Meditation Sucks. Now What Do I Do? (Part One): SOBER Space

Meditation Sucks. Now What Do I Do? (Part One): SOBER Space

Megan Campbell wrote a post, Meditation Sucks + Souls Shivers in which she said the hardest part of deepening her spiritual practice (until just lately) had been meditation. She said it sucked.

This made me think: Yes.

I can relate.

Meditation definitely can suck. I have meditated since 2000, and especially regularly since 2010. And it has pretty much always sucked. As Megan said, all I heard when sitting was “Boooooring,” or “I am going to do this today and this today and this today….”


But for me, that was just the start.

Every time, as I sat down to meditate, I would get flashes of panic: heart racing, palms sweating, short breath, racing thoughts…
Or pain from an injury or a headache would come, taking over my awareness. I would grit my teeth, put my head down, and sit, dammit! … and I’d be counting every second until the bell rang. Sitting meditation the way I was doing it just swamped me with intense sensations I couldn’t deal with.

I’d try to “be with” the pain or even, without calling it pain. I’d try to cultivate curiosity and investigate the sensations: “There is a burning sensation. It’s a kind of burning like fiery-tingly… Nausea is coming..” Noticing without evaluating… but the mental capacity it took to do this was often beyond my grasp because the pain swamped my ability to think.

I don't have all day.

Or maybe I’d be OK for a while… but then I’d start to panic. I’d tell myself, “Don’t be silly. You can stop any time.” “No-one sitting here is going to judge you for leaving the room.” “You can just open your eyes and stretch and go back to it in a few minutes.” Sometimes I’d even do that. But still, when I returned to sitting, the panic would be there, and the claustrophobia.

Until earlier this month…

I was fortunate my work sent me to a 5-day Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviours facilitator training program. This training involved participating in the program (before learning to teach it), as well as silent meditation practice several times daily and social silence.

The results of the sitting practice in this program combined with my knowledge as a trauma-sensitive therapist and led me to an insight: because I am a trauma survivor, I am re-experiencing body sensations, emotions and even thoughts when I sit meditation that are similar to the ones I experienced when I was in the situation that caused the trauma.

When I sit meditation, I re-experience body sensations and emotions I experienced when I was traumatized. Click To Tweet

The good news is that I have learned two really helpful techniques that enabled me to support myself:

1) SOBER breathing space (today’s post) and
2) spacious awareness (next month’s post)

SOBER breathing space

This practice helped with the panic and feelings of aloneness and the fear related to that. It comes from the Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention [[]] curriculum. It is intended for use in high-risk or stressful situations, if you are upset about something, or are experiencing urges and cravings. I adapted it for use when I found sitting meditation was getting stressful.

STOP: Stop “meditating” (or trying to meditate). Open your eyes, and/or relax your posture and concentration. Stop focusing on the breath or whatever other practice you are using.

OBSERVE: Acknowledge what is happening. You could say something to yourself like, “I am remembering.” or “I am re-experiencing.” or “Something has triggered me.” You might like to place a gentle hand on your heart, or your belly, or even just hold your own hands together, as you do this.

BREATHE: take a breath or two, or however many feels right.

EXPAND: expand your awareness to include thoughts, emotions, physical sensations AND the environment around you. It might help to look around and notice the light, any pictures on the wall that you enjoy, the view out the window; to touch your cushion, the chair, the floor; to stand up and stretch; to walk, whatever. You will learn what helps you expand your awareness to include more than the remembering, and what helps might vary with the situation at hand.

RESPOND: choose what you want to do: remove yourself from the situation? Seek support? Be kind to yourself? Ask for help getting soothed and calmed? Whatever you sense is what is needed for you to get your feet back under you (so to speak) in the moment and afterwards.

SOBER has completely changed my sitting practice. I might engage in the SOBER steps two or three times in a sit, but rather than fight and struggle, I do OK. Better yet, I feel reassured overall that I can do this. I am no longer alone and helpless in my suffering. What a relief!

I have always known, as a trauma therapist, that for trauma survivors, the traditional instruction to move toward and investigate pain and distress is not usually helpful. But I never knew what to do for myself or what to offer clients to whom I’m teaching mindfulness. I’m grateful to Sarah Bowen who facilitated the conditions for this knowing to come forward for me.

Megan and I had a conversation about how she supports herself when her meditation sucks. That, and how to use spacious awareness to support your practice, are coming in part two.


  1. For me, insights into what is there and whatever else comes when I’m looking at pictures or listening to people in this deep-in-the-zone open inquiring way and then something comes to me, which leads to something else, and then I realize I’m deeper in my own head in this zone of deep reflection, ie/meditating, painlessly.

  2. Edited to add: Whatever is ready to come that is. The thoughts aren’t always good ones, but deep insights come more readily when I’m taking in something else, and having that distraction there does help. Music is also a way I support myself (though I haven’t gotten into Kirtan myself).

  3. Such an intriguing post, Shulamit. I’m especially curious about the mindfulness-based relapse prevention program you mention (my husband and I work with people struggling with addiction, and relapse prevention is a critical area of concern)…definitely going to explore your link in my internet hours tomorrow. Also love your sharing of another possible path for people struggling with the usual instructions. There’s never just one way…and more options means expanded accessibility. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Dana, I’m looking forward to chatting more with you about MBRP. I agree with you, there is never just one way. I love it when I have a range of choices 🙂

  4. I appreciate the SOBER practice you give. I have a client who will love this. It’s so important to be compassionate with what meditation brings up, and also to have good strategies for overwhelm or triggers.
    PS I didn’t read this blog post originally because of the title, which caused quite a reaction. Is there a more positive way to title what is a very helpful post?

    • Juliet, I’m so glad the SOBER practice will be useful. Hmmmmm, I’m considering what you’re saying about the title. You’d like to see the helpfulness reflected in it. I’m curious: what would you suggest, based on your experience with reading it?

    • Sue, thanks for commenting. I will relish hearing about your experience trying it out!

  5. Beautiful real talk…. Looking forward to part two!

    • Thanks Yve! It’s been an interesting and positive journey. It feels good to be shifting into a different way of being with myself and facilitating silent sitting.


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