What to do if you start crying during meditation?

Published by Olivier Devroede on

I occasionally see meditation students start crying. It’s always a tough moment for me as it somehow makes me unsure whether I should continue the meditation or offer some advice on how to deal with it. Usually, I just continue and come back to the participant after the meditation has ended

Crying during meditation is a very common occurrence. People tend to dislike the experience, but it is usually a very good sign. Unless you are emotionally unstable at the moment of the crying, the best recommendation is just to continue the practice.

That is the short and definitive answer; now let’s unpack it a little bit ;-).

Is it normal to cry during meditation?

nyam, as a meditative experience, is an anomalous, transient, psychosomatic – meaning psychological and/or somatic, experience, that’s catalyzed by means of authentic meditative practice.

Alan Wallace

As the quote above suggests, all sorts of meditative experiences occur. Alan Wallace is a world-renowned meditation teacher in the same tradition as the Dalai Lama. In this tradition, the upheaval one sometimes experiences during meditation is called nyam.

Nyams can range from simple crying to feeling ill or sweaty, or angry. The important part of the definition is that it is catalyzed by authentic practice.

In short, this 2000-year-old tradition tells us that crying during meditation is a sign that you have been doing your practice correctly. Unfortunately, eastern traditions are not keen on statistics, and so we have no idea how common nyams and/or crying are and if some practices are more prone to causing the symptoms. And western research is only now catching up on the possible reactions people exhibit during meditation sessions.

In any case, the important message is that it is perfectly normal to cry during meditation ;-).

And it’s not only the Tibetan tradition that states that crying is normal, but it is the one I’m most familiar with.

Related reading: Is meditation dangerous?

Crying Girl
Crying during meditation is perfectly normal. Many people experience it. Treat it like any other experience you have during your practice: just look at it with curious intent. Image courtesy of nadiology.

Why do you cry during meditation?

There seems to be a lot of consensus about the why of this phenomenon.

During meditation, the mind starts to relax, and the usual turmoil with which we fill it slowly dims down. At that moment, deeper emotions that we might have repressed for a long time tend to surface.

It is precisely these resurfacing emotions that can cause us to get upset, or sad, or angry.

The strange thing is that you might not even be consciously aware that you experiencing sadness. By this, I mean that there is no associated thought. But your body knows. It means that only the somatic part of the emotion is surfacing.

At that moment, you might start crying ‘without reason’.

There definitely is a reason, but you will have to wait a bit longer before it becomes clear to you. Don’t become fixated on the time it takes for you to know what happened precisely. It really is not so important. Just acknowledge that the emotion has passed and continue with the meditation.

What to do when you start crying during meditation?

The most important thing to do is acknowledge that you are crying without trying to repress it in any way. you should treat it as you do with anything in meditation: you need to bring a curious, nonjudgemental awareness towards whatever is presenting itself to you.

I understand that it can be disconcerting in the case of crying, but remember that it is fairly common, and you are mostly working through some unconscious block. So once you overcome the block, it will be gone forever, or at the very least have less impact on your life.

In the beginning stages, you should bring your awareness to whatever you feel. So feel the tears rolling down your cheeks or feel your eyes getting watery. You could also feel your eyes turn redder or swollen. Just concentrate on the physical feelings first.

The next step would be to turn your attention to the associated thoughts and emotions. Where else in the body do you feel crying?

What is often a big surprise to me is that the horrible feeling you sometimes associate with crying or emotions you do not like is that you think they are all over your body and you need to get them out. Usually, the opposite is true. They are localized in only a few -usually small- locations in the body. It is very rare, for instance, to feel sad in your legs. It can happen in a case of great fear, but usually, you feel emotions only in the belly region.

And for me, this is comforting. So try it next time you feel an emotion that looks like it tries to take you over.

As the last step, you could try to discover the deeper cause of your tears. So ask yourself, why is it that I am crying? Obviously, only when you do not really know why.

But do not try to guess or go at it with your full mind power. The part of your unconscious mind that made the tears well up knows why it did it and will reveal it to you when you just listen. So do not push it.

Once you know why it happens, you can use this as an object for contemplation. By this, I mean that you keep your reason in your mind and ask yourself a few questions: was it really so bad? Did the other person really try to hurt me? Could I see this event in another way that would cause me less sadness or stress?
Here again, just let the answers come up from the subconscious. But be aware though, that the subconscious will not always be a friendly environment. So be prepared to reject answers if they disagree with your more profound beliefs; So you can stay true to yourself.

One last caveat to consider: if the answer indeed does not suit you, still ponder over it a few moments before you discard it. That is part of the nonjudgemental attitude we are trying to cultivate also.

When crying turns into overwhelm, you need to move your attention away from where it hurts. Your feet are a great place to concentrate on — photo courtesy of texasgurl.

What to do when crying turns into overwhelm?

Sometimes our emotions run out of hand. Your tears could be the forerunner of foul weather!

It is essential that when you learn to meditate, you are also given a few tools for dealing with overwhelm. It could be crying getting out of hand or a panic attack. It does not matter.

What works in most cases is that you move your attention to somewhere else than what is causing the overwhelm. In most cases, turning your attention toward the tears is a very good idea, as I described in the previous paragraph. But when it gets out of control, you need to distract yourself from whatever is causing the overwhelm.

If you want to continue meditating, a good way of doing that is to move your attention as far as possible from where you feel the negative state. In many cases, we feel overwhelmed in the upper body. So an excellent place to start concentrating are your feet.

So move your attention there and every now and then, bring it back to the location of the overwhelm. Notice if it diminished or stayed the same. Or even increased. This moving back and forth is also an excellent mindfulness exercise in placing and moving your attention. It is actually one of the basic skills you need to learn if your chosen path is mindfulness.

In the unlikely case that this is still insufficient, you need to get out of the meditation. Do something you know will calm you down, like taking a walk or watching a funny movie on youtube.

What is important, however, is that if the overwhelm happens too often, you should see a therapist. Or at least tune down the meditation by a notch.

Featured image by Alex Green from Pexels

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.