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Mindful : August 2019
As a clinical psychologist and research scientist at Brown University Medical School, Willoughby Britton is one of the few researchers looking into the potential negative psychological effects of meditation. Her first inkling that this research was impor tant came when her own meditation effor ts, and those of many she knew, “did not conform to the dominant narrative of sta- bility, clarity, and calm,” she says. “ When I was working at in-patient hospital during my residency, there were two meditators who became psychotic while on a retreat. Thinking that two in one year was a lot, I asked some med- itation teachers if they had ever seen such meditation- related difficulties before and most reluctantly admitted that they had.” Throughout her career, Britton has observed the power dynamics that influ- ence systems, organizations, and society. “The mindful- ness movement has a lot of parallels with the women’s movement, where the dom- inant narrative was not only omitting but also—through repetition—actively silencing other, less desirable narra- tives,” she says. “Positive change depends on giving voice to previously silenced narratives, so that a fuller, more accurate picture of reality, histor y—or meditation practice—can have an equal seat at the table.” So Britton prioritizes representing and documenting marginalized voices and alternative narra- tives in her research. At the same time, Britton’s keenly aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. “My mindfulness practice has taught me how easy it is to deceive myself and to rein- force what I already think, so I have to keep asking: What am I missing? What are my potential blind spots? Who could help point out what I am overlooking?” Still, she returns to a sim- ple—though not necessarily easy—ethos: “Trust your own experience, speak your truth, find allies.” Trust Your Own Experience WILLOUGHBY BRITTON For Helen Weng, her work as a neuroscientist, her lived experience as the child of Taiwanese immi- grants, and her mindfulness practice are insepara- ble. Weng has spent the last 14 years investigating the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness meditation. What she’s observed as a racialized per- son in mindfulness circles has made her want to do things differently—and help to change the conversa- tion for other minorities who meditate. Weng’s work includes bringing minority and mar- ginalized communities into her research projects. She says not only are scientists largely homoge- neously white men, so are their study participants. Weng approached the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA, which offers mindfulness practices to people of color, queer people, people with dis- abilities, and more. They collaborated on designing studies that are culturally sensitive to people from different groups. “Once you make procedures more sensitive for diverse people it actually makes it more sensitive for everyone,” Weng says. “So I’ll use these procedures as my baseline now.” For Weng, an important par t of her mindfulness practice has been to make it her own. “It’s trial and error to find what works for you, but listen deeply to your body to see what gives you more vitality and makes you more connected to yourself and others, and feel free to adapt or change anything. I love music, so I listen to music while I’m more present with myself. Some would tell me that’s not medita- tion, but they’re wrong. Trust your body and psyche more and more, and that’s how you’ll gain your power. It’s a process of unbrainwashing yourself.” ● Unbrainwash Yourself HELEN WENG “Trust your body and psyche more and more, and that’s how you’ll gain your power. It’s a process of unbrainwashing yourself.” HELEN WENG PHOTOGRAPHSCOURTESYOFPATRICIAROCKMAN,WILLOUGHBYBRITTON,ANDHELENWENG August 2019 mindful 47