Mindfulness has become increasingly popular in the past few years as a technique to release stress and anxiety and find some kind of inner peace. Like everything that is popular, it naturally exposes itself to criticism and misunderstandings. I’ve recently come across an intriguing article on mindfulness in Aeon magazine https://aeon.co/essays/mindfulness-is-loaded-with-troubling-metaphysical-assumptions that was very thought-provoking.
In this essay, the author describes how a certain buddhist approach to mindfulness, called anatta, can be detrimental to our capacity to self-exploration and understanding. Anatta means “no-self” and claims that what we believe is our identity, such as our thoughts, our emotions and our body, is actually just a transient experience that eventually comes and goes, leaving our real essence to reside somewhere else. Some meditation exercises emphasise the awareness of that concept by inviting us to practise distancing ourselves from our feelings, emotions and thoughts.
The author of this article seems to struggle with this concept as she feels that this approach is hindering self-understanding. She argues that if we are requested to approach our thoughts and emotions as a transient experience and let them go instead of engaging with them, it can lead to confusion and a sense of estrangement with ourselves as we may end up not exploring nor understanding why we feel the way we feel.
A part of me understands her point and actually totally agrees with it. Because mindfulness is now widely spread, there are a lot of different versions out there of how to do mindfulness properly. And some of them, as the author describes in the above article are “corrupted” and offer a shortcut approach that indeed, cut-off from the depth of the philosophy behind it, might appear like a quick-fix approach leading to an avoidance of painful feelings and emotions. When we only practise the anatta aspect of buddhism, that involves distancing ourselves from the fleetingness of mind activity and emotions, we do learn in fact not to engage so much in them and let them go rather than ruminate and dwell. Of course, if we limit our mindfulness approach to that single practice, we begin to become detached from ourselves and indeed move away from self-understanding and exploration.
I often hear people saying: “we are not our thoughts, we are not our emotions” which is indeed a key principle in mindfulness and buddhism. But I think it is also a very dangerous concept when taken as a short-cut and out of context. First I think we need to differentiate our relationship to our thoughts from our relationship to our emotions. Our mind can indeed be our worst enemy, when it starts to ruminate or dwell over past events, or go in endless worst-case scenarios about a future that most of the time never happens the way we predict. Those thoughts patterns can create as a result painful and unnecessary emotions, such as depression or anxiety. So I do believe it’s important for our mental health indeed to distance ourselves from the constant narrative that takes place in our head, and question or dispute our thoughts in order not to get caught into those negative detrimental patterns. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is for example a great tool to help us to do so.
As for our emotions, I believe though that there are two different aspects to them. The first one described above, that is the result of unuseful thought patterns – and another one that is a direct feedback from our subconscious mind and a healthy response to our environment. Say someone close to you leaves or passes away, your natural response would be grief ; or if someone insults you you may automatically feel anger, which is a healthy response to abuse and lets you know that boundaries and protection might be necessary. Those types of emotions are crucial to our well-being, as they give us valuable information as to what we’re experiencing and what actions might be needed. I think it is quite destructive to push away or repress those emotions as it creates psychological and emotional disturbances that might, if consistently unaddressed, turn into physical manifestation and illnesses. That’s what we commonly call “somatisation“.
I’ve come across some clients taking that shortcut, claiming that because we are not our emotions we need to dismiss them or ignore them. It is a subconscious coping mechanism to avoid feeling painful emotions that sadly, a lot of people have been driven to turn towards when things were too difficult in their lives. This is a worrying approach though as most of those people then avoid feeling or dismiss what is going on for them. They quickly become disconnected from themselves and either find solace in any kind of distraction, from over working to substance abuse, or find themselves living in a constant state of unhappiness or depression. Basically, denying your emotions is bad for your mental and emotional health.
However, I feel that mindfulness can offer the opposite of what is described in this article. I’ve learnt indeed through various teachings that mindfulness can allow us to dive very deeply into our own psychology and not only give us the opportunity to deepen self-discovery and exploration, but also opens a door to deep healing and self-acceptance.
There are traditionally two aspects to traditional mindfulness from the buddhist perspective. The first one is Samatha – that describes a quality of stillness and calmness of the mind, which is often found through practising letting go of thoughts and emotions and consistently coming back and focusing on our breath or other object of concentration. I believe this is what the author in this article was describing in her meditation practice. By developing that concentration technique, we indeed benefit from developing some distance with our mind and emotions, we discover their ephemerality and get in touch with the deeper part, the more permanent essence of our being. We also gain more calm and serenity in our lives and our capacity to resilience grows.
But if we stop there indeed, we’re only exploring half of the story. The other aspect of mindfulness is what we call vipassana. Vipassana translates as “insight” and is the facet of mindfulness that allows us indeed to explore our deeper emotions, discover parts of our subconscious mind that need healing and profound exploration. By practising vipassana meditation, we have access to our experience, emotions and unresolved trauma at a much deeper level than in our normal every day life. And with the guidance of skilful teachers we can engage in a deep psychological and emotional healing through developing self-acceptance and self-compassion as instructed in the traditional buddhist approach.
The western traditional tools for healing, namely psychotherapy and talking therapies give us an in depth understanding of our psyche. By revisiting the past, analysing our unconscious belief systems, by exploring our daily interactions and intimate relationships we do learn deeply about ourselves and gain a valuable understanding of our mind. We can then learn how to manage our painful patterns and live with them in a better way, limiting their control and negative impact on our everyday life. But I’ve often found that there is an healing aspect to traditional mindfulness and buddhism that we don’t often find in western therapy: the qualify of kindness, acceptance and compassion that, when we are genuinely able to offer it to ourselves, activates the deepest and most impactful healing.
I have been lucky to study with amazing mindfulness teachers and as a therapist myself, I have learnt so much from the ancient Eastern Buddhist tradition in terms of psychology that I can not agree with the simplified description of modern mindfulness. More than a meditation, more than a stress and anxiety relief, it is first and foremost a tool to self-exploration and healing that I feel can benefit all of us in our self-development journey.
By tending to our painful emotions, instead of running away from them, we can begin to understand ourselves at a much deeper level ; we can offer understanding and kindness to those parts of us that are still in pain, we can soothe them with compassion. And the systematic new relationship we develop with our emotions – one that instead of judging or rejecting, understands, empathise and comfort – is precisely what creates the deep healing that we need. And perhaps, by combining western and buddhist psychology, can we finally find our way out of suffering and towards peace and happiness.