Too Stressed to Meditate

Meditation, in the form I have learned it, is a simple matter of clearing your mind, focusing on your breathing, and thus becoming somewhat self-hypnotized.  If successful, it takes me into a remarkable inner zone.

But in practice, clearing your mind is often not really a simple matter.  If you can really relax, you might fall asleep, and then  you’re not thinking about your breathing or entering the zone.  On the other hand, if you can’t relax due to things on your mind, then you’ll be thinking about everything except your breathing.

I have come to realize that some distractions are good.  An itch is especially powerful.  Sometimes I get itches while trying to meditate.  Ordinarily, I’d have to think about whether to scratch them.  If I scratched one, there would soon be another.  Scratching called for changes in position.  Basically, an itch was the end.  Then I realized that if I could instead focus on my breathing and manage to ignore the itch, it was like a ticket to the zone.  The itch would go away, there would usually be no more, and the focus to overcome the itch would often be enough to get me into the zone.  So I welcome itches now.

Things on my mind are not like that, unfortunately.  In the effort to get past them, I made a second discovery.  I found that, actually, I didn’t want to put sleep and meditation at odds against one another.  I know you’re supposed to sit up and focus on your breathing, maintain proper posture, etc.  That’s great if you can do it.  But it was defeating me.  Not always, but often.

Instead, I decided to treat meditation as an adjunct to sleep.  I lie down and take a nap.  If I can’t sleep, I lie there and focus on my breathing instead.  If I sleep, then I try to make it a habit to go immediately into meditation when I wake up, without even opening my eyes.  I try to do this after naps, and also after awakening in the morning.  There’s not usually much chance of falling back asleep at that point.  So the meditation becomes this lovely post-sleep phase, usually but not always clearly distinct.  This does help me get into the zone.

But sometimes — often, in times of stress — this doesn’t work.  I feel like I have to get up and take care of stuff.  There are things to think about.  For me, it’s easier to get back into a meditation mode when it is linked with sleep, but there’s still the problem that I may simply not allow myself to do it.

I just did a Google search on this problem.  Among the results, I noticed some reactions that seemed to come from people who had no idea of what I was talking about.  One sentiment that I used to repeat was, “If you don’t have time to spend a half-hour meditating, you probably need to spend an hour.”  In similar spirit, I see the claim that, when you think you are too stressed to meditate, that’s when you really need to meditate.  I think the person who would write something like that must have no idea of what stress is.  Stress commonly means there is something happening right now that needs to be taken care of.  Our life situation is not necessarily giving us a 15-minute recess to clear our minds and be happy.

Other hits from this Google search treat “too stressed” as a mere excuse that one should ignore.  You know, I’m too stressed, I’m too tired, etc.  That’s not realistic.  I — and, I’m sure, many other people — actually like to meditate.  We aren’t making excuses to avoid it.  And anyway, it’s not a duty that we owe to someone else.  If we do want to make excuses, that’s our prerogative.  Don’t argue with us or belittle us for it.  We aren’t where you are, and that may be quite appropriate.

What I was looking for, when I did that Google search, was suggestions or innovations, like the sleep thing mentioned above.  I wanted tips and techniques that might give me practical, physical responses to the physicality of stress.  I can’t usually down a shot of booze or plunge into an icy river at such times — though if I could, I’m sure the physical equation would change in my favor.  I have appreciation, but less than complete appreciation, for the “six easy tips” that involve finding a tranquil place, using earplugs, putting on some soft music, and firing up the ol’ incense pot, right there in my cubicle.

In real life, what I need is along the lines of some kind of mental trick, like visualizing some really embarrassing or funny thing happening to the boss.  Or, actually, what I need is beyond a mere temporary trick.  I need some kind of mental heroin that will slow it all down, back it all way off, and let me form some perspective on my worries and my pressures.  Not a long-lasting, all-day sort of sedative — that would be asking a lot — but at least something that will let me think about my breathing, during that short period when I am trying to meditate.

One option, brought to mind by Adam Cerico, was to broaden my concept of meditation and its surrogates.  If I’m too stressed to meditate, don’t force it.  Do something else instead, something that brings peace or calm or some degree of thoughtfulness.  Make this the moment when I do a certain chore that I find relatively agreeable.  You know, I may be too freaked out to sit calmly and think about my breathing, but even in the worst case I surely can kick a rubber ball around the living room, or write a line of a poem, or steal some time for Facebook or YouTube.  It’s not supposed to be therapeutic to spend the evening partying at the bar, but I suspect there are so many people doing it precisely because it does provide pretty good therapy, at least for some situations, for a while.

Not that those options necessarily answer the question.  I’m stressed now, not at 5 PM this afternoon.  But perhaps those options at least frame the issue.  In the most extreme case, I can walk out the door and go skydiving; now the only question is whether I can do something, short of that, that will provide some of the benefits of meditation and/or move my mind in a meditative direction.

Like, one time I did walking meditation.  It was OK, but the cool thing about it was that, on another occasion, years later, I was on an 18-mile run, and I was kind of sore, and I was out on this empty country road that just went on and on, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I could do running meditation.  Never really heard of it, but I was able to run along with my eyes nearly closed, thinking about my breathing.  It did convert a hard slog into something that I look back on fondly.  So maybe I can cook up activities that adapt a situation, that build from both the physical and mental dimensions.  Like, sweep that floor purposefully, or think of the bacteria floating around the sink as I do the dishes, or watch the ink from my pen like when I was a little schoolkid, or feel the textures and edges of the keys at the computer.

I’m not sure how far all that will get me, in this quest to move toward meditation when I’m too stressed to meditate.  At least it gives me some ideas.  It’s a work in progress.

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