Mindfulness - is it all good?


Recently I attended a 10-day mindfulness meditation course-retreat during which I learned two powerful meditation techniques, one to maintain focus and the other to increase awareness of how bodily sensations come and go. I enjoyed many aspects of the course e.g. having a long time dedicated to myself, most of the Noble Silence period (9 out of 10 days without speaking to other people who were practising meditation) and the amazing food I ate during the retreat. Not to mention the welcoming kindness of the people running the course.

During the mindfulness meditation sessions - which could total up to 6.5 hours per day - I applied the meditation techniques I learned to certain aspects of myself which I wanted to explore further. 

To qualify as a psychotherapeutic counsellor I attended many years of psychotherapy and psychotherapy training and I gained a good insight into myself, particularly those aspects defining my character, and learned how to manage my mind-body system in stressful situations.

I found that practicing mindfulness by focusing on my breath, once I managed to own the technique, it was quite pleasant. However, I found that as I started mindfulness meditation on physical sensations and I was feeling disturbed more than I was willing to tolerate, I was able to avoid getting into an unpleasant state of mind with little effort.

When on the last day of the course the Noble Silence was broken and I talked with other course participants, I realised that many of them were using the mindfulness meditation course as a form of psychotherapy in an attempt to manage their own issues. The people I spoke with told me about the challenges they were facing, issues like OCD behaviour, sex and gambling addiction, hearing voices, depression, etc. As we shared with each other how meditating had challenged us,  I discovered that the mindfulness meditation had been challenging at times not just for me but also for other people who were attending the retreat. Some of them also told me that they did not practice awareness of bodily sensations as they did not feel ready, or felt disturbed by it and had to stop.

When I reflected on how I experienced mindful meditation, particularly the one focusing on bodily sensations, and the level of skills I applied to manage my own inner experience, I also wondered about the level of risk for people facing the psychological issues mentioned above in situations if their unconscious starts streaming painful content into their consciousness during mindfulness meditation. And I also asked myself how these people would have been supported if something challenging came up for them whilst doing mindful meditation in a group. Or, even more alarming, how would they cope if they practiced mindfulness meditation on their own and found themselves flooded with content they had no idea how to process and nobody qualified available to them to help them. 

In psychotherapy, people can get in difficult places whilst exploring their inner self. It sometimes can be a quite painful and unsettling experience when parts of the unconscious bubble up into awareness. This however must be done in safety and is necessary to re-connect the primitive parts of the brain with the evolutionarily more recent parts  - this is partly how the therapeutic process changes the brain. Such changes enrich the repertoire of possible responses that a person can refer to in challenging situations and is an important aspect of the healing process. Experiencing those challenging moments under the guidance of a qualified professional who safely guides and holds you through the process and, at the same time, monitors and helps you contain the disturbance that you might experience, can make a huge difference.  There is usually a "relational" aspect underpinning the distress which the sensitive presence of a "good other" can help contain it. The last thing I want as a psychotherapist is to re-traumatise my clients. 

It was on the back of the above reflections that I welcomed an article by Dawn Foster in The Guardian sharing my concerns - see http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill .

Before closing this post, I want to highlight that what I described above does not pretend to be the truth or some form of evidence about how mindfulness can benefit you or otherwise. It is my own experience of a prolonged exposure to mindful meditation during which I think I gained an insight about how mindfulness and psychotherapy can work together. In my opinion, mindfulness as I experience it in my daily meditative practice is neither wrong or dangerous. In fact, trying out with moderation some of the basic ideas of mindfulness, such as focusing on your breath, concentrating on a simple task like colouring or mindful eating, can be beneficial. However, gradual exposure to it is advisable. Moreover, if you notice that you feel disturbed whilst practising mindfulness or if you know or suspect that you have deeper issues which might be triggered by mindfulness practice, you might want to consider attending psychotherapy first. Once you know enough about yourself and you developed a good enough "observing" self which has been de-sensitised and has tools to manage difficult content emerging during mindfulness, mindful meditation then can be safely practiced.

If you have any question about how psychotherapeutic counselling can help make your mindful meditation more effective and safer, or are considering starting a psychotherapeutic journey, please drop me an email at paolo@presentingpast.co.uk .

Warm regards,