[content warning: exercise]
I hate mindfulness. Hate it, hate it, hate it. The ten minutes I spend meditating is easily the least pleasant ten minutes of my day.
Unfortunately, I am also a borderline, and mindfulness meditation is the one consistent element in every successful treatment for borderline personality disorder. So here we are.
Over the past few months, I have learned two useful things about meditation that make it a horrible and helpful experience instead of a horrible and pointless experience.
First: meditation is not relaxing. Well, evidently it is relaxing for some people, because every time I read about meditation there’s some asshole being like “I love meditation! I’m so relaxed afterward! It really gives me some time to myself! It’s so important to take some time away from your busy schedule and just be.” This always fills me with seething hatred. I don’t support this seething hatred, mind you. I hope that people who feel relaxed from meditation find their bliss and reach all their goals in life, those fucking douchebags.
For me, meditation is like weightlifting. While exercise can be fun, when you are on your last rep of squatting The Heaviest Thing, you are probably not relaxed and thinking about all the awesome time you’re taking for yourself. You are probably like “oh god, oh FUCK, why am I DOING this, I am ACTUALLY CLINICALLY INSANE, I am NEVER GOING TO EXERCISE AGAIN.” But then throughout the rest of your day you are smarter and more energetic, you can carry in all the groceries by yourself, and you feel happier– if only because, no matter what happens for the rest of your day, you are never going to squat anything again.
(Unfortunately, unlike weightlifting, meditation does not give me a sense of accomplishment at beating my previous successes, a surge of endorphins kicking my anxiety in the ass for hours afterwards, or sick biceps. If this state of affairs changes, I will write a new blog post.)
Meditation is like weightlifting for your brain. It feels absolutely miserable in the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working. Just like when you lift weights you’re training your ability to pick up heavy things and put them down, when you meditate (at least for the kind of meditating I do for my BPD) you’re training metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to think about and control your own thinking. Which is skills like:
- recognizing that just because you think everyone in the world hates you doesn’t mean that everyone in the world actually hates you
- realizing that worrying about whether your train is going to be late will not actually cause your train to be on time, and then actually not worrying about it instead of making yourself miserable for no reason
- focusing on the movie you’re watching or the stupidly expensive cheese you’re eating, instead of your to-do list or the dumb thing that someone said on the Internet
- noticing when you are compulsively refreshing Facebook and not doing that
- noticing when you feel the urge to go to and then compulsively refresh Facebook, and then not doing that
So, useful shit, especially if you are a person like me whose brain is naturally like a toddler with a kazoo who has eaten nothing but sugar in the past 24 hours and who has just been taken to a grocery store.
Training metacognition does not have to be fun or relaxing! In fact, it might be wildly unpleasant, especially if you are on Team Emotionally Dysregulated People With Monkey Minds. It’s okay. All those people who enjoy meditation are a great object of loving-kindness meditation.
Second: if the specific reason that your meditation is wildly unpleasant is that you normally block out all your emotions because you feel super-terrible all the time and then once you meditate you are aware of how super-terrible you feel all the time and you try to return your mind to the object of meditation but that just makes you feel worse and worse and then it starts building on itself and then you start crying and have a panic attack–
Well, that happened to me a lot, until I tried a technique from Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance.
When you start noticing you feel like shit, but before you get to the part where you start crying and have a panic attack, just refocus your attention on the fact that you feel like shit. Make that your object of meditation. Try to notice as many details as you can about it. Where is it located in your body? What physical sensations are associated with it? Observe your thoughts about it.
You want to approach this with an attitude of acceptance and compassion. That means that instead of being all like “ugh, why am I feeling miserable, I’m supposed to be relaxing, this is the worst, I’m so unhappy, I never want to do this again” you want to think “welp, this is what’s happening in my brain right now, I guess. I feel terrible. I hurt all over. That is what’s happening in this moment.” That’s the acceptance bit. And you also want to try to feel a sense of care and concern about yourself: like you’re a little wounded bird that’s in a lot of pain. It’s not a good thing that you’re hurting. It’s actually really bad. You are in pain, and that totally sucks, and you wish that you weren’t.
If your pain gets worse, keep observing it. If it gets better, you can refocus on your breath or your mantra or sending lovingkindness to beings everywhere or whatever your object of meditation is, and then once again when your unhappiness starts distracting you from your object of meditation return to paying attention to your unhappiness.
This is training the skills of self-compassion and actually feeling your pain instead of numbing yourself out. If you’re having this problem, those are probably pretty important metacognitive skills for you to have! (I know it seems like “feeling pain” is a terrible skill, but (a) you are still miserable if you are miserable and constantly distracting yourself from your misery (b) knowing that you’re in pain is necessary to be able to make plans to fix your pain. You can still distract yourself if you need to, but having this skill just means you distract yourself when you think it’s a good idea instead of all the time.) So you shouldn’t be upset at yourself if this is happening; it’s a great opportunity to practice.
(I had the worst time Googling for solutions for this problem, by the way. So I hope this manages to get in the top ten Google results for “adverse effect” “meditation” in case it helps someone else.)