditator. What others think about that does not matter. They have no idea how much courage and strength it takes to try again. Your intention matters. Above all else, listen to your inner guidance.

Now, go download one of the many meditation apps or check out some of the millions of videos on YouTube. Buy a book. Visit a meditation center. Or, set the timer on your phone for ten minutes in the morning and sit still in bed. It only takes one tiny shift to clarify the power of meditation. That alone might motivate you to develop a practice that is all your own.

Reader Resources (added 2021)

Cheetah House: “Cheetah House is a non-profit organization that provides information and resources about meditation-related difficulties to meditators-in-distress and providers or teachers of meditation-based modalities.”

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Training with David Treleaven: