Negativity Coming Up When You Meditate? Here's How To Work Through It

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Meditating when you're in a good mood is one thing. Meditating when you're dealing with inner turmoil? That's where the real work happens. In this excerpt from Tea and Cake With Demons: A Buddhist Guide to Feeling Worthy, Adreanna Limbach, a meditation teacher at NYC's popular MNDFL studio, shares a guided practice for having compassion with yourself when resistance comes up.

Every July in Japan there is ceremony called segaki, which roughly translates as "feeding the hungry ghosts." It's an annual practice with the express purpose of doing what the name suggests. Hungry ghosts are called forth from the shadowlands and given an offering to sate them.

In Buddhist iconography, these hungry ghosts aren't the bedsheet-wearing, house-haunting Casper types that might come to mind when you think of ghosts. They're more akin to lost souls, outcast creatures wracked by the specific pain of persistent, unquenchable longing.

Hungry ghosts are both terrifying and sad. Some of these gaki or preta, as they are called in Sanskrit, are depicted in paintings and writing with long, thin necks, tiny pinholes for mouths, and the protruding ribs and distended bellies characteristic of chronic malnourishment. Others are said to roam looking desperately for food and water, only to have them turn to fire in their mouths when they consume them. They are unable to get their needs met or to grasp the object of their desire, no matter how hard they try. Hungry ghosts are personifications of our own states of fixation and despair, which is perhaps what makes their iconography so potent.

The following meditation practice is one method for feeding your hungry ghosts.

A meditation practice for making space for your demons.

  1. As with the mindfulness of breath meditation, begin by finding a comfortable seat. Again, there are no rules, as long as your body is upright and in a position that feels sustainable. Take a few minutes to bookend your practice by feeling your body in space, sensing your environment, and then locating your breath in your body. Rest the attention here for just long enough to let the mind stabilize, and allow the body to settle. If you find your attention drifting, remember that this is natural. In the tiny gap of time where you realize you've left your breathing, simply acknowledge where you've landed and return to the breath in the body. 
  2. Moving into contemplation, allow the eyes to gently shut if they haven't already. Begin by taking a few moments to give yourself a brief internal temperature check—how's it going, right now? I recommend opening this contemplation with the question, "What does it feel like to be me?" As your thoughts arise, stay watchful of what the mind and body produce in response to this question. Continue to return to this question as your object of meditation. In the spirit of nonjudgment, I encourage you to notice what develops in this space without making it mean anything about you one way or another. You're simply taking inventory, collecting information, getting a sense of what feels alive for you today. The response might be pretty obvious; maybe there is a strong or tender emotion that you're coming into practice with. Perhaps the response today is subtle, not much of anything at all. It's all OK. You're just allowing whatever is honestly here to have space and time to express itself. Leave the door cracked open. Continue to return to the contemplation of "What does it feel like to be me?" 
  3. After a bit of time, you can loosen your focus on the question and bring your attention to the body. Whatever is arising in response to this contemplation, notice if and where it presents itself in your physical body. Notice the felt expression of this mood or emotion. It might be worth spending a bit of time working with the felt sensations directly. Does this mood or emotion have a particular velocity, a way that it moves in your body? Perhaps it's speedy; perhaps it's a bit more still, or stagnant even. Does this mood or emotion occupy a particular space in the body? Does this space feel expansive? Contracted? Both at times or something in between? Does this mood or emotion have a particular density? Does it feel thick or solid? Perhaps it's more wispy and ephemeral? Continue to feel into whatever is sincerely present in this moment.
  4. In the moments that you notice yourself drifting from this practice, turn and look at your mind. What are your thoughts doing? Again, no judgment necessary. Perhaps you find yourself avoiding or analyzing the situation. I encourage you, to the best of your ability, to drop the narrative about what you might be feeling and to return to the raw material itself: the felt sensations in your body. 
  5. If you find yourself working with a strong, tender, restless, or inflamed emotion, and your demon material is clearly present, you might send your discomfort a bit of compassion as you continue to rest with it directly. Place your hands on that part of your body where you feel the discomfort, and silently say, "I see you. Thank you for the information. I love you." Notice how your afflicted emotions feel under the warmth of touch when you don't make them a problem. 
  6. After some time, notice if your mood or emotions have shifted at all since you began spending time with them directly. Maybe they've grown or subsided or are something very different altogether. Again, there's no need to make anything happen here. You're just allowing space to feel your emotions directly. 
  7. You can continue to practice in this way for however much time you allotted yourself. If you are still working with a strong, inflamed, or tender emotion when you're ready to segue out of practice, you might consider visualizing a beautiful box to gently place your emotion in. In your mind's eye, close the lid and turn the clasp, recognizing emphatically that you are not getting rid of your emotion; it is still wholly your responsibility. You're just keeping it safe until you can spend more time with it directly. 
  8. In the final few moments of practice, allow the contemplation to drop, and return to the breath in your body. Take a minute or two to rest here, feeling the body breathe as a way of bookending your practice.

Adapted from an excerpt of Tea and Cake With Demons: A Buddhist Guide to Feeling Worthy by Adreanna Limbach with permission from the publisher.

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