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I have strong emotional (or physical) reactions. Is this normal?



It's a common misunderstanding that if you are doing mindfulness meditation "right", then the experience will necessarily be calm and peaceful. In the beginning, it can seem like the opposite is happening, and things may feel more chaotic than normal. This is actually a sign that you are beginning to pay closer attention to inner experience, which is central to mindfulness meditation. If you encounter difficult emotions (or physical sensations), you might see if it's possible to just allow them to be there, without trying to push them away, and gently come back to breath or the audio guidance.

In time and with practice, as Tara Brach says,  "you will come to see that strong reactions are like a weather system that swoops in, stays for a while, and eventually dissipates. Embodied presence cultivates a wise and compassionate relationship with the reactions rather than judging, rejections, or drowning in the experience". We will consider more direct ways to deal with difficult emotions or physical sensations Day 10 onwards, but for now, see if you can just let them be.

 If the reactions are frightening and you feel so fearful that you can't continue the practice and/or you don't feel grounded enough to be with them, you may need to make a change in how you are practicing. You can open your eyes, take several full deep breaths, look around the room to orient yourself, and sense what is needed now to settle and calm the mind and body before returning to the practice. If necessary, you can stop the practice altogether, have a cup of tea, take a walk, pet your cat or dog, or reach out to a friend.

If this continues to happen every time you attempt the practice, and there isn't a point where you feel a "release" or letting up of the emotional or physical reaction, but that it just accelerates or is frightening, you may need to discontinue doing this practice, or possibly even the course. It sometimes happens that these practices can provide an opening to significant and unresolved issues or past trauma. In that case, it may be helpful to get the assistance of a good therapist or counselor before continuing with the course. 

I keep nodding off or falling asleep...


This is a very common response to being still and quiet, and happens periodically with all meditators. The short answer is, "don't worry about it", but that's probably not a very satisfying answer, so...

There can be many things involved here, the most likely of which is that you simply need the sleep. Many of us live in a very fast-paced environment, both at work and at home, and are in a pretty much continual state of sleep-deprivation. Another possibility is that when we move from the normal go-go-go mode and we lay or sit quietly, our body "thinks" it must be time to sleep, because we don't have much experience with being both still and alert at the same time. Being externally still, while maintaining vivid inner awareness is a special skill we are developing through the practices of this course.

Whatever the cause, see if you can get curious about what sleepiness feels like in the body and mind. Precisely how does this feel - where does the sleepiness start, how do you first notice it? Also notice, too, if you have a judgment about falling asleep ("I must not be doing this right"). Mindfulness is not actually about changing your experience, it's about bringing full awareness to it, even if what it is you are being aware of is your sleepiness and/or judgment about it.


  To help keep from nodding off so easily, you can try the meditation with eyes open or partly open, in a soft gaze, while maintaining focus on inner experience. If you are doing a sitting meditation, you might try sitting up straighter so that you aren't leaning against a backrest. That way, if you start to fall asleep, your upper body falling or slumping will wake you up so that you can continue the meditation.

 If you are doing a body scan and opening the eyes doesn't help, you can do it sitting in a chair or recliner. Another option is to create what I call a "forearm sleep alarm". To do this, while laying down on your back, raise your right or left forearm, bending your arm 90 degrees at the elbow, so that the forearm is vertical and in the air, while the elbow and upper arm remain on the mat. With a little experimenting, you can find the balance point where you can maintain this position with gentle attention, keeping your forearm/hand balanced over the elbow. Doing it this way, your arm falling to one side or another will let you know that you've nodded off.


If nothing mentioned here works, then it's possible you need the sleep more than you need the meditation. If that's the case, see if you can allow yourself to enjoy the rest that your body so clearly needs.

I don't fall asleep, but I keep drifting off, missing whole parts of the meditation...

It can seem that there is more "drifting off" into thoughts, feelings, and images than there is "meditation", especially in the beginning. But, in meditation, we consider everything that comes into awareness to be part of the meditation, even when we are "straying" from the object of meditation, whether it be breath in a sitting meditation, or body sensation in a body scan or yoga.

 When you notice you've strayed, you simply bring yourself gently, but firmly, back to the guidance or the object of awareness. Every time you do this, you are, in fact, "waking up" to your present-moment experience, and is cause for celebration.


Dan Harris, the ABC News anchor who had an on-air panic attack in 2004 and the author of 10% Happier says that every time you become aware of your mind wandering, you are breaking a life-long habit of being lost in the past or future, missing what's right in front of you.


I CANNOT stop my mind from wandering!


Not only is it impossible to stop wandering from happening, meditation includes the times when our attention has strayed from the object of awareness. Every one of us, without exception have minds that wander, at least to some degree, so a key part of the practice here is learning, through practice, that this is normal. In time, there will be less wandering, and when it does happen, you will not be so disturbed by it.


The more practice you get in dealing with this, paradoxically, the stronger your concentration and sense of peace will be.  Sometimes it’s said that the “wandering thoughts are the weights that train the muscles of the mind”.  A key part of this course is learning to have a kinder attitude toward our own thinking process, and in turn, a gentler, easier, attitude toward and for ourselves.


It might help to realize that the only way you can know that your mind is wandering (thinking, fantasies, worries) is when you have come back into awareness of the present moment. So, see if you can shift your point of view so that every time you notice you are distracted, it is at that precise moment you are aware of the present moment, and it is actually cause for celebration, not frustration. If your mind wanders 100 times, that means it came back at least 99 times, and each of those is an awakening - 99 awakenings in a single meditation! How can that be bad?!? This is not a trick to make you feel better about a "watered-down meditation", but is really at the core of what meditation is about.


If you were training a puppy to fetch, and if he wanders all over the yard before finally bringing the stick back, you don't hit him when he returns with the stick, you reward him for bringing it back. Each time you are aware of your mind wandering, you are bringing the stick back. 

I can't physically hold the required position comfortably.


The exact position is not actually critical. It's important you find a position in which you can be both alert and comfortable, and that may mean modifying things somewhat. It's not expected that you be absolutely still during the practices. If you need to shift position, that's no problem, but it's a good practice in mindfulness to first notice the urge to move before actually shifting position, hesitating for just a moment, and then move, if necessary. This makes it a mindful movement and not an unconscious one.


For "sitting" meditation: If are sitting on the floor, it can help to elevate your hips substantially with cushions or a meditation bench so that they are higher than your knees. If you are in a chair, we normally recommend that you don't lean back on the back rest. Sitting upright in this way is more conducive to staying awake and aware, and has the added benefit that if you were to nod off, you would begin to fall or slump to one side or another, which would wake you. If this is not possible to do comfortably, it's fine to lean back. If no sitting position at all works for you, you can do the "sitting" meditation in a recliner or on your back, on the floor or a bed. It could even be done standing.


For the body scan: If lying on your back is causing back pain, you can try elevating your knees with a cushion under the knees, or on the bed instead of the floor, or you can try doing it in a sitting position in a chair or a recliner.


How do you pay attention to breath without trying to control it?

This is a common experience, especially for those of us who have learned techniques of breath control ("deep" breathing, pranayama, breathing from the diaphram and not the chest, etc.). In this type of meditation, we are not trying to change our breathing, but simply to have a non-judgmental and gentle awareness of it. It may naturally happen that our breath slows or becomes deeper or more abdominal, but it's not because we are forcing it to be that way. It can be said that in this type of meditation we observe the breath the way you might observe the waves at the beach, just letting the waves be how they are, noticing them coming in, spreading out on the sand, going back out - you're not trying to change them, just appreciating them just as they are.


This can be challenging and takes practice. The breath is a bodily function that can be fully automatic (as it usually is), or controlled. We are learning to pay very, very close attention to something that can be controlled, but doesn't have to be. This learning can transfer to other areas of our life where we might normally try to control something, but it's best to let it be, but in a way that brings full attention to what's happening.


That being said, if you find yourself controlling your breath, see if you can just let that be, that is, don't fight the controlling.  Make the practice be about noticing how the control is happening.  Are you trying to make breath even? Are you trying to make it full? Are you trying to give it a certain rhythm?  Don't try to stop it, however it's manifesting, just notice the controlling, and notice at what point the controlling exerts itself.  That is your present moment experience, and is just as valid a form of meditation as paying careful attention when you aren't controlling.


If you stay with this, and don't beat yourself up for controlling things, you might find, just by accident, you have a breath or two that happen on their own, or even part of one, without a significant element of control.  If you don't try to control the controlling, the controlling will eventually fade away.

I have trouble using breath as a focus in meditation. Is there an alternative?

We use breath as an anchor for meditation because there is always something happening and it tends to bring us into present-moment awareness. Also, it is a process that can happen automatically, or it can be controlled, so by paying non-intrusive attention to the breath you build the capacity to be with something that you could try to control, but you stay in close contact with it without controlling it, just letting it be. This is a skill that is helpful in so many areas of our life, especially those times when controlling isn't actually possible or desirable (e.g., some situations with parenting, work, relationships).


That being said, there are times when using breath is problematic, either because it seems impossible to be with it without trying to control it , or because breath is not a restful place to be, which can be the case if you have chronic breathing problems (e.g., asthma, COPD). There are a number of alternatives to breath, including sensations in your hands or another part of your body, or sounds, using a simple mantra such as "peace", or an internal image of something or someone inspiring, or a favorite piece of art, or a pet.


If the problem is that you can’t “find” breath, you can use your hand on your belly as a way of coming into contact with breath, or bring your hand to your nostrils where you can feel the air as it moves in and out, or any of the ways above that don’t involve breath. In the end, the important thing is to have someplace to come back to when your attention wavers, ideally someplace neutral or pleasant. 

In the body scan, I have a hard time finding sensation in parts of my body...


Most of us are not used to paying such close attention to body sensation, and as you follow the guidance, you may feel nothing in particular in some, or even many, parts of the body. It is enough to simply to be attentive to breath or body so that if/when something does present itself, you are more likely to notice it. This, too, is mindfulness, even if you are not feeling any distinct sensation.

Over time, with practice, you will notice sensations where you didn't notice any previously. It might help, too, to become familiar with the types of things you may be aware of by looking at the list at the end of Jon Kabat-Zinn's description of the Body Scan. Notice that the list includes emotions and thoughts in addition to body sensation. For instance, you might notice you are impatient with yourself or having thoughts about wanting to sense something but not feeling anything. This, too, is mindful awareness.


As with all mindfulness practices, see if it's possible to be curious and friendly to whatever your experience is, even if it is having thoughts about things not being as you expect or want them to be.


Can I do the 30-minute practices in several shorter sessions during the day?


For the purposes of the course, I’d say to try do the 30-minute practices without breaking them into smaller sessions. The spoken guidance will be more effectfive if it’s listened to without a long break in the middle. Also, and maybe more importantly, not breaking the practice up will increase your capacity to “stay” with your own experience, a central part of MBSR. Learning to stay with something even through boredom and impatience is a key part of the course.


If you “stay”, you may discover that there are periods where the boredom and impatience just unexpectedly dissolve, at least momentarily, and this can begin to unravel the idea that every uncomfortable experience has to be “fixed” before you can feel better. After the course is over, you will be able to choose which practices to do and for how long, but by then you will know from experience which works best for you.


As with all mindfulness practices, see if it's possible to be curious and friendly to whatever your experience is, even if it is having thoughts about things not being as you expect or want them to be.

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