What’s the most user-friendly approach to mindfulness?

How expectations collide with what arises and how important it is to have a well-qualified and experienced teacher?

Mindfulness is the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects.

A while ago, the Guardian, a UK newspaper, published an article  (Is mindfulness making us ill?) with a surprising verdict: mindfulness is not helpful to everyone and for some, can trigger depression, anxiety and profoundly negative reactions. Two friends, Kasia Weiss and Charlotte Mulcare, one a coach and mindfulness practitioner, and the other a yoga practitioner and scientist discuss why this might be the case (scroll to the end for short bios).

KW: The article defines mindfulness as ‘the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts’, which does not seem very accurate  and sounds more like only scratching on the surface of something that is of a more complex nature.

The truth is that mindfulness and/or meditation has its roots  in Buddhism philosophy and transferring it to other cultural backgrounds requires specific knowledge on both how to use it for best results and how to pass it on to others. I think the main problem is again: who teaches mindfulness, how they do it and what the teachers' background is.

CM: Thank you for sending me this link, I was about to send it to you!! I really want to understand this - as a scientist, I am aware that any intervention that is powerful enough to make changes in a person's life may always have side effects. Mindfulness has been clinically proven to improve blood pressure, induce relaxation, manage chronic conditions and support good mental health. So actually, I would expect something that powerful to provoke negative side effects in some people.

As this article suggests, there are people who have very negative experiences. I know someone who claims that mindfulness was very painful for them. When I first heard that, my instinctive reaction was that they needed to stick with it longer and work through the difficulty. There is still a part of me that believes that. What I feel is that when you still the mind, and create space within yourself, many different things that you have been suppressing emotionally can come up.

Possibly for those who are having real difficulties in mindfulness practice, the potential or underlying issues were always there, but the stillness brought painful things up. I also think from my own experience that if you are suffering a chronic, painful illness and you start to meditate or become mindful, because you connect with your body, you are aware of your illness and chronic pain and that can be hard.

Perhaps the individual has to be 'ready' for meditation or mindfulness – it may be that people may not be in the right headspace for it until other issues have been addressed, or it may even be that for some people, meditative practices are just not for them.

Cialo_czego chce

Final relaxation in one of Kasia's workshops - everybody is free to choose a position and manner they like.

KW: Yes, I suppose ‘readiness’ for practising mindfulness – bringing your attention to the present moment so you can experience it ‘as is’, without trying to beautify it, being annoyed or even angry about what is, or  expecting the next moment to be better than the one we are living through – may be related to one’s level of awareness. That would include how conscious people are of themselves, how well they know their own emotions and usual reactions to stress, what their beliefs are and what is their attitude to themselves and other people.

Like in real life, practice of anything we take on requires going through difficult moments before we gently slide into feeling relaxed about something. And more often than not, it can hurt. So yes, it sounds more than reasonable to point out that there is a number of difficulties we can experience also with mindfulness, but what matters most is our attitude and the way we choose to respond to those  difficulties. There is also the instant gratification issue that modern humans seem to be rather addicted to.

CM: Yes, the instant gratification seems to be a common expectation these days. But I also think there’s another important factor. When I trained in yoga, we were warned about people who go on courses with under-qualified tutors who are then not equipped to deal with negative things happen. So we were taught that you can have quite severe injuries in yoga, you can have real crises if people separate from their bodies in meditation - frightening things can happen and (importantly) these are 'normal' in that they are real phenomenon that are, if not common, then well known in the yoga community – and if managed correctly, not something to be afraid of but you need someone experienced to deal with them.

The problem is not mindfulness or meditation per se, it's that it's being taught by practitioners who have no experience of anything going wrong and so aren't able to deal with that when it happens. So this is something I think we need to be aware of in terms of finding good practitioners - I really want to know what you think and if you've ever had to deal with this?

KW: I suppose every coach, teacher and facilitator has faced that kind of issues especially if they encouraged the group to share openly whatever difficulties might have arisen thus showing the participants that things DON’T HAVE TO work out from the very beginning and that it is OK to experience difficulties, so nobody feels awkward or excluded. That's why proper training for mindfulness teachers takes a very long time and one has to go through all this themselves.

The unpleasant moments require knowledge and developing own techniques to cope that one can learn only through practice and being there themselves, so to say. We have two teachers to refer to in case of difficulties all through the course. But what I tell my clients from both my Zen Coaching and mindfulness practice background is that they can apply gentle curiosity and non-judgemental attitude to whatever they are going through, along with kindness towards themselves. Which means that they only move where they feel ready to move, no pushing or pressure.

In my workshops I always  reiterate that process of personal growth is not always easy and pleasant - that is why it is a process and not a single 'tackle it all at once' experience. I virtually make my regular group members start their learning journal (using any technique they like) from the first workshop on, to take notes on what is happening, what works and what doesn't work etc. I feel it gives them more control over their own process and it also adds more structure to it. But again, that might be my Zen Coaching and university lecturer's background and years of teaching experience combined. So I would again claim, teaching experience matters. Also, what I currently offer is mindfulness-based coaching rather than mindfulness alone, which shows people more practical applications to specific areas of their lives, I suppose.

 CM: This makes perfect sense. In yoga, if somebody's body starts to feel bad, they are encouraged to listen and stop immediately, not force it. So it makes sense intuitively to me that the same should be true of mindfulness: if your mind starts to suffer, observe, be aware and if you're not ready to open a door, don't. This way I think also leaves open the option that a person who  is not ready may come back again later when they feel differently about the practice, or even never, if it is not for them. I think the fact you have experience of more than one tradition may be part of what makes you more able to deal with things: you're not 'fixed' or following a set protocol, you are flexible and open.

KW: Very kind of you to think so, thank you. There certainly is no ‘one fits all solution’. But at the same time you touch a very important thing - one's fixation on one tradition - and I bet we all know people like that. A certain degree of flexibility, cultivating the 'beginner's mind', being open to what arises in the present moment and choosing to respond in a way that feels appropriate here and now (rather than acting on an automatic pilot, including Fight, Flight or Freeze reactions) are at the roots of where mindfulness was born. You feel that in the body and not only KNOW that in the mind. Flexibility seems to be a universal path then and not rigidity of many a religious tradition. That is why they are no longer a solution for the new awareness. The shift is happening, yet people progress at their own pace and according to what they are ready for. 

Dr Charlotte Mulcare is a freelance consultant who provides research and communications support for medical scientific research. She has worked in the UK civil service as a policy developer in health, in academic research and also in the private sector in the field of medical communications.

Kasia Weiss, MA , FHEA is a life, business and intercultural communication coach, certified Zen Coach and Mindfulness Practitioner, in the process of gaining the MBLC (Mindfulness-Based Living Course) teaching qualification with the Mindfulness Association. Also a lecturer, sworn translator and teacher of English.

Kasia and Charlotte are running a workshop on mindful parenting together on June 30th in Chester, details TBC. To be notified please email info@mindfulcultures.com,  and to get a free copy of "7 Tips for Better Communication with Yourself and Others" please use this link

Kasia's workshops in Preston on July 3rd: 'Self-confidence, Authenticity and Better Communication with Yourself and Others' - click here for more details