Is no activity or pastime safe from the irritating exhortation that we do it “mindfully?” Must even mowing the lawn become an assignment to “notice the sensations of your body?” What if we just want to crack open a tall boy and heed the eternal dictum “sun’s out guns out?” What happened to good, old-fashioned zoning out? As descendants of the geniuses who pioneered the morning newspaper as a breakfast table conversation shield, it’s practically our birthright.
Besides, most self-styled mindfulness experts have made all sorts of poorly supported claims about meditation’s benefits, all while ignoring the many cases in which it has caused severe and lasting psychological damage. Dan Lawton was a seasoned meditator and meditation teacher when he suffered a sudden breakdown during a retreat. While the initial crisis subsided, he found himself struggling with lasting effects. He writes:
In the months after the retreat, I suffered from symptoms diagnosed by a therapist as post-traumatic stress disorder. I frequently experienced involuntary convulsions and simple tasks like cooking a meal induced panic attacks. I was occasionally so overwhelmed by my bodily sensations that I was unable to speak, and sometimes had problems differentiating myself from my surroundings.
The tiniest moments of adversity, such as a traffic jam, felt like death. My body was a torture chamber, lighting me up with panic, terror, despair, a mélange of agonizing sensations. I even carried around a green squishy ball, which I desperately clutched to prevent dissociative episodes, and I rarely left the house without Xanax in my pocket.
In searching to understand his own condition, Layton discovered an active community of “meditators in distress.” He also began to realize that most of the people profiting from the widespread packaging and selling of mindfulness already knew of its risks and bad outcomes but either ignored them or actively covered them up.
In retrospect, Lawton likens his decade of increasing immersion in meditation to being “swept away in a new-age super religion without even knowing it.” Better, in our opinion, to seek help in a religion with a notable actual track record. Christianity, for example, has already provided us with a rich, “peer-reviewed” practice for handling the problems that flesh is heir to called prayer. To reveal our deepest longings, anxieties, and flaws to a living, personal God humbles the self without destroying it. It preserves our individual uniqueness while recognizing how contingent it is, and we can experience forgiveness without endless, public self-flagellation. The best part? You can give it a try without going to church or even believing in God. In fact, it’s often prayer that leads to belief. If you don‘t know where to start, Romano Guardini’s “The Art of Praying” or Pete Greig’s “How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People” might be useful. Read some ready-made prayers (a decent list is here) or freestyle your own: “Thank you,” “I’m sorry” or “help” are good places to start. Or pray for someone else–someone you love, someone you hate, the random person who handed you your coffee. Keep it up for a while and see what happens. You’ll be in our…well, you get it.