Meditation Can Bring Up Bad Memories - Here's Why (and what to do when it does)

When you sit down to meditate, a blissful experience is anything but guaranteed. While most people find that a regular meditation habit helps reduce mental and physical stress, sometimes when you get quiet and listen to what’s going on inside, you find yourself facing tough stuff.

One of the reasons we advocate meditating in a group, with a teacher, is so that you have other live human beings to turn to when you hit those difficult places in your practice. If you’re just listening to guided meditations with an app, there’s no one to ask questions of, or to get encouragement from. But if you’re sitting in a real live class, you can always ask the teacher for help.

We asked WITHIN teacher Devon Pipars why difficult memories come up in meditation, and how she recommends working with them when they do. Here’s what she told us.

Q: Can meditation lead me to remember or relive difficult situations?

A: While it’s rare, during meditation negative or traumatic experiences from the past, both conscious and subconscious, may arise. This is often due to the nature of repression.  There is a saying, “What you resist, persists.”  So, at the time we experienced something deeply traumatic we may not have been ready or able to deal with the feelings that arose.

Put simply, when we let go and open up, all that has been repressed has the opportunity to arise in order to be released in the light of awareness.

How is experiencing those difficult memories in meditation different from just thinking or talking about them?

During meditation, we give up participating with active thought and just become the neutral observer of all things arising in consciousness.  When we realize that in order to observe we must be beyond what we’re observing, then we see that we are, in fact, beyond the body and the senses, and beyond the thoughts and feelings, which are always changing.  In fact, we are the unchanging awareness which is steady, constant, silent and still, thereby allowing all change to be noticed.

This recognition of our Self as the ever-present witness, as the Knower, opens up our awareness and creates a sense of space between the experience and the observer of the experience.

Meditation is an extremely safe space to allow past trauma to arise - the “distance” created in becoming the observer generates a buffer between you and the trauma.

How can reliving or remembering it in meditation help me process those difficult memories?

The fact is, awareness is never colored or altered by the nature of whatever is being witnessed, pleasant or unpleasant.  Knowingness remains knowingness.  In meditation we are fully present, centered in the calm and fearless awareness of the Knower, allowing any experience to spontaneously arise in the mind, emotions, and body, without creating any resistance or judgement. This means the body and the mind will go through the reaction - there may be rapid breathing, pounding heart, the emotions of terror or anger or grief, and even tears pouring down from closed eyes, but the space from which YOU witness remains untouched, steady and safe.

Often just allowing whatever was previously resisted to be fully expressed lets it be released, and soon we discover a newfound ease and peace.

How do I know when I should just sit with what I’m facing in meditation, and when I need help?

Sometimes no amount of meditation can change a negative state which has become constant. If you notice you’re experiencing a significant impairment in your ability to function in relationships and/or in work/school, that is very strong indicator that you may need to also seek professional help.

Remember that asking for help on any level is never a failure, as it demonstrates self-awareness, self-compassion, and courage.

Remind yourself that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you for needing help - that the struggle called life is common and shared: there is not a human being alive who will not require the help and support of another at one time.    

Devon teaches our afternoon & evening classes on Tuesdays, and midday on Wednesdays. She has a passion for helping students deepen their practice, whether you're just starting out or have years of experience. Join her for a class this week, or take her #MindfulStart Course! Or, get a taste of her guidance virtually through WITHIN's channel on the Aura Health app.