"Stress, anxiety, productivity: mindfulness is often touted as a solution to nearly everything. But research shows that you can actually take meditation too far."
This is the thesis of an article published on BBC.com. Authored by David Robson, it is entitled "How too much mindfulness can spike anxiety." You can find the article here.
The premise is accurate and fair. Indeed, anything that one takes too far may produce adverse consequences. Mindfulness practice and the next step, meditation, when practiced too earnestly, may reduce its efficacy and benefit. Novice practitioners, especially those motivated to the activity by internal or external stress, often fall into this trap. I did it myself many years ago, beginning my journey to meditation with a mindful practice.
First, we live in a culture that generally promotes that if less is good, more is better. Look, it's all around us! Consumer advertising, medical advertising, a bigger house, a more expensive car, more things, more entertainment, more, more, more . . .
Second, our impatience demands immediate satisfaction. Same-day delivery, on-demand video, instant gratification with no delay and no pain. Long ago, a mentor of mine asserted, "there is no such thing as a grown-up human being." Humans, in so many ways, are eternal infants. We immediately cry and whine, clench our fists, and stomp our feet when we do not get what we want, now!
Third, we are taught to value our goal over the process. The latter is just a means. The former is essential. We're a competitive species in conflict, sport, business, social interaction, and often with ourselves.
Let's move on further into the article:
"For around 20 years, I've struggled with periods of anxiety, and turned to mindfulness meditation as a means of quelling those feelings. At its best, the benefits would often perfectly match the hype. Focusing my attention on my breath or my body would calm my nagging internal voice, and I'd return to normal life feeling energised and invigorated."
There's the wish for instant gratification, the magic pill for what ails ya'. Please understand I am not lampooning the speaker. I had the same desire. I reflect back now and again and lampoon myself. More than forty years ago, I was vibrating internally with considerable stress while lying inert on the floor of my tiny apartment. I expected I would soon be evicted. It was end-of-the-world stuff for a feverish young person, without employment, without direction, perceiving he was without much of a future.
My first mindfulness method was staring at a candle flame and then retaining its imprint in my mind behind closed eyes. The primary benefit I sought with the practice was to tame my monkey-like mind that flitted uncontrollably here and there, so I could sleep, eat, and eventually focus.
Our practitioner concludes: "I had assumed that I was just uniquely bad at taming my thoughts."
Unique? Nah! In that long-ago trial, I thought I was unique in the stress and terror, in the hopelessness I felt.
Simply, it's hard to tame a monkey. It's even harder to tame a monkey's mind. Mine still flits about now and again. Awareness, acceptance, and compassion are essential here.
In the beginning, one often comes to mindful practice reacting to unsettlement. It may be a burden weighing too heavily, seemingly unliftable. It may be a nag, like the irritation of a pebble in one's shoe. Yet, despite its tiny-ness, it discomforts far more than its physical size justifies. Either or, it becomes un-ignorable. Once aware of it, one must find it, consider it, and strive to remove it or go crazy. In this, mindful practice is essential. But, it's a challenging first baby step in a longer process.
"Far too often, however, I'd end the session feeling much worse than when I began. Rather than relaxing, my heart would begin to accelerate, or my inner monologue would take a nasty turn, as unpleasant memories and feelings of failure and hopelessness flooded my mind. These events became so frequent that I now only use mindfulness occasionally."
A Buddhist might call this "attachment." It's our stuff, and it's not all pretty. Mindfulness practice reveals what's in our attic. The more we look, the more we see. We peer into our dark recesses piled with moldy cardboard boxes full of memories, reminiscences, reactions, emotions, personal deceptions, bad judgments, and actions. So long unopened, long forgotten, better forgotten, we say to ourselves. Yet, it's all there in the musk and the cobwebs that mindfulness shows us. So, like the speaker, we desire to "quell" what we see when, in fact, we really should begin to sort through it all. It's time to open the boxes, lay it all out, and simply make an inventory as dispassionately as we can.
Haven't we all done stuff that made our heart race? One argues with one's self. Did I? Would that I? Should I have? Did I really? Oh, my God!
It's challenging work and unpleasant work at times. We don't really want to look at the mess. It's overwhelming. We are tempted to push it all away, close the door, and forget it! Some do.
Yet, again, look! Negativity can be a far stronger magnet than positivity if one allows it. So, again, like children, we focus on the bad stuff. The good stuff just passes us by if we make no effort to see that too.
A task of mindful practice is to focus and broaden one's awareness simultaneously. Focusing on one's stuff can also be satisfying, joyful, and uplifting. Unpleasant perceptions require examination of their opposites. Wrong actions illuminate the right ones. Anger counter-weights compassion and perhaps love.
Someone once asked, how do you eat an elephant? Like anything else, one bite at a time. Here, more is not necessarily better. Less is more effective.
Mindful awareness and study of our crap show us that human life is messy, and a human is generally a mess. We're a mess! Mindfulness helps us see the totality clearly, pat ourselves on the back if merited, and forgive ourselves if necessary.
Guilt, innocence, and judgment are products of the ego. But, once clearly considered, we can lay them aside to pursue what's between them. With patient, measured steps, through mindfulness, we enter into meditation. Mindfulness and meditation are separate acts. We'll look at their differences and their relationship in another posting.
Don't give up! Take it easy. One small bite at a time.