Is mindfulness really all it’s cracked up to be? Can it really lead to peace of mind? Or is it just a method of suppressing emotions, and training pacifists and idealists? Read on to make sense of the ‘dark side’ of mindfulness.
Mindfulness leads to happiness
Mindfulness has become such a buzz word. A few weeks ago I mentioned to my sister, who is based in New Zealand, that we had launched Artful Contemplation as an online mindfulness platform and asked whether she knew of anyone who might be interested in signing up as a member. Her response was similar to those I have received from so many people I talk to: “Oh, there’s lots of mindfulness programs and apps in New Zealand.” End of discussion. So, mindfulness is mainstream and commonplace. And, so it appears, all mindfulness practices offer the same-old results – happiness, serenity, peace of mind, self-reflection, and so on and so on.
With so much hand-wringing about our frenetic, time-poor lifestyles and information overload, mindfulness seems to offer a wholesome solution: a quiet port in the storm and an opportunity for self-examination.
Large corporations and institutions that equate the mental health and well-being of their workforce to month-end profits have latched onto mindfulness and started bringing it into their human resource programs. “Large organisations such as Google, Apple, Sony [and] Ikea have adopted mindfulness or meditation as part of their employee packages, claiming it leads to a happier workforce, increased productivity and fewer sick days” (Dawn Foster). And this is where some challenging questions have started creeping in about the true purpose and benefits of mindfulness: Are all mindfulness practices equivalent? Is mindfulness a healthy practice for anyone and everyone? Can mindfulness practices lead to mental instability? Are mindfulness practices being used to suppress fundamental human emotions? Is mindfulness creating complacent citizens unwilling to rise up against social injustice?
Mindfulness leads to productivity
Mindfulness practices appear so removed from reality – often depicted as personal, private and irrelevant to basic survival needs. As the global pandemic of Covid-19 has unfolded, and individuals, communities and countries around the world have been faced with the immediate concerns of providing food, medicine and safe havens to those in need, I can understand how social activists remain suspect of mindfulness practices. In South Africa especially, which has faced the second worst lockdown conditions in the world, I can appreciate that those fighting immediate social inequalities may scoff at the idea of me, as the Founder and promoter of a daily mindfulness practice through the contemplation of Art, being an activist of any sort.
I can understand why social activists and those outspoken about confronting inequalities remain suspect of mindfulness practices.
Throughout the last few months, Artful Contemplation has continued to provide unique prompts for daily mindfulness practice on our Facebook page, via Whatsapp and Messenger groups, and in our membership-based community, trusting that we were fulfilling a vital role and purpose in the current times. That is not to say we did not experience strong urges – our own and from other people – to be more socially pro-active (“Start a soup kitchen, for goodness sake! Or at the very least pay for a few food parcels!”).
On some of the most daunting days, we quietly questioned our sanity.
On some of the most daunting days, as images and stories flooded in about the suffering of thousands around the country, we quietly questioned our sanity, asking whether mindfulness as a daily practice should only be promoted and made possible in times of abundance and stability. But that logic does not make sense to us from within a broader perspective. The purpose of mindfulness is to offer integration and healing (peace of mind) as a holistic, fundamental state of being – surely it is precisely in times of crisis that this state of being is most threatened, and mindfulness practices become critical?
Mindfulness leads to unity
This logic is also faulty when we consider that any community is always made up of unique individuals. Collective action, then, does not mean all doing the same thing at the same time towards the same end, but is a dynamic collaboration of personal intentions and actions.
An analogy comes to mind. If a boat was sinking, and every single hand on deck moved to the spot where the breach was letting the water in – to observe it, discuss it, mend it, or manage it by bailing out the pooling water – the boat would likely capsize, perhaps even sink faster. Throughout history, in times of crisis, there have been those that batten down the hatches, those that hold the fort, those that run to the front-line, those that pray and rally the troops, and those that are already planning and drawing blueprints for the aftermath. Returning to the analogy of a sinking boat, each hand on deck has a particular role to play in times of calm as much as in times of tempest.
Mindfulness practices, too, have a particular purpose and role to play in times of personal or social upheaval, as well as in times of calm.
Mindfulness leads to peace of mind
I was recently excited to come across two articles highlighting the way in which mindfulness practices are currently being employed. My excitement is ironic considering that each article contained a direct critique. But a critique of particular mindfulness practices is not necessarily a critique of mindfulness as a practice. Like all tools, methods or approaches used by human beings, mindfulness can be employed well, or with ill-effect.
The first article, Is mindfulness making us ill?, questioned the sweeping promises made about the beneficial effects of mindfulness. It cited numerous examples of individuals who had experienced mindfulness as shattering their peace of mind, and making it increasingly impossible to live a meaning-filled life.
The article offered an example of Claire (a pseudonym), a 37-year-old in a highly competitive industry, who was sent on a three-day mindfulness course as part of a work-related training program. Although she initially felt relaxed by participating in the exercises, the sessions catalyzed a resurfacing of memories of a traumatic childhood. Instead of feeling peace of mind, Claire experienced a series of panic attacks and several dissociative episodes.
My first response to this was: What??? How can that be? But reading the article reminded me of when we were teaching creative visualisation, relaxation, embodiment practices and improvisation as part of a Drama program at a tertiary institution in South Africa. Many of the exercises we employed as ‘one-size-fits-all’ in generic, outcomes-based curricula were inherited from Eastern cultures, translated from European handbooks and applied by small experimental groups under very particular conditions. Although many of the students were able to gain important skills and aptitudes from the exercises, there were plenty of them who did not benefit at all, and even experienced ill-effects such as deep anxiety, personal crises and dissociative states.
Mindfulness reduces stress
The blanket use of mindfulness as a quick-fix low-cost solution in a large organization or institution raises similar concerns and may well result in more ill-effects than good.
Mindfulness has been grabbed in recent years as a way to help people cope with their own powerlessness in the workplace. Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term.
Florian Ruths, a clinical lead for mindfulness-based therapy in South London, points out that the current faddishness of mindfulness and the way it is marketed, has contributed to many of the negative experiences. Instead of being recognized as a powerful form of therapy with the potential to evoke deep transformation, mindfulness is being promoted lightly as an alternative lifestyle choice and way to prevent stress and burnout.
This is exactly my concern with the promotion and application of mindfulness in organisations and schools by those in managerial positions who have no personal experience of how mindfulness works, or any investment in its true purpose other than to satisfy the latest fad of productivity and the policies of a corporate structure. The danger that mindfulness practices face right now is that of trending. A similar thing happened to yoga, and has happened to other potentially transformative practices. As their popularity increases (which is a good thing) their true power and purpose may be diluted (which is not a good thing) through overexposure, glib marketing and fly-by-night companies and service-providers.
Mindfulness leads to harmony
In the second article that sparked my interest in writing this blog, Mindful Activism: The Power of Mindfulness in the Streets, Gabriel Dayley notes that the public and scientific emphasis on the benefits of mindfulness for individual well-being or corporate productivity has ignored the potentially valuable applications of mindfulness-based practices for increasing the effectiveness of activists and strengthening their movements. I find this seemingly paradoxical perspective a healthy alternative to the superficial positioning of mindfulness in mainstream media. Dayley is the Executive Director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Washington, and is interested in the role that mindfulness practices can play in peace-building and social transformation.
Daly observes how activists need to personally embody the transformation they seek in social and political institutions.
Without deep introspective insight, even the most well-intentioned movements may inadvertently exhibit internally some of the same divisions and injustices that they hope to transform in society at large.
I can understand how some people may perceive me, as a mindfulness practitioner and promoter of contemplation through Art, to have my head in the clouds. Or think that I walk around wearing rose-tinted glasses keeping my emotional life even-keeled and my radar for picking up social injustices switched off. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have my feet firmly planted on the ground. I engage my mind in a daily practice of nonviolent discipline, discernment and awareness. And I have my inner eye wide-open to intuitive and sovereign impulses that keep me from being easily buckled and bent by fickle trends and temporary pressures.
Like all human beings, I do feel anger, I do feel anxiety, I do feel irritation. And more than any of these, I do feel deep sorrow at the underlying currents of injustice and inequality upon which so many of our social systems are built. That is why I view mindfulness as a practice embedded in every waking moment.
When we lack awareness of our thoughts and feelings, they tend to grip us and control our reactions to the world. Mindfulness creates enough mental space between the initial feeling and the tug to react impulsively so that we can respond more skillfully.
As one of the many hands on deck, I have come to make peace with the very particular role I have to play in communal and global well-being. I am an artist and an embodiment practitioner before I am a politician or activist. That means that activism and ideology are subsumed within my artistry.
Daly offers a powerful image of mindfulness practice as ‘holding one’s seat’, an apt metaphor for how Artful Contemplation provides opportunities to practice being grounded and secure, and open to possibility and inspiration at the same time. Through the use of non-literal imagery and non-linear text, our unique mindfulness prompts intentionally invite recipients to entertain paradox – a simultaneous holding of seemingly contradictory impulses or forces. With this ability, individuals find it possible to inhabit a balanced place between taking revolutionary action, and surrendering to the flow of life.
In reality, there exist many ways of making a difference, all of which deserve appreciation and respect. Every contribution should be appreciated and energy simply cannot be wasted trying to fight the wrong enemy.
Personally, I practice mindfulness not to pretend there is no enemy, or to presume that individuals all over the world should be in a constant state of content equilibrium. I practice mindfulness so that I know which enemies are truly mine, when is an appropriate time to confront them, and the correct weapon to have in hand when the time is right.
I practice mindfulness to muster the full range of my mental capacities towards perceiving and embracing the world as a moving disequilibrium, a harmony of perfect unfolding moments.
DR SAMANTHA PRIGGE
What are your views on mindfulness as a daily practice? How do you see mindfulness contributing towards social transformation? Leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.