The darker side of mindfulness: being overwhelmed, side effects and the difficulty of finding a good teacher

It was my pleasure to speak to Dr Chris Walsh, an Australian mindfulness pioneer since the 1980’s and a respected psychiatrist. Dr Walsh has trained with leading Western mindfulness figures such as Jon Kabatt Zinn, Mark Williams, Kristin Neff and Daniel Siegal. Dr Walsh and I spoke about the darker side of mindfulness.

As with any area experiencing such strong growth, mindfulness is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. What is one that you feel particularly strongly about?

It’s used by business to make people work harder. It’s not so much a myth, it’s just the way it is being used.

People think it’s a relaxation technique. This is tricky to address. Mindfulness does help people to relax, but that’s not the main game. It’s about training your awareness.

You cannot count on mindfulness to make you relax.

If occasionally mindfulness doesn’t help you relax, you will feel that it’s not working and are missing out on an opportunity to learn to hold an unpleasant feeling. This can be destructive.

Chris Walsh mindfulness expert tips

Mindfulness can bring out negative emotions, especially during the initial stages. How would you recommend that a person deals with that?

The first thing is to have a good teacher. It’s a delicate balance and it can be hard to know when to lean into the negative emotion and when to stand back from it.

The basic principle is that it is ok to feel challenged, but it’s not okay to feel overwhelmed.

With any kind of learning, including learning to be mindful, it is normal to oscillate between feeling comfortable and feeling challenged. If you’re never challenged, especially with something experiential like mindfulness or a sport, the learning isn’t in its optimal state. Getting overwhelmed in mindfulness is the equivalent of getting injured when training, and this sets back the progress.

I have a few tricks on how to deal with being overwhelmed during mindfulness.

  • The feeling of being overwhelmed is most likely to occur when doing a body scan, especially when focusing on the chest and abdomen as this is where we tend to feel anxiety. I encourage people to find “safe places” where they are less likely to feel this anxiety: such as the resting one’s attention on the sensation of breath in their nose. Even this can be too much for some people.
  • Awareness of sounds can also help, as the attention is then focused on something outside the body.
  • Allowing oneself to move can also help to deal with the sense of being overwhelmed. In the Tibetan mindfulness tradition you can move; in the Zen tradition you are meant to be still no matter how much one’s knees hurt. This stillness doesn’t work for people with a lot of agitation. Doing walking mindfulness or exercising before doing mindfulness can help greatly. Some people think that this is an avoidance behaviour. I believe, it is taking a distance, while still still remaining present to the difficult experience.
  • Sometimes it is okay to let one’s mind wander off. When I run classes with inpatients, I tell them that it’s okay to daydream if it gets too much. The important thing is: come back because this way you can learn what has changed. This is very empowering: we don’t always have to do something to change things. They change by themselves.

These tips work for patients with mental health issues, e.g. PTSD, as well as people with no mental health issues.

the darker side of mindfulness chris walsh

Have you ever had any experiences when mindfulness had side effects? The “decentering” in mindfulness may impact an individual’s concept of the “self”. There are anecdotal reports of some vulnerable individuals developing dissociation and psychosis after reading self-help books or attending seminars – and more recently after practicing mindfulness. Do you see any risks in “trying it at home” when it comes to mindfulness?

It is damaging when people use mindfulness to dissociate or disconnect in some way. Two patients I encountered were attached to ecstatic states.

The first was a man with a background of heroin and alcohol addiction. He was able to stay away from drugs and alcohol for 10 years and then relapsed – which is when he came to me. He told me he was using mindfulness to stay away from his addictions and meditated for 8 hours a day! Just before the relapse he got a job: this stopped him from meditating for 8 hours a day, and so he relapsed.

When I questioned him about his mindfulness practice, he told me that he would just got into a blissful state for 8 hours, never experiencing any negative emotions.

I asked him to deliberately call to mind some unpleasant experiences while practicing mindfulness and pay attention to how it felt in his body rather than holding on to these blissful states. The lesson here is to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. In Tibetan Buddhism, they talk about samadhi. It is a blissful state – and sometimes people get addicted to this state. Some people this is enlightenment, but the Buddhist teachers say that that’s a delusion, an unhealthy attachement to something.

The second case that comes to mind was of a man with schizophrenia. Many of my patients with schizophrenia derived a great benefit from mindfulness. This man was having a Kundalini experience, where energy was going up and down his spine. They talk about it in the Hindu tradition. He would go through this experience for many hours a day and it made him more delusional and psychotic. It was very hard to persuade him to do less meditation!

I wouldn’t’ call either of these experiences mindfulness, as they weren’t this open, non-judgemental states. This is why having a teacher is important: so that you can reflect on your experience and receive some guidance.

how to choose mindfulness teacher

How should one go about choosing their mindfulness teacher?

There are no absolute guarantees. I am aware of some highly trained psychiatrists who teach mindfulness, but don’t practice it. They say they do, but by talking to them, you quickly realise they don’t: they have a kind of striving attitude.

For people with psychiatric conditions, it is better to have someone who understands both the Western and the Eastern traditions. If you have a teacher, a psychologist or psychiatrist, who comes from the Western tradition only, it is important that they practice mindfulness themselves. It’s important for a teacher to be able to tune into the problems that arise for people as they go through their mindfulness journey rather than sticking to a rigid program.

does mindfulness have side effects

There is a one size fits all approach to mindfulness among the public at the moment. Do you feel that that it’s appropriate for someone to use an app or should they find a teacher?

In my classes, I have a handout that reviews the apps and advises my patients to beware of any apps that tell them what to feel or that they should relax. People can play with apps – it gives them experiential information that allows them to commit to go to a class. Some people learn a lot from the apps. I haven’t seen the good apps causing any harm. Headspace is quite good. Buddhify is great for getting past the idea that mindfulness only happens on a cushion and has lots of shorter meditations that people like. Insight timer has nice mindfulness bells and nice soundtracks. Some are a bit New Age-y, so people need guidance in choosing the right ones. iTunes U UCLA meditations are quite good too. I send people to my website as I have some soundtracks there.

how to deal with feeling overwhelmed during mindfulness

What are your thoughts on transcendental meditation? It became commercialised quite quickly once it reached the West. Do you worry that mindfulness is headed in that same direction?

I did TM for a few years and found it helpful. I studied Buddhist meditation before that and it gave me the impression that the mind has to be completely quiet – which caused a lot of agitation. TM helped me to get past that as it involved returning to the mantra without trying to eliminate thoughts. TM also taught me about preliminary practices such as exercise.

In the East, mindfulness is used to investigate the mind as well as everything else. A lot of the insights of Buddhist psychology are now being confirmed using Western methods, such as fMRI. I believe this aspect of the Eastern tradition doesn’t get enough attention. However, we need to separate the psychology, philosophy and the religion. Those who say that Buddhism isn’t a religion are lying: it is a religion, but as well as that there are psychological and a philosophical components. These can be separated out, just like has happened in the West.

The tradition in the East is 2,500 years old, so we run into a lot of interpretation and translation problems. The Eastern languages have changed in meaning and nuance in that time just as much as Western languages have. Jus think how much trouble we have interpreting Shakespeare and his writing was only 500 years ago. Furthermore, Buddhist psychology is based on  human investigation that has evolved over time, so it’s not like the Bible that has been “handed down” and and passed on as some kind of unchanging truth. The Eastern mindfulness tradition, in fact, has a lot in common with the Western scientific tradition. This tradition has evolved from the Socratic tradition which is based on debate and questioning. rather than prescriptive rote learning. I believe that if we start paying more attention to what is already known in the East our progress in understanding the mind will be accelerated and our meditation practices will become even more effective.

Dr Walsh’s own website contains a lot of case studies and blog articles on mindfulness that I would highly recommend:

Don’t change the channel

Mindfulness is effective in treating many mental health problems and psychiatric conditions. For those who don’t suffer from the above, it seems to still be beneficial in terms of focus, mood, relationships and results – based on many people’s personal experiences. Why then, is it so difficult at times? It is difficult for the same reason than escapism is easy. I am not Bill Murray’s biggest follower, but in one interview he said:

I would like to be more consistently here… I would like to see what I could get done if I didn’t cloud myself with automatic [thoughts]… If I were able to not change channels in my mind and body.

everyday mindfulness not day dreaming

He didn’t say anything ground-breaking, but his channels analogy really struck home with me. Having listened to this interview in the morning, I was on an uncomfortable journey between two cities today. To the right of me was a morbidly obese gentleman who sprawled himself across about three seats in an unorthodox position rarely seen in public. To the left – a lady who evidently led a lifestyle that didn’t involve too much personal hygiene. Having sneakily moved to another seat, I was putting my headphones in, prepared to sail away into a safe and pleasant day-dream. However, in my mind, I could hear the echo of the interview: don’t change the channel. Some voice of cognition questioned what I could possibly gain by being present when the present is like this? I wasn’t sure. What did I have to gain by being in a day-dream? A mindfulness devotee would surely say: nothing. Well, if people never day-dreamed, we would still live in caves. If we didn’t rehearse situations, ruminate, “mind-read” and obsess, the world would be different. I guess some may even argue it would be better. I am not sure.

I wish it was clear cut. I wish this story had an elegant twist where being present resulted in some kind of miraculous revelation. Instead it made me more aware that it is as easy to slip into the mindfulness cult as it is into a day-dream.

Ironically, Spotify shuffled to a nice house remix of R. Kelly’s Bump and Grind. As my mind was indeed very distinctly telling me “No“,  I took my headphones out. I could feel so much resistance. It angered me and made me sad that instead of floating off into a day-dream, I righteously deemed it necessary to stay in the present moment. I felt a bit like a Brave New World character without her soma. It felt necessary to stay present though. I ended up just being aware – of a storm inside.

Now, at the end of this mindful day, I can’t proudly declare that I feel at peace. There was no external conflict whatsoever, but I feel like I’d been in a blazing row for hours. With it though, there’s a certain exhausted clarity, like everything has been unreservedly said and it is all out in the open.

Faced with a choice like this again, I will probably choose mindfulness over the day-dream – again. I will stick with this channel called Reality, as we know it, rather than If I were with my friends or some other blissful escape route to rainbows and unicorns. Being honest, in part it is because I “read it in a book” and the high priests say it’s good for me. However, in part it is because I appreciate just how rarely I am even present enough to make this choice.

The day-dreams will happen regardless, the awareness won’t.

how to stop daydreaming

Authenticity and being in the public eye

Larry King is a great interviewer. Lately, he has been talking to increasingly questionable characters. Keeping an open mind, I watched his interview with Dan Bilzerian. [For those who aren’t familiar, Bilzerian has 20 million Instagram followers as of early 2017. He makes his money through poker and spends it in extremely unreserved ways – documenting some of it on Instagram.] At first, the interview seemed surprisingly good.

I am always curious about public personalities – how much of what they say is an act? One would imagine that Bilzerian is either a very calculated act, or not an act at all.

Bilzerian said you need to sign an non-disclosure agreement to walk into his house. Fair enough, he values his privacy – after all he has ridiculous numbers of people in his house all the time. He really surprised me when he said that Trump is raw and unfiltered. Could he, a poker player, really think that? I don’t think so. This casts a shadow not on his intelligence, but on the extent to which he is genuine. Hence, it is now a tougher judgement call to interpret what he says. I’m not sure what Bilzerian stands to gain from this statement about Trump. Perhaps, he would associate himself with Trump as they do have some features in common – but that’s obvious as is. Perhaps, to endear himself to Trump supporters? After all, Bilzerian does have more Insta followers than One Direction. Perhaps, it is that both of them use the same marketing strategy – an appearance of being unreserved and unfiltered – and therefore worthy of trust.

One of the things that attracts me to the writings of N.N. Taleb is that they appear to be quite genuine. He is yet to say something that seems completely contradictory to me.

However, I am increasingly suspicious of public figures. Actors are able to laugh at the same joke during the 10th take and still look like it’s real. I wonder if there’s anyone in the public sphere who the audience can afford to take at their word? Suggestions are very welcome. However, it is also possible that being authentic and being in the public eye aren’t compatible.

There’s an inherent contradiction here: people don’t gain a platform to expose their thoughts, they gain it to accomplish something. Being in the public eye has certain risks attached, so it is unlikely that anyone does it without expecting any benefit.

What if a celebrity already has a platform and then decides to use it for some other purpose? It is hard to separate support of good causes from self-promotion through associating oneself with good causes. At best, we are left with uncertainty.

are public figures genuine