Is mindfulness making us ill? A reader recently forwarded me an article from The Guardian that asks this provocative question. Like virtually all popular journalism, it’s a divisive piece that will fuel both skeptics and supporters. I think the author makes some valuable and legitimate points, especially about how mindfulness can trigger dissociation related to trauma, and also about the political problem of trying to use mindfulness in the workplace to make people more productive in a work culture that is probably intrinsically unhealthy and essentially inhuman (my words, not the author’s).
What is mindfulness?
In my counselling practice I define mindfulness as having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This is a practice of awareness. Can deepening our awareness be disturbing? Yes, it can. Can it “make us ill” as the title of the piece suggests? The suggestion that awareness of our own experience is dangerous (and should thus be medicalized) is more than a little troubling to me, but I suppose we each put our faith where we believe it belongs.
Mindfulness billed as a “relaxation technique” (as stated in the article) is a problematic promise right out of the gate. Mindfulness is not first and foremost a relaxation technique, it’s an awareness practice. Awareness can ultimately have a relaxing effect, but it can also have other decidedly non-relaxing effects.
Assigning mindfulness practice en masse (whether through corporate wellness programs or mobile apps or yoga studio memberships) with the expectation that relaxation be the automatic result reveals a basic misunderstanding of what mindfulness actually means, and sets people up for potentially confusing and dissonant experiences.
True mindfulness is like peeling layers of an onion or delving into an old trunk of belongings. It takes you deeper. You might find sadness, joy, numbness, physical tension, fear. As the article implies, prescribing mindfulness for relaxation only, and then providing no support or allowance for the other experiences that awareness may uncover does seem irresponsible in some ways. Also, it fits perfectly with our current cultural paradigm, a paradigm that recognizes, validates and supports only the narrow slice of human experience that fits its own needs.
MIndfulness and social implications
A genuinely mindful (aware) society would acknowledge and make room for the full range of human emotional experiences that personal mindfulness may evoke. Much of the suffering that comes from numbness, grief, dissociation, panic, anxiety etc is less from the core experience itself, and more a result of the isolation and marginalization that comes from the absence of sacred space, of ritual where these experiences can be compassionately held, witnessed, acknowledged, shared. Perhaps the question that the article asks, “Is mindfulness making us ill?” begets further questions rather than decisive answers… “What does mindfulness ask of us? What does mindful awareness reveal about us, individually and collectively? What do we do with what is revealed?” The answers can be awkward.
The economic and political systems of our culture demand that we be materially productive at all times, at all costs. This demand comes with enormous human sacrifice. In ordinary consciousness, we’re mostly blind to this enormous human sacrifice because our cultural story is deeply woven as “natural fact” into the fabric of our being. This cultural failure to acknowledge (let alone meet!) real human needs for connection, compassion, love, patience and tolerance is much more pressing, much more tragic, and much more dangerous than mindfulness itself could ever be; and mindfulness, in a perfect paradox, may give us a glimpse into the price we routinely pay for membership in this culture. This glimpse can be incredibly disturbing, but blaming mindfulness for the disturbance is akin to blaming a microscope for the germs it reveals.
The trouble with mindfulness
Perhaps the real trouble with mindfulness is in what we expect it to deliver. Mindfulness does not fix us, it allows us to see things more as they are. As such, mindfulness is radical. Who has the authority on your awareness? Who decides how much self awareness is enough; how much is healthy; how much is dangerous? Should we sign away the care of our unconscious to the experts? Or should we accept the freedom and responsibility that come with self-inquiry? It is no surprise that mindfulness, a venerable practice probably thousands of years old, has been co-opted, diluted and commodified as a “relaxation technique” and corporate employee wellness panacea on one hand, and is now on the verge of being demonized as a public health hazard on the other. Ours is a culture that has a difficult time honouring both freedom and responsibility, and simply making room for awareness, ever-changing and uncontrolled, with all its necessary demands. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
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