On a blog about mindfulness, the title for this post may be surprising. I have touted the benefits of meditation for more than two years now and explained myriad meditation practices. Nevertheless, I seem to be admitting here that meditation is not a solution for all problems.
To be perfectly clear, I am not merely seeming to make this admission; I am freely and fully admitting it. Meditation is not always the answer. Over the last ten years, meditation has served so many purposes in my life that I probably couldn’t account for them all if I tried to compile a list. It was foundational to personal growth and healing and it has served as the hub for developing other useful habits, like exercise.
Even so, one of biggest power moves I made in my meditation practice was learning when meditation wasn’t the answer. Ironically, this happened because cultivating mindfulness helped me pay more attention to what I needed and what practices supported me best in different situations.
To help support your own discernment in this manner, here is the list of situations in which meditation is not my first go-to practice.
1. Too Much Energy.
If I am feeling physically energetic, the last thing I want to do is sit for an extended period of time. This could be because I am experiencing stress or anger or even excitement. When you pay attention, you may notice that all of these states create physical energy in the body. My experience has taught me that it works better to go with the energy rather than fight against it. For me, this usually means I need some form of movement.
So, when I feel too jittery, I don’t push meditation. Instead, I take it as an opportunity to get my workout done for the day. If I am strapped for time, I may take a brief walk or do a quick stretch. This is not a hard and fast rule, but using up energy when I feel amped up is using mindfulness as self-care even if I choose not to meditate in that moment.
2. Intense Spiraling Thoughts.
Movement may help when the body has too much energy, so it may stand to reason that meditation may be perfect when the mind is overactive. This can be true. I intentionally choose to meditate often when my mind has thoughts rattling around in it. When the energy level on this is noticeable but moderate, meditation is ideal because it allows the mind to calm down and sort itself out.
But when the energy is high–signified by the volume, amount, or quality of the thoughts–I don’t meditate first. Instead, I have experienced greater relief and clarity from letting the thoughts go in other ways. The option that is most convenient and fully within my control is writing. I will write or type out any thoughts that come to mind for a few minutes just to get them out. If you aren’t a writer, you can also just say the thoughts out loud or do a voice memo if you don’t like talking to yourself.
If you’re lucky, you may end up writing something pretty darn good. Regardless, there’s no need for you to show what you write to anyone or even look at it again yourself. The point here isn’t to create a perfect monologue but just to get some distance from the thoughts. When the thoughts are spiraling hard, I use this strategy first before I meditate.
3. Overwhelming Emotions.
Emotions will come up in meditation so I am not telling you not to meditate if you have emotional responses or to stop practicing if they arise. With that said, when your emotions are very high, you may be best served by not trying to deal with them all by yourself. In the case of strong emotions, especially ones that seem overwhelming, it may work better to seek social support.
I have struggled with this in the past because I had the seemingly logical but misleading idea that talking about a situation wouldn’t help. While sadly true in many cases, this thought is misleading. There is more than one way to address a problem. You can address the root cause or the symptoms. Even if talking with a confidant won’t solve the problem, it may help you handle the symptoms.
Meditators may also have the idea that they need to learn to handle their emotions by themselves. This too is misleading. While it’s empowering and commendable to develop skills for emotional self-care, knowing when to seek support from others is part of that skill set. Sitting in meditation is one great part of your toolkit, but when emotions approach overwhelm seeking social support may serve you better.
4. It’s Time for Action.
Meditation helps you get clarity about a lot of things, but the practice in itself won’t create any change unless conduct follows. Sometimes in mediation practice, you may experience difficulty because you recognize things that need to change. Perhaps you feel regret or guilt because of something you did. Or perhaps you notice real hurt or difficulty in your life that being busy in life had allowed you to overlook.
Meditation practice is intended to cultivate present moment awareness, but if we let it, it can also cultivate wisdom too. Sometimes that wisdom is trying to tell us we need to take action out in the world. If I recall a recent situation and feel strong feelings of guilt, self-compassion may help me in my meditation practice. But in my life, a conversation with the affected person and an apology will serve me better.
If you are reeling from a personal loss, mental health challenge, or major life decision, meditation may also not be ideal (at least on its own). For those new to the practice, trying meditation in such circumstances may just add stress to life. Even very experienced meditators may struggle with the practice in challenging life circumstances. In short, sometimes it makes more sense to focus on cultivating stability in our lives before or instead of cultivating mindfulness in meditation practice.
In short, though I stand by my years of proclaiming the benefits of meditation, I admit that the practice is no panacea. If you practice meditation long enough, you are bound to see that other supports may be more helpful to you in certain situations. Thus, as you work to cultivate mindfulness in your life, never forget to develop self-compassion and wisdom too. Meditation is there as a practice to support a good life and it’s a good thing that it’s not the only one.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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