In another article, I 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 are not evolved to process all our experiences in a manner that leaves us with zero emotional baggage. This baggage gets stored in the subconscious and affects our lives in subtle ways.
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). It follows from variation in emotional resilience that no two emotional backlogs are identical.
Our emotional backlog enlarges when we do not slow down and give our minds the time to process life experiences. You can imagine the workaholic CEO on the brink of an emotional meltdown due to an insanely demanding schedule. Most of us have an emotional backlog that reaches back decades into the past.
When people take up a meditative practice, their minds will sooner or later attempt to process their emotional backlog. 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. Fear, anger, and sadness are common experiences as the brain works through these unresolved issues.
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 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 whose relapse it seeks to prevent. By inducing a particular memory or emotion, it is prompting us to take protective measures.
In sum, the act of slowing down in meditation forces us to confront an emotional backlog that can manifest in subtle and unsubtle ways. When we adopt a resilient attitude that is eager to face, and let go of, every distraction drawing us away from the present moment, healing is eligible to take place.