Mindfulness meditation is a wonderful tool, supported by a growing wealth of evidence which demonstrates the many benefits of the practice. However, recently there have been a few articles in the press which have highlighted the 'dangers' of meditation. Therefore, it seems a good time to look deeper into what could be considered meditation dangers, and how we can not only address them but also learn from them.
On our mindfulness journeys as practitioners and teachers, we have certainly all encountered hurdles to our practice. Some of us might have unconsciously used mindfulness to force positive feelings, others might have used the technique to avoid certain situations (see below: 'Chasing a 'Feel Good' State' and 'Meditation as Avoidance').
Most of us, however, would probably not say that by doing so we've put ourselves in 'danger'. On the contrary: If we have, for example, used mindfulness to feel good, we might have brought to awareness our tendency to chase happiness instead of trying to be with whatever presents itself to us in this very moment. Bringing this to light through practising mindfulness will then help us break free from this pattern. This potential 'danger' that we encounter during our practice might turn out to be a wonderful gift that helps us deepen our practice, and understand ourselves better, thus helping us grow.
Here is a list of some of the common 'dangers' that we might encounter in our practice. They might help to shine a light on some mindfulness meditators patterns.
1. Abandoning All Other Coping Mechanisms
After practising mindfulness (even for only a couple of weeks), many people get really passionate about the practice. But we should not forget that there also exist many other great techniques that can help us cope with life's challenges. For example, sometimes when we feel down or nervous, we might not always choose to meditate, but rather go for a run or a swim. Or we might want to meet up with a friend or watch a funny movie. There are many ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life, so let's use them all!
2. Chasing a 'Feel Good' State
Many of us have experienced wonderful states when practising mindfulness meditation. We may suddenly feel complete peacefulness or have a great insight into the nature of our mind or life. Such states do happen during meditation and when they do, it certainly feels good. However, the primary aim of mindfulness is not about chasing these states or insights. Mindfulness instead is (most of the time) simply about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. Being attached to any experience can cause unhappiness, whether it's good or bad. But the funny thing is that the more we accept the simplicity of our moment-to-moment experience, the more often we will naturally be present and feel good when we meditate.
3. Being Mindful of Everything All the Time
In mindfulness we learn to pay attention to whatever arises in the present moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally. Yet, this does not mean that we have to pay attention to everything. For example, if we feel a very strong pain in our back, we do not have to dive right into that pain and explore it for twenty minutes. Or, let's say, we suddenly feel very sad during meditation - we do not have to stay with that sadness until we cry.
A huge part of mindfulness is about cultivating compassion and care for ourselves. So if we do feel terrible pain in our back due to chronic tension, we can choose to meditate lying down or practice mindful movement. Or we may choose to shift our attention away from our painful back to our toes or the sounds around us. In short: meditation doesn't mean that we have to torture ourselves by focusing on unpleasant experiences. Instead we always have the choice in how we wish to approach our pain!
Some of us have the tendency to analyse our issues, character, family, friends, work colleagues or life in general. If one has such a tendency, we might easily start to analyse everything that happens when we meditate. True, great insight may arise when we practise mindfulness. However, mindfulness is not about putting a certain amount of time aside each day to silently analyse. Instead it is about developing the skill to notice when we've drifted off into analysis and then chose to gently come back to the present moment by reconnecting with a sensory anchor such as the breath, sounds or bodily sensations.
5. Self-Improvement Project
Many meditators turn their meditation practice into a rigorous self-improvement project. We may wish to become this eternally present, accepting, compassionate, grateful and enlightened being. This can actually have the opposite effect. If we have such high goals, we might become overly critical of ourselves when we do not live up to our high standards. Instead, we can remind ourselves that just because we meditate does not mean we have to be a 'better' human being in any way. All that we might become is just a bit more aware and accepting of our everyday humanness, and that's okay.
6. Pushing Away/Detaching from Painful Thoughts and Feelings
In mindfulness meditation we practise noticing when our minds have drifted off into the past or future, and then gently bringing our attention back to the present moment (see above: sensory anchors). Mindfulness is, however, by no means about learning to control our minds or to push away or suppress our uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Rather, it is about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. It's about 'being with' whatever is arising in the moment. If we notice that we've started using mindfulness to forcefully avoid certain states of mind then we may be on the wrong track, and it won't work long term anyway. What you resist will persist.
7. Too Much Practice (Too Soon)
When we first start meditating, we might immediately fall in love with mindfulness (also called "the honeymoon phase"). Having a history of excessive worrying, analysis or rumination, we feel so happy to have found some peace of mind. What a relief! Often what happens in such cases is that we do too much too soon. Maybe we decide a month after our first meditation session that we will embark on a rigorous ten-day silent meditation retreat. This might work for some of us, but for others it might be overwhelming.
Don't forget that a great part of mindfulness is about being kind and caring with ourselves. After all, we wouldn't run a marathon after having run for half an hour every few days, and maybe we'll even decide that we don't need or want to run a marathon at all!
Some of us over-identify with being a mindfulness meditator. Everything becomes about mindfulness: We join every mindfulness group out there, read every book on mindfulness, redecorate our flat in a mindful way, only want to have friends who practice mindfulness, etc. We might even become self-righteous about our lifestyle. While mindfulness indeed is a beautiful practice, we need to remember that the practice is about accepting ourselves and others as we are and not getting attached to any bundle of beliefs. Otherwise we might alienate ourselves from our non-mindful friends and family who might not really get what this is all about, or who simply have no desire to meditate - which is totally fine too! Not everybody in this world has to become a meditator. And the best way to share mindfulness is by being mindful yourself.
9. Meditation as Avoidance
Some mindfulness practitioners have noticed that they might have used meditation sometimes to avoid certain things. Let's say we feel down and lonely and it might be good to go out and meet a friend. But we cannot find the energy to leave our home. So instead we then decide to stay at home and meditate. There's nothing wrong if we do that once in a while. But staying at home and meditating all the time will probably not help us in becoming less sad and lonely.
10. Doing it without Proper Instructions or Teachers
When we learn to meditate, it's advisable to do it with a well-trained teacher. Sometimes, people who start meditation, for example, think that mindfulness is another relaxation technique. While relaxation might be a by-product of meditation, it is not the aim. Or a meditation newbie might think that he/she could have a completely thought-free mind when meditating and if that does not occur, he/she feels frustrated and thinks that he/she's not a 'good' meditator, or that meditation is not for him/her. In such cases it is good to have a well-trained mindfulness teacher to support the process of learning how to meditate. Especially because it is not advised to start with mindfulness when one is, for example, in the middle of a depressive episode. A well-trained teacher is aware of that and will find out before a course whether it's the right time to embark on a course or whether it might be better to wait for a while until the person feels more stable. Meditation can also bring up unexpected thoughts and emotions, some of which could be challenging. So it's useful (and comforting) to have an experienced teacher to help us through that process.
11. Suppression of our Needs
Although acceptance is a key component, meditation is not about blind acceptance. In mindfulness one learns to be curious and accepting about one's emotions and life in general. This is a beautiful skill to develop. However, this does not mean that we need to accept everything and never take action if we need to do so. If someone, for example, crosses our boundaries and makes us angry, we should not simply use the mindfulness skills to accept the action of this person and the resulting anger and be passive. Instead we can use our mindfulness skills to notice that we are angry, pause and breathe and then let them know how we feel. Mindfulness is by no means about suppressing our needs and enduring everything as a practice in acceptance! It is more about empowering us to feel more centred within ourselves, so that we can make decisions with greater consciousness, clarity and self-compassion, and sometimes that will involve taking action.