Short answer: no, if done properly. Usually not, even if not done properly. Alternatively: yes, decidedly so. Much depends on your perspective.
I’m prompted to write briefly here by an (unintentionally?) fascinating article written on the Guardian by Dawn Foster: Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill?.
On first parse, I thought it was an alarmist backlash against the rising profile mindfulness has achieved in recent years. Its anecdotal cases:
- I tried mindfulness and I had a headache for days!
- I tried mindfulness and I turned into an alcoholic basket case!
- I tried mindfulness and I had meltdown that ruined my relationship!
all seemed like the worst sort of sensationalism, in the best tradition of Reefer Madness.
On a second reading, it was clearer that there’s some important information there: that significant numbers of people who have tried mindfulness meditation have had very powerful and very negative experiences. Foster quotes solid academic research, which a) makes a good case despite b) being based on a single meditation group and c) completely missing the main point.
So what is the main point?
Foster quotes a repondent as saying: “Meditation can’t ‘fix’ anyone. That’s not what it’s for“. I rather disagree.
Mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhist meditation practices, in particular Vipassana. My own experience in Vipassana is drawn from the three retreats I’ve attended, which were run by S. N. Goenka’s Dhamma organisation. These retreats emphasize (correctly) that vipassana can be practised by anyone, of any religious faith, or none – BUT they don’t hide the practice’s Buddhist roots. In fact, the original Buddhist context is made very plain, because Vipassana is a very powerful tool, with a specific purpose which it achieves very, very effectively.
The problem with Mindfulness is that it strips away this original context and reapplies the tool to a similar, but different, purpose. This purpose is close enough to the original purpose that in most cases the difference is unimportant. In the cases that Foster is writing about, though, the fact that the tool is performing its original function, and not what the people concerned thought it was for, is what caused their very negative experiences and subsequent consequences. This wouldn’t have happened if they had been fully taught the Vipassana system.
- Vipassana stills the mind, allowing the practitioner to monitor external events, and events within their body and mind, without engaging.
- When the mind is still, and simply observing dispassionately, it is no longer generating karma.
- When the mind is still and not generating karma, it is free to identify “karmic seeds”, the powerful memories – positive and negative – which have been stored in our mind-body, and which, due to our attachment to them for whatever reason, continue to influence our thoughts and decisions, thus influencing the direction of the new karma we generate.
- As our mind identifies these karmic seeds, it relives the original experiences. This ‘revisiting’ is full-force: we feel once again the original emotion at full intensity. Often, multiple – even many – intensely negative experiences are re-experienced at full intensity in very rapid succession. (This was my own experience, on my first retreat).
- This is supposed to happen. It’s a good thing. Why? Because this time round, the trained meditator is observing those emotions, without engaging with them. This weakens their hold; with continued meditation the karmic seeds eventually lose their influence, no longer guiding the decisions and actions of the meditator, who is then less likely to generate new karma. It might be intense, but it’s a cleansing.
On the 10-day Goenka retreats, the first few days are spent entirely in training the participants to observe pain without engaging with it. As a result, when the in-depth meditation begins, the participants are prepared for the emotional experiences that can arise, and know how to deal with them.
The issue that seems to be emerging with mindfulness, as documented by Foster, is that it only really deals with the first bullet point I list above. It’s taking a meditation technique which is designed to generate powerful, intense emotional experiences and using it to focus attention and “deal with stress”. Most people on a vipassan retreat don’t get the experiences I had; most people working with mindfulness won’t, either. The trouble is, those that do won’t be prepared for it, or know how to handle what’s happening to them. Hence the trauma.
Buddhist philosophy, in the Theravada tradition to which vipassana belongs, views our personalities as temporary manifestions, worn for a lifetime by our eternal ‘core’ – perhaps we might use the term ‘soul’ – before being discarded at the body’s death and replaced by another after rebirth just as a snake sheds its skin and grows another. Each new personality combines accumulated karmic seeds from life after life with the circumstances of each particular lifetime. By eliminating karmic seeds, vipassana is cleaning away powerful elements of who we think we are, and revealing more of our ‘true self’. So, when Foster’s respondent Kate Williams says “Longer periods of meditation have at times led me to feel a loss of identity and left me feeling extremely vulnerable, almost like an open wound”… well, that’s vipassana doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Williams, unfortunately, hadn’t been prepared for it.
This in fact, is my major take-away from the whole article. To someone with a proper background in vipassana (I’m going to say that I do, though as always I could be wrong), the entirety of Foster’s article clearly shows that the vipassana-based mindfulness is doing exactly, exactly, what the Buddhist tradition say will happen. That the results are being seen as negative is solely because mindfulness practitioners don’t understand the tool they’ve been given, just as if they’d been given an oxyacetylene torch without being told that they need a mask.
And that, as Foster points out, is due to our society seeking cheap, quick fixes to a supremely unhealthy cultural, social and economic way of life. Stripping away the original Buddhist context was supposed to be modernizing and secularizing the practice; the problems this has caused, and which Foster writes about, paradoxically is proving that the Buddhist approach is absolutely correct, and that Buddhist teachings are absolutely accurate.
So, is mindfulness harmful? No, of course not, not if you’re genuinely trying to root out the causes of your unhappinness, and are doing the practice properly. Probably no, if you’re one of the people just trying to cope better with stress. But, if you have powerful emotions buried away, and/or if you are desperately attached to your perceived current personality as being the only true you, then perhaps it could be an issue. In this case, though, the problem doesn’t lie with the practice.
Image credit: Meditation by user Moyan Brenn on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.