How to safeguard the practice of mindfulness

The purpose of mindfulness and the importance of a shared practice  

This article is based on a Dharma talk by Brother Phap Linh (December 2020, Plum Village). He answered a few questions from lay practitioners who had encountered unexpected reactions during meditation: 

▪️ How can we avoid feeling anxiety or other negative mental formations during the practice of meditation? 
▪️ Are we able to transform some of the suffering we may experience during meditation?  

These questions can only be addressed after answering this more important one: what is the purpose of mindfulness? 

But before digging deeper, let’s contextualise the practice of meditation in the present moment. 

Can meditation be dangerous?

You may have seen articles quoting studies that connect the practice of meditation (or mindfulness) to insomnia, psychosis, mental breakdown, eruption of trauma, increased social anxiety, or obsessive attention to bodily sensations. Some people have become alarmed to think that their practice may trigger such distressing states of mind. So, how to avoid such situations?  

Shocking, juicy headlines are common in the current media landscape, and not always for the right reasons. But, says Brother Phap Linh, we have to be careful and responsible about how we question and investigate them, because “some of the criticism or the concern about the mindfulness movement is also legitimate, and it’s important to safeguard the experience of meditation and to, maybe, put [out] some health warnings.”

“I’ve been reflecting on it for a while and I think it’s natural [to critique mindfulness]. Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword and we’re pasting mindfulness on everything. Sometimes we use mindfulness just to sell things. […] There’s a lot of people teaching some version of mindfulness or meditation, and I think it’s natural that there’s also a little bit of a reaction. So there are some people saying: ‘let’s be careful, you know, mindfulness or meditation can also be dangerous’, and those articles get a lot of press. […]

“[But] when saying something like ‘mindfulness can be dangerous’ or ‘meditation can be dangerous’, we already assume that we know what meditation or mindfulness is and we are lumping together many things.” 

What follows are far from definitive answers – rather, the open reflection of an experienced practitioner of meditation in the tradition of Plum Village.

Let’s start by asking ourselves a few questions:

1. If I had a negative experience, what was I practicing?

Saying that we practice meditation is not enough; there are many different types of meditation. The circumstances of the practice are important for reasons developed in the following answers: were we practicing alone? With a teacher? With a community? 

2. What do we expect from meditation?  Why are we choosing to meditate? What is our intention? 

If we think that meditation or mindfulness is simply a way to experience something pleasant, to relax a little, or to de-stress (lighting a candle or a stick of incense, etc), “then we might be in for a surprise.” In which case, we become disappointed, or feel we’ve been misled. But those advertising mindfulness or selling an app, a retreat, a course, or other similar services or products must be responsible and not deceive their customers and potential practitioners.

“I think it’s irresponsible to give people the idea that meditation is only going to give rise to positive experiences and pleasant sensations. This is not what we want, because that would be to avoid the truth. And I want to meditate in order to come in touch with the truth, and I know that the truth is difficult.”

Some entrepreneurs see modern business opportunities in this ancient practice and create a range of commercialised products.  

But it’s also irresponsible to allow people to practice alone with an app, without guidance. We imagine that we can just practice with an app and that we will be fine, but some people may have a bad experience and become overwhelmed.

In a 21st century capitalist society, we are stressed, busy, and under a lot of pressure. But instead of making systemic changes, some large corporations instead saw opportunities in this practice, and decided “to make use of mindfulness to help employees manage their stress, so that they can continue to be productive, make money, increase the  bottom line, increase the share value, increase creativity, [and increase] innovation.” 

And all too often, these consumerist, efficiency-driven approaches sell meditation to us “as a kind of panic room” – a place where we feel safe, where we can reset our moods so as to return to the world fresh and ready for more of the same routine: back to our contribution towards maintenance of the status quo. But should meditation serve this outcome?

Using his own experience, Brother Phap Linh explored his personal motivation for sitting down on a cushion and following his breathing, relaxing the body, and getting in touch with his feelings. What does he expect from this? What does he hope for? 

“I practice mindfulness because it allows me to have an encounter with reality. And that isn’t always going to be pleasant. If I think it is, then I might get a little disappointed. An encounter with reality means also an encounter with my suffering and with the suffering of our society, of the planet. So if we expect only pleasant feelings, we’re in for a shock which might lead us to feel unstable. And if we’re alone in that moment, it can be very hard and it can feel overwhelming. 

“That’s one of the reasons [that] here in Plum Village we always try to emphasise the importance of practicing as a community, together, so when that encounter with reality happens –  when some suffering is touched and it starts to come up, maybe overwhelming us – we’re not alone; we have good spiritual friends around us who can help. And we take turns to suffer and maybe one day I’m overwhelmed and I need you to be there to help me to hold it, because it’s too much for me.”

The island within

In the Plum Village tradition we speak of coming back to yourself, or coming back to, or taking refuge on the island within. What does this mean? 

“This is an expression based on one of the last teachings that the Buddha gave during his lifetime. What did he mean? I don’t think that he meant build a panic room and cut yourself off from the world and shut the door, and hope everything’s going to be okay. I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. It doesn’t mean ignoring the suffering. It doesn’t mean ignoring the world. It doesn’t mean ignoring the people around you. 

“In my opinion, it’s an exploration in each of us so we can each make our own discovery of what that island within might be. We have to ask ourselves: do I know how to take refuge on the island within? Does it work? Does it work only when the sun’s shining and I feel good, relaxed, and have no stress? But does it also work when I’m overwhelmed, stressed, [or] when somebody in front of me is expressing suffering or upsetting me? Does it work when I’m overwhelmed by the feeling of dread or despair about climate catastrophe? Does it still work? Because if it doesn’t, then maybe that’s not it. Maybe that’s not really the island within. So we have to keep exploring, keep searching to find what it really is.”

A few important takeaways:

▪️ We should try not to fall for uninformed promises of endless bliss, which are solely intended to keep us hooked on a product.

▪️ If using, for instance, the Plum Village App, it is recommended to also find a sangha (a community of Buddhist practitioners) to practice meditation with. Even during these restrictive times, we can join an online sangha, as many local groups have moved their sharings online. Another reason for joining a sangha is to be consistent in our practice: “Without a sangha you lose your practice very soon” (Thich Nhat Hanh).

▪️ If we don’t have a sangha, we can find a teacher, or a spiritual friend: someone to accompany us on this path, and to do guided meditations with. 

▪️ When we practice alone and touch some kind of suffering during our meditation, we should ask for help and share our experience with our sangha, teacher, or friend. We shouldn’t shy away from asking for support and guidance, if necessary.   

▪️ The help we receive in our difficult moments can be reciprocated; we can be there for our friends in their difficult moments. 

Find out more about sangha and search for lay sangha practicing in the tradition of Plum Village here.

To better integrate the practice of meditation into our lives, read Thay’s books The Art of Living and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.

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