I tried being mindful, and found being melancholy instead

Guest post by SonyaG
Autumn Leaves and Girl print from Etsy seller ArtandSpirits
Autumn Leaves and Girl print from Etsy seller ArtandSpirits

I have recently begun practicing mindfulness. Taking moments to slow down, tune in to myself and really enjoy the little things. I started being mindful about a month in advance of the holiday season, hoping to really enjoy the true meaning of Christmas and giving.

Only… Deep inside, I did not find the serenity and peacefulness I expected.

I found a vast fog of fuzzy grey melancholy. An acute feeling of how time is passing. Of how I can never go back. Of how things change. The useless, futile nature of human life aches.

I don’t know if this feeling is because of my approaching fortieth birthday, or the fact that my baby is a tween, or loved ones passed that I miss, or holiday nostalgia. Probably all of it.

But it’s not something I experienced when I was rushing around, surviving day-to-day. And if I lose myself in the mundane whirlwind of things, I completely lose touch with that dark lake inside me. But it lingers, poignant and deep.

I am not depressed. I am happy and satisfied with my life. I don’t have regrets. I have made peace with certain things and am much more serene than I was ten years ago. This is not the acute grief of loss, which I’ve coped with before.

Being just as close, or more, to my lover of twenty years doesn’t help; in fact it somehow makes it worse. It feels like we are standing still while everyone’s life around us changes and moves in fast-forward, relationships and families breaking and reforming.

On top of it all, I feel guilty to be feeling upset because I have no real reason for it. I’ve been through tough times before, but this is different. It feels bigger, somehow.

I did not get the result I wanted from mindfulness and now I’m feeling helpless about what to do with the pervasive unease I found.

Have you experienced this effect of being mindful? How did you deal with it?

Comments on I tried being mindful, and found being melancholy instead

  1. Often, after a breakthrough in meditation there is a backlash of sorts. The impermanence and unsatisfactory nature of life becomes more apparent. The traditional recommendation is to continue to meditate and accept the nature of being. And thus become enlightened. Yay!

  2. If Buddhist teachings speak to you, there are many books that talk about this. I love the book by Pema Chodron “When Things Fall Apart” (actually any of her books!)…she writes about the feeling of groundlessness that can happen when big things happen in life, or when you start slowing down enough to confront your own mind. It isn’t unusual to feel discomfort and it could be seen as a place to explore. Wishing you well!

  3. I’m a decade behind you – just turned 30 with two boys under five – and I’ve noticed this trend as a constant in my life. When I journal regularly and write (fiction, poetry) often, I am far more melancholy than when I’m focusing on parenting/knitting/sewing/exercise/etc. It’s a toss-up. But I always end up feeling like it’s better to be self-aware and aware of my surroundings, it’s better to be feeling more deeply, than the alternative. But I spent the first 25 years of my life in that melancholy, introspective place, and I only realized after the start of motherhood what it felt like to get into a place where I was too busy/distracted to care/notice so much.

    I haven’t reached enlightenment. I don’t know if there’s another “side” to this. But for me, the melancholy is worth it.

  4. I think that that underlying unease is a part of life (time passing, futility of human life etc are reasonable things not to feel good about!) but as someone with anxiety I struggle sometimes to tell the difference between these normal things to feel uneasy about and onset of an anxious phase. But one thing I try and work on is it’s ok to be not ok (which has not been easy this last year…).

    What I do in these times is try to take a command decision (or rather remember the decision I took previously when feeling better) that now is not the time to figure it which kind of uneasy it is, now is the time to be kind to myself until it passes or eases (and it always always does, eventually). Plenty of time later when feeling better to winkle out whatever the truth was. I find distraction good in these times, mediation, mindfulness etc are terrible for me then. Loosing myself through activity is great, especially creative repetitive activity like cutting out biscuits, hemming pieces for patchwork etc. Also great is burning it off, long walk in some beautiful countryside, ride on my bike, etc, something to really physically exhaust me. I also have a pilates class which I love, I lie on a mat and do what this woman tells me for an hour, I make no decisions, I have no responsibilities, bliss. My number one though is company, a nice meal with some old friends who make me laugh does wonders every time.

    Like I say I think this underlying unease is a part of life but I struggle with the way that living with that unease is sometimes fetishized, not that I’m claiming that mindfulness is that. I think it’s a trap to think that the unease is the truth and that anything that makes you feel better about it is covering it up or somehow less true. I think it’s true both that life is short and we will loose the ones we love at the same time that loving is the only thing that makes it all worthwhile. But what makes me happy is not based on truth but on doing what makes me happy! I would say, basing this entirely of course on what works for me so feel free to ignore, be kind to yourself for a bit, keep yourself healthily busy but don’t try and purposefully drive out the unease or confront it and if there really is something you need to address it will make itself known and you’ll be in a better place to deal with it. Don’t feel guilty that you’ve found this upsetting though, you’d be in good philosophical and literary company! Good luck and take care.

  5. First I want to say (again) how much I treasure this group of people. I don’t know any of you irl (or I don’t think so), but so many of the personal posts fulfill something in my life whic I would otherwise find to be lacking, namely honest sharing of our human experience, and what seems to be our common trait of being “outsider women.”

    With that in mind, your post is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. It’s open, raw, real and honest. I thank the person who wrote it for bringing this to my frontal lobe for closer inspection!

    Ok, now to my response from my perspective. Two main thoughts jumped out to me: 1) that I have also had difficulty with mindfulness, though in a somewhat different way and 2) this reminds me strongly of a major aspect of the German world/life view in which they (and I; more on that later) see the world as requiring the dark in order to see the light. (I’m painting with a broad brush and I realize that not all Germans think/feel the same way. But I’m saying this with decently good authority, so let’s just roll with it for the sake of simplification.)

    I’m gonna dig into each point now.
    1) My own weirdnesses relating to mindfulness come from a) learned behavior from my mother. She’s a hard core perfectionist (although she denies it) and her frantic need to prove her worth by way of presenting Martha Stewart-esque dinners actually winds up nearly ruining the final results more often than not. That’s because in the preparation phase she’s browbeat herself and her family to the point of actively not enjoying ourselves.
    Not everyone has the same soul crushing need for perfection like my mother, but, like I believe you were referring to in your post, many people tend to get some wrapped up in the process of creating special moments, we can easily miss the special moments that happen along the way, not to mention the “main event” when it’s all said and done. I know that’s a very real thing for me and I’ve been trying to find a better way to go about things.

    Perhaps mindfulness isn’t the solution for it for everyone, or at least perhaps not in such a “down deep” way. Maybe it’s more about learning new habits to override the old “harried” way of experiencing special times.
    Like just setting up a friendly reminder on your phone’s clock that goes off at regularly scheduled times (daily/hourly/etc) that says, “Pause, take a breath, find something to smile about.”

    I learned about intentional new habit building in a group therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). (I have to say I’ve been in all kinds of therapy since I was a teen, and I have had many positive results but absolutely nothing gave me the “best bang for my buck” than DBT. The only thing is that some DBT therapists charge exorbitant amounts of money. Look for people/places that aren’t so expensive. They’re all teaching the same material.)

    The other main thing that gets in the way for me is my chronic pain. No fun.

    But my response is already long, so I’ll move ahead to 2) The German embrace of the negative. The vast majority of my ancestry is German, my stepfather was German (he still would be, but he sadly passed away) and I lived in Germany for five years from the age of 12 to 17.

    We lived a German life while we were there; I went to German schools, lived in average German neighborhoods and I’m still close with my German friends and family.
    Anywho, that’s why I feel relatively confident about making the broad stroke assessment here.

    I didn’t realize until years after I moved back to the States, but the German outlook suits my personal view of life much better than the American one. Although I do wish Germans were generally kinder to strangers (they tend to keep their smiles for the people they know and love), I do admire their unapologetic skill in taking the bad with the good.

    It seems practically nihilistic to many Americans, but they’re just better realists. That means that what your melancholy is not only normal but totally healthy from their perspective!

    I’m saying this in an attempt to perhaps help you see this experience not so much as negative but rather something that has allowed space for more of your whole self. I believe that when we label something within ourselves negatively (often out of fear), it tends to consume us more.

    It makes sense to me that melancholy is what came up in your mindfulness.
    Turning 40 is a thing is our culture and it’s ok to have difficult emotions about it. Seeing your child get even closer to leaving the nest is something worthy of sadness.

    You’ve put so much love and care (and time, money and frustration!) into raising this person, it’s hard to imagine that life might go on when they’ve moved on (which, if you’ve done things well, is what’s supposed to happen). My son is about to turn 8 and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already grieved about the time when he’ll go to college *years from now in the future.* It’s ridiculous! But it’s just also part of my complete and complicated range of emotions and life view.

    Think of it this way, you probably don’t usually question your “positive”
    feelings, right? That’s because we’re taught that we should feel good and if we do, that means *you* are good. Conversely, we’re told that negative feelings should be avoided because negativity is bad. It could mean that *you’re* bad.

    But it’s not true. So I hope you can receive this: try not to feel bad about feeling bad.

    I genuinely hope what I’ve written has been helpful and not, for example, condescending or totally off base. Sincerely, KSW

    • Thank you so much for this! So insightful, as Megan said…I appreciate you sharing. I learned so much–the way German people look at life differently is really interesting…I almost wish I had grown up with this perspective. I too struggle with anxiety, and while, no it is not healthy for me to dwell on the negative, worrisome things that consume my mind when I’m in a dark place and going through a time when I struggle…I hear from most people to “think positive,” or, while they mean well, they essentially shame me for negative thoughts. Granted there’s a balance, but hearing those (seemingly “American?” messages) only leads to guilt and shame for those negative thoughts. It’s interesting to find the light AND dark is normalized in another culture.

    • I really love this response – it particularly rings true to me as I had a period of mild depression (I did not need medication but I saw a therapist) a few years ago that only really started to lift when I gave myself permission to be sad, and I think it is so important to acknowledge negative feelings just as you revel in the positive ones.

  6. I wonder if this is sort of like the healing crisis that can result from physical detoxification. Perhaps practicing mindfulness brought a bunch of garbage to the surface and you’re having trouble purging it all at once.

    Have you heard of EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique? It combines meditation with acupressure–well, technically, tapping on acupuncture points–to redirect and increase energy flow throughout your body, and help address any emotional or physical problem. Seems like it could really help in your situation. There are all kinds of resources for EFT, including some lovely guides on YouTube.

    Thank you for the thoughtful and eloquent article. I hope relief will come swiftly to you.

  7. When I did a mindfulness course I started off feeling very positive and peaceful, but then a few deep worries kept coming back to me, mostly connected to a couple of particular incidents which had left me feeling betrayed or frustrated. I think I must have deliberately avoided thinking about these incidents, and the mindfulness meditations prompted me to start to gently process them. I wonder if this is similar to the OP’s experience?

    For me it only lasted a few weeks, but I had a few counselling sessions with a colleague of my mindfulness teacher, which I would definitely recommend. Something that often came up in our conversations was the importance of being kind to myself, especially in moments of feeling low or struggling to get on with things.

    For what it’s worth, I’d also add that I think Christmas can be a really hard time to be mindful! Loads of things to do, pressure to buy lots of things, pressure to participate in significant traditions…everything seems to have ‘special meaning’! And it’s hard to stay in the present moment at a time of year which is all about celebrating past events, whether they are events from many hundreds of years ago or events from the last year.

  8. I agree with both Kmcsparklepants and C.M. I think Americans focus too much on being happy and don’t treasure those things that are also on the sadness/melancholy spectrum.

    For a balanced life, we must embrace all of it–the good and the difficult. As C.M. said, slowing down likely just brought to the surface this melancholy you’ve been feeling but were too busy to acknowledge.

    For me, when melancholy hits, it’s a matter of journaling about what’s causing it, acknowledging the feelings, and working hard to see the positive aspects of the situation at hand. It may take a bit to process, but mindfulness is a healthy practice.

    I’ve found that, whenever you begin any kind of mindfulness or self-reflection work, there is a period where you’re slogging through the muck while you deal with those things that you’ve been in denial about or too busy to acknowledge. That’s all completely normal, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue to practice because something negative or difficult comes up. Dealing with it will be beneficial, even if it’s difficult to start.

    • That article is a very interesting read and really speaks to what the writer of this blog post is saying. I think it is important to note that some people may have an adverse reaction to general mindfulness practice and that it is not the persons’ fault for ‘doing it wrong’.

  9. I LOVE THIS POST. For me, the big value of mindfulness isn’t to be happy… it’s just to be aware. This means that if you feel like you’re doing it wrong, but you’re awake — YOU’RE WINNING!

    For example, I had a friend who was like, “Oh I suck at meditation. I just sit there the whole time thinking about how incredibly spiritual and enlightened I am.”

    And I was all, “OOOH, that’s where your brain goes? That’s fascinating! Isn’t it interesting to observe that, when you quiet down, you go to a sanctimonious, ego-driven place about how awesome you are for quieting down? Fascinating!”

    The key for me has been to notice what comes up, name it (Ooh, there’s some melancholy!), and then let it pass on by like a bus I’m not getting on. For me, it’s not melancholy, it’s anxiety… but it’s all just busses driving on by.

  10. You know, I’m going to be one of those contrarians who suggests you might want to consider stopping solo meditation/mindfulness techniques and explore the option of therapy prior to beginning a practice.

    I used to teach yoga and mediation, and I quickly learned working with people who have experienced trauma, that sitting with one’s thoughts is not always necessarily healthy or helpful. At the very least, guided meditation might be better.

    Now, I don’t know if you’ve had trauma. However, for myself, I discovered that meditation brought up serious unresolved issues that sent me into a full-blown depression, and I decided to stop solo meditation until I had some time to work with a professional.

    Mindfulness can be found in activity, too, and slowing down for a walking meditation, or taking the time to eat a meal with no distractions and lingering over every bite can bring a lot of peace. I strongly suggest you consider therapy if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed with dark thoughts while practicing mindfulness.

    Remember: You’re not doing it wrong. There is nothing wrong with you, or your technique. Take care and be kind to yourself.

  11. OP here!

    Thank you all for the input and the amazing advice and support. It warms my heart not to feel alone, or like I was somehow doing mindfulness wrong.

    A little update; as someone pointed out, it is very hard to practice regular mindfulness in th hub-bub of the holiday. And the grey, hopeless feeling went away.

    Your posts made me realize that I was trying mindfulness to be more serene and happy, and clearly it’s not working as planned.

    I would also like to aknowledge that indeed, there is plenty of garbage and trauma in my past. However, I am at a point where most of these issues have been worked through and dealt with as best as possible. The feeling I discovered by being more in tune to myself is not the same. I guess it’s like leftover flood waters maybe, not roaring and life-threatening dangerous anymore but not necessarily fun to wade into either.

    So I have learned something about myself, and perhaps in small doses or if I can be sure to have time to express myself creatively (which has been a huge help before) I might tap into the emotion. Until then, I will focus more on other strategies.

  12. I personally find my inner peace and feeling of connectiveness when I’m busy. But maybe I’m in denial about how beneficial actively practicing mindfulness would be for me.

  13. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, & yoga are great ways for being aware of yourself & your mental state. You might likely feel calmer & serene, but odds are high that if there is something bothering you, you’re going to be more aware of it after your practice. But that’s part of the being aware part: you’re exploring the emotions as well as the depths & complexities of those emotions, & you might not realize that they’re there until you’ve stumbled upon them.

    In mindfulness & meditation, part of the goal in my practice is to notice those sour or gray feelings, be aware & acknowledge them, & let them pass for a time to try to find a calm mental place. Or, on occasion, explore them, poke at them, try to find their causes. & if possible, find a release for them.

    In yoga, one of my instructors mentioned that a student commented once that they felt very angry doing hip-opening poses. That resonated with me, because I tend to feel very weepy or insular during chest-opening poses, like camel or other back bends. Many times, I just wanted to curl up & cry in the middle of class in those poses. At first glance, that seems the very opposite of what those poses are ‘supposed to’ accomplish, but after considering it carefully, I realized that one of the things I struggle with the most is letting other people know how I feel, or even sometimes being honest with myself about how I feel. All of those insecurities, all of those attempts to hide myself from others (& myself!), & those tiny little voices of doubt that I don’t really notice day to day really come to a boil when I am literally baring a physically vulnerable part of my body to the people around me.

  14. I have finally decided for myself that despite what everyone is raving about, I hate mindfulness. In fact the very worst moment of my day is when my partner falls asleep and I am left laying in bed, incredibly mindful of my thoughts, and my mind brings me into all these unwanted places. Usually regret over things I did or said that day, and general anxiety about life. Mindfulness about my body and surroundings in yoga always ends up with me feeling an itch, a cramp, or too hot or too cold. I really, really hate it. I’m in my head so much as it is that I crave some external stimulation to reset that mental balance. A massage, music, a book, anything to distract my tired mind for a bit.

  15. This! Thank you for sharing, so eloquently, what you are feeling. These could easily be my words. As I near 40 and my baby is a tween (and a three year old growing so quickly), with the holidays approaching, I too, purposefully “slowed down” – wanting to really take it all in. Somehow that snowballed into what I have described as “melancholy”. Some would maybe call it depression or anxiety, but I’ve felt that those two words aren’t exactly it. I’m not necessarily anxious or depressed, but aware. Aware of the passing of time and moments that can’t be recaptured; sort of a yearning for a past that hasn’t yet become a past, but is in the moment. It happens as I lay down to snuggle up and read a book before nap time, while nearing the end of a routine, it happens at school dropoff when I realize next year will be middle school (we’ve spent so many familiar days with our current school that I’m yearning for time to just stop, for a little while), it crept up at a holiday recital… it’s there and it’s so real and so raw. As my husband and I approach our 18th year together I find it almost hard to grasp. I’m thankful to have happened upon your words.

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