The Dark Side of Mindfulness

The starker potentials in mindfulness are a big reason many people hit a wall.

Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in the fitness world, and that’s mostly a good thing. Whether through formal meditation or simple focused attention during your workouts, mindfulness practice can have an enormously beneficial effect, not only on training and performance, but on overall enjoyment and appreciation of life.

But there’s a dark side to everything, and failure to acknowledge and anticipate the starker potentials in mindfulness are a big reason many people’s practices hit a wall long before opening their deeper transformative potentials.

What do you do when your mindfulness practice inevitably brings those starker inner realities to the surface? [Photo courtesy: J Perez Imagery]

The Problem with Mindfulness

There’s a honeymoon period when you start to expand your awareness and deepen your attention through mindfulness. You realize, “Wow, I’ve never really tasted that protein shake before! I never really felt these shorts! I can honest-to-god feel my feet inside my shoes!” Your whole inner landscape gets drenched with an enhanced sensory awareness that’s always been there, but that you’d somehow never quite paid attention to before. You’re in the moment, in the flow, in the zone.

But before long, that expanding awareness slams right into all the stuff you’ve been trying not to pay attention to: your inner critic, your self-judgement, your worry, your insecurity. All the little habits and rationalizations you let yourself get away with; all the memories that make you wince; all the unacknowledged, unresolved stuff churning away in the background of your mind; the whole ocean of inner storms that’s just waiting to be stirred up.

And when it does get stirred up—which, if your practice is effective, it will—it’s all too common for a beginner to skitter back into unconsciousness, shut the sensory gateway back down to a more manageable slice of reality, and forget the whole thing ever happened. It’s like the soreness and suffering in the early stages of an exercise program. If you haven’t worked out for most of your life, there’s likely going to be a pretty rough transition period. And if you’re not aware of that ahead of time, the shock can be enough to short-circuit your efforts before you get even close to the good stuff.

That’s why it’s so important to set realistic expectations about what might come up during your mindfulness practice. You’ll have to retrain yourself, bit by bit, to recognize discomfort as a positive indication that you’re one step closer to a breakthrough. If you recognize it when you see it, you’ll be less likely to try to block it out, and more likely to see it for what it is: a sign, albeit an uncomfortable one, that the process is working.

One Awareness, Multiple Levels

In order to anticipate the challenges that come with a mindfulness practice, it can be useful to separate your experience into different levels: mind, body, and emotions.

There is some basis for separating your experience into these categories, as the brain can be divided into its three main areas: the brainstem, which mostly governs the body; the limbic system, which deals primarily with memory and emotion; and the neocortex, which deals with language and abstract thought. But we’re not dealing with brain science here. We’re dealing with the raw data of your own direct perceptual experience—that’s the main material for mindfulness, not interpretations. And as long as you recognize that these different levels are just for convenience, you’re unlikely to get stuck in a rigid belief system that might limit your practice later on.

Of course, these different levels are not really separate. They overlap, they influence each other, and the lines between them blur. That’s one thing you realize if you stick with a mindfulness practice long enough: although it begins as a chaos of conflicting desires, thoughts, and sensations, you’re still a single entity, expressing yourself in a variety of ways. Getting to a deep state of integration and wholeness in your moment-to-moment experience is one of the great payoffs of mindfulness. All of your energies align, multiplying and assisting each other’s power, instead of warping your inner experience into a battlefield of contradictory impulses.

One Awareness, Multiple Levels: The Body

Each of these levels—mind, body, and emotions—has its own unique potential to show you things you’d rather not see, and to put the brakes on your mindfulness practice if you let it. We’ll start with the body, since that’s the most solid anchor in your awareness. Unless you’re asleep or dreaming of being a firefly or something, your body is always right there in your field of perception, easy to focus on. But despite its constant presence, there are many ways to be deeply and distressingly out of touch with your body, and just because you’re fit and healthy doesn’t mean you’re off the hook here.

As you start to tune in more and more to the signals the body is actually sending you (and not just evaluating it based on the reflection in the mirror, or metrics like weight or body fat), you may be in for some surprises. You may discover pains that you’ve been ignoring, though they’ve been there for years. You may suddenly become aware that you’re pushing yourself too hard in your training, or not hard enough. You may detect layers of tension you’d never really paid attention to, wrapping you like a mummy from head to toe. You may find that you’re unable to take a deep a breath, or that your breathing is fitful and shallow.

You may also have some pleasant surprises. As capacity for mindfulness deepens, it’s common for people to notice sensations like tingling in the skin, electricity in the spine, or feelings of nonspecific “energies” moving through the body in sometimes very surprising ways. These sensations can be not just fascinating and informative, but extremely pleasurable, though they’re usually hiding under a big pile of chronic tension and habitual unconsciousness.

Becoming aware of the more distressing bodily sensations can often be enough to dissipate their discomfort significantly. It’s natural to want to tune out discomfort, but if the body is trying to get your attention, the more you ignore it, the more it’s likely to act up. If you let it know you’re listening, it doesn’t have to yell as loud.

One Awareness, Multiple Levels: The Emotions

The same goes for emotions. We live in a culture with a long history of denying emotional realities, as though simply gritting and bearing every storm with stoic silence is the only way to get through tough times. It’s up to you whether you want to share your emotional experience with others, but if you’re not at least honest with yourself about what you feel on this level, it’s bound to become a stagnant swamp of unprocessed energies and arrested development.

Emotions aren’t a problem if they’re allowed to flow. But again, starting out, that can be tough, as you start to realize that you really are pissed off in traffic, that you really do get sad when that one song comes on, or that you really do feel a little bit of satisfaction when other people fail. And underneath those denied surface emotions are the great tides of unprocessed feelings from throughout your whole life, including early childhood, before you had any idea why you were feeling what you were feeling, or how to handle it. That stuff doesn’t just go away, and becoming increasingly mindful of your emotions can start out feeling like cleaning the world’s largest garage, filled with a lifetime worth of junk.

Beyond dealing with that backlog, the simple intensity of raw emotion can be enough to put a beginner back on his or her heels. But the more you become aware of your emotions in all their intensity, the less you become identified with them, and the less power they have over you. Paradoxically, it’s unconsciousness of emotions that leads to emotional compulsion.

One Awareness, Multiple Levels: Your Thoughts

Getting that kind of distance from your own inner experience is the name of the game with mindfulness, and nowhere is it more important than when you start looking at the third level: your thoughts.

We tend to assume that our thoughts are “ours,” but just a little peek under the hood reveals an almost entirely automatic process of perpetual rumination that goes on without your consent, or even your participation. It can be quite a shock to see that you’re not really thinking most of the time, but that your thoughts are simply happening to you. On this level, the great temptation is to get sucked into a perpetual stalemated negotiation with your thoughts. But as mindfulness will show you, you can never win that game, and ultimately, the content of your thoughts is irrelevant anyway. The only important thing is to get some distance from them, stop identifying with them, and stop feeding into their fickle tyranny.

That’s the beautiful thing about mindfulness: all you’re doing is noticing and becoming aware of your sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and that’s all you have to do. You don’t need to “fix” them or change them, and you certainly don’t need to judge them, or judge yourself for hosting them. Through the simple act of increasing and deepening awareness, most of those inner knots come untied all by themselves.

female deadlift
We want to see ourselves as strong, confident, intelligent, poised—never insecure, anxious, or dopey. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]

One Awareness, Multiple Levels: The Eye of Awareness

As long as we’re talking about levels, we may as well at least touch on this, because this is where all mindfulness practices end up if taken all the way: the final, invisible level of pure, unconditioned awareness. It’s hard to practice mindfulness earnestly and consistently without eventually asking this question: “If I’m observing the mind, the body, and the emotions, then who am ‘I’? Who is the one doing the observing? Who is aware?”

The answer inevitably is that you are the awareness itself.

This is the deeper level, the level that contains all of the content of your sensations, emotions, or thoughts, but is untouched by any of it. It is pristine, detached, and unaffected by even the most extreme negative experiences. And the more that you develop your mindfulness, the more your consciousness will rest at this level.

Of course, it’s one thing to understand that intellectually, and another to make it your living experience. To do that, you have to be disciplined in your practice, and work through all the challenges along the way. But remembering this baseline awareness can make the transition a lot easier. Looking at all the stark, unpleasant inner realities makes us so queasy because it tends to threaten our self-image. We want to see ourselves as strong, confident, intelligent, poised—never insecure, anxious, or dopey, which we inevitably are, at least some of the time.

Self-image is so easily threatened because it’s never really real. It’s only an idea. It’s not really who you are. And when you trade your self-image for reality, you’re always trading up. It probably won’t feel like it at first. It’ll probably feel humiliating to admit to yourself you’re not the idealized self you try so hard to be. But once that initial wince of humiliation passes, you’re left with a far greater virtue of humility.

The great irony is that a false self-image of strength and confidence is extremely vulnerable, and requires constant protection, rationalization, and self-deception to maintain as plausible. Humility, on the other hand, is effortless, and actually provides what self-image attempts to provide: a thick skin. Once you get real, reality is no longer a threat, and nothing can rattle your cage. That’s how mindfulness and humility lead to a foundation of mental toughness far more powerful than any you could create by forging a “positive” self-image and then trying to force yourself into its mold.

The Poison Is the Medicine

There are varying levels of “heat” that you can apply to your mindfulness practice, depending on how deep you want to take it, and how quickly. You can introduce more aggressive means, like Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW), my own preferred method, which includes a type of mindfulness meditation along with its more physical practices. With NRW, you get from point A to point B as quickly as possible by doing exercises that purge the blocks in the nervous system. When you do an inner power cleanse, you have no choice but to look at the stuff you’ve been ignoring—the good, the bad, and the ugly. But once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Or, you can go for a softer, more gradual approach, as with most traditional styles of mindfulness. My only caveat there is that you have to be truly vigilant and honest with yourself, or you risk simply spinning your wheels with surface observations and never truly challenging yourself. It’s all too easy to fool yourself and rationalize looking the other way when the shadow starts to descend.

But though there are many paths, there’s ultimately one destination, and regardless of which path you choose, sooner or later you’re going to have to face yourself. If you stick with your mindfulness practice, you will come across these challenges, sooner or later. Just remember, those challenges aren’t just unpleasant side effects. They’re the point. And by moving through them, you turn their poison into a medicine that will transform you, mind, body, and spirit.

So how do you move through them? What do you do when your mindfulness practice inevitably brings those starker inner realities to the surface?

Simply continue the protocol: welcome them, observe them, and allow them to just be there without reacting or resisting, however uncomfortable that may be at first. Because if you resist them, you’ll just make them more insistent. It’s like trying to push a beach ball underwater. Don’t fight them, and don’t run away from them. Just let them be there, in the full light of awareness, without judgement, rationalization, or identification. After a while, they’ll die of your indifference, and you’ll have conquered another big chunk of inner territory.

Easier said than done? Yup. But that’s why they call it a practice.

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