The Darker Side of Mindfulness
We recently had the pleasure of been interviewed by the well known blogger Dr Martina Feyzrakhmanova from Thinking Clearly on “The darker side of mindfulness: being overwhelmed, side effects and the difficulty of finding a good teacher”.
WHY DO THE INTERVIEW
It was a fascinating discussion as both Dr. Feyzrakhmanova and Dr. Walsh are experienced healthcare professionals and mindfulness practitioners. While sharing our enthusiasm for view that the current mindfulness boom has resulted in a greater awareness of the practice, both Dr. Feyzrakhmanova and Dr. Walsh agreed that this boom also has resulted in a rise in “McMindfulness” and the dissemination of a number of unhelpful mindfulness myths. Left unaddressed these are will likely to negatively impact the public’s well-being. As a result, Dr. Feyzrakhmanova chatted extensively with Dr. Walsh on his view and experience of some of the shadow side of mindfulness. This is very important information so that members f the general public can protect themselves and make informed decisions about getting competent and safe mindfulness training.
This has inspired us to clarify some of the points made in the interview.
CHASING PLEASANT EXPERIENCES UNDERMINES MINDFULNESS PRACTICE AND CAPACITY TO COPE
People think mindfulness is a relaxation technique. This is a tricky issue to address. Mindfulness does help us to relax, but that’s not the main game. It’s about training awareness.
When mindfulness doesn’t relax us, we might think it’s not working and give up. Then we miss out on an opportunity to train the mind. This is a great loss.
As we practice more, we develop the capacity to hold feelings without being overwhelmed and without becoming reactive. We become more resilient and we have more choice in our responses to whatever the world throws at us. We develop a deeper sense of calm that goes beyond mere relaxation. This is sometimes referred to as equanimity.
Sometimes we can have quite ecstatic experiences when practicing mindfulness.
I met a man in a drug rehabilitation service, who had had a serious relapse into heroin use after five years of abstinence. He had achieved this abstinence by meditating. However he was meditating eight hours a day and really did not have time for much of a life otherwise. When I asked him about his practice he described a single pointed concentration on the breath. In this state he felt ecstatic but there was no room for normal pain or pleasure. Eventually this man got a job and was only able to meditate one hour per day. Relapse inevitably followed within two months. This man’s meditation was very like his heroin use. He was using it to avoid facing up to the normal ups and downs of everyday life. It really fitted into the stereotype that so many Westerners used to have of meditation as self-indulgent navel gazing.
Similarly I have heard of some people in the corporate sector complaining that some of their employees are using mindfulness to zone out. Zoning out can be a way of keeping stress at bay and the corporates certainly need to consider that. Nonetheless zoning out is actually mindlessness rather than mindfulness. It is another way of avoiding being present and doesn’t help us to become wiser or more skilful.
MINDFULNESS CAN ELICIT NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
The first thing is to have a good teacher because it can be hard to know when to lean into the negative emotion and when to stand back from it. It’s a delicate balance. Some people are very vulnerable to having very unpleasant feelings evoked. Some people have simply developed the habit of keeping busy as a way of avoiding unpleasant feelings. When they sit still and stop distracting themselves with activity, they inevitably feel agitated. They usually just need encouragement and support with a few containing techniques to get over the initial difficulties with sitting still. Moving mindfulness practices are often helpful in this regard.
However people who have a history of serious trauma such as domestic violence, natural disasters and wars have a more serious problem. An unskilled teacher can lead a student to become retraumatised without resources to contain it or to deal with it. The student can get so distressed that they feel as if they are going crazy. Paradoxically, if they have a good mindfulness teacher who understands trauma, these people can benefit immensely from mindfulness practice. With bad teachers they can be further traumatized and harmed.
The basic principle when dealing with negative emotions in mindfulness practice is that it is ok to feel challenged, but it’s not okay to feel overwhelmed.
With any kind of learning, including learning to be mindful, it is normal to oscillate between feeling comfortable and feeling challenged. If you’re never challenged, especially with something experiential like mindfulness or a sport, the learning isn’t in its optimal state. Getting overwhelmed in mindfulness is the equivalent of getting injured when training, and this sets back the progress.
Here are some tips for decreasing the risk of being overwhelmed
Find your safe places in your body awareness practices
The feeling of being overwhelmed is most likely to occur when focusing on the chest and abdomen as this is where we tend to feel anxiety. I encourage people to find “safe places” where they are less likely to feel this anxiety: such as the resting one’s attention on the sensation of the breath in the nose.
Awareness of sounds can also help, as the attention is then focused on something outside the body.
Practice mindful movement
Mindfulness in action when doing other activities such as staking the dishwasher.
Allowing yourself to fidget to discharge energy during an otherwise still mindfulness practice
Trying less hard to focus
Sometimes it is okay to let one’s mind wander off. The important thing is to eventually bring the attention back to the focus ( eg the breath) because this way you can learn what has changed. This is very empowering: we don’t always have to do something to change things. They change by themselves.
Finding a good mindfulness teacher – This is your best protection
MINDFULNESS AND PSYCHOSIS
Badly practiced mindfulness can worsen or elicit psychotic symptoms. However, we can have many weird experiences that are quite harmless. As we learn to observe the play of our mind we can often go into dream like states where the thinking becomes disjointed and strange images can appear. Very controlling and anxious people can become quite disconcerted by this but it is usually not a problem. It is just normally unconscious mental processes becoming more visible. Opening up in this way can actually enhance creativity, including creative problem solving.
Mindfulness practiced well can even help people who suffer from schizophrenia to see their hallucinations and delusions for what they are. It helps them to remain saner.
Mindfulness can go wrong when people do sitting practice for extended periods of time especially if they are chasing blissful states or so called “spiritual experiences”. A patient of mine who suffered schizophrenia was having a Kundalini experience, where energy was going up and down his spine when he meditated. They talk about this experience in the Hindu tradition. He would go through this experience for many hours a day and it made him more delusional and psychotic. It was very hard to persuade him to do less meditation! It is good to remember that chasing blissful states or spiritual experiences is actually not mindfulness, as the awareness is no longer open and non judgemental.
I have also heard of people with no past psychotic history going into psychotic states on prolonged silent retreats, especially if they do not have a preexisting meditation practice. Generally people recover from these states quickly if they leave the retreat with the support of a psychologically trained person, get some exercise and eat some high protein junk food like a hamburger.
In summary to protect yourself
Don’t panic about weird experiences appearing in your mindfulness practice
Don’t meditate more than 90 minutes a day unless under the guidance of a skilful teacher
Don’t chase blissful experiences or spiritual experiences in you practice
In the article Feyzrakhmanova and Dr. Walsh also explore the following themes:
Techniques to deal with feeling overwhelmed during meditative practice
Negative side effects of mindfulness
The role of mindfulness apps
Learning from Eastern Buddhist Psychology beyond simple mindfulness
* The full article could be find here.