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Mindfulness Instruction: A Trigger for Flashbacks of Abuse?

Mindfulness-present-moment-here-now-awareness-symbol-logoWhy can’t mindfulness and I just get along? It’s perverse: here’s this healthy practice endorsed by scientists and mystics alike. Since I respect both, you’d think I’d find it easy to join the fad. But I balk. I find myself returning to a theme explored in an earlier essay on a different blog: Where Mindfulness Fails.

It isn’t that I don’t practice mindfulness–I work on it every single day, sometimes for hours. And it isn’t that I don’t benefit from it–learning to observe my thoughts, feelings, and sensations with nonjudgmental awareness has helped me recover from the effects of early adversity. But still I resist…

My unease drove me to draft an essay of some 2600 words after a friend recently sent me a link to Sam Harris’s new book: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I wrote all that after reading just the first chapter! And I did so despite agreeing with most of what Harris says about mindfulness: it’s healthy for the mind, supported by research, and conducive to highly refined states of consciousness. After slogging away on the piece for hours, I realized it wasn’t worthy of posting. The writing sounded too detached, too dispassionate, and too cerebral.

Oddly, those adjectives (detached, dispassionate, cerebral) applied to mindfulness itself, would sum up my discomfort. In writing about my objections, I demonstrated them.

Mindfulness in the West grew out of Buddhist meditation and the yoga tradition. My sense is that in Asia the teachings are not so dispassionate, etc., so my resistance is directed at the way things get explained here. In order to make mindfulness attractive to moderns, proponents in the West have reduced the practice to its most rational terms.

The very word ‘mindfulness,’ has already lost something in translation. Here in the West ‘mind’ colloquially refers to the logical apparatus that situates us in a world of language, whereas ‘heart’ denotes the intuitive process that connects us to an ecology of sensitive organisms. In Asia, I’ve been told, what we call mindfulness is taught with much more emphasis on heart-qualities than is usual in California. Rather than being presented solely as a method of mind-training, it’s also offered as a means for heart-opening.

Since I am not a scholar of Eastern traditions, I can’t speak to these distinctions with any authority. But what I can say, with certainty, is that the way mindfulness is often presented works its way under my skin. The problem comes down to this: it triggers memories of child abuse.

Think about it: a boy is savagely mistreated by a enraged, intoxicated, narcissistic adult. How does he respond? He withdraws into his mind and views the blows and contempt from a distance. From that remove, the abuse doesn’t seem so terrifying and humiliating. It looks as if it’s happening to someone else. The child tells himself he doesn’t care.

Obviously, he does care. But he views his feelings abstractly, as if the physical and verbal assault isn’t skewering his heart, but merely flowing past it. Do you see the parallel? Doesn’t this sound like conventional mindfulness instruction, where we’re taught to observe our feelings without getting swept away by them?

Granted, mindfulness is a good tool for overcoming dissociation. By monitoring feelings from a distance, even as they rage, we begin to feel less overwhelmed and so remain more in touch with the experience. So it isn’t mindfulness, per se, that’s the problem.

Instead, it’s the subtle bias that underlies mindfulness instruction, one that comes out of our culture’s fear of emotions. There is a long history in the West of distrusting the passions. Viewed in opposition to reason, emotions have traditionally been seen as corrupting, primitive forces that drive us to act in irrational ways. They shatter our precious illusion of being in control. Emotions, by definition, are not determined by reason (though they may be influenced by it); they thus undermine our self-constructed identities as beings who make decisions by weighing pros and cons.

When mindfulness is taught in a way that downgrades emotion until it is merely an object of awareness, and not the very climate of it, I experience a creepy feeling. It’s as if I’m facing my stepmother again, as she accuses me of “acting like a baby girl” if I start crying, even though the abuse never ends unless the tears begin to flow. I feel as if the instruction is forcing me back into that state of frozen detachment, where life feels neither real nor valuable.

This isn’t to say that an emotional climate can’t be experienced with a sense of inner stability; the adult is not the child, and intense feelings aren’t inevitably followed by disintegration. Just as a heavy rain leaves one feeling drenched but not dissolved, an emotional storm can be deeply felt while the personality remains intact. Indeed, this is exactly the lesson on must learn: that feelings roil the waters but have no lasting effect on the ocean. The only way to grasp this is to allow emotions to penetrate. Detachment is a defense; engagement is the practice.

Although mindfulness experts often try to highlight this crucial fact, it remains shadowed by conflicting influences. No matter how helpful it might be to allow emotions their sway, both our broader culture and our personal discomfort lead us to hope we can dampen them. Even some very skilled meditation instructors seem mesmerized–in subtle ways–by this dream of freedom from passions and their pain, and it taints their approach.

Modern psychology is changing its attitude toward emotion. The “cognitive revolution” is on the ebb. Researchers now recognize the vital role feelings play in helping us make choices. Emotions are what makes our lives feel important, after all. Yet this respect for the passions has yet to percolate into the core of mindfulness instruction, which continues to elevate what I see as “cool detachment” over its opposite: “warm engagement.”

This take on things is my own, and it is based on my peculiar vulnerabilities. I’m well aware that countless people have found salvation in mindfulness exactly as it is taught by many wise proponents. My problem is my background: it makes me sensitive to any cultural bias that emphasizes rationality over emotionality. In my opinion, true healing requires us to grasp at neither but accept both as symbionts in the ecology of mental life.

Note: Clicking on the post image will take you to its source and attribution; all images used on this blog are in the public domain.

Mindfulness Instruction: A Trigger for Flashbacks of Abuse?

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2014). Mindfulness Instruction: A Trigger for Flashbacks of Abuse?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 2 Sep 2014
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Sep 2014
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