If you follow Art Janov’s blog, you may have read his scathing essay on mindfulness therapy. While I agree with his basic argument—that mindfulness therapy is too often a form of mindLESSness therapy—I’d like to provide a broader perspective. In short, mindfulness is not all that bad if you use it to be mindful of feelings, rather than detach from them.
Mindfulness meditation is the current zeitgeist in psychotherapy. Not surprisingly, it fits hand-in-hand with the other dominant therapeutic modality: cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, there is now a hybrid of the two called MBCT – mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Both techniques are based on the same mechanism—detachment from feelings and thoughts. The “how” of mindfulness meditation can be summed up simply: sit still for 30 or 40 minutes, keep your eyes slightly open, follow your breath, and pay attention to whatever is going on in your mind and body but don’t do anything about it. Just sit there. When you catch your thoughts drifting, get back to the breath. There are variations on this theme, such as walking meditation and meditation while doing yoga or manual work. In a word, meditation is about paying attention. Be here now! Nothing more, nothing less.
Buddhist meditation, such as that practiced in Zen, strives for a combination of concentration (such as counting the breaths) and open awareness (listening to sounds, noticing things in your environment, etc) The goal is the same—to be attentive to whatever is going on within you and without you, as the Beatles song goes. Vedic forms of meditation usually include a mantra or phrase that is to be repeated over and over while keeping the eyes closed. The intent is to create a state of bliss, which some people call transcendence but I call spacing out. TM, à la the Maharishi, is a form of Vedic meditation.
Today’s popularity of mindfulness in psychology stems from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, famous for his stress reduction clinic, established in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. You could say that Kabat-Zinn made Zen Buddhism scientifically respectable by stripping it of its religious trappings and subjecting it to clinical research. Over the past 30 years, mindfulness meditation has swept throughout the medical world and is used to treat patients suffering from cardiac disease, schizophrenia, cancer, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and a host of other conditions. Indeed, the research shows that mindfulness meditation can bring a lot of benefit. Practiced diligently, it can reduce the stress response, lower blood pressure, improve immunity, ease depression and anxiety, and even thicken areas of the cortex involved in the regulation of emotions.
So if meditation is so good for you, what’s the problem? The problem, as Janov states, is that it is based on suppression of feelings, or rather, dissociation from them. Meditation is often not calming at all; in its more intense forms, it is practically guaranteed to bring up feelings. Humans are just not made to sit still for hours or days at a time like a sessile creature on the bottom of the sea. We are born to move and to feel, and when feelings do come up in meditation, they can be intense. Serious meditators often experience extreme anxiety or depression—even panic—but rather go into those feelings to find out where they originate, as one does in primal therapy, the meditator is told to “sit through it” and observe them as one might observe clouds floating across the sky. Feelings are neither here nor there. They are to be regarded merely as sensations that arise from nowhere and go back to nowhere—ahistoric, meaningless, even delusory. Over time, the capacity to feel is attenuated as one’s consciousness becomes increasingly rooted in the moment. Here and now. Here and now. Here and now….
Truly dedicated meditators—those who meditate for hours a day and attend frequent retreats—often get to a point where they feel disembodied. Their sense of self diminishes as they advance toward the ultimate goal of enlightenment, where one transcends space, time, and life and death itself to become one with the universe.
Beyond Life and Death? How Real is That?
Admittedly, meditation can make you calmer, more focused, resistant to stress, and more functional, but it must be done daily. In a sense, meditation is like an addiction that requires its regular fix. Stop doing it and your feelings come rushing back. Meditators often report feeling more peaceful—even joyful—after years of practice, but at what cost? Where did the trauma go? What access to feeling has been sacrificed? I’ve met meditators who seem more like animated pieces of wood than feeling human beings. Others may smile beatifically, but exude an aura of passive aggression under the peaceful exterior. Despite the dozens of studies reporting positive results, despite the brain scans showing thicker cortices and lower vital signs, one is led to wonder what happened to the pain. Does it just vanish? Is it true that mindfulness can heal trauma, as its proponents say? Or has the pain just been driven deeper into the body, leaving an appearance of being healed?
My hypothesis is that mindfulness meditation encapsulates those painful feelings and keeps them dissociated from awareness, much as an oyster encapsulates an irritating grain of sand within a pearl. And one must keep them encapsulated with daily meditation for the rest of one’s life. Therapists who specialize in treating PTSD say that mindfulness can help someone examine their traumatic feelings – look at them from afar so to speak – so they can be “reprocessed.” Reprocessing usually means “reappraisal” – i.e. rethinking your feelings rather than taking them at face value. Once again, it is an attempt to control feeling with cognition, in direct contradiction to the affective neuroscience principle that feeling (affect) always trumps cognition.
I have a love-hate relationship with meditation. I’ve found mindfulness to be quite effective for dealing with present-day stress. It can and does provide resilience during those times when you need to keep things together and function at a high level, but I’ve never mistaken it for healing. It is only an adjunct; a tool to help with difficult feelings and situations until one can resolve them through action in the present or through feeling what needs to be felt, whatever is appropriate to the situation. Without attention to feelings, mindfulness meditation is little more than a virtual lobotomy.
The “I’ll have a cup of enlightenment, please.” “Will that be with or without feelings, sir?” by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.