Meditation and Mindfulness are increasingly being associated with peace, calm, serenity and general emotional well-being.
The way they are portrayed in the popular media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you could just sit cross-legged for half an hour a day – all your physical and psychological ills would disappear.
It’s not just the media that’s jumped on the bandwagon – treatment centres for addiction, a large number of therapists and even multi-billion dollar corporations such as Google and Microsoft – are incorporating meditation and mindfulness into their employee’s daily schedules.
Now I’m certainly not against regular contemplative, self-reflective practices; they are essential for emotional and psychological growth. Regular self reflection, observing thoughts and feelings and focusing on our internal sensations, actually builds up essential functions and pathways in the brain.
Mindful self awareness in any form is VITAL for change.
But it has to practiced, well, mindfully.
I think at this stage it would be beneficial to clarify the difference between the two practices.
Meditation has many different forms but it essentially involves sitting for periods of time observing the mind. It is a more formal, silent practice.
Mindfulness refers to bringing our focus to what is happening in any given moment, observing thoughts feelings and sensations – bringing full conscious awareness to the present. You can be mindful anywhere.
For many people, these practices do allow the mind to quieten down, for the stress response to settle back to baseline, and to ultimately feel more present and engaged in life.
But for some, they don’t.
If you have a history of trauma, physical, sexual or emotional abuse – or even emotional neglect – tread carefully with any form of meditative practice
Many of our ‘problems’ such as addictions, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, hyper-activity, excessive busyness, excessive worrying, procrastination – are actually defences against deeper internal emotional pain.
They stop us being present to the chaos inside our minds and bodies, caused by adverse childhood environments or traumatic events
Intense meditation can shatter those defenses, unleashing a torrent of overwhelming thoughts, feelings and sensations on an unprepared psyche.
In her article about the dangers of mindfulness, Dawn Forster reports the experience of a 37 year old woman, Clare, who was sent on a 3 day mindfulness course as part of her workplace training.
“Initially, I found it relaxing, … (but) within two or three hours of later sessions, I was starting to really, really panic... somehow, the course triggered things I had previously got over - I had a breakdown and spent three months in a psychiatric unit”
Clare isn’t alone in her experience – such is the increase in reports of the negative effects of mediation that some prominent psychiatrists are speaking up.
And these aren’t experts bashing meditation and mindfulness, they are active practitioners and supporters.
Dr Willoughby Britton, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University has been an avid practitioner of meditation for over 20 years. Yet, because of the stories that she hears about the adverse effect of contemplative practice, she has set up 'the Dark Night Project' – in an effort to investigate the issue.
“Meditation is not the “warm bath” it’s been marketed as in this country” Britton states.
And this is the thing. It was never meant to be.
It was meant to be a path to spiritual awakening. And spiritual awakening often requires going to some very dark corners of our mind.
David, a resident at Britton’s ‘Cheetah House’, describes his experience as a result of meditation.
“I started having thoughts like, 'Let me take over you,' combined with confusion and tons of terror……I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought 'Kill yourself' over and over again."
Many of the clients I see in my practice, initially can’t sit with their thoughts and feelings for more than a couple of minutes – it’s far too distressing.
Our ability to tolerate cognitive (thoughts) and emotional distress, is a direct result of the kind of childhood we have. If we’ve had an adequately warm, nurturing and emotionally supportive childhood, our capacity to handle difficult internal states is quite high.
This doesn’t mean that our childhood was necessarily all rosy and without difficulty.
We need to periodically experience stress and distress for our brains to develop the capacity manage them.
But without emotional support, and help with processing stressful events, our brain doesn’t develop this capacity well.
Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, calls this capacity the “window of tolerance”.
If you have a wide window of tolerance, you can handle a range of emotions of varying intensity, without being de-railed. But with a narrow window, difficult emotions can send you into a ‘hyper-aroused’ state – anxious, panicky, manic or even psychotic. Or a ‘hypo-aroused’ state – dissociated, depressed, even suicidal.
Mediation and mindfulness can catapult you out of your window of tolerance.
But done slowly, carefully and ‘mindfully’, they will help you to widen your window and as a result, learn to tolerate and experience a wide range of emotions.
If you are contemplating starting a meditation or mindfulness practice – don’t be put off. Psychological growth involves facing difficult internal experiences.
Just take it slowly and be mindful of being mindful.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic - so please leave a comment below.
If you have difficulty managing emotions, our online coaching programme can help. Click here for details
Diana Balliet says
Having severe abandonment, narcissitic abuse, sexual abuse and adrenal exhaustion, I contemplated meditation. I really looked into it but was aprehensive about the letting myself be mindless. It never sounded right to me. Affirmations were good but attaching the imagination to them I found difficult. I am grateful for this analysis of meditation and mindfulness because caution needs to be applied. I use relaxing music and telling myself the truth to be a good start towards healing my issues right now.
Hi Diana, thank you for taking the time to comment. Instead of meditation – you can start simply stopping throughout the day and asking yourself for a couple of minutes ” what am I feeling at the moment? what sensations do I have? where are my thoughts going?’ these small practices of self reflection build up the prefrontal cortex and start allowing us to slowly learn to regulate and makes sense of our feelings
Hi, I’m really enjoying your videos on schema therapy, they are very clarifying! I have found mindfulness useful in connecting to my body, and helping to reduce thought spirals in the past. However, I am working with a therapist at the moment and he has been trying to get me in touch with my anger and it occurs to me that along with some other influences sometimes trying to ‘let go of things’ has caused me to dismiss some negative feelings which were actually trying to tell me something. So I agree that meditation should be recommended with caution, a thorough understanding of what it involves and consideration of the individuals needs, and I am glad to see you raising this in a balanced way in this article.
Matthew Spears says
Im Buddhism, the three refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – the latter being community. Really community has largely been ignored by Buddhists and Meditation evangelists in North America. I’m not talking a group of people you sit with – I’m talking about people you know well enough that they can see past your bullshit in a kind way, can help with life events, and that you get to build deep trust with, without having to use any “in” words of mindfulness.
This is contrasted with a few meditation communities I’ve seen in India and Thailand. There is a strong local community connection in most places there, and Sangha is a big influence. I found my meditation practice was greatly improved at one center learning trust that I could be honest about where I was, unfomfortable emotions were welcomed with no big deal (if not acted out destructively), and that I didn’t have to conform with outward displays.
It reminds me of Johann Hari’s Ted Talks quote – “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobreity. It’s connection.” Without supportive connection, we are unable to process traumas waiting to come up and thus solo meditation can be retraumatizing, or add to numbing habits via depersonalization. I look forward to communities here that integrate, knowing for some it can bring up heavy emotions but welcoming them all the same.
I wish to thank the author for the wonderful information in this and the other articles and videos. In specific I enjoyed the video series on all the Manipulative schemas its the first series of its type that I found online. My I suggest that the author start a youtube channel too I feel the content would be very well received as well as promote the message of Schema therapy. Thanks for the hard work I have found a treasure chest of information in this site.
On the topic of meditation, I would like to start off by saying that meditation has had a place for me from personal experience. Although I feel that for certain persons they would be better off investing a few hours a day with a trained therapist before they attempt to face their inner turmoil with out guidance or a resource to fall back on if anything goes wrong.
Think about why to practice psychology, therapists need to be certified and go thru a training program. Why do monks join a organization and then meditate. There’s a reason that usually meditation was taught along with certain philosophies. (A basic framework) you have to have a framework or protocol for when things get turbulent. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for some disappointment (a waste of time ) at the very least. When not careful or self aware you might open a can of works that might be to confusing to put the lid back on by your self.
My recommendation is to first learn a cognitive model of tought-emotion processes before embarking on journeys of self discovery two essential tools are learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness/ relaxation exercises/ natural calming supplements help prepare you before tackling any hard introspection/rumination as tend to automatically pop up while meditating.
Best of luck in your journeys fellow readers. Once again thank you Christie for the dedication you put into your work and deeds to help others ( two and four legged) 🙂
Thank you, Christine.
I’ve never been able to meditate and for years there was a background guilt and sense of failure about that, like I was not ‘spiritual enough’.
I was raised in a very strict Christian church, where the biblical admonition to ‘pray without ceasing’ was often repeated. I could never pray, either – I think it would have been very unnatural for a child to pray all day, especially one who didn’t (indeed, couldn’t) believe in god.
When I left the church at 23, I felt free but also unmoored. There seemed to be a vacuum that needed filling, like the church and its teachings had taken up so much space that my having pushed it out of my life drew all kinds of other things in.
Some of the prominent self-help authors of the 90s had their own versions of ‘pray without ceasing’, and meditation was one such version. But try as I might, I couldn’t (and still can’t) do it. Mindfulness comes somewhat more easily, but I’m fearful of jumping onto any religious bandwagon, and in some quarters, mindfulness does appear to have become a religion (and a booming industry, too).
So I’m grateful for this article, which feels like permission (beyond the permission I’ve been trying to give myself) not to feel burdened by the need to finally master meditation or even mindfulness. I have a very active inner world, and I do reflect a lot in an effort to develop self compassion – something that the church undermined.