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:

20 valuable lessons on human nature from the last 5,000 years

“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”

Will and Ariel Durant

I have a strong feeling that I shouldn’t be a fan of a hedge fund guy who married a Vanderbilt, but Ray Dalio is a really interesting person. He’s arguably the worlds most successful hedge fund manager. The average hedge fund lasts 18 months; his Bridgewater is 42 years old as of 2017. He is an avid meditator of the transcendental/Beatles variety. He’s also a warm and fuzzy ENTP. Lol jk, as they say.

I read his Principles a while ago. They make a lot of sense. The name is obviously quite aspirational and part so the opus are quite philosophical. I am sure that Dalio chose it with posterity in mind. At some point, he answered the question, “What is the best book you’ve ever read?” with a definitive The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, 1968.

the lessons of history will ariel durant highlights review

It’s a short, captivatingly well-written book. W&A really don’t mince their words (except in the last chapter on whether progress is real). While their opening chapter is called Hesitations, it’s pretty definitive:

As his studies come to a close, the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nation, and retelling “sad stories of the death of kings”?

Don’t you just want to read on? History was almost ruined for me as a discipline back when I was in school – and this book revived it. At the time, I found that the book was very difficult to get, so I ended up requesting it from stacks in a copyright library of Trinity College Dublin. Here it is now, thank you Jeff Bezos: The Lessons of History.

Really, the purpose of the book is to use history as the study of human nature:

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body,character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads – astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war-what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.

will durant lessons in history human nature

It has this Art of War quality to it, only it makes more sense. Here are my “underlines” of the superb and oftentimes controversial views of the Durants:

  1. Known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. The Greeks of Plato’s time behaved very much like the French of modern centuries; and the Romans behaved like the English.
  2. Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.
  3. Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.
  4. “Racial” antipathies have some roots in ethnic origin, but they are also generated, perhaps predominantly, by differences of acquired culture-of language, dress, habits, morals, or religion. There is no cure for such antipathies except a broadened education. A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a co-operative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it; it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.
  5. Intellect is a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.
  6. The conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it-perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.
  7. History offers some consolation by reminding us that sin has flourished in every age. Even our generation has not yet rivalled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or Renaissance Italy.” Prostitution has been perennial and universal, from the state-regulated brothels of Assyria to the “night clubs” of West-European and American cities today. In the University of Wittenberg in 1544, according to Luther, “the race of girls is getting bold, and run after the fellows into their rooms and chambers and wherever they can, and offer them their free love.” Montaigne tells us that in his time (1533-92) obscene literature found a ready market, the immorality of our stage differs in kind rather than degree from that of Restoration England; and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure -a veritable catena of coitus-was as popular in 1749 as in 1965.
  8. We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting-because it is exceptional.
  9. The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact; and only a similar combination (as in Israel today) can make a culture take form over a thousand natural obstacles. Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
  10. History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations.
  11. There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
  12. History reports that “the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all”. From the Medici of Florence and the Fuggers of Augsburg to the Rothschilds of Paris and London and the Morgans of New York, bankers have sat in the councils of governments, financing wars and popes, and occasionally sparking a revolution. Perhaps it is one secret of their power that, having studied the fluctuations of prices, they know that history is inflationary, and that money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.
  13. The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient.
  14. The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.
  15. The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.
  16. Alexander Pope thought that only a fool would dispute over forms of government. History has a good word to say for all of them, and for government in general. Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.
  17. Since wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange rather than an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods, and is a trust (the “credit system”) in men and institutions rather than in the intrinsic value of paper money or checks, violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it.
  18. Is democracy responsible for the current debasement of art? The debasement, of course, is not unquestioned; it is a matter of subjective judgment; and those of us who shudder at its excesses-its meaningless blotches of color, its collages of debris, its Babels of cacophony – are doubtless imprisoned in our past and dull to the courage of experiment. The producers of such nonsense are appealing not to the general public – which scorns them as lunatics, degenerates, or charlatans – but to gullible middle – class purchasers who are hypnotized by auctioneers and are thrilled by the new, however deformed.
  19. No student takes seriously the seventeenth-century notion that states arose out of a “social contract” among individuals or between the people and a ruler. Probably most states (i.e., societies politically organized) took form through the conquest of one group by another, and the establishment of a continuing force over the conquered by the conqueror; his decrees were their first laws; and these, added to the customs of the people, created a new social order.
  20. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

will and ariel duran the lessons of history summary

A religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble

Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five. Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.

The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:

“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”

This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.

As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.

I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.

kurt vonnegut free will transcendental meditation breakfast of champions

Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:

“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”

This really resonates with me.

Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.

It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.

Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.

The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.

transcendental meditation scam kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions