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Mindful : October 2017
My mother read somewhere that mindfulness could be damaging because it can trigger uncontrollable emotional trauma. She’s worried that I may be doing a practice that could harm my mental health. What can I tell her to reassure her? Your mother obviously loves you very much and doesn’t want you to suffer, butIthinkshemaybea little overprotective in this case. There is some very interesting research out of Brown University done by Willoughby Britton and colleag ues, which has sought to understand the range of experiences of meditators, including looking more closely at difficult, challenging, and sometimes disruptive experiences that medi- tators have had. This is a complex topic, but suffice it to say that the vast major- ity of these unfortunate experiences have occurred in people meditating over long periods, in multiday silent meditation retreats, and we still know very lit- tle about what led to these incidents. Adverse events like this are exceedingly rare in the more common mindfulness-based pro- grams widely available. I see lights and other trippy images behind my closed eyelids when I meditate. What is that? I think of them as brain secretions. Just like pretty much everything that our mind offers up randomly and without being invited, these expe- riences are simply rising phenomena without substance or meaning. I guess what’s happening is your optic nerve is used to being constantly stimulated and when it’s deprived it serves up its own entertainment (kind of like when your stomach gurgles when you’re hungry), but I prefer to just let go of needing to know why it’s happening and enjoy the show! My experience is that it’s a little bit like watching a lava lamp. Random, colorful, mesmerizing, and totally without significance. These sensory phenomena can actually be a support to our practice. We can simply take a stance of observation, watching to see what happens next without knowing. A nonverbal observation task that allows us to stay present and not wander off into thinking. Pretty cool, and you didn’t need to buy an app to find a way to support your practice. That said, I don’t mean to totally dismiss the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice. Sometimes, when people have difficult or extensive histories of trauma or abuse, meditation practice may put them in touch with those memories and emotions, and they can sometimes feel overwhelm- ing, particularly at first. For this reason, if you have a history like this it’s wise to be working with a thera- pist while exploring the practice of mindfulness. The key here is moderation, patience, and a willingness to be kind to yourself. If you feel that a particularly challenging feeling or memory is growing too big or intense to bear, the most mindful thing you can do is to choose intentionally to disengage, focus on your breath, let go of the formal practice, and focus on sensations in the body or something outside your- self, like the view outside the window or across the room. These actions can give you an opportunity to emotionally and physically settle. There is nothing to be gained from forcing yourself to meditate or “pushing through” difficult feelings. Think of it as a “melting ” process rather than a “mining” one. ● 40 mindful October 2017 the mindful faq