Meditation is good for you. That’s the consensus. It alleviates stress and anxiety, improves health and creativity. And those benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. Just meditate and your life will improve. Voila!
So, what is meditation? Distilled to its simplest: meditation is the practice of focusing the mind in order to reach a more equipoised and powerful state of being. “Mindfulness meditation” (psychology’s current golden child) encourages people to be easefully curious and accepting of whatever the present moment entails. Sounds simple.
But anyone who has dabbled in meditation knows… the practice can feel rocky. Having participated on and off for decades, I know well that meditation can be deeply healing. It can also be scary, frustrating, and full of missteps.
Some meditators even have a reputation. You know what I mean. Have you heard someone say, “You’re negativity is toxic. I have to go.” Or on the flip side, “It’s okay that he insulted me. It’s cool – I don’t take anything personally.” Maybe you’ve experienced a meditator to be disengaged? Or so eager to jump to “loving forgiveness” that you feel a little queasy. You feel like they are here, but not really here with you…on this planet. What is going on?
One possibility is the confusion between true meditation and what psychologists call dissociation.
Dissociation is a term that indicates disconnection from one’s own self or from a part of one’s self. On the mild end of the spectrum, dissociation is the spaciness we feel when we’re on auto-pilot, walking the same route over and over — we are physically present but have no memory of the walk. In its extreme and primal state, dissociation is the experience during a traumatic event of disconnecting from the body and self. It happens to all mammals caught in a life-or-death situation and is related to the fight/flight/freeze instinct. When in death’s grip, either literally or subjectively, there’s an anesthesia-like feeling that occurs. It is nature’s compassionate gift, if you will, and a perfect time to be dis-embodied. In addition to full dissociation, we can dissociate from parts of ourselves: our feelings, our bodies, our desires, for example.
The tricky part about dissociation is that some people (usually those with a history of relational wounds or acute trauma) are predisposed to dissociate, even in moments where it is inappropriate. They dissociate at odd times: for example, when arguing with a family member, when being approached by a stranger, while binging on chocolate cookies, or just when feeling sad. All manner of times and places. It’s the experience of being “there but not there,” and it deeply affects one’s functioning in life. Habitual dissociation can ruin one’s engagement in relationships, in work and in play. It interferes with a sense of volition and one’s awareness of boundaries, and it can be dangerous.
Dissociation (feeling numb) is basically the opposite of meditation (relaxed and focused). So why is there is confusion between two?
Deep meditation can bring people to a euphoric state, transcending the body. When people commit to meditating, they often have this goal in mind; they want to feel really good. Here’s the catch: 99.9% of the time, the route to transcendence takes you through a bit of fire. Through the heat of meditation. Through the difficult phases. Every meditator will tell you this.
You can, however, take a quicker route to feeling better, and it requires no discipline at all…that is dissociation. You don’t need a drug to numb yourself; all the tools to dissociate are right within us, especially for those who have that tendency already. This disembodied happy place can easily be confused with the transcendent state experienced in meditation.
Once in a while, when we “practice meditation,” we might actually be dissociating. We might be sitting for rigorous dissociation 20 minutes a day. I know this because I’ve done it. And chances are, we are also likely dissociating from our lives as well. It is frustrating both for the meditator, who ultimately is not feeling better, but also for those around the meditator who want to connect.
Robert Masters writes about this phenomenon through the lens of spiritual bypassing.1 He explains that becoming familiar with our emotional pain is a crucial step on the road to healing… and this is one of the most essential elements of successful therapy: to walk with a client through the shadow places. It is so tempting to use spiritual philosophy or a “meditative attitude” to keep a distance from pain, but that also keeps us one-step removed from intimacy with one’s self and engagement with others.
Here are some indicators differentiating meditation and dissociation:
- If you find yourself better able to tolerate and engage with uncomfortable emotions, both in yourself and in others — you likely have a dynamic meditation practice.
- If you feel the need to actively avoid uncomfortable experiences, possibly see them as “negative energy,” especially anger — you might be by-passing or dissociating.
- If you find yourself open to interact in a variety of experiences with an improvising attitude, confident that you will be okay — that sounds like a meditator in action.
- If you often feel ungrounded and spacey, that’s a telltale sign of dissociation. Bringing awareness back into your body will benefit.
- If you stay ever-the-observer of pain and joy, you may be robbing yourself of the very experiences that will deepen your contentment. You might be slightly dissociated from or bypassing intimacy. It is a subtle shift.
- If you go into a haze during your sit-down meditation time, that’s dissociation. Try to return to the point of focus and bring yourself back into embodiment.
- If you have a history of trauma and do tend to dissociate, you have to be more vigilant than most. But you probably already know this on some level.
1 brilliantly coined by John Welwood
Levine, P. & Fredrick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing trauma. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Masters, R. A. (2010). Spiritual Bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really matters. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Ogden, P., Minton, K. & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.
van der Kolk, B. A. (1996). The body keeps the score: approaches to the psychobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.), Traumatic Stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society (pp. 303-330). New York, NY: The Guilford Press
Written by: Laura O’Loughlin, M.A.
Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)