Why is more meditation causing me increased stress and anxiety?

Published by Sunil Uttam on

I am in the dumps, and regular meditation is not helping.

I see a lot of people taking to meditation and a lot of content explaining the techniques and benefits of meditation. 

The benefits range from increased clarity, reduced stress, and anxiety to overall peace and quiet within.

Actually, more people taking to meditation is excellent for the world, and it would be fantastic if meditation is practiced from a very young age.

“If every 8-year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” – Dalai Lama

However, there is more to the story of living a whole, well-developed life with intent, as I (re)experienced when I increased my meditation practice.

Just focussing on meditation can create a severe imbalance in your system. 

Background:

At the age of 40, there was a significant turning point in my life, when I got introduced to the practice of Yoga. 

Until then, my daily practices were linked to the way I was brought up. These included my dominant environments (school, home, friends), and any input from media.

We never had any formal education on “how to live” (probably the topic of another blog)

Yes, trust me, we need to “learn” how to live well.

I had the good fortune of having our SSY (Siddha Samadhi Yoga OR Science of Silence Yoga) guru, Sanjay Thakkar, conduct this 7-day workshop at my company, Mithi, for our entire team. 

This was my first introduction to meditation, amongst other learnings (more on this in a while)

The core idea of SSY is to teach us to be “Happy for no reason.”

For the last 12 years, I have been meditating, eating better, reading more regularly, and practicing breathing as we were trained.

Even though I practiced all this in fits and starts, there certainly was a shift (in fact, multiple shifts) in by “being” over the last 12 years. 

My re-entry into meditation:

As I am entering the next (also uncertain) phase of my life, I observed that I have been feeling generally low, anxious, and frequently stressed. This was impacting my work, my relationships, and usually my outlook towards life. 

To counter this, I took a leaf out of my SSY book and of late (especially during this lockdown period of COVID-19) I have become more consistent with meditation. To ensure I don’t miss it, I have created an environment where the habit is re-enforced.

I typically wake up at 3:30 AM, freshen up with some water and tea (light with no sugar) and then sit for my 30 mins meditation. My app shows that I have meditated for 95 days without a break, as I write this article. This must be my longest streak in the last 12 years. 

Just like meditation is supposed to do, I got more observant about my moods, thoughts, and feelings as the days passed by. 

I observed that my internal state was getting worse. And I was growing in anxiety, stress, and duress. Plus, I wasn’t sleeping so well, and I was also dreaming a lot. My appetite went down, I was irritable, desperate, and I was more or less closer to the dumps.

But wait, isn’t meditation supposed to fix all this?

Why was meditation increasing my distress?

Theoretically, I understood what was happening.

The regular meditation is creating turmoil in me as my mind rewires (neurons form new connections) itself after the 30 min rest. 

It’s the crackles as we rewire an electric network and drag a live wire across the plate. 

Basically, its the storm before the lull.

effects of meditation - storm before the lull

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

I know that if I continue this streak (while being fully present in my dumpy state), I will hit an inflection point. 

“The you that goes in one side of the meditation experience is not the same you that comes out the other side.” – Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

At this point, I would have transformed my mind to become more calm, observant, reflective, and equanimous, for good.

“If you meditate long enough, you will transform irreversibly. It’s synonymous with transforming milk to cottage cheese (paneer) to eventually clarified butter (ghee). You can’t get back the milk now.” – Om Swami (not the exact words though)

But, this daily turmoil was painful.

Was there a way to offset this turmoil while I headed towards more bliss?

Deeper Insight

Around the 60th session or so, I got a deeper connection to my distress.

I realized that my consistent meditation is creating a lop-sided development. 

I was simply meditating and working (alone at home, thanks to COVID-19). 

At about this point, I also saw a blog post “Get back your health – meditation is not enough”, from Om Swami. In this post, Om Swami describes how he has developed health issues. 

I was a bit taken aback when I read that. Even though Om Swami is a teetotaler, meditates regularly, and follows the sattvic lifestyle, his physical body had revolted. 

I wondered how an enlightened being could face such an affliction.

After reading Om Swami’s blog, it occurred to me that if the physical body can be at the receiving end (in spite of meditation), maybe the mind can also breakdown (in spite of meditation).

Back to Basics

Learning from his experience, I observed my own daily routine for other aspects that could be impacting my well being. 

And I found that my food was a bit unregulated, my exercise was near zero, and I didn’t have the time to work on my intellect by reading or having meaningful conversations.

I simply reduced my food intake and simplified it. And I introduced a walk up the hill daily, enough to break a decent sweat and bump up my heart rate. 

Sure enough, in a few days, my distress levels corrected as “my bodies” came into some more balance. 

This observation of my mental state and Om Swami’s experience is what prompted me to write this article. 

Fixing only my mind will not be enough to live a well balanced, healthy life full of intent, compassion, and understanding.

Ancient research, wisdom, and yoga tradition suggests that each human is made up of three bodies (we primarily know one) and five elements or “koshas” or sheaths, as shown below. 

The sheaths are energy bodies, and each inner one is finer and subtler than the outer one. 

Yoga - 3 bodies and 5 koshas

Most people associate well being with simply exercising and dieting well without being much aware of their subtler bodies.

We learned in our SSY program (and as explained by Om Swami) that if we intend to live a healthy life with powerful intent, we need to ensure all our five koshas are kept in good shape.

five koshas balanced by meditating, eating right, exercise etc.

Our “being” is like this pillar held upright, straight and balanced by the 5 ropes, each representing one kosha.

So how do we keep all our bodies in shape:

Our guruji had distilled all the ancient wisdom of Yoga into a simple program. This program could be followed by the common man while living in the cities. There is no need to become an ascetic in the mountains to live a holistic life.

The table below is a simple representation of the SSY program prescription. 

Making this prescription a way of life is likely to create a strong, healthy, emotionally intelligent, conscious human being. 

This human being can be happy for no reason at all times and also very creative, compassionate, and empathetic.

I think these are enough benefits to want to go after this program.

Disclaimer: This is my interpretation of my experience of the SSY program. It is not intended to fill in for the real experience of going through the program. I highly recommend this program for anybody getting on this journey. Also, the prescription below just suggests “what.” The “how” is beyond the scope of this article.

SSY five koshas prescription includes meditation, exercise, diet, sunlight, and more

Meditation is the common thread in the practices for three of the elements

The prescription for 3 out of the 5 bodies contains regular meditation as one of the practices to be done regularly.

While meditation is a root practice for the subtler bodies, it doesn’t do much for the energy or the physical body. 

In other words, you can’t (only) meditate yourself into being happy and healthy.

imbalanced five koshas

Our “being” loses balance when any one or more of the five ropes (koshas) becomes stronger or weaker.

So what’s the way forward:

Learn the “hows” for each of the five elements by connecting to an authentic source.

If you can join in an SSY program, it will be a sage move. 

Working on each of the above elements will need about 2 hours of your waking time every day. 

Trust me, its time well spent. 

As I finish writing this post, I need to go and catch up on the work for my prana, intellect, and bliss bodies. 

I am off to do that, what about you?

Credits and References

https://sivanandayogafarm.org/yoga-koshas-spiritual-mental-physical-health/

https://www.ssy.org

Milind Deshpande, my teammate, who created the two pencil sketches.

This post is in line with my anti advice policy, which is to share insights and learning from my life with my friends, associates and let them decide if and how to leverage this in their lives. I don’t have a fixed schedule to write, but I will attempt to write regularly. Surely it won’t be more often than once a week. I invite you to subscribe to my blog, connect with me and share your insights as well, so we can learn and grow together. 


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