I’ve seen multiple posts and articles recently bashing mindfulness and meditation as misleading, fads, or even as dangerous. There is some truth in these articles, but I also think some of it amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is meditation a good or bad thing? As my policy professor Dr. Mary Marvel was fond of saying when someone would ask her stance on a particular topic, “It depends.”
What I think some take issue with is the way that meditation can be offered as an escape, and is often sold as a panacea to pretty much whatever might ail us.
For trauma therapists trained in psychobiological dynamics, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that while mindfulness can be helpful, practice can sometimes prevent people from getting help because they have the mistaken impression that meditation can get rid of their trauma. Sometimes the practices themselves can even interfere with trauma treatment because of the strongly held desire to avoid feeling difficult emotions, and which meditation and mindfulness practices can assist in doing. Sometimes people just trade a less successful form of control, for a more successful one (meditation practice).
These misunderstandings arise due to multiple issues: teachings with nonwestern cultural assumptions embedded in their core, misinterpretations of intent or meaning by students, egoic motivations of teachers that encourages students’ dependence, and the natural human response to pain – avoidance. There is a part of us which can become addicted to feeling good and prefers practices and interpretations that infer or overtly teach that we can successfully do this (bypass experience/pain) indefinitely, or that anything we think or feel that we don’t like is total BS.
I teach meditation in a style that aligns with teachers I feel are very clear and open about the pitfalls of spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation. I acknowledge the vast health benefits confirmed by research, and the different kinds of meditation practices, as well as the difficulty and challenges that may arise by taking them out of their contextual underpinnings. I feel a responsibility to make sure people know that they may feel better for a time, and then worse. People can have intense shifts and realizations, but without the internal or external support for the newness, some of them may experience intense and confusing mental health and/or personal consequences (lost jobs, family, friends) afterward. Some people have partial awakenings that make it easier for them to inflict harm to others if they don’t have good impulse control, as in narcissistic individuals (to my great sadness, I once helped someone with such a shift, before realizing they would be trampling others so brutally afterward).
Even if someone can overcome the allure of thinking meditation is a cure all and attempt to address their history with therapy, the work can be difficult if they can’t suspend rigid breath, attention, or witnessing, distancing or other practices in session, preferring these instead of tracking the unfolding of their physical and emotional experience in the moment. On the flip side, mindfulness can also be incredibly helpful and supportive in trauma and therapy work, when it increases the ability to observe and stay with one’s unfolding experience with the right amount of dispassion and friendliness toward self. This was true for me…due to my practice I could hold an awareness that was very helpful to the process and accelerated the trauma work. It made it easier to tolerate the discomfort inherent in the process, and therefore, to continue through the ups and downs. It feels kind of like an awareness of awareness. (I think that being able to sustain complete honesty with myself about my experiences during the process was also pretty helpful.)
I find that trauma resolution and spiritual paths start to converge at a certain point, and that they are both important. There’s no linear path to point to, though. There are parts that a lot of people share experiences of, that I’ve related in previous posts, and may revisit with another post soon.
In general, I’d have to say that with the right guidance and context, mindfulness and/or meditation practices can be immensely helpful, regardless of whether a person ever seeks assistance for trauma resolution. And, if there was one myth I could debunk about mindfulness/meditation/spiritual seeking/enlightenment, it would be that there is ever a one-and-done awakening event that wipes out all of your conditioning in a single fell swoop. Human physiology just doesn’t work that way, and we’re not just infinite spaciousness, but also human BEINGS. I don’t think meditation or mindfulness is a false bill of goods, but I don’t like the way I see it packaged sometimes: “you won’t have to change the way you live your life much, and you can just do it even better!”
Yeah…no. If you persist in the path, it could all change. No way to know. If that feels like a deterrent, then maybe just wait. Or go to therapy. If it doesn’t scare you away, then bon voyage!
I’m happy to answer any questions on this topic. I didn’t have the resource I provide at the time when I needed it, and I enjoy being able to help in that way.