Ok, that might be a little bit of a dramatic title for this post but what I want to do is look at the big M word. That’s right. Muffins. No obviously not- it’s mindfulness. Everybody I seem to meet is familiar with this concept. It’s like the latest trend that everybody wants a piece of. To live a happier life, mindfulness is the answer. It is something that I myself have, and still do in some form, incorporate into my life. But is it really all that good? I’m going to discuss in this post what I find useful and the various ways in which I have practiced it but also the perhaps darker, less discussed side of it too.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you will know that when I was in my last year at uni, I was diagnosed with depression. I was sick with anxiety and was incredibly isolated living 300 miles away from my family and friends. It was around this time that one of the counsellors who worked on campus started to run a course of mindfulness sessions. When I was depressed, I wanted to try everything and anything that could help me get better so I decided to give it a go.
I actually found the sessions really helpful and enjoyable. With a small group of other students, this counsellor would do guided meditations and I would feel totally relaxed and safe in that space. The other members of the group were really friendly and open so I found talking in the group easy. So as well as the guided meditations, it also felt like group therapy for me! The meditations included an all over body scan that consisted of us lying down or sitting on a chair, focusing on each part of our body, tuning into any sensations and “gently bringing our mind back” if it wandered off elsewhere. Like thinking about what we were having for tea…
Because I found these guided meditations useful and had got a lot out of attending a course with other humans, I did get on the band wagon with mindfulness. There are so many books and apps out there on it that whenever I felt my anxiety levels rising, I would try to use these for the guided meditations. However, I’ve found that it’s really difficult for me to stick a meditation out when I’m doing it alone. I get bored and distracted; I find it way too difficult to fully relax into it and so have found it near impossible to practice actual meditations on my own. However, with that being said, other people might find these more helpful than I have done. If you are interested then an app you could try is Headspace and the book I’d recommend is Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. You even get a CD included for guidance with the meditations, it feels like a surprise little present.
So, although I have found meditations useful in the past, I now find it incredibly difficult to a) practice alone and b) integrate it into my life. And I think the fact that people seem to see mindfulness as just meditating is where the problem arises. Mindfulness is thrown at us from all directions: doctors, therapists, work, friends, the media. It can feel like that if we really want to get better, mindfulness meditation is key. We can’t escape it! So, when people don’t find it useful, too difficult to practice or just can’t seem to grasp those golden benefits, it can feel like we’ve failed or that we’re missing out on something. It can bring up the question: “why is everyone else finding this so great and I’m not? What’s wrong with me?”
I think the problem here is that the meditation side of mindfulness is emphasised to such a degree that people tend to believe that this is all it’s about. But I’m here to tell you that I really don’t think it is! I think being mindful can just involve enjoying a task or hobby, getting really into it and finding the time just passing by. It could be going for a walk and just noticing a bird flying past. Or lying in bed and enjoying hearing the rain outside. Even just noticing how you are feeling and letting yourself off the hook for not feeling as well as you did the day before. Being mindful doesn’t have to mean putting pressure on ourselves to carry out activities like meditation that can feel a bit alien, being mindful can just mean enjoying a particular moment, whatever that may be.
I find that colouring is mindful for me, listening to podcasts, playing Candy Crush (yes I’m one of them), reading a book and even just enjoying an episode of RuPaul (watch it right now, you have 9 seasons to catch up on). I love going for a walk in the countryside and seeing a fox run across the path ahead of me or a big bird of prey just casually sitting in the tree. I like watching the trees blow in the wind and eating a big piece of chocolate cake slowly, savouring every mouthful. For me, that is what mindfulness is about; not about trying to squeeze in this way of being that personally doesn’t work for me, it’s about actually enjoying the little things.
There has been a darker side of mindfulness documented but it’s not very well known. Everybody is constantly going on about the benefits of it that we forget there can be side effects as there are with many things. For example, some people have claimed that mindfulness doesn’t reduce their anxiety, it actually increases it instead. I think this is the case for me aswell. Such a big part of the mindful meditations is to focus on the breathing and I’ve come to realise that I am quite a shallow breather. When I focus on this, a bodily response that is associated with anxiety, I convince myself that I’m just too anxious to do it properly which only makes me more anxious!
An even more dangerous side effect of mindfulness meditation can be dissociation from self. Some people have claimed to experience this when they have made progress through other means with mindfulness knocking them back to the start of their recovery or even worse than before. Truth be told, this is not something that I have ever experienced so I can’t really comment any further. However, there are really useful and interesting articles out there that do talk more about such side effects:
Guardian article 1: Is mindfulness making us ill?
Guardian article 2: Seven common myths about meditation.
Telegraph article: I’m minded to be wary of mindfulness.
And a WHOLE book has been written about it by two psychologists called The Buddha Pill: Can meditation change you?
I’m not disputing that mindfulness can work for some people, it can! But I think the key part of that sentence is “for some”. It saddens me that there is so little out there on people’s varying experiences; if we are constantly seeing all the incredible benefits and the person we could be if we practiced mindfulness then we are only going to feel more isolated if we find it far too difficult to do. The idea that “one size fits all” does not exist and I think mindfulness can be guilty of promoting that.
To me, being mindful can even be realising that, you know, this mindfulness malarkey just isn’t for me.