When Mindfulness Isn't Helpful
Hatha Yoga: For sure, who can live without it?
Controlled breathing: A life saver.
Guided body focus: Best thing for you.
Containing, holding, focusing only upon depression, anxiety, or anger: Maybe think about drawing the line when this particular intervention is making you sick.
At least don't feel badly that you have failed the class, can't get all cozy with your negative emotions. Because that's the goal, understand, oneness, full acceptance. Mindfulness.
Tell yourself that it isn't your fault if you can't befriend your sadness, if you hate the training, if you aren't getting any better and want to run away, to be anywhere else than in that room full of mindful people.
Who could blame you? Attending to pain won't magically bring on peace, certainly isn't nirvana, not for every deep sufferer. It just isn't. Fine, let's qualify. It works for some, certainly not all of us.
There, I've gone public about something that has bothered me for a long time. I held them in, my mixed feelings about this part of mindfulness, getting close to the pain, because I like the rest of the therapy, and I know that pain does lift and when it does, nobody tends to notice. So say hello to unhappy moods because they have a shelf life. They also spontaneously regenerate, which is a shame, but it''s called being alive.
The mindfulness therapists will surely tell me I have it wrong, will spleen me for what is to come, but it is worth the risk, shouting to the blogosphere, reaching out and yes, relating to the confused and the angry, the still depressed and even more anxious, those who have plunked down their five hundred dollars to take the 8-session class, if not go on a weekend retreat.
But I'm giving you permission to Just Say No, to say I'm Not Doing This. To say, This Was Okay Until Now, But You've Crossed the Line asking me to lean into my bad feelings.
Lean into the pain? You want to know who else leaned into the pain? Aaron Swartz. He killed himself a little over a month ago.
Saying No! when told to embrace depression, anxiety, etc., should empower more than one somebody, and that process, asserting feels good. Assertiveness is one of our more successful emotional management strategies, tried and true.
No question, each of us gives negative emotions their due in our lifetime. There is no escaping or denying, and those who battle their feelings regularly have spent countless hours in their presence, mostly fighting them, wishing they would go away. It makes a certain amount of sense, therefore, that changing one's attitude, which is what mindfulness is really all about, is worth a try. This is like any other behavioral technique or strategy, in that it deserves a try.
Rather than run, rather than medicate, if we get into it a little, feel the sadness, the anxiety, the anger, it will lose its power. Stop fighting it, it can't kill you unless you let it. Ironically, we tell alcoholics and drug addicts to do this all the time because using is truly hiding, avoiding emotion. So for them feeling is educational. We tell addicts, Stay with it, feel badly for a change. It won't kill you and it won't mess up your life like substances does.
Staying with a bad emotion might not kill you, but staying in a bad marriage probably won't, either. That doesn't mean you should.
And then there's Aaron.
It is very unlikely, working with a professional mindfulness therapist, that you would do anything self-destructive in the process of getting well. Aaron had severe mental illness; he needed more help than he had, or he simply couldn't take it any more, that spontaneous regeneration. The mindfulness trainers who have trained with the best, and who hasn't, are setting themselves up if they know how seriously mentally ill their trainees are and still pretend it will all be okay. Close your eyes.
No matter, for those who are not severely distressed, it is still possible to feel like a big loser, a huge loser when making the mark feels impossible. If the sadness, anxiety, the anger is no better when you embrace it. If you feel like exploding or imploding while focusing on the pain and don't feel a whit better when it is all over, it is likely that you will feel worse.
Are you not embracing it enough? Are you a poor embracer? If it feels worse because you are giving it your undivided, your full attention, worse isn't what you are looking for; it's not the goal. Less is.
Theoretically, the major disorders are compounds of negative thoughts and feelings. That's all. Sadness is just a feeling, no more no less, anxiety and anger, too. Emotions are realities like every other reality, anything else that grabs our attention. Hanging out with them should be seen in that light, a fleeting reality. One long moment.
Except that hanging out in this reality, watching pain, hurts a little more than say, watching a sunset or maybe visiting someone, holding someone's baby.
I prefer the sunset. The baby.
You could say that cognitive behavioral therapists who recommend distraction, the sunset, Modern Family (television), taking a walk around the block, or doing a crossword puzzle over embracing the pain are chicken. We also like anesthesia for surgery.
A patient says to me:
Like I don't know what it is like to be consumed with anxiety? Every day of my life I suffer from anxiety. And they want me to invite it in? Makes no sense. I tried and it made me feel even crazier than usual.Nice.
I recall being a young therapist, a hundred years ago. The patient is crying and I am saying, "It's okay, cry. Crying is good. You have a lot to cry about." And the patient continues, throughout the visit, weeping, and it won't let up, and she won't get up off the floor at the end of the visit, won't leave, continues to sob, and I have to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
Wouldn't it have been better if I would have taught her to manage her sadness? Would it have mattered? I think so. I'm pretty sure it would have been better if I had guided her to disengage from the pain, not embrace it.
Of course, I'm not a mindfulness teacher and hope to hear from someone who can clarify for me. But one thing I know. Give me a good distraction, a good procrastination, a good rewrite or a new script, a napkin full of obsessive thoughts, a hand on the heart, a phone-a-friend or any one of the hundreds of emotional management strategies we can all think up with only a little imagination, any day.