I rely on my morning meditation to set me up for the day. For HSPs, a spiritual discipline like meditation is essential.
I’ll never forget the first time I meditated. I’d been living in Rochester for a year or so, attending yoga classes. Somehow it took me that long to figure out that the carriage house hosting the classes belonged to the Rochester Zen Center. I immediately signed up for an introductory workshop.
Sitting zazen in the workshop, I felt panic at the idea of holding still for 20 minutes. However, even as I struggled not to wiggle, or scratch, I could feel the breath practice having its calming effect.
The experience galvanized me. In the following weeks, I had no trouble at all motivating myself to sit every day. I was struggling with so much anxiety that it was a no- brainer to do something like the sitting that so obviously helped.
Still, I didn’t in any way think of myself as a spiritual person. On the contrary. I had grown up attending an Episcopal church with my family. I loved the hymns and the sonorous rhythm of the prayers. Still, I couldn’t conceive of a God who had the slightest interest in me or my puny problems —puny to him/her/them, that is: my problems seemed big to me.
Zen felt more direct to me. Here was something I could do. And sitting with the support of a community really helped me. I didn’t yet know about the highly sensitive trait, but I was already experiencing the reality that I was deeply affected by my environment.
Finding your own spiritual path
I sat zazen for a number of years before taking a break. My practice had begun to feel painfully forced. I needed something softer—more yin, less yang. Also, I discovered that I yearned for a sense of relationship: a connection to a greater energy into which I could surrender.
I was lucky: just a few miles from my house, a wonderful psychotherapist I was working with had joined her husband—also a psychotherapist with a doctorate of divinity—in starting a spiritual community called the Assisi Institute.
Both of them were and are Catholic (not a huge leap from my Episcopalian roots) and devotees of the Hindu guru Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda had written an extensive commentary on the New Testament and another on the Bhagavad Gita. In this combination of Christian mysticism and ancient Hindu teachings, I found the mystical, devotional practice I had sought.
I joined the community as a kriyaban (a practitioner of kriya yoga breath and meditation practices) in 2016. Connecting to a divine energy, one to which I could turn for guidance, and into which I could surrender—proved life-changing for me. The remains of my old anxiety fell away.
I share this personal history not because I expect your spiritual path would look anything like mine. It won’t. It has its own unique unfolding. But I think encountering the messy specificity of one person’s path can give you something to bump up against as you sense your own way forward.
The important thing is to have a path. For HSPs, spiritual connection is as important as air or water. The words you use to describe it are far less important than the lived reality they describe: that is, a sense of a connection with something bigger than yourself.
Why do I meditate?
Here are six reasons why I meditate. If you already have a practice for connecting to something bigger, defining these six benefits may deepen your appreciation of your practice. And if you don’t, or if your practice isn’t bringing the benefits you seek, this might inspire you to find a practice that works better for you.
1—Meditation leaves me with a sense of calm that lasts all day
I usually sit right after I wake up. This creates an inner well of calm I can dip into through the day. I’m intensely grateful for this equanimity, having fielded so much anxiety in the past. Of course, I get stressed or upset sometimes. But just as the ocean remains calm under the surface even during a hurricane, there is a sense of deeper calm that helps me keep these surface storms in perspective.
2—Meditation helps regulate my intense HSP emotions
Intense emotions are a central aspect of high sensitivity. Like all HSPs, I feel them every day. However, I experience these emotional reactions very differently when I’m in a state of meditative peace. There’s plenty of space for whatever comes up. I can fully feel anger, grief, anxiety, shame, fear, joy, or excitement— without getting overwhelmed.
No doubt, when I practice Focusing and Inner Bonding, I nurture Loving Adult Presence in myself. This energy of radical acceptance and self-responsibility helps me hold strong emotions. Even so, I can slip without realizing it into a subtly controlling stance in which “I” —my personality— am “working on myself.”
When I meditate, I go beyond the small “me” with its limited resources. I surrender control… but at the same time, I gain access to the infinite wisdom and resources of that “something bigger.”
3—Meditation lowers my reactivity to pesky stimuli
Itches, aches, buzzes, glares, hums, chills, heat, and scratchy tags used to drive me mad. This sensory sensitivity, as you probably know first-hand, is not a small thing for an HSP. My meditation practice requires me to turn away from external stimuli, and this loosens my identification with my physical body. This shift is profound.
As a result, I am markedly less reactive to these sensory annoyances now. Learning to accept my HSP sensory sensitivity has been helpful, but transcending my sense of “me as this body”—even just a little—is even more liberating. Paradoxically, this shift has not caused me to neglect my body: on the contrary. I’m less obsessed with it, yet more attentive to it.
4—Meditation taps into the positive aspect of my HSP environmental susceptibility
By now, I’m used to the reality that I soak up energy from my surroundings—that phenomenon I call environmental susceptibility. This can be positive or negative. On the one hand, shopping malls leave me feeling jangled. On the other hand, time out in the woods leaves me feeling relaxed and expanded.
I do my best to maintain a nurturing environment around me. Clearly, though, this is not always in my control. Each time I meditate, I reinforce an %inner environment in which I can better hear my inner guidance, no matter what is going on around me.
5—Meditation opens me to answers my brain can’t access
I struggled with terrible anxiety in the past. My personal infrastructure—sleep, eating, exercise—fell apart for a while, and I felt overwhelmed by daily life. It’s hard to settle down enough to connect to yourself and to Spirit when you are jumping out of your own skin. Clearly, I needed to begin by addressing my basic physical self-care.
My efforts to establish healthier habits and routines did help a lot, enabling me to settle into myself and stay better tuned in to my needs moment by moment and to hear my spiritual intuition. To my surprise, though, underneath that grosser level of anxiety I had been experiencing, I discovered a subtler existential anxiety. Somehow, I didn’t feel safe.
Through reflection, study, and spiritual direction, I eventually realized I couldn’t escape this layer of anxiety. It was, and is, existential. In truth, we have no ultimate security in life. As the Buddha taught, we all experience loss, sickness, and death. Meditating brings me closer to acceptance of this reality, helping me surrender to the “peace which passes all understanding.”
6—Meditation connects me to the divine
The above items above are wonderful benefits of meditation, but they are not the main point. The main point for me is to stay as connected as I can to my spiritual source. This all-encompassing energy has many names: God, Spirit, the Divine, Source, Mind, the universe. Whatever you call it, though, there is nothing more important.
To know “something bigger” exists is powerful. To experience that “something” directly and personally is even more powerful. Most powerful of all is the knowledge that you have the agency to actively open yourself to that experience. Meditation, with the intent to connect to Spirit, gives you that agency.
This direct experience has immediate practical implications. My meditation practice “primes the pump” of my spiritual intuition so I can ask practical questions as I go through the day—and hear the answers.
Am I concerned about having enough money as I get older? Am I uncertain how best to serve a client? Am I fatigued and wondering whether I should push through or stop and rest? Is there someone in my life who is suffering, who I wish I could support? I ask for help. I listen. I send energy.
For HSP’s, spiritual practice is key to a deeper happiness
I’ll unpack this. By “spiritual practice,” I mean a daily, intentional effort to cultivate direct connection with something bigger than oneself. By “happiness,” I mean that sense of deeper well-being, peace, and inner rightness that transcends passing moods.
In that regard, meditation alone is like a candle, while meditation with the intent to connect to something bigger is like the sun: infinitely more powerful. When we engage with spiritual intent in meditative or contemplative practice, we empower ourselves to create peace—inside and outside. We open to the joy of a deep equanimity that is not dependent on conditions.
Of course, HSPs aren’t alone in needing peace. Everyone does. However, given our deep-processing brains, our emotional intensity, and the inevitable distractions created by our sensory sensitivities, HSPs suffer more than others if we’re missing the spiritual discipline of a meditative practice to quiet down enough to hear our inner guidance.
I want peace and joy, and I most certainly I don’t want that hellish grind I experience when I lose touch with my spiritual connection and plunge into overwhelm, anxiety, and rumination.
There you have it: the carrot and the stick, that motivate me to meditate every day.
Image: ©2017 Emily Agnew
Note: This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared on June 29, 2017