We appear to be living in the age of a Mindfulness Revolution.
Mindfulness seems to be everywhere, being practised and promoted by almost everyone—and with good reason. Scientific research shows that when done regularly and effectively, meditation practice can reduce stress, improve mental and physical wellbeing, boost our self esteem and enhance our relationships with others. So what does it mean when mindfulness doesn’t work for us?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American scientist who developed the secular practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction in the late 1970s, mindfulness meditation is essentially a way of purposefully paying attention to the moment without judgement. As British mindfulness teacher and author Ed Halliwell says, meditation enables us to come into being in order to take better action in our lives.
But what if paying attention to the moment feels unbearable? I don’t mean, “What if it’s hard to focus without being distracted?” Or, “What if meditation feels uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, and I really must scratch my nose?” I mean, “What if I am completely overwhelmed and destabilised with emotion or anxiety when I sit with myself? What if being with myself is so unbearable, I am simply unable to come into being?”
We come to be who we are in relationship. In our first few years of life, we are literally formed within the context of our environment, because as babies we don’t have the neurological capacity to differentiate between what is me, and what is not-me. Until we are around three years old, our neural pathways are still being laid down in response to what is going on around us, particularly in close interpersonal relationships. How these pathways develop will shape us in many ways, so our family dynamics play a pretty crucial role in our lives, particularly at the start.
For some of us—quite a large proportion as it goes—things go awry, and as we mature we develop coping mechanisms that enable us to function in the world, but also essentially lead us away from ourselves. We get lost in work and play, we unwittingly seek out relationships that replicate the dynamics of those we grew up with, and we may become emotionally or physically unwell. We may not be aware how far away from ourselves we have come until we embark on something that requires us to pause, settle, and return to ourselves—like a mindfulness course.
Sitting with one’s self may induce calm, peace and self-compassion, or it may initiate a process of coming undone, whether by inducing anxiety or creating a dissociated sense of spiritual inflation. Some types of meditation may activate traumatic memories and adversely affect social relationships, according to research done at Brown University in the US.
Some factions of the mindfulness community are aware of these dangers and expert clinicians are now calling for mindfulness teachers to be more experienced and better trained, so they can spot and support such difficulties. But based on what I have observed within my psychotherapy practice, I wonder if that is enough (for some at least), especially given that most mindfulness courses only run for eight weeks, tend to be introductory and are conducted in groups, or are delivered online without a teacher at all.
Perhaps the key issue here harks back to the matter of relationship.