Learning to Meditate Through Difficulty

Mindfulness teacher Ed Halliwell shares how he came to meditation after coping with anxiety and depression.

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Stomach somersaulting. Shoulders locked. Fingers quivering. Teeth clenched tight. Hot and cold simultaneously. Pangs of panic gripping the chest, heart pulsing fast and hard. Anger, like a scream bellowing out from the midriff. A shield of hard depression encasing the skin, walling off the body from the outside world. Thoughts circling round and round, the same ruminations over and over again: “Why am I stuck like this? Is it ever going to end? Why can’t I be more like other people? Why can’t I cope? What’s wrong with me? I hate this, I hate this. I’m scared, still scared after all this time. This is never going to work. I am never going to get better. It’s useless. Useless. Useless!”

I’m learning to meditate. Perched atop a square, hard cushion in the corner of my bedroom, trying to pay attention to the movement of my breath, and this is what I’m noticing. It’s the same kind of anguish that’s accompanied every waking hour for the past two and a half years. The fear, the rage, the helplessness. But there’s a subtle and crucial difference now. I’m beginning to observe these patterns of thought and feeling from a different place, from somewhere I didn’t previously know existed. Rather than feeling caught up entirely in the mental noise, the exhaustion, the tension, I’m beginning to watch what’s happening. Perhaps not yet with equanimity—as is meant to be possible with enough practice—but at least without feeling that my life is nothing but pain. A sliver of space is opening up between “me” and the tormenting thoughts and sensations that are surging through “me.” Hmm, this is interesting . . .

Rather than feeling caught up entirely in the mental noise, the exhaustion, the tension, I’m beginning to watch what’s happening.

I’ve been practicing for a couple of months now—daily doses of five or ten minutes, as agreed with my meditation teacher. Initially, even this seemed too much—the invitation to experience just a little stillness, and its implied tolerance of anxiety, was too overwhelming for me. So we started with mindful tea- drinking. My challenge was to drink one cup a day, paying attention to all the sensations of taste, touch and smell, and returning to these whenever I noticed my mind descending into tangles of thought as it desperately tried to crack the problem of “What is happening to me and why? And what can I possibly do about it?”

What was happening to me? Before the depression set in, life had looked and felt pretty good. In my mid- twenties, I had been deputy editor of one of the best-selling magazines in Europe, having graduated with flying colors from what is generally regarded as a top university. I had good friends, sometimes girlfriends, and the kind of lifestyle that many people my age would have envied. I worked long hours, but that included traveling to fancy hotels in exotic locations to organize photo shoots, attending parties with complimentary drinks, interviewing actors and actresses, sports stars and musicians, and coming up with ideas for stupid stories to amuse young men. Then, between games of pool, I’d commission writers to draft the features that my colleagues and I had dreamed up on a whim—whatever tickled our cynical and deprecating senses of humor. This was the late 1990s, when men’s lifestyle magazines were at the height of their popularity, and there was a kind of unthinking fun to be had by those who worked on them. But while the free clothes and watches, the glamour and the prestige, the careless laughter, the buzz of thrill-seeking satisfied a certain shallow craving for pleasure, under the surface my life was not so enjoyable.

I had a series of romantic relationships, but they rarely lasted more than a few months. I had a seemingly fabulous career, but it masked an undercurrent of yearning for something more, although I had no idea what that something might be. I frequently batted away feelings of hollowness and melancholy, as well as vague premonitions of a fearful future. I was lonely, and when the parties ended I’d try to keep the worry away by playing myself at darts, drinking vodka and spacing out watching sports on the TV. But the more I tried to fill the days and nights with pleasure, the more the darkness loomed at the edges of my mind. Questions about the meaning of existence started to creep in, accompanied by nervous rumblings in my gut, especially during rare moments of quiet, which I tried to keep to a minimum.

The more I tried to fill the days and nights with pleasure, the more the darkness loomed at the edges of my mind.

I seemed to function well enough most of the time, surviving on the surface. Only a few times did the veneer crack, usually after a girlfriend’s rejection. Whenever this happened, anger and fear would shoot through my body, along with the sudden racing of a mind yelping from hurt, desperately searching for an exit from suffering. This sudden and scary automatic reaction would usually last for a few weeks or months, during which time I would barely eat or sleep, consumed by obsessive thoughts about how to put things right. The volcano of emotion would eventually subside, sometimes as a result of a new relationship, or by resurrecting the old one. Or there might be another form of distraction—perhaps a promotion or a holiday in the sun.

But the patch jobs and distractions ultimately failed to do the trick. Soon after the turn of the millennium, another fledgling relationship came to an abrupt end, and this time my escape tactics couldn’t divert me from the pain. There was no one new on the horizon. Attempts to throw myself into work projects didn’t satisfy: the conveyor belt of gadgets, models and puerile jokes was starting to lose its appeal—something in me called for an engagement of heart. A comfortable flat share with an old friend was also coming to an end, and I was secretly scared of living alone.

Loss of girlfriend, loss of companionship, loss of professional identity. Combined, it all felt too much to bear. It was like I’d been strapped to an out-of-control helicopter: my stomach lurched up and down as catastrophic thoughts (“You’re going mad. This is a disaster . . . “) rattled through my head in a crazed, repeating loop. Muscles were frozen in terror, fingers trembled, and my breath hardened to a shallow pant.

After several weeks at work trying to pretend everything was fine, I called in sick, unable to face another week of going to the bathroom every twenty minutes to cry, fruitlessly berating myself to “get it together.”

Seeing no way out, I collapsed. Or rather, the rickety façade that I thought was “me” collapsed. After several weeks at work trying to pretend everything was fine, I called in sick, unable to face another week of going to the bathroom every twenty minutes to cry, fruitlessly berating myself to “get it together.” But at home, things only got worse. Now I had all day to lie in bed or pace up and down, fretfully running through what was going wrong and how I might put it right. I passed the time chain-smoking (another futile diversion technique) and calling friends, family and even the Samaritans, hoping someone might offer an antidote to the poison that was eating me. Was I suicidal? No, but I desperately wanted the pain to stop.

It didn’t stop for quite a while. Over the following two-and-a-half years, I went on a frantic quest to discover the cause of my symptoms, and how to be rid of them. Yet, the more I focused on the problem, the worse it became. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to change. I went into therapy, attended support groups, took antidepressants, tried alternative treatments like acupuncture and biodynamic massage, and toyed with lifestyle changes—moving house or changing friends. I couldn’t see that each time I rushed into the next support group, therapy session or self-help treatise, I was actually pushing away the peace I craved. I was trying to force myself into a future state of calm, but the forcing itself kept the tension in place. The more I tried to fight or run from fear and rumination, the more I fueled a pattern of aversion, a hatred of the present that made me feel worse, impelling me to fight or run even more. No matter what I changed in my external life, no matter what I tried to change in my psyche, I remained stuck in a pattern of resistance to the moment. I woke up each morning and went to bed each night depressed, scared, frustrated and tired.

Finally, in yet another desperate attempt to find happiness, I came to mindfulness meditation. Recognizing that her student was extremely stressed, my first instructor proposed a very gentle regime. I followed it to the letter and, for the first time since I had toppled into depression, felt like something might be shifting. Of course, the gloom didn’t lift immediately, but I could sense that my mindset was starting to move. Instead of always trying to improve a situation through struggle or avoidance, I began to understand that there was maybe no need for so much to happen. Maybe my challenge was not to push with grit and determination, but to learn to be with whatever was going on—to allow anxiety, helplessness and racing thoughts, rather than try to shove them out of consciousness.

And so I continued, first with more mindful cups of tea, then with two, five, ten or even sometimes fifteen minutes of sitting meditation each day. I tried to allow whatever thoughts and feelings were present, using the breath as an anchor to which I could return, whenever the mind wandered off. I tried to remember that there was no goal, so it was impossible to fail. All I had to do was keep returning to the breath, with gentleness and patience, noticing what was happening without making judgements, seeing the experience as neither good nor bad.

I tried to allow whatever thoughts and feelings were present, using the breath as an anchor to which I could return, whenever the mind wandered off. I tried to remember that there was no goal, so it was impossible to fail.

Every other approach I’d tried had seemed to be about someone offering a fix or about me learning how to repair myself. Here, the view was that nothing was really wrong, so there was no problem to be sorted out. At worst, I was merely confused about how to live well; and the first step out of that confusion was to realize how it functioned, through the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness Practice: Turning Towards Difficulty

By practicing mindfulness, coming back to focus when the mind wanders, we are training in presence, irrespective of whether our experience is enjoyable. It’s normal to feel some discomfort while meditating—be it a physical pain, a difficult emotion, or an unpleasant thought. By gently returning attention to the breath or the whole body, we learn to manage these experiences wisely, consciously moving attention to a centered place of steady presence, rather than reacting automatically.

And in the practice outlined below, we take the next step in undoing the habits of grasping and aversion by shifting attention gently towards the unpleasant experience. We practice this by “being with it,” neither getting sucked into the stories that drag us into rumination, nor trying to stop or avoid the feeling of what is troubling us. Instead, we move attention compassionately into the experience. Remember to be gentle. If what comes up is overwhelming, this may not be the best practice for you right now. If in doubt, seek the guidance of an experienced mindfulness teacher.

A Practice For Being With What Is

  1. Take an upright, dignified, relaxed sitting posture, and practice mindfulness of breathing for a few minutes. Follow this with a period of mindfulness of body practice, opening awareness to body sensations, as they arise.
  1. Do you notice any unpleasant aspects of experience that are present at the moment? Are you feeling discomfort or pain anywhere in the body? If so, where? What about difficult emotions? If there are some, ask yourself where they are and which sensations appear. Be aware of any tightness, pressure, restlessness, heat, throbbing and so on. Bring attention gently to the thoughts in your mind. Are these pleasant or unpleasant? Notice any reactions to arising sensations or thoughts. Are you tending to pull away from them, get annoyed by them, ruminate on them, or are you reacting in some other way? Without buying into them or trying to stop them, simply notice these reactions with kindness and interest.
  1. Now, turn your attention towards an unpleasant sensation, a region of intensity in the body. It could be a subtle sensation or more pronounced. With gentleness, direct the mind’s eye to this area and tune into what you find. Allow yourself to feel whatever sensation is there, softly.

You could imagine breathing into the sensation as you inhale, and breathing out from it as you exhale, letting it be experienced with the rhythm and flow of the breath. Without trying to change it in any way; just offer it a kind space in which to happen. See if you can let go of any attempt to eliminate it or distract from it. Just offer your curiosity, being with it, moment by moment. Is the sensation moving at all, shifting in location, intensity or quality? Notice any thoughts that arise in relation to the feeling, and let these pass through in the background of awareness, without trying to follow or stop them. Let go of trying to think your way out of the difficult experience. Just let it be, embracing it as compassionately as you can.

This blogpost is an extract from Into The Heart of Mindfulness, by Ed Halliwell. The book explores many of the themes Ed has written about in his Mindful.org posts over the last five years, and we will be publishing a few more extracts from it over the summer. You can also read a recent Telegraph interview with Ed about his journey into mindfulness here.