Are There any Risks with Mindfulness and Meditation?
September 20, 2018

Look in any newsagent or bookshop and there are magazines and self-help books extolling the virtues of Mindfulness and Meditation. Turn on the T.V. and celebrities abound telling their stories of how these techniques ‘saved’ their lives. Daily advertisements appear on FaceBook for the latest app to download or online course to learn how to master these tools to better health.
Mindfulness and Meditation are big business, they’re the new ‘black’. The only thing that stands between you and a stress-free life is your lack of commitment to a mindful, meditative approach to daily life. Start today! Mindfulness & Meditation are hailed as a panacea, a self-help tool, yours to master, to end stress and anxiety. I can’t deny it, as a Mindfulness Teacher, Hypnotherapist, Reiki practitioner and EFT practitioner it worries me.
I’ve sat through numerous presentations and well-being days aimed at improving mental health where Mindfulness and Meditation have been tagged on to fill a slot. Encouraging people to take some time out for themselves is great but Meditation isn’t therapy and I believe that it is often presented as though it is. So many presenters push Mindful meditation. It’s harmless and at it’s best it’s helpful. But the point for me is that it isn’t always harmless, and it isn’t always helpful. And in every single one of the presentations I have sat through recently nobody points that out. I wait patiently for the list of contra-indications or the admission that it simply isn’t suitable for all and it never comes.
I felt compelled to write this article because a client came to me recently who I have been seeing for a short-time. She had been sent by her GP to attend a course to prevent onset of Diabetes. I’m all in favour of this. But during a very brief one-to-one session, during the course, when she said to one of the facilitators that she was seeing a therapist she was told ‘oh you don’t need to waste your money on that, just do half an hour’s mindfulness and meditation at home’. My client asked me my opinion on this and why we hadn’t tried to do any Hypnotherapy or Mindfulness during our three previous sessions. I explained that in my opinion she wasn’t ready to work at this level. She can be driven to talk throughout the session and is often restless despite her best efforts. In my opinion this is a sign to me that she is not ready for the introspection that these techniques require. Despite this she asked me if she could give it a go.
She began by closing her eyes but as they were opening every few seconds I suggested she keep them open until she felt that she wanted to close them. I told her that thoughts would come into her mind and that was fine she should just accept them and not try and push them away. The only focus for her was to be on her breath, just to observe it without changing it and every time she got distracted, as she would, at the point of realisation she could just bring her attention back to her breath. Immediately, she began to try to change it and her breathing became erratic. In order, to calm it we did a little belly breathing but she was unable to settle into the rhythm. She was uncomfortable, and perspiring and it was difficult, but not unexpected for me to see her reaction given the seeming simplicity of what we had done. People replicate these exercises the world over and for some people it is too much. Her first question was ‘Why can others do it, but I can’t?’ Her frustration was palpable.
Sometimes there is so much ‘chatter’ in the mind, perhaps a result of Anxiety, Fear or Trauma, that the client can’t focus inwardly, can’t physically sit still. Some are unable to close their eyes even for a minute. So many people can no longer sit comfortably in their own bodies, or cope with simple daily distractions and yet they’re advised to focus on their deepest inner thoughts.
The word meditate means to become familiar with. But this is not always appropriate when you have had terrible experiences and are unable to cope with what’s inside you. Suggesting to people that they examine something that they’ve repressed for years, because to do anything else would mean that they have to stop functioning is at best irresponsible, and at worst potentially harmful.
With increasing regularity, I see clients who have been trying to overcome life’s issues and who have been advised time and time again that they need to meditate, and it will relax them. People who can’t even make eye contact or stop themselves nervously watching the door. People arrive assuming that this is easy and if that is the case and they personally can’t manage it, then it’s simply another thing that they have failed at. At the extreme some people have had psychotic episodes, had suicidal thoughts and even killed themselves because introspection at such a level when you are already in a dark place just increases the darkness.
Part of my job is to assess clients, to find the best way to help, and this is more than a standard tick-list to be worked through. It involves asking the right questions, observing the person and understanding that one size does not fit all, and that my client’s well-being is the most important component of any session. Why are so many other health-care people not working in this ethical and important way? Don’t get me wrong I know that other Mindfulness teachers work as I do, it is an important part of our training but many of those who’ve jumped on the health and well-being bandwagon seem to have missed this module.
Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master gives good advice.
‘We can mediate everywhere, anytime (for) 3 seconds, 2 seconds while you’re walking, while you’re having a coffee… Many people have misunderstood … they think meditation means think of nothing, concentrate, push too much. We cannot block thought and emotion. In fact, we need (them) so whether you listen to your monkey mind that’s the issue … give a job to the monkey mind … (the job is) be aware of the breath … There’s a lot of thought comes in the background… no problem. As long as you don’t forget your breath anything is ok. No need too much concentration. Simply be aware of your breath… 1, 2 or 3 breaths.’
It’s my personal belief that Mindfulness and Meditation although not for everybody, are great assets to our self-care tool-kit when used appropriately. But when we lose the individual amidst the crowd, when we recommend techniques and give advice without ever cautioning about the contra indications we’re in danger of harming people who genuinely need help.