When meditation is successful, even for a few seconds, taboos often rise up. A taboo is a feeling, “this is forbidden.” TABOO: a prohibition in some cultures against touching, saying, or doing something for fear of immediate harm from a mysterious superhuman force.
- This is a forbidden level of restfulness. I will never get up and do my chores! I am resting too deeply.
- This is too much fun, I feel happy erotic energy streaming through my body.
- This is too out of control, I have no control over my thoughts. They just come and go of their own free will.
- This is too fast.
Taboo: something that may not be permitted
Synonyms: banned, barred, forbidden, interdicted, outlawed, prohibited, proscribed, taboo (also tabu), verboten
Related Words intolerable, unacceptable, unbearable, unendurable; illegal, illegitimate, illicit, improper, inappropriate, unauthorized, unlawful, unlicensed; ineffable, unmentionable; unseemly, unsuitable; objectionable; disallowed, disapproved, discouraged; refused, rejected, revoked, unsanctioned, vetoed; repressed, suppressed; precluded, prevented, stopped; excluded, ruled out, shut out; blocked, hindered, impeded, obstructed
Near Antonyms acceptable, bearable, endurable, tolerable; accepted, accredited, allowed, appropriate, approved, authorized, certified, endorsed (also indorsed), lawful, legal, legitimate, licensed, OK (or okay), permitted, warranted; accorded, granted, sanctioned, vouchsafed; brooked, condoned, countenanced; encouraged, promoted, supported; commanded, mandatory, ordered, required; proper, seemly, suitable, tolerated, unobjectionable
Antonyms allowable, permissible, permissive, sufferable
People often quit meditating, give up on it, or else ruin their meditation so that it is not effective, and therefore does not bring up the taboos. This is a reason why there needs to be one-to-one coaching available for meditators.
Common Taboos You’ll Face on the Quest
In mythic imagery, there are the threshold guardians, fierce entities that make vast amounts of noise while rattling their weapons threateningly when we cross into their turf. They have to be outsmarted or dealt with somehow if you are to proceed on the quest. These guardians present themselves as obstacles, but when you acknowledge their presence and address them directly, a way can be found around or through them.
Whenever you leave familiar physical or emotional territory and enter unknown terrain, there are inner warning signs and signals that say verboten or no trespassing or sound off Ah-O-O-O-gah or Ring-ring-ring!...They make you wonder, Am I really sure I want to cross this line? To proceed along the healing path, the path to wholeness, you need to say Yes! and face the guardians that in meditation take the form of taboos.
If you give it a chance, you may find that your body likes to meditate. But some people have a taboo against self-care. To allow meditation its healing power and to steer clear of self-abuse, you have to confront the taboos that limit intimacy with the self. Because although meditation is healing in a general way, it is more so if you make it responsive to your needs and do not see it as an imposition.
A tip: Never blame yourself when you encounter the following taboos. They are encountered by almost everyone who sets off on the quest for wholeness. When you accept this simple fact and see them for what they are, merely chimeras, their power is transformed into renewing energy you will need on your journey. They may even smile and help you along your way.
The Taboo against Rest
Our jangly culture routinely denies the need for rest. It is a time sickness, an incessant hurrying that is manifested in overloaded schedules and a continual flogging of the self to do more. We are a work-oriented society that worships adrenaline and values being busier than thou as a virtue. Consequently, many people have a sleep debt of dozens of hours.
Meditation brings us face to face with the taboo against rest in several ways. First off, you are sitting there making a science out of doing absolutely nothing. You can read all the Zen koans you want, but when you make your body as idle as it can be, you are sure to run head-on into the taboo against rest. Also, many people choose to meditate at times when others are up and active, either early in the morning or before dinner. It is unusual to be relaxing with your eyes closed at those times—everyone else is watching people being murdered on TV or fuming in traffic. There may be voices, sensations, impulses saying, What are you doing resting? You should be doing chores!
Rest is one of the body’s most potent resources to accelerate healing. When we are resting, the body can give over its energies to maintenance and repair. We rest every night in order to rejuvenate and recharge for the following day. Sometimes a good night’s sleep feels miraculous, because of the way we feel when we go to bed and how fresh we feel when we wake up in the morning. When we are sick, we often have the urge to sleep more, take naps. For their part, doctors love prescribing bed rest.
During meditation we are conscious, fully awake, sometimes superlatively awake, in a heightened state of awareness. Every thought stands out. We are not anesthetized as we would be if we were drinking alcohol or on some other drug. However, the body enters a state of restfulness much deeper than sleep, and it does so very quickly. It is not physically possible, unless you know how to hibernate somehow, to be more at rest than in meditation. You are quite literally doing as little work as possible. That is why the taboo against rest and the taboo against laziness stand sentry side by side.
Something you can do to help your meditation help you is to catch up on your sleep or at least reduce the amount of sleep deprivation you suffer from. Go to bed a little earlier and take naps and rest breaks throughout the day.
The Taboo against Pleasure
Along with a Puritanical work ethic, many people also shoulder a taboo against simple bodily pleasure.
As you relax into meditation, pleasurable sensations will seep deep inside you as your nerves and muscles melt into mush. This often feels like being massaged and drifting in and out of a luxurious sleep. Lying down or sitting when you are tired is one of the sweetest sensations there is, and in meditation you are awake to enjoy it. This world of sensation is as rich as art, music, and wine, which contain infinite nuances of deliciousness. Sometimes your response from somewhere in your brain will be, No, stop, you can’t enjoy this. This can’t be right! You are being seduced by the life-giving energies flowing through your body. Learn to not resist this healing flow. Sensations are not a problem; simply enjoy them. They will change continuously anyway. If you just breathe with the sensations for a minute, they will come to feel normal. Gradually, you will build up your tolerance for bliss.
On a daily basis, indulge in the myriad little pleasures you have available to you. Delight in several such pleasures as part of your preparation for meditation and remind yourself that it is okay to enjoy.
The Taboo against Aliveness
Meditation can feel like a bath in life’s rare essence. Even though you are just sitting there, you can feel yourself shimmering, bubbling with impulses. Because you are more open to yourself, you are letting sensations of electricity flow through your body, and this results in intense sensations. As you let go in meditation, your muscles relax, circulation increases, and there are odd tinglings and gushes of life. This feels very taboo, almost too much to handle for most everyone at first.
This fiery side, which we all have, is the perfect balance for the mellowness of meditation, and if you deny it, your vitality will suffer. In order to heal, you may have to risk being more lively than your family, friends, job, or love relationships generally allow. The people who know you may have come to rely on you being low-key, or always kind, or always giving. You should break your own and their taboos.
Whether your injury is emotional or physical, one of the elements you may need to reclaim is your rage to live, which you may have lost as a child or later in illness. In this rage to live there is a demanding quality combined with a healthy zest. Aggression is part of it, being excited about life and reaching out to grab what you want and moving away from what you do not want. To live fully, you have to dare to disturb the universe.
You can feel intensely alive when you are meditating. As a living being, you can demand things of your meditation. You can demand, request, desire, and pray that in a half-hour you will be restored and vivified. Then let go totally and let your body repair itself and prepare to continue the quest.
The Taboo against Spontaneity
Whenever you meditate, be willing to be surprised. The opposite of control is spontaneity, and in meditation it is very useful to have an informal, natural, unfettered attitude toward your inner life. The transition from control, which may be your usual mode of going through life, to release of control, is another threshold crossing with its scary sensations to endure. As you get used to them, you will find more ability to be spontaneous in your everyday life.
When you close your eyes to meditate, one of the first things that happens is every little thing you have forgotten comes to awareness. You might have several minutes of Oh no, I left the laundry in the dryer; Uh-oh, I forgot to call Jennie back, she’ll be pissed; Whoops, I was going to drop by the mechanic’s on the way home to have him listen to that noise the car is making. There is no telling how long this will go on—it depends on how complex your life is and how good you are at organizing your time. By the way, I recommend that all meditators study time management and have good to-do lists, because it takes a load off your meditation time.
When you release control, your brain’s backlog of unprocessed to-do’s will take over, and there is no honest way to stop the process. You just have to let it sort itself out. When we are walking around and we remember something we have forgotten to do, it feels like a little hit, a tiny shock going through the body. When we are sitting still in meditation, all relaxed and attentive, the sensation seems more intense. As you get used to it, though, these kinds of thoughts become like rain on the roof—you can hear the constant patter and it’s actually quite pleasant.
The process gets worse from here. After your brain gets through your immediate to-dos, it will start to work on long-range desires: Hey, I promised myself a trip to Europe and I never took it even though I had the money or You know, I want a real home or even Oh no, I forgot to have kids!—all those things you have successfully pushed to the back of your mind for years.
You may also have forgotten to give yourself time to feel, in which case you may find yourself crying and not knowing why, or shaking, or getting angry. If you let yourself be taken by your emotions, you don’t know where they will take you. The more you let go of control, the more your body will just do what it has to do to balance itself.
What lets you enter a spontaneous mode is trust in your body and your nervous system. The fear of releasing control, just letting the attention wantonly go here and there, feels like an immense taboo. Scandalous!
Because of this, I have noticed that many people make up elaborate rules about what they can and cannot think of during meditation. That’s not promoting inner freedom at all. Avoid imposing such arbitrary, restrictive rules upon yourself, because they limit the flow of life considerably and make meditation seem like work rather than recreation.
Then there are some people who are wired so that they will not or cannot allow a new experience to just happen to them. They need to see a map of how it might unfold first, then think about it, decide if they want to go there, get a compass, take a reading, and, if and when they finally set off on adventure, they take it step by step by step by step. A friend of mine is like this. He is extremely perceptive, has done a great deal of self-exploration, and is a very lively guy. But I notice over the years that he never opens up to an aspect of breath, movement, meditation, or sensory awareness unless he decides to and scopes the entire process out in advance. For him, allowing even a relatively minor change in the way he experiences breath is like moving, as in packing up your house and relocating. It’s a major operation. To him, a lesser change is like remodeling, maybe knocking down a wall. It causes a mess, and you’d better have a damn good reason for proposing that he make such a change.
I call such people map-firsters or top-downers. They will refuse the call until the call comes bearing maps, logistical details, cost-benefit analysis spreadsheets, brochures, environmental impact reports, insurance policies, and an American Express card. The call then has to wait while the map-firster thinks all this through. When he finally decides to answer the call, he has already done a great deal of the work in advance. He memorized the maps while he was mulling it all over. He has rehearsed what it will be like and given his nervous system permission to accept new levels of perception.
When you perceive a mistrust of spontaneity in yourself or others, be patient. Everyone has his own way and timing for jumping into the dance of life.
The Taboo against Descent
In dreams and myths, there is the recurring image of descent into the underworld. In meditation, sometimes you may feel as if you are falling. The sensation is similar to what you may have felt when taking a nap or falling asleep, only this time you are falling into meditation. Get used to it.
Sinking down into meditation can feel a bit like depression at times. It is as if there is a vast pool of blackness below you, and you sink into it. This blackness, by the way, is real—much of the universe is vast empty space. Even the matter your body is made up of is 99.99 percent empty space. It’s not like reality is solid.
If you have been living in your head, for instance, you should welcome the move into your heart. Or, say you have been using your brain at work all day; 10 minutes into a meditation you may notice that your center of consciousness has slipped down to your belly. This short-term descent gives your brain time off from acting as the center of your being.
There are other descents you’ll face in meditation. If you are disabled, you may have the feeling that everything has been taken away. If you are hurt, injured, or ill, you may not be able to do your usual activities. Your motion and pleasure may be severely restricted, either permanently or temporarily. This feels like a small death, a loss, and can result in depression.
If you have been given a difficult diagnosis or prognosis, you may have had a sinking feeling followed by an overwhelming sense of fear. There is a hidden gift in the sinking feeling, because the fear makes us want to run around in panic, which doesn’t help.
Depression makes us feel like sitting still and doing nothing, which is at least restful.
There’s also descent involved when facing death. The body senses the possibility of death at the end of each exhale. Death comes quickly, in just a few minutes, if we do not breathe in again. We usually flee from this thought because it is too terrifying. But all spiritual traditions say that being aware of one’s inevitable death is one of the best preparations for living a full life. It helps you cherish the preciousness of life, however much you have left of it.
Depression is a call in to your depths. Meditation allows you to answer that call safely and consciously so that you can reach to the very foundation of your being and gather the inner resources that are your strengths. In one of the ancient Babylonian myths, Gilgamesh had to dive into a bottomless sea to pick a healing plant. Sometimes you will feel that you are sinking endlessly. As you learn to trust and tolerate these feelings, afterward you will find yourself renewed. If you need help trusting the descent process, I recommend seeking out a member of the clergy, a therapist, or a grief counselor. Let them help you, and then when you are meditating, you will be more skilled in accepting your inner experience.
I remember one day in 1972 when my meditations took me into a place of darkness. I was used to inner light and electric sensations, surf and sunshine. This was like being in a cave. Although in the physical world it was light outside, my inner world was dark, silent, vast, other. Slowly, slowly, over months, my body began to make friends with the darkness, to rest in it. Curious, I watched as the cells of my body pulsated in rhythm, contacted the blackness, and then began to absorb nutrition from it. I learned that the darkness is renewing, and a vital ally. There are times on the quest when what we need is a restful immersion in total darkness.
Chronic stress causes chronic problems. If you have experienced stress for a sustained period of time at some point in your life—you fought in a war, you endured a relationship that felt like a war, you were a victim of childhood sexual abuse, you suffered through a terrible divorce or some equally stressful event—you may have developed an adaptation, a repeated behavior. The body can become trapped in a twisted attempt to release itself from chronic tension with what is called an addiction.
Addictions tend to have something good about them, a primitive logic.
If the tension was very great, perhaps you developed a habit of drinking alcohol, which is a muscle relaxant. Smoking cigarettes is somewhat relaxing. Overeating, although it is a challenge to the digestive system, can create sleepiness; finally, you rest a bit. Illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine are effective painkillers. We can try to lose our pain by rushing a relationship, having compulsive sex, or becoming involved with someone who hurts more than we do.
When such adaptations to chronic tension happen, they are hell to live with and hell to get out of. They can take over and rule your life. All your vitality, your wealth, your life’s blood of creativity can be stolen by these behaviors, which started out as an attempt by the body to release stress.