Mindfulness for relaxation?

 

As the modern exploration of practices from various spiritual traditions matures, so does our awareness of the upsides and downsides of these practices, and useful precautions.

For instance, it’s a bit naive to promote mindfulness for relaxation. These practices were evolved for awakening, not relaxation. Relaxation may be an initial pleasant side-effect. But mindfulness practices are liable to eventually take the lid off unprocessed psychological material, and that can be surprising (if nobody told us), frightening, and overwhelming (especially if we don’t have guidance from someone familiar with the process).

This can happen early on, in rare cases even in our initial experience with meditation. And it’s reasonably likely to happen, to some extent and at some point, if we stick with a mindfulness practice over time. This depends a bit on what type of mindfulness practice we engage in, but it can happen with even the most watered-down versions.

So what are some precautions? Participants in mindfulness courses should be informed about what may happen. (“Mindfulness” here can mean yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and various types of meditation.) The instructor should be trained in recognizing it when it happens and either know how to help people through it or send the person to someone qualified to guide them through it. And if someone has a history of trauma, including developmental trauma, they need to know that it’s more likely to happen in their case, they should be encouraged to get help to heal from the trauma, and if they still want to continue with the mindfulness practice, to take it slowly.

Why does it tend to happen? One way to see it is that mindfulness (or awakening) practices aim at opening the mind to what we are, and that tends to also open the mind to whatever in us is not yet processed. Also, mindfulness tends to invite in a healing of the mind, and that includes meeting what in us is previously unmet. Awakening tends to go into unawakening when a wounded part of us is triggered, and bringing these to the surface gives them a chance to be healed. And an intrinsic part of the awakening path is embodiment, and embodiment – living from whatever clarity, kindness, and wisdom is here – can only take place to the extent we are healed psychologically.

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What teachers of meditation and spirituality need to know

 

A meditation practice can offer surprises, as can any spiritual exploration or path. And it’s good for whomever guides us to know about these.

What are some of these surprises?

Some are specific to a spiritual path, for instance…

Meditation or a spiritual opening leading to the lid being taken off unprocessed psychological material. This can be scary and overwhelming.

Energy system fried or destabilized. In or after a spiritual opening, high energies can run through the system and fry or destabilize it.

General psychological disorientation and destabilization.

Other wrinkles are well known from regular psychology.

Chasing states. Get a taste of a state and try to recreate it while missing the essence of a spiritual opening or glimpse.

Inflation. Seeing oneself as better than others due to spiritual openings, insights, or abilities.

Projections. Blindly projecting things out on others and overlooking them in oneself.

Giving away authority. Giving away ones own authority to a spiritual guide or organization.

When we chose spiritual guides or coaches, it’s wise to chose someone who has knowledge of these and knows how to prevent and recognize them, and can help people navigate through it or know who to refer to.

At the minimum, people who teach meditation or similar approaches (prayer, inquiry, yoga etc.) should be trained to minimize the risk of these, recognize the signs, and know who to refer to. And those who help navigate people through these should be familiar with the terrain from their own experience.

Since the second category is well known in mainstream psychology, quite a few guides have some skills and familiarity with how to work with those.

But in my own experience, not many teachers are educated or equipped to deal with the first category. For instance, when I needed guidance for grounding and stabilizing in the early awakening phase, what I found was teachers who were mostly or only trained to help people further open – which wasn’t what I needed at the time. Fortunately, I knew that I needed grounding and not further opening so I found my own way.

When I later went through the “lid taken off” phase, I was fortunately in a different situations and did find some who could offer guidance and support based on having gone through it themselves.

And I should mention that none of these wrinkles or hiccups are wrong in the big picture. They can be confusing, scary, uncomfortable, and destabilizing. But they are not inherently wrong. If they happen, they become part of the path, and – as anything else – are fuel for healing, maturing, awakening, and embodiment.

Note: There are, of course, no real “shoulds” here and no real “need” to know. I just decided to use a more conventional language. It would be more accurate to say that if people seek out teachers with this insight and experience, they can be guided through it more easily if some of these wrinkles happen for them. And teachers who familiarize themselves with it will similarly be better able to guide others, or at least recognize the signs and refer to someone else.

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Dark Night in Psychological vs Spiritual Context

 

The term dark night, or dark night of the soul, can be used in a psychological or spiritual context.

In a psychological context, it’s often used about anything psychologically shattering – trauma, loss, burnout or similar.

In a spiritual context, a dark night of the soul it’s what typically comes after an initial opening or awakening, and a period of “illumination” (as Evelyn Underhill calls it). It can take the form of a loss of conscious connection with the divine, a great deal of unprocessed psychological material surfacing, loss of health and other losses in life, and more. It’s a humbling and very human process, and the “darkness” comes largely from our reaction to it. Our minds don’t like it and perceive it as dark, even if it is the next natural step in our maturation and development.

They are quite similar. In both cases, we may have a great deal of unprocessed psychological material surfacing with an invitation to find kindness, understanding, and healing for it. We come up against our beliefs and identifications with certain identities and are invited to examine them and allow the hold on them to soften. In both cases, it’s an opportunity for great healing, maturing, humanizing, and reorientation.

In the bigger picture, both can be seen as a spiritual process. An invitation for healing, maturing, and even awakening out of our old beliefs and identifications.

There is also a difference, and that’s the conscious context of the one going through it. In a spiritual dark night of the soul, there is already a knowing of all as Spirit – even what’s happening in this part of the process. And that makes a great deal of difference. That helps us go through it, even if it’s just a background knowing.

What helps us move through a dark night, whether the context is psychological or spiritual?

Here are some possibilities: Taking care of ourselves. Understanding people around us. Therapy – body-oriented, mind-oriented, or both. Nature. Food that’s nourishing. Time. A willingness to face what’s coming up and move through it. Inquiry (The Work, Living Inquiries etc.). Heart-centered practices (Tonglen, Ho’oponopono, loving kindness etc.) Body-inclusive practices (yoga, tai chi, chigong, Breema etc.)

For me, support of someone who understands the process, finding helpful tools and approaches, and the willingness to face what’s here and move through it, have been especially helpful.

What tools and approaches have worked for me? The ones mentioned above, and more recently Vortex Healing.

Note: In a spiritual context, there are several dark nights of the soul. I simplified it here and just mentioned the dark night of the soul. The essence of having to face beliefs and identifications is the same for all of them, at least the ones I am aware of so far.

Note: In any dark night, and any life experience, our distress is created by how we relate to and perceive what’s happening. That’s why inquiry can be very helpful. There is an invitation there to find more clarity and consciously align more closely with reality.

The photo is one I took at the edge of Princetown on Dartmoor some years back.

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