Mindfulness Is Not Enough

02/06/2016 12:14 | Updated 02 June 2016

Recently, an old student got in touch. She had been on one of my earliest courses, and said she was struggling. Mindfulness had helped her in the past, but at the moment she was feeling terrible.

So we met in the meditation hut in my garden. Normally just being there, serenaded by birdsong, is enough to lessen the clench of life. But she barely noticed. Rather than feeling herself surrounded by majestic trees and a cool breeze, all that surrounded her was a sense of dread.

The existential detective in me got to work. Various clues emerged: the medication she was on, a recent bereavement, the old wound of not being able to have children. But somehow the state she was in nevertheless seemed out of proportion. The pills, she said, had lessened her depression, but she could still hardly leave the house. And when she did get out - to walk the neighbour's dogs or volunteer in the local charity shop - an anxiety sat on her chest the whole time. It was impossible to enjoy anything. It was then she confessed that, six months earlier, she had tried to kill herself.

'What do you feel connected to?' I asked.
'When you walk the neighbour's dog? How is it to walk on the path?'
She paused, and closed her eyes. 'Detached,' she said at last. 'Semi-detached.'

So here's the thing: this individual has been practising mindful meditation, following her breath, consistently, for over ten years. She explained to me how she practised, and her technique was fine. And yet, even after ten years, she feels a profound disconnect. This is totally the opposite of what meditation is intended to help us feel; if I had to describe the sense that arises through practice, the words that come to me are things like: connection, at one with, in harmony, full of empathy, compassionate. So how is it possible to practise mindful meditation and be travelling totally the wrong way down the path?

The answer is simple once you see it: mindfulness on its own is not enough. It is possible to notice something in precise present-moment detail, and yet for the heart to remain tight shut. Mindfulness, if it is to heal us, needs to be taught with compassion. For many years, mindfulness teachers have said (among themselves) that if they are embodying kindness towards their students, this implicit lesson of compassion is sufficient. But it is not sufficient. We need to make compassion an explicit part of mindfulness teaching, and of our lives. We need to feel that the earth is alive and sentient when we walk upon its grass. We need to experience our own bodies as a miraculous gift - a gift that we need to appreciate rather than judge. Through this sensitivity and appreciation, we learn that we are connected to the world, and to life, and to meaning. And, as a mindfulness teacher, it's not enough for me to assume that every student, simply through the process of meditating, will arrive at this wonderful realisation. I have to say it - we all have to say it, to our children, to our politicians, and to the world - our connectedness is what gives life meaning.

Turn your hand over and feel the air on your palm. Reflect on how this air sustains your very life, and how this may be the only place in the whole universe that this life-sustaining atmosphere exists. Just for you. Just now. Inhale with deep gratitude to our planet for creating this extraordinary atmosphere, and exhale with profound appreciation for your own unique being.

We cannot exist except through our connection to everything around us: our life depends upon the generosity and grace of the earth that grows our food, the sun that gives us warmth, the rain that allows us to drink. This is the ultimate message ofmindfulness: that we are part of the whole. This realisation is the antidote to isolation, depression and anxiety. It is the best medicine that we will ever find.

Kate Carne is a mindfulness teacher in Oxford, and the author of Seven Secrets of Mindfulness: How to Keep Your Everyday Practice Alive published by Rider on the 2nd June.