It was bound to happen. When everyone from recipe box delivery companies to knitting retreats are proclaiming themselves to be mindful and when government ministers are urging the rest of us to be (though perhaps not taking their own advice), eventually there had to be a backlash.
The short answer to both questions and to the question in the title of this post is: No.
Mindfulness isn’t making us ill, it’s not dangerous and it won’t harm you.
But mindfulness isn’t what some people think it is.
In the Guardian article, the writer, Dawn Foster, starts with an anecdote about feeling panicky in a meditation class, and finishes by saying she and her friends have found other ways to relax.
Here is the first misconception – mindfulness is not a relaxation method. After practising mindfulness for some time it is likely you will feel more relaxed, but that is a side effect, not its purpose. It’s not “living for the moment” in a hedonistic way. It’s not sitting about doing nothing but staring into space. (Yes, I have read an article where the writer thought that.) It is not just meditation either. For a start, there are different kinds of meditation, and not all mindful. And while mindfulness includes a meditative practice, it is more than that. The BBC article describes the experience of one woman who took a 10 day silent meditation retreat and almost lost her mind. Without knowing the details, I cannot fully comment, but most mindfulness training does not involve 10 day silent retreats and I certainly wouldn’t recommend this for a beginner.
The key components of mindfulness
- Mindfulness is about growing in awareness of the present moment – including awareness of the “shadow side” of ourselves.
- Mindfulness is about observing ourselves, others and life in general with a non-judgmental attitude – not always easy to do, but ultimately freeing.
- Mindfulness is about cultivating loving kindness or compassion as an attitude to life. Again not always easy at first, but also very liberating.
These three components – present moment awareness, non-judgment and loving kindness, are often misunderstood and are not what many people assume when they think of mindfulness. One mental health nurse Foster interviewed says, “My main problem with it is that it’s just another word for awareness.”
No it isn’t, and that response sums up the reason for one misunderstanding. Awareness is such a vague term that it is open to interpretation – and misinterpretation. Even dictionaries don’t agree. I checked a few and the only one with a meaning that came close to what is meant by mindful awareness is The Free Dictionary. One of the meanings it gives for aware is: vigilant; watchful. Even then, it says this meaning is archaic!
To have awareness does require vigilance and watchfulness, but not in a fearful way. The watchfulness of mindfulness is loving, compassionate. This cannot possibly be dangerous or make us ill.
What might make us feel uneasy is noticing the self-talk we have previously pushed away. When life is an endless rush, interspersed with escapes into television, bottles of wine or exotic vacations, we often don’t notice the chattering voice of the mind telling us that we aren’t good enough and neither are other people.
This isn’t a case of what we don’t know won’t harm us, but rather what we don’t notice eats away at us, causing us what is generally referred to as “stress.” We react, without realising why, and as a friend of mine says when describing what life was like before mindfulness: “It was always someone else’s fault.”
When we really stop, we notice what’s going on inside. Some people can feel surprised at what they find, and they don’t always like that surprise.
Often, if we notice something about ourselves that seems like a flaw, we feel guilt and shame. This is not mindfulness, but self-criticism. Remember, the second component of mindfulness is having a non-judgmental attitude.
However, non-judgement isn’t noticing something about yourself and then saying, “That’s just how I am. I can’t be changed.” You don’t look at a leafless tree in winter and say, “That’s just how it is; it can’t be changed.” You also don’t think there’s something wrong with the tree for being bare – you accept it how it is right now, and trust that it will change when the time is right. That is true non-judgment – it accepts how things are in this moment, and allows for change.
Mindfulness is originally a Buddhist practice, and like many practices appropriated by a different culture, it has become somewhat altered, with some aspects played down or missed out altogether.
Dh Vidyakara, who teaches mindfulness meditation says, “The biggest thing you need to get out of your head is the quick fix idea. Everything in the west is sold as a quick fix. This is something you absorb into your life. It’s a long-term process. That’s why you need to be easy on yourself. If you give yourself a hard time, you’ll give it up. You have to learn to be kind to yourself.”
Does he think mindfulness can ever be harmful?
“There’s stuff coming up for people because they’re suddenly looking in and they might never have done that before. They’re seeing what’s going on, those issues. It’s not the mindfulness that’s causing that, those problems are already there. Maybe the thing to do would be to refer them to a counsellor. Mindfulness is not the answer to everything. It may point you to something else that needs to be done.”
I agree. I’d even say that mindfulness is best combined with some form of self-inquiry – the is particularly true if your mindfulness practice is mostly meditation. Often self-inquiry is taught as part of mindfulness training, but not always. I regularly use two methods of self-inquiry – The Sedona Method, which is a process of welcoming and releasing emotions, desires and other habitual responses, and The Work, a process of observing and questioning thoughts. These work for me, but if they don’t appeal to you, there are many other practices of self-inquiry that are equally effective. (One thing about mindfulness is the more you practice it, the less attached you feel to one way being the right way.)
When we begin to notice our emotions as we are feeling them, it give us power. We have a choice then, to react to those thoughts and feelings, or to let them gently pass through and to strengthen our peaceful emotions and thought patterns. How is this powerful? Here’s one example – years ago, before I learned mindfulness, I would sometimes suddenly be overwhelmed by anger that seemed to burst out of nowhere. This frightened me, and I used a lot of energy trying to control my anger and reason myself out of it, with little success. Nowadays, I notice even mild irritation and can choose to welcome it and let it dissolve. While I do feel irritation at times, it’s a long time since I felt anything close to rage.
How to benefit from mindfulness
So how can you ensure mindfulness practice helps you?
If you are a beginner, don’t be tempted to dive in deeply, hoping to get a jump start. Instead follow these suggestions:
- Start slowly and build up.
- Try out different teachers or techniques to see what suits you best. Many teachers offer introductory sessions, or have taster classes. If you try out a few, you’ll soon get a feel for what suits you.
- Go at a pace that suits you. A sensitive teacher will understand that not everyone is ready to go at the same pace and accommodate that. If you go on a retreat and feel overwhelmed and disorientated, take time out, leave the room, take a walk or whatever you need. If the teacher doesn’t allow this and you feel you need it, then they probably aren’t a good fit for you at this stage.
- Allow emotions to come and to go. If you are sitting in meditation and you start to feel panicky – what can you do about it? It might seem strange, but the best thing to do is – nothing. Sit where you are, and just allow the feeling to pass. It will. The more we fight an emotion, the more we feed it. Simply allowing it to pass, and reminding ourselves it’s okay to feel how we are means our emotions no longer control us. This takes time of course, and as Vidyakara says, it is a long term process.
- Practice mindfulness throughout the day, instead of just relying on meditation. This helps you integrate it into your life. My free guide How to Maintain Mindfulness Throughout the Day has lots of suggestions, and none of them should give you a bad experience. Just click the link on the right to sign up for it.