Mindfulness: It’s good for you, until it isn’t.

Meditate. Then, pick up the shovel and start digging for the roots of your problems.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There was that summer, many years ago, when my travels through the rough seas of mental pain hit a category 5 hurricane. My heart grieved losses so catastrophic, so life-crushing, that I lost all anchors. It felt like my brain had detached from my skull, that is was swirling and shifting inside my head.  I was in depression severe enough to have me dissolve into rivers of tears, so sudden, that I had to bolt from the dinner table and go hide until the storm passed. I needed to do something to not drown.

Know when you need help

And I did: I explored everything. The magic of therapists, and of mind-bending gurus; Medications; And meditations, kirtans, retreats, temples in Indian valley villages, I needed help. I did everything by the book: Sat through deep breathing exercises, trying to let my thoughts come and go without engaging them, without judging, passively staying in the one breath.

“You can do anything for one breath”, they said. “Your mind will be constantly buzzing, just let it be”; “try slow-eating a raisin for 5 minutes”. The problem was the mind, the mind, the mind. “We need to silence the mind”. Everybody was convinced that therein laid the root of human suffering.

Mindfulness meditation can do wonders…

To be clear, the research is now conclusive: Mindfulness meditation reduces stress levels and improves focus and attention. Slow, deep breathing does that (thanks to the Vagus nerve).  It lowers the heart rate; it stops the rush of chemicals and serenity ensues. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR is now an industry, started by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

…but not for me?

But apparently, my experience was different from all the rest of humanity: The more I let my thoughts float away from me, without engaging them, and the more I repeated mantras like “I am not the body, I am not even the mind”, the more I ended up feeling  empty.

Empty. Like a vacated vessel, like one of those wooden ships of old, that was supposed to carry spices from India, but was looted along the way, all the cinnamon and cumin stolen off, and me, abandoned and hallow, and definitely with no aroma and no flavor left in me.

What was going on with me? How can something so positive-sounding, leave me so negative?  I finally figured it out.

Mindfulness, I realized, won’t fix your life. It is only step one. It’s the easier stuff. After that, you must use it to get clarity into the roots of your problems and fix them. The other route will lead you to escape and detachment. You choose.

Let me explain.

“A cluster of feelings I could not identify”

I recently discovered Sahanika Ratanyake, a philosophy PhD student at the University of Cambridge in England. (See here for her essay, and here for her research paper). She was raised a Buddhist in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and grew up around visits to temples –  although she describes herself as feeling ‘crushingly bored’ by the process back then.

Years later, at Cambridge, she joined a mindfulness study at the Dept of Psychiatry. She was instructed to observe her breath, to scan her body, to witness the play of thoughts and emotions, and to consider them in terms of clouds in the sky or leaves drifting in a river. Here is what she describes:

“At the end of the study, I found myself to be calmer, more relaxed and better able to step away from any overwhelming feelings. Yet I’d also become troubled by a cluster of feelings that I couldn’t quite identify. It was as if I could no longer make sense of my emotions and thoughts. Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life”.

Hallelujah!! Thank you, Sahanika, I am not the only crazy one.

As she put it:

“I couldn’t tell whether I had particular thoughts and feelings simply because I was stressed, or because there was a good reason to think and feel those things.”

And that is the key point. “Mindfulness”, she notes, “oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.” Some call it McMindfulness, others claim that it is misappropriation of Buddhist philosophy. There is a healthy debate raging here finally.
But the underlying assumption is “the Buddhist idea of non-self, of the impermanence of the self, and therefore its lack of importance. So, for this to work, we are unconsciously absorbing the entire idea of “annata”, the metaphysical denial of the self, the idea that there is nothing like an ongoing individual basis for identity.”

I find that even in Hinduism, which differs fundamentally on the idea of the self, the effect is the same. They just call it transcendence, instead of denial.

It does not even work for Buddhist monks.

When Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten, a mediation teacher,  describes his experience, he talks about how he spent 12 years as a monk before signing up for a 4-year long silent retreat where he finally collapsed. Thubten had suffered from panic attacks and extreme anxiety as a young man before he decided to join a monastery in Scotland. He practiced meditation daily, of course. Still, finding himself in an advanced retreat all by himself, brought back all his unresolved emotions:

It was the most unhappy period of my life. All the anxiety came back – it had been suppressed. I had another meltdown, oscillating between deep depression, and panic attacks. I was crying all the time.

With strong help from retreat master, I learned how to give compassion to the part of my mind that was so tormented with the revulsion and horror towards myself.”

“I had used meditation to run away from myself. A lot of people do that. It doesn’t work. At some point you catch up with yourself.  So, I broke down.”

It is stunning to me that I took Thubten 15 years as a monk, in regular meditation, to come to the realization that meditation, by itself will not lead you to freedom from pain. Basically, you must hit bottom, fall apart and cry. It’s that simple, and that hard.

Turning people into islands

So, finally, there it was. That was the emptiness I felt: I became detached. I lost my connection to my body, and my mind, and there was only nothingness to replace it with.

And here’s the other unintended consequence: This denial, or the transcendence of the self, extends beyond me, to my perception of other people. If my thoughts and emotions don’t matter, and I should ignore them, then I ignore everyone else’s too.

This has a “nothing is real”, “nobody’s problems matter” feel to it, that seems to be turning people into islands. It feels like a license to be even more self-centered, a feeling I’ve had too many times walking into rooms full of people meditating.

Should we put on smiles of peace and acceptance, but ignore the real suffering? Even if, in the universal-consciousness sense there is no such thing as suffering? If the thoughts swirling in your head are rooted in loneliness, self-doubt, or betrayal, I want to hug you, cry with you, listen to you. Not ignore you. Is this really mindfulness? Or more like mindlessness? If you are not rooted in empathy, if you can’t feel that profound compassion that moves you to tears, can you even feel anything at all? Are you still alive?

In the end, this is how I see it:

Mindfulness can calm you down. It is great, but not nearly enough. What I really want is clarity. Insights. It was that engagement with my pain and reflection, not escape, that saved my life. 

Negative emotions are the fire alarm. You gotta respond.

Our bodies are far wiser than we give them credit for, and they are trying to save us.

I now have a very healthy respect for the thoughts and emotions my body produces. I found that they are always there for a reason. 

I step into the calmness that lies beyond my desperation and anxiety, and mine it for the treasures hidden in my misery.

I touch the root of my problems, hidden in my history and my memories, or in my current environment, and work hard to fix them: release the memories by daring to feel the pain, the anger, the rejection, and only then are you free. You must walk through them, you can’t just close your eyes and escape them.

Cry. Weep.  Scream. Howl. Pound the furniture. Talk to others. Write. 

Too scary to most, but that is the way: Just use the mindfulness calmness as your springboard to find the courage to feel – and then follow the feelings.

And that, to me, is the more inspiring, and more useful way of moving through life. Not practicing death while on earth, but zooming in on and separating out the poisons. Only then can you cook with the freed-up flavor and aroma of life’s spice.

Marina K
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