This article has arisen as a response to a general phenomena I’ve been observing for some years. Recently, after a friend shared her annoyance and anger about meditation being touted as a cure-all for depression, I started to put down my thoughts. On many occasions I’ve been critical of the marketing of meditation in popular culture but now I want to go into this issue more deeply.
Even while relying on mindfulness as the cornerstone of my own healing process, I’ve found that most popular guidance on meditation and mindfulness only offers a superficial treatment of what this is about. It can cure anxiety, depression, help you be more focused, empathic, compassionate — the list goes on. The fact that meditation can actually help support a lot of positive things in people’s lives predominates the conversation. And while it can indeed do all of that, in the process of getting there it is also a destructive force, challenging the conditioned self. It can tear us to shreds before it makes us feel better. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and in some instances it can be plain dangerous.
It’s taken years of dedicated mindfulness practice, going deep into the darkest parts of the human psyche, for me to heal from the insults that psychiatry imposed upon me. Most of the time this has been anything but pleasant, peaceful, and anxiety-free. It’s been quite the opposite as I’ve struggled to come to terms with what happened to me and so many other victims of psychiatry. This process continues as I heal and gain clarity.
In this process I’ve learned how to listen to my body and follow my own guidance. This is not a precise process nor is it without risk. I ended up in the ICU for a week a year ago, almost dying as a result of this process as I learned and sometimes made mistakes about what to do at each stage of healing. Mistakes and misinterpretations of what is happening while we heal our bodies is simply part of the process.
The good news is that I’ve learned to shut out the multiple conditioned voices of our ugly capitalistic system and come back to myself. To be clear, this continues — it’s always an ongoing process. And indeed, what media hype and those selling mindfulness don’t tell you is that mindfulness is a process that can radically transform you and it’s not always safe, nor is it easy or straightforward. We make it safer by being aware of the risks and learning to listen to our own bodies about when it is or isn’t okay for us. No one else actually knows. Learning from those we trust is a good idea but in the end only we know what is best for us. Sharing experience is far better than being told what to do. Proceeding carefully and with self-respect is important. Sometimes the process involves learning to do both those things, hence the risk involved and the potential for serious mistakes. Mindfulness and meditation are not always appropriate for everyone all the time. This can change too and is part of the bumpy road of life.
Deep, profound, honest mindfulness can alienate and isolate while on the way to well-being. It isn’t a quick fix and popular accounts generally ignore this fact. But there are a few people speaking to this. I have a page on my website called: “Meditation: not all bliss and roses…” It explains that mindfulness can lead to complete breakdown. It did, necessarily for me, really. Or more accurately it brought me through complete breakdown and helped me get well. (I was bedridden and nonverbal for some years — that of course was caused by iatrogenic psych drug brain injury and because instead of being taught to listen to myself as a young woman in crisis I was drugged, almost to death, by a system that doesn’t know how to help us through psycho/spiritual crisis.) Mindfulness and meditation did not shorten that process at all but it certainly informed it.
Mindfulness has been profoundly healing and really is the foundation of everything I have learned, but yeah… flippantly telling people to meditate without such understanding is irresponsible.
When we start to watch and pay attention, whatever we’ve neglected will arise. In some instances this can be radically destabilizing. For those of us with these severe psych drug injuries there is the fact that it can be unbearable to be in our skins. Knowing when to find distractions is as important as practicing mindfulness. I started out doing literally 30 seconds at a time because of the nightmarish condition of my nervous system. This journey has taken years.
Many of the readers of this site are dealing with complex trauma from adverse child experience, which is then further complicated by the heinous trauma incurred by the psychiatric establishment’s neurotoxic drugging of our pain and then the profound denial by society and the medical and psychopharmaceutical complexes. Denial of what we go through is part of the trauma becoming further embedded.
Also, for me, formal (sitting) meditation was/is only a wee bit of my practice. Most of my practice is 24/7 learning to be in the present while allowing the past to come up and out (not pretty, quite often). Mindfulness. Paying attention to this moment now. All the time. That’s all. It’s simple and for those with complex trauma it remains risky, and sometimes excruciatingly difficult and thus, not always a good idea.
So, here I’m presenting another view of meditation and mindfulness that contrasts sharply with the popular one… This view is much more complex and there is no sugar coating. This path can kill. Seriously. And it has almost finished me off in both positive and negative ways. AND, I’m deeply grateful that I’ve stuck it out, too… your mileage will vary. I have one caveat that is ever-present when I share healing techniques, supports and ideas: THIS MAY OR MAY NOT BE APPROPRIATE FOR YOU. Please trust your inclinations and move forward accordingly.
Another important thing: Well-being doesn’t have much to do with being happy… yet happiness happens, on occasion, just like every other state of being and mind. It’s called being human. We are not always happy and marketing for meditation and mindfulness that promises endless happiness is delusional at best. See: “Marketing happiness.”
Meditation has guided me so that I’ve learned how to feed myself, how to move, everything… FOR ME. Again, I don’t tell people how to eat. My diet has had to change numerous times. When we are paying attention we learn that healing is a dynamic, ever-changing process. Our needs change as we heal and being mindful allows us to recognize when things have changed so that we can respond differently to the moment. So mindfulness is only the foundation of coming to awareness of our kaleidoscopic realities so that we might fluidly and vibrantly respond to what is happening now, and that, again, is always changing. Most people don’t seem to understand that paying profound attention to our lives will alter everything and it takes time, yeah. (See: “Everything Matters.”)
Meditation/mindfulness is the practice of learning to pay attention. That is all.
When one understands this then anything that is going on is worthy of being with. Another myth about meditation is that you’re supposed to be silent and peaceful while engaging with it. Real meditation stays with whatever arises. It embraces and allows everything and that includes ALL the chaos in our nervous systems. If we have psych drug brain injuries it is a herculean feat to stay with that stuff a good part of the time. As we do this we can respond more and more skillfully to the moment. The process, again, can involve a steep and long learning curve.
Having complex trauma complicates everything.
Mindfulness and meditation are most certainly included in that everything… meditation is risky because we have been forced to bury and deny so much pain. This pain, and then the violent drugging of that pain, changes the nervous system in profound ways, making meditation frankly risky and sometimes dangerous. There is an interesting book available now by David A. Treleaven: Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing.
This book by Treleaven is good to a certain point as it addresses the issue of meditation being risky but it fails to point out the systemic oppressive and often retraumatizing nature of psychiatry and the mental health professions, which is frankly a glaring omission in a book that otherwise speaks with some sophistication about the links between trauma, oppression and social justice in our society. So read it with that warning. I found it quite triggering with this omission of something so critically important for so many of us. We cannot get the help we need when the systemic problems we’re facing are not being acknowledged.
Many folks with psych histories have been denied inclusion when approaching mindfulness teachers too… sometimes in ways that are very traumatic. This too isn’t mentioned and it’s an omission that is an ugly blind spot on the part of the author and most meditation teachers and mental health professionals in general. We should not be ignored and dismissed. We need to come into the conversation and together we might all find ways to create safe and inclusive spaces for some of our most vulnerable members of society. See: “Freedom To Sit: Welcoming People with Psychiatric Labels at Buddhist Retreats” by Will Hall.
So, systems are often dangerous in that they seem incapable of acknowledging their profession’s own grave shortcomings, nor do they seem to understand or appreciate the sort of systemic oppressive force that psychiatry and the belief in the medical model is. Microaggressions against the population of people labeled by psychiatry are everywhere in society all the time. People who are labeled by psychiatry continue to be infantilized and stripped of dignity often for the rest of their adult lives. Far too many people are lost to the system with no hope of ever disengaging. For this reason many in the system never get a chance to heal their early adverse trauma because it is continued and made much worse in the name of psychiatric treatment.
* * *
For me, meditation is the integration process.
Another myth is that long formal sitting retreats are necessary to become aware. This is not true and in some cases long retreats can even be counterproductive. Some formal sitting can be helpful at some junctures for some people. Clearly it’s also very constructive for some people. Again, everyone is different.
I do what I do and I watch. I am what I am and I watch.
Pema Chödrön articulates what meditation is very clearly:
Meditation is about seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It’s about seeing how we react to all these things. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. It’s about not trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness… [We] work with cultivating gentleness, innate precision, and the ability to let go of small-mindedness, learning how to open to our thoughts and emotions, to all the people we meet in our world, how to open our minds and hearts. — Pema Chödrön from The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness
Paying attention and developing clarity can be a very difficult feat in a culture where we are taught to deny so much of our being. Finding ourselves again, though, is incredibly well worth the time and effort put into learning to do so. Remember, it’s not always about sitting cross-legged. Paying attention (mindfulness), can be brought into every moment of our lives and in fact in the end that’s really what it’s all about.
Meditation is the practice of learning to pay attention. That is all.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.