When I started offering mindful eating courses to a clinical population of mainly women with eating issues, I was very optimistic that mindfulness meditation would be a wonderful, life-changing approach for all of them. Now almost ten years later with extensive experience with hundreds of participants, I’ve realized that there are many entrance gates and equally many reasons to drift off.
Could mindfulness meditation be harmful? To clarify, we discuss here the Western concept of mindfulness which is derived from Satipatthana where mindful attention (Sati) is given to the body, feelings, thoughts and to the five senses in the case of mindful eating. Mindfulness meditation itself is healing but the way it is practiced, it may become a new factor of distress.
Western scientific studies emphasize most of the time the benefits of a mindfulness practice but the obstacles which individuals face while meditating have never been fully identified. In a recent study ‘The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists (2017)’, Willoughby Britton and her co-authors have categorized 59 challenging meditation experiences researched with long-term meditation students. However, according to Britton, lighter versions of these challenges are also experienced by participants who attend an 8 weeks mindfulness program.
From my own experience, I also can confirm that similar challenging processes could take place during a mindful eating course. For example on physical level during a whole mindful eating day where an improper meditation posture can considerably overload the (overweight) body if participants are not instructed well before the start of the retreat day.
Mindfulness meditation can also be harmful on psychological level.
1.People are looking for ways to get rid of what they think they should not be and become what they should be. Many participants live with the implicit feeling of having the right to exist only if they meet a set of expectations. “I’m worth living if I look right, my weight is perfect, there is everyday happiness,” In this way, mindfulness meditation becomes a form of psychological violence. Even worse when a teacher or group reinforce this hateful inner monologue when using an outcome driven approach (i.e. weight loss) instead of guiding participants to live wholeheartedly from moment to moment without controlling the unknown (future).
2.Closely in line with this are all false expectations and idealizations. There might be idealizing of the mindfulness practice (i.e. forever getting rid of cravings, emotional eating or extra weight) or idealizing the teacher until is discovered that he or she is not more human than any other participant. All these false expectations can lead to disillusionment of the meditation practice and eventually drop-out or aversion for mindfulness meditations.
3.Meditation makes things visible by paying attention to what was always ignored. Several exercises in a mindful eating course are for many of our participants very confronting as they have often survived by excluding certain physical sensations. When in a meditation exercise the attention is brought back to the body, then long forgotten memories might be stirred up. It is not wrong if an old pain becomes visible again through meditation. However, if the teacher and the participant do not know how to handle that moment of distress, it might lead to re-experiencing the traumatic event. Then it becomes dangerous. It is only safe if the ability to hold the pain grows in proportion to what needs to be contained. It is our responsibility as mindful eating teachers to practice diligently and being supervised by senior meditation teachers, in order to guide our participants towards liberation of old patterns.
4.While practicing mindfulness meditation, some participants might experience a loss of self. This is not uncommon. However, this experience needs to be addressed in a way that is adapted to the level of insight of each individual. Sometimes it opens the possibility to discuss how everything is connected to everything, sometimes it might be more beneficial if the attention is redirected to the breathing or both feet firmly grounded on the floor.
Meditation is only healing if it is an act of love (metta-karuna). In Buddhism this is called kalyanamittata which can be translated as ‘spiritual friendship’. Kalyanamitra refers to the relationship between teacher and student, and the support between participants. If the pain becomes too great, nobody should be left alone. In this way, it our duty as mindful eating teachers to create a safe space that can hold whatever may arise in the group.
Challenges associated with the meditation practice will surface sooner or later. It makes sense that mindful eating teachers would be familiar with these difficulties and know how to manage them. Not only on theoretical level, but on experiential level while going through the challenges themselves and learning to take wise action with an open mind and a kind heart.
Caroline Baerten, MA, RD, Certified ME-CL teacher