Emotions as the meaning of life

And so we continue our search for the meaning of life. Robert Solomon’s The Passions offered an interesting take on this question. He proposed the idea that emotions are the meaning of life: as in they add the meaning in a life; emotions add meaning to our experience the world.

When I first came across this idea, I thought it was strange, but really it does make sense. Emotions have a strong effect of perception. Perception heavily influences our understanding of reality and thus has an impact on the meaning we attribute to things, life itself being one of those things.

Emotions are probably the strongest mental phenomena, built of thoughts and feelings – and very importantly, ultimately resulting in action, as the name suggests. Emotions are the driver of behaviour. My entrepreneurial soul was quite impressed when I heard that every sale is a promise of a future state. Emotions rule us, so we may try to be a little bit more aware – and perhaps less disrespectful to them.

Solomon argues that emotions are judgements rather than plain feelings arising from bodily reactions. Emotions tells us whether something matters – or is meaningful. Solomon also argues that emotions are in a sense chosen, sort of along the lines of stoic philosophy. As with beliefs, emotional judgements are often unintentional and unconscious, but we are still responsible for evaluating and changing them if that’s warranted.


According to Matthew Ratcliffe, Solomon sees emotions as the ‘meaning of life’, in the sense that they are a precondition for the intelligibility of all our goal-directed activities. If no actual or possible states of affairs were ever judged by us to be preferable to any other, we would have no grounds for action. Without emotions, we could have no projects, nothing to strive for, no sense of anything as worth doing:

“I suggest that emotions are the meaning of life. It is because we are moved, because we feel, that life has a meaning. The passionate life, not the dispassionate life of pure reason, is the meaningful life.”

emotions are the meaning of life robert solomon
Everything looks better in the sun

As someone who has spent some time studying emotions, I occasionally hold out hope that one day science succeeds in transcending the prism of bias and emotion and we are able to see the world without the emotional projections. Being that little bit pragmatic though – and seeing people like N. Taleb do it, I realise that we have to give up on overintellectualising and accept our limitations – or rather break up with our illusion that we are so above our lowly emotions.

The interesting thing about Solomon’s writing is that he emphasises the existential aspect of emotions: this our experience of being present.

The other interesting aspect is how neuroplasticity affects our perception: any time we experience an emotion a certain pathway gets potentiated and the next time we perceive similar inputs, the fact that we experienced an emotion relating to it previously will have changed the way we see the world. There is positive feedback here.

Neuroplasticity affects everything, but a lot of it is mediated through emotion. My personal working theory is that the meaning of life is the impact that you have (appreciating that that’s very vague, but the point here is that it’s different to the en vogue “the meaning of life is happiness”). But how do I decide what is full of impact? I need to feel that it has meaning. The exact values I consider to be full of impact may in theory be independent of emotion, but in reality they are completely affected by emotion. That warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment has to flow through me to know that what I am doing is meaningful. I usually only arrive there through what would look to an outside person as a silent CBT session with myself, so it isn’t entirely detached from intellectualising, but it has to feel right in order for me to know that it is right.

What if I do find something meaningful? It is going to invoke strong emotions. The common denominator of meaning does seem to be emotion.

Solomon drew a lot of Martin Heidegger’s concepts of mood. Mood is probably a more more precise word for what Solomon was talking about. The weather (emotion) matters less than the climate (mood) when we decide on the meaning of things around us. Our moods probably invoke the exact brands of biases and focuses of those biases that will allow us then to form our ideas on the meaning of what we see. Heidegger has an interesting definition for mood: it is a background sense of belonging to a meaningful world. That’s kind of like saying that I, as an object, have a relationship with all these other objects and I am trying to evaluate the condition of that relationship. “Sun’s out, so everything is good” or “Nobody is replying to my emails, so I feel like sh*t”. This certainly describes my mood a lot of the time, but then I slap myself and go back to a more Stoic/Nietzschean attitude to evaluating my own actions rather than the world’s response to me.

Reality is real no matter how we perceive it, but meaning is pretty personal.

P. S. I wrote a Haiku while sitting on a beach in Dublin:

An old dog,
once black, now wiser,
at sunset.

Here is the culprit:

robert solomon the passions emotions as meaning of life

P. P. S. I also drew something mighty odd. Feel free to indulge in the madness mindfulness and colour it in.


Download PDF: psychedelic seagull with snail beak

Ok, very last thing. If you liked this, you may also like Footnotes to Plato, specifically a post on the why one would develop a philosophy in life.

Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far

“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?

Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.

Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.

No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.

I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.

Lottery winners aren’t happier right now

Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.

They had three types of people:

  • those who recently won a lottery
  • those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
  • those who haven’t had any major life events recently

The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.

The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.

Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.

It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:

“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”

We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.

The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.

So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.

This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.

Long-term happiness is on a thermostat

There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.

The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.

The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.

Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.

So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.

Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.


Money is somewhat related to happiness still

So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.

According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.

Think about – and value – time

There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.

I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.

Experience nature

Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.

I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.

Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.

Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.

My personal research shows that ice-cream causes happiness, even if you’re just after spending 40 minutes running in the rain

Body language

Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.

In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.

It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.

Good relationships

Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.


You’ve heard all about this before.


I won’t bore you.


Imagining being happy

I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.

The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.

Happiness begets happiness

Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.

Lessons from the May challenge: all about anxiety

How did the 16 days in May challenge go? Not to the discouragement of my readers, I admit defeat.

16 day mindfulness challenge

This really was a challenge, and I am not that happy with how it went. Why? Life got in the way. I was under a lot of pressure to get a project done with lots of codependencies and lots hinging on it. During the early days of the challenge, I received fairly disconcerting feedback, so everything else went on hold. Anxiety took over.

A lot of people suffer with anxiety. Many refer to a small study that was done among the elderly and asked them what their biggest regret in life was. Many said that they worried too much. Well, of course! With the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to declare.

A lot of people also say that anxiety isn’t going to help the outcome. Of course it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Naturally, there is pathological anxiety – and I am not talking about that, but in these days of overmedicalising feelings strong anxiety is seen as needing to be gotten rid of.

Maybe the problem isn’t the anxiety? Maybe the problem is the thing that’s causing anxiety? Genius thought, I know. But it seems to be denied any viability in our society. [Then they ask how did we all turn out to be special snowflakes. Hmm.]

Well, I didn’t get rid of my anxiety or try to suppress it. Once I just admitted to myself that I was anxious, a weight came off my shoulders. This is that classic acceptance thing they talk about in mindfulness. Anxious. So what? It’s not a crime. It’s not a defect. It’s just my experience and right now, in this moment, it’s not actually that bad at all. Acceptance of reality gave me the opportunity to work on the underlying cause of the anxiety.

Right, closer to the point:

1. A day without assumptions

OMG. How do you live without assumptions? Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. When I got my worrying feedback, I immediately started mind-reading, mitigating the worst case scenario, assigning probabilities to possible outcomes and acting. Acting is such a drug against anxiety. The problem is of course that directionless hustle isn’t necessarily better than inaction. It’s exhausting and it is possible to do damage like a bull in a china shop.

2. A walking meditation

Definitely a win. Interestingly, it was my olfaction that work up by doing this. I spent most of my life living in a city and that’s not the sort of place where you want to expose yourself to smells. Also, a walking meditation is kind of more lighthearted than the more perfectionist sitting meditation.

3. Get one thing that you have been putting off done

I’ve emailed a bunch of people about a project we all committed too, but all left it to stagnate. Two of the three recipients were very helpful in moving it forward and now, somehow, we have a fourth, who just contacted me out of the blue. Coincidence? Providence?

4. Make a list of your habits

I was too nervous to do that with all my stress. What if I exposed something so disappointing or annoying that I would be too upset? I simply didn’t have the reserve to do it at this time. I will add it to my list (guess that’s a habit…)

lessons learnt from mindfulness

5. Ask: Why am I doing this?

W was easy. I know what I consider meaningful. I also know that this changes. I know why I am doing what I am doing though sometimes I wish the routes were straight lines. Ultimately, we have to adapt to our environment and respect the peninsulas of circumstance that we navigate around.

6. Wear the worst clothes you own

Haha, well that led to a clearout! (Anyone of eBay?) It wasn’t so bad at all. Where I live, in Dublin, clothes aren’t as much of a status symbol as they are in some places – like Russia, or I imagine China, or even the UK. I am very grateful for that.

7. Spend the day on your own, no social media

Fail. I can spend the day on my own, but social media – that’s tough. I have this sensation that I am about to get some kind of interesting news via social media. All it is in reality is a trained dopamine-mediated habit. I need to get out of it. It’s not that hard, but once again, it may expose things. For example, it can expose just how lonely I feel sometimes. And then, if I commit to not having social media, at least on certain days, then I am leaving myself to confront the loneliness. As a teenager, I used to travel a lot – and it would always be a connection flight. Sometimes, the connection would be 4 or 5 hours. This was before the kind of engaging social media we have now and certainly before widespread free wifi. I just remember that horrible mix of boredom and loneliness and I don’t ever want to feel it again. Having said that, I always say I come up with some of my best realisations in transit. Maybe then, I should just take the bandage of and be alone with myself, whatever may bubble up.

8. Write down the things that annoyed you

Fail once again. I was worried that it would put me in a foul mood. That’s quite presumptuous and possible wrong. It remains on the to-do list.

9. Go through the notification settings on your phone

Done. Much less distraction now. Best decision ever.

10. Try some mindful cooking

I couldn’t really do that. I was worried that I don’t have the time with my project. It also felt a bit wrong to be messing around with new recipes when things are shaky. Once again, pretty presumptuous, but hey, all I can do is all I can do.

11. Note how much of the stuff you do isn’t for you

This turned out to be a surprise. Even from a Machiavellian points of view, I can easily argue that everything I do for others is done as an investment into a relationship.

12. Look back at where you came from and see where you are now

What a magical thing to do. I thought of my parents, of where I was born, of where I started, of the role I had to play in where I am here today. I think so many of us get upset as we feel that life happens to us and that we don’t have any real control. To any human being, it is very upsetting to not be in control. But is it true? On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things we are small and insignificant. But in the context of our own lives, we are a big deal. Just like the Stoics would argue it’s important to focus on what you do or think as a person. Circumstances aren’t always a form of feedback about how well or poorly we are doing. Looking back at how we navigated our circumstances, even back when we were younger and much more naive, is bound to generate some feelings of pride and invigorate the perception of who we are people.

13. Pay attention to the people in the shop queue

Well, let’s just say I was dragged shopping in IKEA during this time. There was a lady in front of us in the queue who changed her mind on what she was going to buy and was hiding the goods she was going to just dump at the cashier under a pile of bags. Before sneaking the stuff away, she looked over at us a bit like a poorly trained dog looks at people passing by when it’s eating. But I really couldn’t be bothered judging. Maybe she has too much sense to just buy 3 French presses (that don’t filter anything by the way)?

14. Check email only twice a day

Fail. What if something super important happens and I don’t even know?! I need to work on this.

15. Look back at the last 5 purchases you made and whether you needed them

They were all quite optional. I’ve learnt the lesson of not having useless clutter a long time ago (moving dorm rooms every year in college will teach that fairly quickly). However, I was quite surprised at how I could have gotten away without having a lot of these things.

16. Thank yourself for trying so hard

This is a lot like looking back at where you came started. Yes, sometimes the seas part, the light shines, the lucky break happens and we should be endlessly grateful for these blessings. However, we should thank ourselves for working so hard and having faith even when things don’t look good.

lessons learnt from mindfulness challenge

Happy May Day

Happy May Day all.

Here are a few reasons to love May:

  • It’s actually warm and the days are long
  • The first of May is a day of celebration – no matter the reason, everyone finds something to celebrate on 1st May. I wonder if we could extrapolate this attitude…
  • Exams usually end in May and freedom begins
  • The most memorable Bond girl/villain is called May Day
  • … 1,000 other reasons
  • (I am biased because my Birthday is in May)

I have made a little gift for everyone. A gift and a challenge. I find 30 day challenges a little scary, so this is a 16 day challenge!

A list of reminders drawing on mindfulness, Stoic philosophy and just general common sense urging us to be more present.

I hope you enjoy it. Print it out and see how you get on. I will report on how I got on on 16th May.

16 day mindfulness challenge

The spiritual aspects of mindfulness through an evidence-based lens

I’ve spoken about mindfulness to numerous psychiatrists, those that I’ve worked with and experts from various out-postings of the Western world. Completely unprompted, they all converge on one point:

We should pay more attention to what the Eastern philosophy already knows about the body and mind.

As Western doctors, we are trained in the evidence-based tradition. We hate nonsense treatments that are painfully common. Glucosamine. Cough remedies. None of them are better than placebo.

Then there is a rake of stuff that isn’t useless per se, but useless because it is irrelevant:”X reduces the risk of Y 10 times”… but they never tell you that it reduces risk from 0.001% to 0.01%. I call all of this snake oil, and I am passionate about doing what I can to protect the audience.

I am conflicted however: it seems that it’s impossible to address certain issues using an evidence-based approach. There is simply no way to do a randomised-controlled trial on certain things.

Whenever some esoteric group get something right, I tell myself that even a broken clock is right twice a day and if predictions are general enough, they cannot be proven wrong, a bit like a horoscope.

However, all of these renowned people trained in the evidence-based tradition are saying that much of these robust observational findings by Buddhists tend to get confirmed by our methods, such as fMRI, now, hundreds of years later. What a seductive proposition!

john mcburney neurologist mindfulness

Dr John McBurney spoke to me about this in detail:

“I recently attended the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies ran in conjunction with the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. This is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and the neuroscience community that began in 1987 and resulted in a satellite meeting at the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting in 2005 entitled “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation”. Out of these interactions an entire field of neuroscience has emerged: contemplative neuroscience.

What bothers me the most about the popularisation of mindfulness is that it is seen as an end instead of a means. This has the potential to deepen our self-absorption and even to become an exercise in narcissism.

Mindfulness is both fully embodied and relational. In other words mindfulness is a  fundamental practice for getting in touch with our true selves. That true self or true nature is fully embodied.

In other words, it doesn’t just exist in our conscious thinking minds; it encompasses our full being including our somatic awareness, gut, heart and breath. But this must also extend beyond our bodies to others to achieve its full significance. In this way what arises out of mindfulness is what matters the most. This is the relational part. So mindfulness fully realised is not just within us, but also between us.

The Dalai Lama says that if everyone in the world meditated, there would be no more war. The reason for that is the fundamental goodness of human nature. Human infants are born genuinely helpless. Most people have a fundamentally positive attachment experience – or they don’t survive.

This is reminiscent of Harlow’s experiments in which baby monkeys were deprived of maternal interaction and were either developmentally devastated or died. So without the interaction with the mother the baby is like the seed that does not  germinate..

So when we “get out of our own way” as Judson Brewer talks about in his TED talk, what emerges is our nature that is inherently good and compassionate, seeking to address suffering in ourselves and other people.

To my mind, mindfulness is the first step in realising that nature. It is a necessary, but non-sufficient condition. Mindfulness is a start, but ultimately it comes down to what we do with it. Some people have severe, traumatic attachment experiences, in some ways like Harlow’s monkeys.

This results in severe disruption in personality development. They may have borderline features and don’t have a strong sense of self or feeling of right or wrong, but for most of us this thankfully doesn’t apply. For most of us, all we need to do is to get out of our own way to realise the beauty of our own nature.

Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart

There is a lot of discussion about the popularisation of mindfulness and the misdirection that the general public is getting. It is possible for it to become too simplified, so that it becomes harmful. For example, Shinto Buddhism was misused in Imperial Japan and atrocities were committed because of that or in our times lets look at the ethical dilemma posed by the mindful sniper. It’s not just practice that makes perfect.

It is perfect practice makes perfect. It is really a value judgment that comes out of mindfulness. Which is reflected in our relationship with others and the world.  It this way mindfulness becomes mindfulness in the service of others through compassion which in a way is a superpower. Just look at this article from CNN posted a few days ago.

One of the people I’ve crossed paths with is James Doty. Now, he is a professor of neurosurgery in Stanford. He is an amazing human being. He and I were residents together and became good friends. He went on to accomplish great things.

He says that he was misapplying the mindfulness skills that he was taught as a child. He learnt to concentrate in a very profound way. Back when we were residents  he struck me as an uncompromisingly focused person, at times arrogant, and always hilarious. But as he now admits he hadn’t had his bowl filled with compassion.

Into the Magic Shop James Doty review

He was very mindful and amazingly effective. Since then he has gone on to do truly amazing things that were directly born out of his becoming mindfully compassionate. He has done philanthropic work on the back of CyberKnife success. He founded a journal club at Stanford where they would read the latest studies in contemplative neuroscience and wondered if the Dalai Lama would find this interesting.

He was able to network through to Thupten Jinpa, Dalai Lampa’s English translator, and as he describes in his bestseller (Into the Magic Shop) soon found himself meeting with the Dalai Lama! Out if this The Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education (CCARE) was started at Stanford University. His memoir, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, is a tremendous resource in that it is both a first person account and sort of a manual on how to develop mindfulness and compassion.

Mindfulness is but the vessel in which the full contents of our consciousness is held.”

You may also like my recent interview with Dr McBurney: A downward facing doc explains the brain wiring behind mindfulness

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: mindfulness.org.au