Mirror of Zen Blog

Reply to a Reader: Stressful Situations and Meditation


Hi Sunim

I have a question about feelings.
Often I hear people get feelings of anger, fear or sadness during Meditation. You’re saying we should ask ourselves “who feels this feeling” and so deal with it. But I feel nothing. Just my breathing or my back if it hurts a little.

But when I’m at work, for example, and there are standing 3 patients in front of me and want new appointments and at the same time there is a therapist right and left who wants to know something from me, then suddenly such feelings come. But then I have no time to deal with it. Only 10 minutes later all patients and therapists are gone and I have time, but then the feelings are gone too.

Is anything wrong with me? How can I deal with deep sadness or anger if there are so many people around me? 

Warm greetings

Matt Semke, www.catswilleatyou.com


Dear S.,

Thank you for your question.

No, there is nothing particularly “wrong“ with you when you experience these feelings of frustration or even anger when you are being met with pressing or complicated situations, all at once. This is just a natural “information overload“.

We are not designed to do everything perfectly, all situations, all the time. Even our smartphones and our computers can “freeze“ or become overheated when we challenge the device with too many special activities all at once, like having a video call while downloading a video while having several windows open on our browser. The computer immediately gives us feedback that “this is not right“. The computer stops working in an optimum way. Sometimes we need to shut off the computer and “reboot“ it in order to get back to its performance. 

Our brain is just the same, OK? Meditation doesn’t somehow make us perfect machines. It just means that, when we do meet these situations – – just like the traffic in the city, which can be very complicated and difficult and not moving, people beeping the horns, at a certain time or times of the day when the traffic is too intense, or when there is an accident or a car broken down on the side of the road, maybe a delivery truck that is blocking everything – – meditation lets our brains return to normal default-mode much quicker, with less and less damage, over time. That’s all. 

Even when running the Zen Center, I used to sometimes find myself in stressful situations. Three guests suddenly show up just as I am heading into evening practice, who need a full orientation, but they didn’t write ahead of time, and there is some deadline that I am trying to send an email out before it is too late, and maybe some thing is cooking on the stove, and there is a problem with someone in the house who is waiting for my attention about something. I can feel my heart racing and my body temperature increasing, as I try to manage these situations or meet the expectations of several modalities, all at once. I might even be a little bit rude to someone, or use some sharp speech to solve something quickly. My nerves have taken over, and they are helping me to survive these situations, and it is not always the nicest or calmest operation! 

I saw this happen once with my Teacher, as well: even though he was a great, enlightened Zen Master, respected all over the world for his profound spiritual attainment.

Once, during a massive ceremony weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of his teaching in America, I was standing next to him during the chanting service at one point, helping with some thing for him and a senior monk. He was standing in the middle of a big public ceremony, with guests coming and going, late arrivals, people checking with him about the ceremonial form even after he started chanting, someone — maybe a VIP guest arriving late who needs to be accommodated a certain way, etc. – – I saw him lose his temper for a few seconds. His lips were shaking – – I was standing right next to him and I saw this. Stress was coursing through his body. No doubt, he was being flooded with cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone“, the fight-or-flight chemical. This is just natural. His entire mind-body situation is trying to adapt to strong, competing tasks and getting a little bit overloaded. He is not a machine, and neither are you.

So, just keep practicing. We are never completely absolutely totally free from these situations, and hopefully they occur less and less in your life. But if they do occur, do not blame yourself or urge your self to “not“ be nervous. This is another form of stress you are giving to yourself! Just accomplish things as well as you can, and come to a rest when you can, and go with your breath. Over time, this “stress response“ will become smoother and smoother, and you will return to the “default mode“ of your original clear mind much more automatically, without any special effort.

Most importantly, you should not judge yourself or judge your practice if you see these situations appearing once in a while. Do not think, “I have been meditating for almost one year now! Why do I still become upset when I am stressed and overloaded with several difficult expectations which need to be fulfilled at once?“ Do not let these situations cause you to “check” your “progress” or development in meditation. Only, as your practice and your life become one, you will notice that you return to the default mode of stillness and clarity much more automatically, and you do not cause as much damage along the way.

Thank you for your question. Best wishes for your practice.


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