Looking Back: My First Year as a Meditation Practitioner

Meditation Cushion

Ever since I started meditating regularly last year, one question I continued to ask myself was: “Am I happier?”

For the first three months, my answer was “no.” Contrary to my expectations, I often felt more emotional turmoil than I had before. It seemed as though any event, no matter how trivial, would set off a wave of depression, or sometimes an unstable rush of euphoria, the comedown from which was never fun. I’ve always considered myself to be emotionally sensitive, but this was ridiculous.

The reason for this intensification of emotions was not apparent to me until just recently. Much of it had to do with the meditation techniques that I practiced, techniques which were supposed to raise my awareness of every physical and emotional sensation, thus grounding my attention in my body and in the present moment. As a side-effect, it also made emotions feel stronger, and thus much harder to ignore.

Most every day, sometimes for one hour, oftentimes for two, I would sit on a cushion with my eyes closed and attend to any sensation, be it painful or pleasant, that manifested in my body, and would endeavor to remain detached from them. If a certain area in my lower back ached, for example, I focused all my attention on the ache, and tried to experience the pain without labeling it as either “good” or “bad.” In the clearest moments, thoughts and judgments about the pain became hushed and subdued to the point that I could regard the pain as nothing more than what it was: sensation. Although it wasn’t the goal, the pain itself would often subside not long thereafter.

Because I worked to improve my awareness of sensation, it was only natural that the physical sensations that characterize emotions like anxiety, sadness, or melancholy would be felt much more strongly than they had been before. Sometimes some small misfortune would trigger an unpleasant emotion and because I was more sensitive to this emotion, I felt as though meditation, rather than improving my overall sense of well-being, worsened it.

In reality, the emotions didn’t change. What changed was how I experienced them. The more I practiced, and the more I read about the practice, I realized that meditation was not meant to purge our minds of negative emotions or thought patterns, but rather meant to help us experience them without judgment. We were to let go of our resistance to pain at the deepest level and understand that we suffer not because pain is bad, but because our mind labels it as bad.

Neurological research on meditation seems to support this idea. The big “aha” moment for me came when I watched a talk by Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, at the Buddhist Geeks Conference, who shared her insights on the latest research on mindfulness meditation and the effect that it has on the brain.

The research helped me understand the subtle shift in my experience in day to day life as I continued to practice. Essentially, the shift can be explained by changes in two systems in the brain: the “evaluation system” and the “experiential system.”

The evaluation system is essentially the brain’s “default” setting. It’s the endless stream of mental chatter by which we judge our current situation by comparing them to (often better) memories of past situations and imagined (often worse) future situations.

The experiential system, on the other hand, is more about the sensations themselves, removed from any thoughts or judgments about them. The physical sensations that come with each emotion and how we feel them in our bodies is part of this experiential system.

When we feel an emotion like stress, we’ll feel the stress hormones cause a rise in nervous energy. Our muscles tense, our jaws clench, and our breath becomes shallow. This is our experiential system at work. Our evaluation system kicks in when we decide that these sensations are bad and to be avoided.

In my experience, what meditation does is strengthen the experiential system. If, for example, I feel anxiety, I am much more aware of the physical manifestations of this emotion, so much so that it becomes hard to ignore or suppress it in the way that I had often done in the past with distractions like television, video games, work, alcohol, facebook, etc. The problem is, just because the experiential system is strengthened doesn’t mean that the evaluation system has become weaker. Instead, I’ve had the tendency to feel emotions more strongly and judge these emotions as pleasant or unpleasant as much as I had done before.

What meditation has done for me, however, is make the emotions feel so strong that I’ve found the only thing that helps is to face them directly, to dive into the unpleasant emotions and immerse myself in the physical sensations, to watch them with an unflinching eye. When I do this, I find that while the feeling of sadness, anxiety, or depression becomes stronger, the unpleasantness of the sensations become much less pronounced. My guess is because I commit myself to devoting 100% of my mental resources to the experiential system, the evaluation system quiets down. In time, I expect it to become much less dominant from lack of use.

As I see it now, the key to freeing ourselves from suffering lies not in avoiding emotions but in experiencing them more fully. This is not something that we can do overnight but a habit that we must cultivate. As I near my one year anniversary of practicing meditation, I realize that I should not ask myself how happy I am but rather how attached am I to happiness. How much do I judge my self-worth based on how happy or sad I feel? How much of my identity is invested in my thoughts and emotions? How much do I experience and how much do I judge? These are the questions that I use to gauge my progress now.

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For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching the talk by Kelly McGonigal Mentioned above. For Your convenience I’ve embedded it below. It’s 20 minutes so be sure to bookmark it and watch when you have some spare time:

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  • http://www.lucecanon.net Thomas

    That’s a pretty advanced way to meditate for your first exposure. I’m glad that you’re meditating, and finding good results, but folks really should start with simple “grounding” meditations before they go actively poking around inside their mind. Sitting and just learning to let go of thoughts/feelings/sensations.

    It’s not a space-out thing. It’s practice so that when you do get that “holy crap everything is amped up” feeling, you have the tools to let it fall away and not effect you negatively. Then you can feel safe in diving in there and experiencing things more fully, because you know it can’t hurt you.

  • Alice

    I’m surprised you stuck with it. You should have done some samadhi first. Concentration meditation helps to steady the mind & build calm & tranquility so it easier to sit with emotions & see them more objectively.

  • Larry Li

    Great read! The description and presentation of a shift from evaluation to experience is very good. Useful!!

    Thank you for sharing.

  • http://caosordenado.com Eduf

    Please, find a qualified teacher to help you. Maybe this website can help you to find one: http://www.shambhala.org

  • David

    Thank you for sharing your experience. As a fellow recent convert to Vipassana meditation I enjoyed reading your post. My practice has been slack for last few months but regardless of that I can say that meditation made me happier. Not that I would smile more now or looked happier but deep inside I feel more relaxed and balanced without having to work on it.

    Sitting for hours is the *hardest* thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I’m not exaggerating here. It is just incredibly hard, isn’t it!! What it taught me, on experiential level, is that a pain is followed by a pain. :-) First an itch in the knee, then a back pain, then some strong emotional response, etc. And to just observe those sensations without responding to them is incredibly hard.

    But what I want to say is that once I managed to achieve that to some extent and stay equanimous I now know that whatever I’m experiencing right now (being it bad or good) will pass and will get replaced by some other sensation. Better or worse one. And I cannot do anything about it! I cannot stop the change from happening. I cannot make the change to come earlier or delay it. And this, as simple or trivial as it may sound, was the key to my improved happiness or general life satisfaction. I do not agonize over problems and I more consciously enjoy good time while it lasts.

    And then there are moments when you are going to dentist or you have a need to throw up after a party and in moments like that this learn “discomfort observation” can be very very handy. :-) It makes me laugh sometimes when I can feel my body muscles going all tense for “no reason” way before my mind notices anger, pain or fear.

    Good luck Kenji!

  • http://www.dontbescared.org Jeremy Entwistle

    You’re absolutely correct. The loss of identifying with the experience is a very important aspect to meditation. It appears most people think of meditation as a tool for improving their health. That is to say, if they focus on their breath for twenty minutes a day, then they’ll feel the effects of it. And certainly by the quietness of your mind does have its benefits, but the process of living and experiencing the moment is more advantageous than the added years from the silence.

  • http://blog.sublogic.com/ James Manning

    Just in agreement, but FWIW, a talk by Diana Winston of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center ( http://marc.ucla.edu/ ) restates this a bit – the meditation isn’t going to make your emotions better or worse, just connect you more to them.

    She even alludes to (albeit, slightly) how it’s arguably a short-term ‘loss’ for people as they get better/more connected to negative emotions and then deal with them.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKRAWbq48OY

    Admittedly, I found it most interesting as Diana describes their work as a ‘secularization’ of things like Buddhist meditation.

  • Kass Sexton

    hi Kenji,
    I saw ur post shared on Facebook and felt compelled to respond as I have also had the same experience ! I too have been practicing vipassana meditation for about the same amount of time and with the same results. At first I felt it bewildering. Now I see how it has strengthened my mind through this kind of ‘trial by fire’ we have both experienced. In my own case, after a number of months now of watching my anxiety, it is abating substantially. And like you, I feel much more able to seperate from it. Thank you for your post, and thanks to those that advise a teacher. I could have done with more guidance myself as it was bewildering at times. Cheers

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  • Steve Crosland

    Hi Kenji,

    Quite good. It takes courage to face ones emotions me I’m still on the run.
    Da

  • http://www.aboutmeditation.com Nelson

    Kenji, Great article! Glad to read you stuck with meditation and have now realized it’s potential to ease pain – both physically and emotionally. Facing our emotions is a scary thought, but as you say, it is “the key to freeing ourselves from suffering”

  • Kenji

    @Alice, Tom

    I failed to mention that I do spend some time doing awareness of breath meditation when thoughts become too wild and crazy. Also, there are countless meditation techniques out there, I practice Vipassana because it’s one of the forms of meditation in with the easiest access to teachers–not to mention the fact that the retreats where one initially learn the techniques are free (you can donate at the end if you felt it had value).

  • Andrea

    Fascinating. I too have been meditating for a year but not as assiduously as you obviously have. It looks to me like you are doing goenka style vipassana. I would disagree with those above who say you are going about it the wrong way. I think you are doing brilliantly.

    I myself don’t like using the goenka technique because its so demanding. But its interesting for me to read about what happens when you do it properly. Of course i understand that even if a handful of people were all doing it assiduously, we’d possibly all still come away with different experiences and responses than you.

    You haven’t said you are doing the goenka technique but his method does put a great deal of emphasis of experiencing everything through sensation. I wouldn’t have realised that it would increase the strength your experience of them.

  • http://www.yogainraleigh.com Jessica

    Great article. I agree that there is a greater intensity, in a sense, to the awareness of events in the moment. But also an ability to let go of the editorial content quite quickly, which frankly is the source of much of my own angst. Negative thinking patterns, such as worrying and ruminating, are short-lived and seem to have much less of an impact on my life.

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  • Clifton

    Hey Kenji, I really identify with what you’re saying. Since I started a regular practice in January, I’ve noticed a great deal more emotional sensitivity. It can feel a bit overwhelming. At least until I quit judging and realize it isn’t. Cheers — excellent post :)

  • Kenji

    Glad you stopped by Clifton and Glad you liked the post :-D . We definitely need to hang out again sometime.