Someone sent me a link to an interesting BBC story, "How too much mindfulness can spike anxiety." It describes research about the downside of mindfulness and meditation in general.
In any discussion of mindfulness, it’s important to remember that there are many different techniques that train particular types of thinking and being. The best-known strategies are mindful breathing, in which you focus on the feelings of respiration, and the body scan, in which you pass your attention from head to toe, noting any physical sensations that arise in the course of the session.
These kinds of practices are meant to ground you in the present moment and the effects can be seen in brain scans, with growth in the insula cortex, a region that is involved in bodily perception and emotion. As a result, mindfulness training can leave us more in touch with our feelings, which is important for good decision making.
Many mindfulness practices also encourage a more general “observing awareness”, in which you train yourself to notice your thoughts and feelings without reacting or judging. With practice, this can increase your capacity for emotional regulation so that you are no longer as susceptible to flashes of anger, for instance.
Ideally, these changes should complement each other and result in greater wellbeing. But that’s only possible if they occur in balance and moderation. Unfortunately, some meditators may pass the optimum point on either one of these elements, leading to distress.
The article ends with some sentiments that I heartily agree with. Sticking with one meditation approach for the rest of your life doesn't make sense if you aren't getting the results you want from it. Experiment. Try something different. Be flexible.
For those who still like the idea of contemplation, it may be time to consider a broader range of techniques. Certain religious traditions encourage practitioners to focus on things outside your body, for instance – such as a bunch of flowers on your desk or even a passage from a poem. These may be better at calming overwhelming feelings of anxiety, or coaxing yourself out of those feelings of dissociation than observing your body or your breathing, says Britton.
There’s also a growing interest in meditative techniques that encourage you to think about others’ perspectives and to cultivate feeling of compassion – strategies that are especially effective against feelings of loneliness.
At the moment, some people may feel like they have to stick with one particular strategy – like mindful breathing or the body scan – without considering the alternatives. But this is a mistake, says Britton.
“We should really honour the diversity of contemplative practices that are available, because they all do different things, and people would have a much better chance of matching what they need, if they had a bigger buffet of choices.” Each person should choose the best technique – and the correct “dose” – for their particular situation, rather than doggedly pursuing a plan that is not working.
Ultimately, Britton thinks that these issues should be incorporated into all mindfulness courses – in much the same way that the visitors to a gym are taught about the potential for injury. “It comes down to giving meditators a bit more agency.”
And as I discovered myself with my own ill-fated attempts to gain mindfulness, this may sometimes include the decision that enough is enough.