On Mindfulness, Part One

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Mindfulness. Meditation. Watchfulness. Contemplation. Terms that are just about everywhere these days. What are your thoughts on the topic? Are you a zealot or a skeptic? A long-time practitioner or, rather, entirely unsure where to begin? No matter how you answered those questions, there’s a seat for you here.

Mindfulness (defined as “a psychological state of awareness, a practice that promotes this awareness, a mode of processing information, and a characterological trait” (Davis and Hayes, 2011)) has surged in popularity in the last decade. As we become more and more technologically connected, many can attest to experiencing increased disconnection—from others and themselves. Thus, mindfulness has served as an antidote of sorts: connect back to the present moment by pausing and being aware.

Disintegration solved? Maybe.  

Full disclosure: I’m a believer in mindfulness techniques. As a faithful meditation practitioner myself, I can personally attest to the many benefits of mindfulness: self-control, objectivity, tolerance, flexibility, mental clarity, emotional intelligence, and “the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance, and compassion” (Davis and Hayes, 2011), to name a few. Further, I’ve seen mindfulness as a powerful therapeutic tool both within and beyond the therapy session. Guided meditation practices have served as balms of healing for patients, while others have implemented meditation techniques into their own lives and, over time, have reported lessened anxiety levels and greater connection to their own internal voice.

The benefits of mindfulness are proven and many. Yet, I find myself skeptical of mindfulness practices as they are developing in this cultural moment. Here’s why:

1. I saw Mindfulness Tea at the grocery store. It was in a blue package and retailed for $6.99. I’m sure the tea tastes fine, but it made me wonder whether marketers have begun to exploit this viable therapeutic technique by pasting its name on products. Not only does this form of marketing water down the potential for authentic healing contained in mindfulness practices, but it also contributes to an overall sense of cultural skepticism regarding its efficacy. Further, do we, as consumers, see mindfulness as a quick fix, slapping its label onto our outward selves to make us feel more connected? Do we approach ten minutes of meditation simply to check it off our to-do lists? Have we purchased every book or read every article on mindfulness to become experts without being truly affected by the practice? Using mindfulness in this way cheapens the practice and, ironically, only serves to make us feel more disintegrated. It’s not enough to simply purchase mindfulness. We have to authentically practice it too.

2. Which leads me to my next point—have mindfulness practices had any effect on our life outside of designated mindful moments? For example, are we putting our phones down any less than we were previously? Or is meditation something we simply do between checking Instagram and Facebook? I’m not recommending we stop using our phones or social media platforms altogether, but I am urging us to see how we can be more mindful—even beyond our specified ten minutes of meditation. Maybe your meditation practices will lead you to see the trees in the parking lot when walking into work, rather than reaching for your phone to check the news. Maybe you will notice the warm water and soapsuds that run through your fingers when washing dishes at night, instead of mentally rehearsing what to say in a business meeting the next morning. No matter how it finds you, the result of mindfulness will be a gentle nudge back to the present moment—a moment that feels connected, rather than splintered.

3. Mindfulness isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. Have you consistently tried to implement a meditation practice and yet, it just doesn’t do anything for you? Then stop. Although mindfulness is an evidenced-based therapeutic technique, that doesn’t mean that it has to work for you. In fact, mindfulness and/or meditation practices, without appropriate guidance, can be damaging when implemented by those with unprocessed trauma histories. Not only can meditation cause the victim to re-experience her trauma, but it can also produce a host of harmful symptoms—emotional flooding/reopening of old wounds, intrusive mental images, thoughts of self-injury, and many somatic symptoms, including a heightened arousal response and a racing heart rate (Levine, 2010). If you know you have experienced trauma, and you are interested in starting a meditative practice, seek help from a professional therapist before you begin. And lastly, if a therapist or yoga teacher urges you to “stick with it,” even when your meditative practice is bringing you pain, please use your voice to communicate how it is affecting you. You always know yourself best—even better than any well-meaning helping professional.

Even as a believer in mindfulness, I feel it’s important to insert this disclaimer before we dive into a practice you can implement in your own life: Mindfulness can be a tool in our healing, but it is not a cure-all.

So, still interested, but wondering where to begin? Check back soon for a guide to a mindfulness practice that I introduce to patients in therapy.

Let’s all press on in honest mindfulness this week.


References

Davis, D. M., and Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice
             review of psychotherapy-related research. American Psychological Association,
             Psychotherapy, 48
(2), 198-208. doi: 10.1037/a0022062

Levine, P. A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores
            Goodness
. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2010.

Emily Ewing