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“Are mindfulness practices making us Ill?” – A question worthy of serious reflection.

I was recently sent a link to a couple of articles by an English journalist Dawn Foster which appeared in The Guardian- a British publication to which she is a regular contributor. Ms. Foster writes about her own introduction to mindfulness practice with a group of people in a work place setting. The session began with a benign sounding request to eat a sandwich mindfully. Yet, Ms. Foster began to feel “excruciatingly uncomfortable” and was left wondering if her jaw was malfunctioning. Her distress became amplified as the group was next introduced to siting meditation. Even before the postural instructions were finished, she felt the beginnings of a panic attack. These experiences are described in Ms. Foster’s January 23rd. 2016 article entitled: “Is
mindfulness making us ill?” making-us-ill.

Individuals world wide are reporting positive benefits to overall wellbeing as they
practice mindfulness meditation. These practices are taught on several continents in
many languages and followers now number in the millions world wide. Yet there are a
growing number of individuals who report adverse effects in some situations when they
begin mindfulness meditation. Is this shocking or even surprising? Absolutely not.
Those who are engaging in the practice, expecting mindfulness to bring ease, freedom
from distress and blissful states of mind misunderstand the aims of the practice, or the
reality of suffering. Basically, people are projecting their deepest emotional needs and
longings for release from anxiety and inner turmoil onto a method that may well have
been oversold in our western pragmatic and solution oriented culture.

There is no question that every healing approach or set of prescribed set of
suggested behaviours for improving wellbeing has limits. Mindfulness is a practice of
becoming aware of our condition, and of the human condition in general. Awareness
comes at a price – the inevitable price is related to the fact that our world is not a
peaceful place. We are not immune to the conflicts and suffering of our fellow human
beings. Unavoidably, in this conflict ridden world, our inner life is complex, often messy
and full of turbulence. When we choose to shine a light within, there may be a lot of
dust bunnies and even nasty things lurking in the corners of our psyche.

Most of us live at least some of the time in states of denial. The truth is we can
not attend to all the suffering in the world and live a good life. Our habit of avoiding the
realities of life can go too far. Our favourite way to avoid is to distract ourselves, and
our environment offers infinite ways to accomplish this. We need only to turn on any
one of our electronic devices to tap into pleasant and interesting forms of distraction
from hard truths, both on a personal level and on a societal one. Yet, there has to be
balance and to live a healthy life, in the very least our personal experiences and realities
need to be faced and seen with compassion for how they really affect our minds and

Psychologists warn that sitting and watching the mind may trigger intense
emotions. We are, after all, emotional beings who crave those feelings we call pleasant
and go to great lengths to protect ourselves from the other kind – the intense, mean and
scary kind.  Meditation is a kind and gentle practice of self care – a way of enriching our
lives with the invitation to live more fully in the present. However, it is not without its
power to reflect what ails us sometimes quite vividly. Any one of us who has the habit
of avoiding taking care of ourselves by regular reflection on the big picture of our lives
will collect the dust bunnies of anxiety. When anxiety arises, it could be seen as a gift –
the gift of clear seeing.

On rare occasions, sitting and paying attention to what is arising in body and
mind may raise anxiety in troubled people. If they have had psychotic episodes in the past another one could be triggered. However, these breakdowns are triggered by a variety of situations in life. Mindfulness Meditation can not be held responsible. We know that individuals with traumatic histories may not be able to handle the sudden opening of the floodgates of inner experience damed up with coping strategies designed to keep the truth of suffering and anxiety at bay.
Fragile people may need a lot of support and skillful guidance. The unleashing of memories from their past may be highly intense to take head on.
Especially when they are unprepared for such past experiences to come gushing forth. Starting a practice with guidance from experienced teachers may be the necessary but not sufficient step for some. Some may require an experienced therapist to interpret what arises mentally along the way. Providing support to navigate inner storms on the painful journey toward healing is the role of an experienced therapist. Mindfulness is not therapy, even though many therapies now are informed by mindfulness.

In spite of the fact that we can not prevent people confronting their painful pasts, mindfulness based therapies and practices have great potential benefits. Even the most vulnerable, whose approach to their experience is carefully planned and who can make use of skillful guides along the way
can begin to heal with mindfulness.
And that is simply because no matter whatever happened in
the past to any one of us, we can only move forward and honour that past without
succumbing to fear and hopelessness. The alternative is to continue to repress the past and distract ourselves with addictive behaviours. Repression and denial stunt our growth and prolong our suffering.

Who is Dawn Foster? My search shows that she is a Guardian journalist who
seeks out edgy subjects. She challenges the status quo including the National Health Service in England.
So, as mindfulness based therapies are gaining traction in Great Britain these
approaches to health care are rightfully being challenged. I applaud the act of
challenging any treatment approach, especially one that is promoted by large corporations such a Google,
or the Department of Health and Transport for London. Pretty soon the Apple Watch will
be equipped with a Mindfulness App. The question is whose App will be chosen? And
will the mindfulness app be oversold as a way to manage the stress of constant contact
in a wired up life? Are we going to allow ruthless workplaces to push us even further
into stress with corporate offerings of “stress reduction’’ while denying their
responsibility to negotiate with employees honestly about their work loads. On the
other hand, when is the declaration of “my job is the reason I am a mess” a valid
argument for sick leave? These discourses need to be faced with more than a
superficial nod to the mantra of “Work Life Balance”.

The title of this last guardian article is naively preposterous, in my view. But it is
bound to draw attention to the soft underbelly of the mindfulness industry. As a well
entrenched and pretty long time teacher (going on to my ninth year) I don’t mind
admitting that the stress reduction end of mindfulness as a practice has some serious
pitfalls. It is far from well researched because this kind of endeavour poses many
obstacles to serious scientific enquiry. Mindfulness is not a well controlled series of
health management techniques – it is a group of skills packaged in a variety of ways for
many different purposes.

“Is mindfulness making us ill?” With such a challenging title, I am not likely to be the
first practitioner responding to defend the practice. On the other hand, I also believe
that Ms. Foster’s viewpoint has a kernel of truth but one that is born of lack of
understanding of the aims and benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation. You
have to believe in the power of awareness, to commit to any of the mindfulness
practices.. Mindfulness meditation is not transcendental meditation. Mindfulness
does not seek to empty the mind and dissolve the ego. It goes beyond that, and
challenges us to look at and see our present reality. How things actually are is not that
pretty much of the time. The journey can not be successfully undertaken without
harnessing the power of kindness and openness and acceptance of ourselves as
imperfect and suffering human beings. It also challenges our preconceptions about how
the world is supposed to be. This does not mean capitulating to those aspects of our
lives which require us to confront and rise up and take action.

But that is another topic worthy of another discussion.