When Meditation Becomes Mental Masturbation

I’ve always had a pretty psychology-heavy approach to spirituality, even before I went to grad school. I confess that I am one of those people who studied psychology in part to figure myself out; while in some ways I am a very capable, functional and adaptable human being, I do have my challenges. I’ve used therapy for years to help treat my anxiety and other idiosyncracies, but even when going on a weekly basis, I still have to attend to myself the other 167 hours. For a good long while I used meditation, with a strong focus on emotional processing, as a big part of my personal psychological toolkit.

It worked pretty well for several years. It gave me an outlet for exploring the weird twists and turns of my mind, particularly regarding my past. I grew up in a pretty safe and loving household, and even if I seemed to be a peculiar child, I was never, ever unwanted. But I also grew up with a constant onslaught of bullying at school, starting in second grade and going all the way to the end of high school. I had very few friends, and most of the ones I did have would often turn on me with no notice. For years I found refuge outdoors, alone and mostly unsupervised, able to immerse myself in the fauna and flora and fungi around me. But there was an additional trauma when the woods I took refuge in were suddenly and brutally bulldozed, and I found myself with nowhere to turn with my grief.

My twenties were tough, and I spent a lot of time trying to detangle myself from all these early influences. And for a while, it served its purpose. I gained more awareness of why I behaved in certain ways, and felt a little less like a badly programmed automaton. I even did some rite of passage work to banish certain behavior patterns or the effects of particular memories as a way of trying to reprogram myself.

But knowing how my brain worked and doing one-off symbolic actions wasn’t enough. In fact, beyond a certain point, it became counterproductive. I started spending too much time in my head, and would retreat into it as a defense against the anxiety, stress and other nasties that had plagued me for so long. I thought that if I could just tell my life story a little more clearly, I’d somehow be free of it, once that final piece was laid into place.

Yeah. About like that. http://bit.ly/Tcft0Q

Yeah. About like that. http://bit.ly/Tcft0Q

That’s not how it happened, of course. I just obsessed over my past more and more. More destructively, I was judging and measuring and nitpicking my every move and thought and trying to determine “Well, why am I doing this?” I was my own special little lab rat. I’d do a thing, and then I’d analyze it to death, and then I’d write up the “results”, usually on Livejournal. I don’t even want to think about how many pages-long posts of agonized processing I word-spewed onto the update page (thankfully hidden under LJ-cuts to spare my followers who didn’t give a crap what was going on in the deepest convolutions of my gray matter). It can basically all be summed up as “I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS THING FROM MY PAST BECAUSE I DID A THING NOW THAT REMINDED ME OF IT AND NOW I’M GOING TO TAKE AN EXACTO BLADE AND SLICE IT UP INTO TINY BITS AND SCRUTINIZE IT UNDER THIS MICROSCOPE AND LOOK AT HOW DEEP AND INTROSPECTIVE I AM EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO MEDITATE AND REFLECT AND PROCESS IT SOME MORE IT’S NOT MUSHY ENOUGH”.

This was all amplified when I ended up in a relationship for a few years with someone who also did a good deal of internal processing and past-picking. Now I had someone else encouraging me to dig deeper, spend more time “sitting with myself” and my problems and my pain and otherwise focusing on the stuff in my head. Some of their suggested techniques were different than what I was doing, but the result was the same–I stayed stuck in my head, a broken record skipping over the same crack again and again and thinking that the sound I made was the music I was supposed to hear. Eventually it became something of a horrible feedback loop between us, especially when we’d fight–instead of dealing with the problem itself, we’d take turns explaining exactly why we were each behaving the way we were, sometimes spending hours in this war-storying* circlejerk. Unsurprisingly, the actual thing we were fighting about rarely got addressed, and it would just come up again later. In the interim, we’d both meditate and otherwise “reflect” on ourselves and our quirks and flaws in an attempt to gain control of them, which invariably did little good. I was supposed to be visiting my past in these meditations as a way of giving myself control in my everyday life, but instead all I was doing was reinforcing the neurological pathways in my brain that led to the anxiety and other problems.

This approach to “fixing things” continued until I became involved with my current partner a few years ago and began trying the same processing patterns with him. Not too long into our relationship, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, and my immediate response was to open up the mental Rolodex of “Why is this happening? What patterns in my childhood led to this response behavior?” and so forth, going over the same tired examples in the hopes of finding some new little twist I’d missed before. He’d seen this happen a few times, and he’s a pretty observant person; I’ve actually learned quite a bit about empathy and active listening from him.

So he stopped me in mid-sentence. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Lupa, what are you trying to do? You’re not ten years old any more; you’re not fifteen, and you’re not twenty. You are who you are now, and you need to stop hanging on so tightly to who you were back then. Be here now.” And then instead of letting me continue to obsess over the reasons for my anxiety attack and what created my anxiety disorder in the first place and who bullied me, etc. etc., which kept my anxiety heightened until I exhausted myself, he carefully walked me through the anxiety, calmed me down, and grounded me in the present.

It boggles my mind that until that point no one had ever effectively done that for me before. I’d gotten a lot of dismissive remarks like “Just get over it” and “What are you making such a big deal for?” I’d gotten yelled at and bullied and retraumatized into shutting up by those who couldn’t handle what was happening to me any more than I could, even by people who were supposed to be helping me. And I’d both inflicted on myself and had reinforced by others this idea that if I just “sat with my past” it would fix everything and empower me to change; in the end, people who thought they were helping me by leading me deeper into myself were just perpetuating the problem and hurting me even more with their “expertise”. And yet someone who had only known me for a handful of weeks was able to see where I was stuck in my head and gave me a lifeline out of it.

It took me a while after that incident to break myself of the instant response of “INTERNALIZE! PROCESS! REFLECT!” whenever I got hit with stress. There were plenty of times where I realized, or my partner observed, that “Lupa, you’re doing that thing again. Quit it. Come back here.” And being that I was deep in grad school at the time, I was embroiled in upper-level psych and counseling classes that kept unearthing things in my head (this is why my program required every student to receive at least ten hours of therapy before starting their practicum). So it was a hard fight out of my internal cage.

But eventually I got there. I don’t remember the precise time when things shifted; like so much growth, it was gradual–as opposed to the sudden growth spurts I think I must have been expecting with every new revelation I discovered about my past during meditations and processing sessions. It’s been a couple of years at least, though, since I can remember it happening.

Of course, some things are still the same old Lupa–I still have anxiety attacks now and then, usually from fairly predictable stimuli. But at least now my panicking brain focuses on the here and now, along with some catastrophizing about the future. The catastrophizing I can get around by reminding myself that I’m looking at the worst case scenario and the future hasn’t arrived yet so it does no good to worry about it now, and so then I can get down to the business of the present. And because I’m shifting my focus to the present, I become aware, most of the times when an attack happens, that my mind is going haywire because my brain and body are flooded with fight, flight or freeze chemicals, and I hang onto that awareness til the chemicals flush out of my system and I can think rationally again.

More importantly, I’m not constantly reinforcing that connection with my past. While I have an understanding of how my past shaped who I am today, it’s no longer the central focus of my identity like it used to be. Instead, “influences from my past” is just one of many and varied threads of self that all weave together to create who I am in this moment. Nor do I have to nitpick every single thing I do under the magnifying glass of my past. If I happen to notice a connection between past and present, I note it briefly, usually with a bit of curiosity and “Huh, okay, that makes sense”. And then I move the fuck on with my day.

For me, some grounding techniques are less like the third prong on a plug, and more like sticking a knife into a live outlet. http://bit.ly/1ouNaoc

For me, some grounding techniques are less like the third prong on a plug, and more like sticking a knife into a live outlet. http://bit.ly/1ouNaoc

This is a big part of why my path has shifted so drastically to the physical in recent years. Pagans talk about “grounding” in the sense of visualizing one’s self being energetically rooted into the earth. Sometimes it involves symbols of nature, like pretending to be a tree and putting down roots, but it’s still a technique based on being in my head. The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I go back to what worked first in my life–I go outside, preferably alone and where it’s quiet. It allows me respite from my thoughts, and it does things that reduce the physiological causes of anxiety and stress, like lowering my blood pressure and letting my senses drift instead of focus hard. My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking. When I come back, my thoughts and plans are more calm and steady, not frazzled from reaching inside for THE ANSWERS.

Does this mean I’ve written off meditation entirely? Absolutely not. But these days I use it as an antidote to overthinking; my meditation is based in mindfulness, not magic. Even when I do guided visualizations I’m not trying to power my way through chakra blockages or go on quests to seek the grails within. Instead, what I visualize are things that reconnect me with the physical world. With my eyes closed, I try to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, or to remember where I am in location to a specific tree. And then when I open my eyes again, I am fully here and now again, not rabbiting off down some path to the mean old past yet again.

And that’s made all the difference. A few years ago, if I were talking about my relationship with meditation down the years, I’d be hyper-analyzing every detail of the story, and finishing it with “…and that’s why I am the way I am today! Look how smart I am for recognizing that!” And that’s it. This post is a curious note in my thoughts today, where I realized “Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!” And my response was “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” I thought maybe my cautionary tale would be of interest to some readers, maybe if others are stuck in the same headspace; I got out, and maybe you can, too.

As to my ongoing work to calm my anxiety? I acknowledge that my brain doesn’t quite work right; maybe that’ll change someday, maybe not, but I don’t need to try to figure out every single thing that led up to it being the way it is. It’s okay that I’m able to largely ignore injuries of the past and let them work on healing while I do other stuff. I’m like this little puppy with a busted leg all wrapped up, run-stumbling around Tumblr lately:

tumblr_n69yogDayq1qb5gkjo1_500

Like Tumblr user iraffiruse said about the pup:

Some people might feel sorry for themselves in this situation

Puppy don’t care

Puppy’s got stuff to do

Puppy’s got places to be

Puppy’s got people to bark at and things to sniff.

And I think I can relate to that little ouch-legged pup in that.

* War-storying is a term I picked up from when I was interning at an addictions treatment facility in my final year of grad school. It refers to a phenomenon in addictions treatment where the client spends their time telling and re-telling stories from their past to get an emotional rise out of themselves and, as they hope, their audience. It isn’t particularly effective, as it’s just reliving the experience rather than attending to its effects in the now. It’s also very similar to some of the “internal work” I was attempting to do.

18 Comments.
  1. Lupa,
    Your book finally arrived a few minutes ago. Huzzah! LOL 🙂

    I am very interested in the “New Paths to Animal Totems.

    We are also interested in Therioshamanism. I will be heading to that website shortly.

    Blessings,
    Al

    • Wonderful, thanks for letting me know! Please let me know how you like it, and if you have any questions about any of my work.

  2. MLE

    “My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking.” – Nodding my head a lot here. I’ve done my fair share (and then some 😉 of LJ-processing, but these days prefer to be quiet and still and in Nature (even if’n it’s just in my backyard).

  3. You know, its kind of strange and yet neat that I can relate to this on so many levels. I had a habit of “dwelling on the past” when ever I was stressed and it was just a downward spiral every time. To the point of depression for most of my youth and palpitations.

    It wasn’t until a special someone (who later became my spouse) pointed it out and told me that it wasn’t helping me to do that. It can be easy to say “stop dwelling on it”, but doing it is a different matter. When ever It was pointed out that I was doing it I was told as much and encouraged to stop thinking about it and, like you, focus on the now and the reality of what is actually causing the problem. By golly did that ever work, you just have to break that habitual metal cycle. I wish I had known that way back. Thankfully I can teach our child what I wish I learned and hopefully that will be passed down and shared with friends.

    One thing that helped to break the habit was a kind of meditation I came across with the Reformed Druids of North America. It is a form of “grounding” but didn’t have any of the poetics of imagining being different romanticized things. It focused on awareness while grounding. So you end up with no thoughts running through your head and are very much fully aware of your surroundings – open eyed. Its quiet lovely and got to the point that I can slip into that almost automatically now without realizing what I’m doing when I feel a bit stressed about something. Usually when I’m walking or resting somewhere in the woods (I actually posted the meditation that it ended up being here – http://ehoah.weebly.com/meditation.html). I’m so glad I was able to get farmer’s permission to wander on their property. Otherwise I’d only be left with being in town. Lately I’ve managed to get a tiny garden together by my stair case and is a nice little nook of my own – even with the odd passer-by. Many of them don’t realize I’m there unless I say something. Sometimes cultivating that space is all I need to get my mind off things. I think that’s why gardening is one of the top recommended activities for people with various mental and physical illnesses – you refocus your energy on something that is actually worth your time and get a good dose of in the dirt medicine.

    Another thing that helps a lot – for general stress that has no knowable source, I just meet my needs – AKA “jimmying my switch”. Also works well when you can’t sleep. ^_^

    I’m glad you have someone who is supporting you in your personal journey. Its a great comfort and joy to have that reliable support in your life. So with your current anxiety, I’m sure you’ll be well on your way to saying ““Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!””

    All the best *hugs*

    • There’s a big difference between reflection and rumination, and yet sometimes it’s hard to see when you’re in the thick of it, to be sure. And it is good to have someone to shake you out of your usual patterns; we aren’t always able to bootstrap ourselves!

      Thanks for the meditation–I’ll add it to my personal toolkit. It’s similar to some of the mindfulness exercises I picked up while working as a counselor. Same thing goes for the physical activity, and really holding to my promise to myself to go hiking every week.

      And thank you for your support–it’s good to know I’m not alone *hugs*

  4. “The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it.”

    This is, in a nutshell, why I have slowly traded in most of what made me Pagan over the years and, ultimately, how I became a tea ceremony practitioner. I became more and more concerned with the present moment and with the world I live in rather than the stories I could imagine. I didn’t really have a very strong imagination anyway, so it wasn’t a hard trade.

    I’m sure that that “willful dissociation” has a purpose and a direction to it, and I don’t want to seem like a one-true-wayist; still, I do wonder if there couldn’t be more room within our milieu for more of this kind of present-in-the-flesh practice. Perhaps it doesn’t look so epic or shiny, but it is a big part of being a balanced human in the world.

    Great article, Lupa.

    • Huh. Could you tell me a little more about how you got into the tea ceremony and how it helped you? I’m only a little familiar with it as a general concept.

      I keep coming back to moderation in this. I still do some reflection work, but nowhere near to the degree I did before, and when it does come up I work hard to keep it connected to the now–and to my options for the future. I can’t do anything about the past, and I think part of my obsession was trying to gain some control over past things I couldn’t control. So I do think that more empowerment in the here and now is a good thing to work toward.

      And thank you; I’m glad you liked it!

      • bastian

        One grounding technique of mine is gettinv myself a black garnwt, a melanite. It does emergeny grounding and lets You ne the Person You are in that exact Moment. Its a bit tigid because it has titanium energy but its very sobering when your head tripping.

        • Thank you for the suggestion. I don’t do a lot of “this mineral means this, that one means that” work, but having an item associated with grounding, no matter what it’s made of, could be a really useful tool.

      • Though it kinda runs contrary to the themes in your blog post, tea ceremony was something I got exposed to very early in life. I saw a performance of it on PBS when I was very young, and it may actually have been the first time I saw people perform a ritual of any kind. It’s something that I’ve known about and read about on-and-off most of my life, and I’d say that my readings of it informed a lot of my Pagan practice, particularly as I’ve gotten older. I’ve been a formal student of it now for a little over a year.

        There’s a strong focus in tea ceremony on the present moment. Training in tea is almost completely experiential; any extra “theory” to oral and comes through conversations with your teacher, usually as an adjunct during your experiential learning. This has a lot to do with an idea which translates in English to “one time; one meeting,” which stresses the importance and impermanence of the present. Every gathering, even lessons, is unique and beautiful, and students and practitioners strive to be able, in their own gatherings, to have a calm ability to handle all the situations that might arise, even those that come up from their own mistakes or from those of their guests, because it’s the moving forward through those things that brings them to a place of beauty.

        The other thing that’s interesting, at least about how my sensei teaches her students, is that, while tea does contain symbolic acts (e.g. wiping the tools with a special silk cloth to “purify” them), there’s a strong focus on avoiding putting a symbolic narrative to it. In fact, my sensei doesn’t like to use the words “ceremony” or “ritual” to describe a tea gathering because, in English, we tend to use those words to describe a practice that’s somehow elevated out of the present and the real. Even when you take a breath to relax yourself in tea, you don’t close your eyes, because retreat into your mental world separates you from your guests and your environment.

        This is getting long for a blog comment, but suffice it to say that it’s something that I’ve really found to nourish my sense of presence, my sense of being in my own body, and my sense of connecting with others directly. There aren’t layers-upon-layers of myth or esoteric meaning that mediate everything; you’re just learning to put your heart into giving and receiving the gift of a moment drinking tea.

        • Wow. That sounds incredibly powerful in its calm. It’s like a more aware and present form of what most of us here think of as “meditation”. You’re still engaging in deep mindfulness, but it’s a mindfulness rooted in the present, waking world. Thank you for taking the time to share that with me and other readers.

          • I’m very happy to, and thank you for the kind words. There is actually a belief among tea practitioners that tea and Zen are of a common characteristic, so it does focus on active and “waking” meditation. One day, I might be lucky enough to learn chabako (“tea box”), which is a way to serve tea from items packed in picnic box, and I’ll be able to have a little private gathering at, say PantheaCon.

  5. Krista

    Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if “epic bad life changing thing” hadn’t happened. But I refocus on just being where I need to be at the time. Instead of analyzing, “sitting with the past” means sending it love and understanding, as if I were a friend offering comfort to that me in the past. It has more to do with having understanding and compassion for not finding a better way to deal with the problems then, rather than seeing how it affects the present. I don’t really embrace any cliche sound byte paradigm, because everything has it’s draw backs. The whole “choose your emotion” thing can end up with buried emotions, and burn out or injury from lack of self care. Cheers 🙂

  6. Ian

    Have you ever read any of Roberto Assagioli? He was an Italian psychologist who favored the sort of symbolic visualization methods that you found problematic. The reason I bring him up, though, is because he was keen to state that these methods were contraindicated for a subset of the population. What you are discussing here puts me in mind of that–one of those contraindications was for people predisposed to escape into symbols and reflection.

    I’ve noticed a lot of pagan and new age practice borrows deliberately or accidentally from therapeutic modalities, but they often lose the contraindications like that. It is sort of a sticky wicket: some people will benefit from them, but a subset of people who will be harmed by them will self-select into them, exacerbating rather than ameliorating their situation, encouraged in their continued misuse by those who benefit from them.

    Thanks for reminding me of that!

    • I have not, no. But I may have to check his work out.

      It’s funny how much overlap there is between these spiritual practices and some of the techniques I learned as a counselor in grad school, especially once you start getting into ecpsychology. It’s why I’m glad I got the training, though, because I feel I have a much more solid understanding of what can go wrong and how to mitigate such things if they happen. Most of what I described in this post was pre-grad-school (or before graduation, anyway) and having come out the other side I feel more grounded in part because I know better.

    • One of the things I find interesting is how incompletely these practices get borrowed from a certain subset of psychotherapeutic modalities, and how it leads to a culture that doesn’t necessarily welcome a wide set of mental makeups. I, for example, am actually deeply frustrated by the focus on visualization, mental symbolism, and fantastic inner narratives. My mind just doesn’t go that way. It doesn’t even make pictures very tangibly. Unfortunately, what often comes with that inheritance from psychotherapy is also an idea of “progress” that comes with being able to engage with that modality. I have, over the years, actually had many people in the community quietly say that they feel left out because their minds and/or imaginations don’t use that modality well.

      • That’s a really good point; I admit that I do fairly well with visualizations, but there are other ways to meditate that aren’t so internal. What have you found works for you?

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