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. Mindfulness. Everybody I seem to meet is familiar with this concept. It's like the latest trend that everybody wants a part of. To live a happier life, mindfulness is the answer. It is something that I myself have, and probably still do, incorporate into my life. But is it really all that good? I'm going to discuss in this post what I, myself, find useful and ways in which I have practiced it but also the perhaps darker, less discussed side of it too.
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. 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 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. It would take around half an hour to do and the main aim was to focus on each part of our body, tune into any sensations and "gently bring our mind back" if it wandered off like thinking about what we were having for tea (which mine ALWAYS did).
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 podcasts out there and whenever I felt my anxiety levels rising I would try to give these guided meditations a go.
However, I've found out that it is 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 since moving back home from uni. However, other people might find it useful. A well-known podcast you could try if you were interested 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.
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 now feels like that if we want to get better, mindful meditation is key. It seems almost impossible to escape! 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. Even just noticing how you are feeling and letting yourself off the hook that you're not feeling quite as well as 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 to people, 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 enjoying an episode of RuPaul. I like walking 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 it. For me, that is what mindfulness is about. Not about trying to squeeze in this way of being that doesn't work for me but about actually enjoying the little things.
There has been a darker side of mindfulness documented but it is not very prevalent. 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! I think this is the case for me as well. Such a big part of mindfulness practice is to focus on the breathing and I've come to realise that I am quite a shallow breather. When I focus on this, something 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 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 off than before. Truth be told, this is not something that I have ever experienced so I can't really comment any further on this. However, there are really useful and interesting articles out there that do talk more about such side effects. There's even a WHOLE book that's 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 the latter. It saddens me that there is so little out there on people's negative experiences because if we are constantly seeing all the incredibly good things and the person we could be if we practiced it, we are only going to feel more isolated if we find it far too difficult. I hope that more research is carried out on the side effects of mindfulness or the different ways in which each individual experience it. 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 isn't for me.Suggest a correction