When meditation doesn’t work

I felt like a fraud

I wrote recently how I’d experienced a big ol’ anxiety attack a few days after a silent meditation retreat and that one of the tools that helped me was to “consciously question” the anxiety and see what it needed from me.

Even though I’m far better equipped these days with strategies like this one to get through that uncomfortable intensity, they’re not necessarily preventative.

Anxiety happens – especially when there’s a lot going on, especially when we care about whatever future thing we’re worried about.

So a week after the post-retreat overwhelm, when I was in the grip of another anxiety-bordering-panic episode that I was struggling to find relief from, you can see why I had the distressing thought:

Rebecca, you’re a fraud.

How can you tout the calming qualities of meditation when in the throes of abdomen-hardening anxiety, your skills are counting for nought?

Thankfully, once the intensity was over, I could reflect on the experience of “having the rug pulled out from underneath me,” as Pema Chodron often writes, and how perhaps mindfulness did help me after all.

How Mindfulness Helps Even in the Depths of Doubt

when meditation doesn't work

Reminder: Meditation is not a panacea

One of the five hindrances to meditation as described by Buddhism, is doubt. Here I was after 10 years meditating, and two years teaching, doubting my practice like crazy. This isn’t helping.

But how many years is it going to take for me to remember that meditation doesn’t actually fix all our problems? This is something Dan Harris is good at reminding his listeners – meditation is not a panacea.

Okay, so perhaps I was being hard on myself. No, I couldn’t simply breathe that awful feeling away, but what else did mindfulness offer in the moment?

Awareness (and self-compassion) of asking for help

Well, come to think of it, I did actually have the awareness that I was in a quite a state (again) and needed a bit more help than deep breathing could bring.

I phoned a friend, they listened non-judgmentally, I off-loaded my anxiety secrets, they gave me a pep talk, and that was a huge help.

How else did my meditation practice inform this moment?

Experiencing ‘negative’ emotions unashamedly

Remembering that emotions have a job to do, and in fact they can serve us well, I had another cry. That felt good. I didn’t feel ashamed about it – Karla McLaren calls it the “healing balm of the soul.” Crying feels freeing, rejuvenating, and even, uplifting. It helps us let go. (If you’re crying all the time however, that’s different. If it comes to that, I’ll be making a trip to my GP.)

Understanding what emotions are for is a gift my practice has given me and for that I’m grateful.

Recalling: There’s much more to mindfulness than calm

Why bother meditating if it’s not to experience calm? This is what doubt whispers to us. This is what Barry Magid describes as “the secret practice”;  or, the “curative fantasy” that meditation is going to fix us.

In this Huff Post article he says:

It’s easy to co-opt meditation into a project of that sort, to turn it into a form of mind-science or therapeutics that is designed to fix us in some way.

He adds,

“The proof ought to be in the whole life, not in some brain scan.”

It’s here that I zoom out on my practice to see how mindfulness has informed my ‘whole life’, not just the sesame seed-sized aspect of “being calm.”

  • I recognise I’ve made many ethical choices that bring me happiness (like, the personal decision to quit eating meat).
  • My patience and tolerance for others has widened considerably (evident when I was served by THE slowest checkout operator at Woolies the other day who had me and others in the queue exchanging knowing smiles).
  • I’ve faced some fears (including the one about public speaking which was part to blame for this latest anxiety onslaught).
  • I’ve acted upon life-changing inner wisdom that only came once I sat down and got still (like, the decision to pursue teaching meditation.)

Phew. These are some excellent reasons to keep going with my practice, and to keep helping others into their own practice.

And what of the elusive calm that caused so much doubt?

For that one 48-hour period where there was little calm, I’ve had countless hours of peace, experiences of whole-body bliss, and felt unconditional love (both as sender and receiver); not to mention piercing clarity and astonishing ah-ha moments that appeared out of thin air.


So perhaps I can calm down a little and say, I don’t feel like such a fraud, after all.

How about you? Have you had moments of doubting your practice like this and what eventually happened? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

For a down-to-earth introduction to mindfulness, visit my 6-week beginner’s program Learn to Meditate and set off on a path of inner discovery (and, definitely, the occasional calm.)

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