Mindfulness is the basis of many meditation and yoga practices, and essentially refers to the intentional, purposeful act of being present, without judgment, through a gentle, neutral sense of observation of what is happening in the now.
The idea is to develop your capacity to sit with what is coming up for you with curiosity and acceptance, without needing to hang onto it, feed it, or follow it down the rabbit hole into distress. It is not about “clearing your mind”, zoning out or blissfully dissociating, but about being more present to whatever comes. It is about noticing what shows up, acknowledging it from a different place inside you, then allowing it to take a backseat or float past as you redirect yourself back to an anchor in the now.
Quite often, suffering is created when we are so close to our thoughts, feelings, memories, ego, roles, and body sensations that we cannot distinguish between them and ourselves.
Mindfulness is about being more connected and anchored with Self as a way of being present to your internal experience, your surroundings, your pain, and others. It has been said that you have a body, thoughts and emotions, but that you are in fact of these – that you are instead the Self, the consciousness, that can track and observe these things. It is about finding YOU in the midst of all the noise.
If you have struggled with mindfulness practices previously, there is nothing wrong with you. There is a reason why these practices may have been challenging for you, and it is not a sign of failure on your part. In fact, many people struggle with being present and being in their bodies, especially those who are experiencing anxiety or trauma.
Yoga and meditation instructors may or may not be trained in anxiety or trauma, or in therapy in general, and may be missing a deeper understanding of how mindfulness can sometimes do more harm than good without the proper safeguards in place. Slowing down can indeed be difficult, especially if you are someone who has learned through traumatic or overwhelming experiences to avoid being present, as a way of coping with high emotional arousal or pain. As a result of such experiences, you may find that yoga or meditation lead to either of the following outcomes:
- Triggering fight/flight energy: You find yourself becoming more aware of intense emotions, disturbing thoughts, painful memories or traumatic material, and leave meditation or yoga practice feeling overwhelmed, highly charged, triggered, and distressed, never to return or needing to vent to feel better. Any awareness of primal, self-protective urges might feel “unenlightened” and these might be further repressed, when in fact the body is seeking to release them.
- Triggering a freeze response: You find yourself coping with the experience by disconnecting or dissociating from your body by staying in your head, zoning out, or numbing sensations. This may feel scary if you have a need to feel in control of yourself, or it may even feel pleasurable to be split off from painful things (avoidance or “spiritual bypass”). If your core identity is coupled with a deep sense of shame, the concept of mindful self-compassion may also trigger a sense of collapse or disconnect.
If you have not experienced trauma, but still find it difficult to slow down your mind, it can also be normal to feel discouraged or that you are “doing it wrong” at first, when you notice just how much noise there is inside.
Practitioners at The Refuge teach the art of mindfulness in combination with the skills of grounding, containment, orienting (focusing on sensory information in the external environment instead of going inside your body) and titration (controlling how much distress you allow into your awareness, in small amounts until you settle and adapt), in order to gradually and safely build your capacity to remain present.
When you are able to observe our own internal and external experience from your centre, this place of neutral witness, with the right coping skills in place, you can come back to Self. There is then more space between you and what is causing you distress, space in which to have a different experience of the now, in which different possibilities may emerge.