Spiritual Practice and Anxiety

Just a reminder that spiritual practice can induce periods of increased anxiety.  In Centering Prayer, my own tradition, this is sometimes spoken of as the "unloading of the unconscious" which can include exposure to past traumas.  

"I call this third moment in the circular movement of Centering Prayer 'the unloading of the unconscious.' 'Unloading' refers to the experience of psychological nausea that occurs in the form of bombardment of thoughts and feelings that surge into our awareness without any relationship to the immediate past. That lack of connection with the source of painful thoughts or feelings is what identifies them as coming from our unconscious...Having carried this emotional pain for twenty or thirty years (or longer), the evacuation process may be extremely painful..."

–Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God


"...Centering Prayer is a psychological method and will produce results in that realm, some of them initially painful. In Intimacy with God Keating recounts how a graduate student recently did a thesis on Centering Prayer, along with several forms of Eastern meditation, recommending them as a way to reduce anxiety. Keating wrote back to the man saying, 'Centering Prayer will reduce anxiety for perhaps the first three months. But once the unconscious starts to unload, it will give you more anxiety than you ever had in your life.' For individual practitioners he recommends a limited dosage— twenty to thirty minutes twice a day is the normal prescription— to prevent the premature emergence of material into the conscious. Ten-day retreats rely on a trained staff to help handle a more intensive unloading process."

– Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening


I have heard and read of similar experiences from those who practice Vipassana and Zazen meditation.  While "the benefits of meditation" in the long term may include a more consistent inner calm, ups and downs are a normal part of most spiritual paths.  

Boom goes the dynamite...