Elsewhere on the site I have cited scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits of meditation. There can be little doubt that meditation works. After being convinced of its effectiveness, many people excitedly take up a meditation practice but are disappointed when they don’t see immediate results. To be clear, this sequence does not describe everybody. Some people experience benefits the day they begin meditating. This post, however, is written particularly with those in mind whose results have been less forthcoming. As a consistent meditator during the last few years, let me share a few observations that may help you out on your meditation journey.
All human beings have an emotional backlog (i.e. unresolved issues). Our brains simply cannot process all of our experiences in a way that leaves us with zero emotional baggage. This baggage is stored in the mind in the form of painful memories.
Emotional resilience is best measured on a spectrum. Every human being has a unique ability to process negative emotions. This ability owes to that individual’s environment as well as choices they have made over the years. Deliberate choices to identify emotional challenges and deal with them, as well as choices about what beliefs to hold that affect how well they process negative emotion. Emotionally resilient people ruminate less on the past (they’ve processed it better and have no need to rehearse painful experiences). They are overall happier human beings. It follows from variation in emotional resilience that no two emotional backlogs are identical.
Our emotional backlog lengthens and widens when we do not slow down and give our minds time to process our life experience. We can all imagine the workaholic CEO on the brink of an emotional meltdown due to an insanely demanding schedule. Many people have an emotional backlog that reaches back years into their past.
When people take up a meditative practice, their minds will sooner or later make an attempt to process their emotional backlog. This attempt looks like the mind bringing its attention to painful emotions, like fear, anger, and sadness. These emotions may be stored in painful memories from the past. People and places may begin to surface that had long been forgotten about. Sometimes these people and places are from the immediate past while other times they go as far back as childhood.
The emotional backlog also manifests more subtly. I have found that obsessive thoughts are often the result of unresolved issues. For example, when I sit down to meditate at the end of the day, my mind often fixates on work I could be doing or a potential better use of my time even though I know deep down beyond a shadow of a doubt that meditation is exactly what I need. I believe these obsessive thoughts are often a psychological defense mechanism. By creating discomfort around meditation, my brain is trying to protect me from unpleasant emotions that lurk beyond the surface. Emotions like fear and anger are often the subconscious driving forces of obsessive thoughts, workaholism, addiction, and a host of other compulsive behaviors. In addition, anxiety about the future is always linked to painful memories from the past. When we are anxious about the future, our brain is subconsciously conjuring up painful memories from the past that it does not want to reoccur. By bringing it to our attention, it is prompting us to take protective measures to avoid the same outcome.
In sum, the act of slowing down in meditation forces us to confront an emotional backlog that can manifest in subtle and unsubtle ways. There is hope when we adopt a resilient attitude that is eager to face, and let go of, every distraction drawing us away from the present moment. When we man or woman up in this fashion, healing and increased well-being are typically the end result.