The other day, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article asking this exact question. You can read the article by Dawn Foster in the Guardian here. The gist of the article is that a mindfulness practice could exacerbate or even bring on anxiety, depression, and/or psychosis. I have many things to say about this piece. So many.
I agree with most of the article because my experience has been an inability to practice either sitting or stillness mindfulness while in crisis or depression. When my mind is looping with self-harming ideations I find bringing my body into my practice much more effective than sitting still. Actually, sitting still will often keep me in a tormented state, which is why I cultivate a moving mindfulness practice – yoga, collage, walking, swimming etc. for those times of fragility and distress.
Where I disagree is with the bias of this piece, which is the repeated definition of mindfulness as ‘awareness’, ‘paying attention’, ‘self reflection’, and a ‘relaxation technique’. Mindfulness is not any of those things exclusively. Traditionally, mindfulness has three components – (1) paying attention (2) to the present (3) without judgement. It’s difficult and may only happen in small little bursts of perhaps seconds. Which is why it is a practice! The intention is to build these moments of mindfulness and experience freedom from the tyranny of mental stress & anxiety.
It’s an interesting article for sure, but it’s built upon a misunderstanding of what mindfulness is and is not. I completely agree that playing around with mindfulness has the potential to trigger trauma. Without a doubt it can happen. That has been part of my experience with mindfulness yet I continue to practice because when engaged with consistently it ameliorates my distress. Cultivating all aspects of mindfulness (paying attention to the present without judgement) is at the core of my life journey. This stuff interests me to no end.
Mindfulness, and any contemplative practice, is serious business and is not something to dabble with and it’s certainly not a passing fad—people have been taking themselves into quiet solitude for millennia. And people have been having psychotic episodes in quiet solitude for millennia as well. When we go strolling into our minds we’re going to be surprised and we may stir up some trauma. Mindfulness can be a reliable resource for well-being, however like any other exploration: proceed with caution and be prepared. There is no quick fix when it comes to mental health.
For a more nuanced and skeptical analysis of this phenomenon check out these Buddhist Geeks podcasts with Dr. Willoughby Britton, a neuroscience researcher at Brown University:
Also, visit Cheetah House for more research from Dr. Willoughby Britton and Dr. Jared Lindahl.
What are your thoughts? What has been your experience with mindfulness? Do you have resources (websites, books, etc) to share?